Monday, July 25, 2011

Turchin on Asabiyyah, and Precontractual Presuppositions

Another thing I could have added to last night's patchy survey of literature on the disintegration of government: Peter Turchin's War and Peace and War, subtitled, "The Rise and Fall of Empires," more accurately understood as his quirky-but-elegant exploration of Asabiyyah, "social solidarity," as Wiki puts it "with an emphasis on unity, group consciousness, and social cohesion." The term is, perhaps obviously, Arabic.  I ran across it for the first time just a couple of years ago when I discovered Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah, an account of history through the eyes of a 14th-Century Muslim scholar trying to understand the human wave that had swept over so much of the known world in the aftermath of Mohammed. Turchin also loves stories of mass action, but also its opposite, social decay. It's big-picture history in from a perspective scarcely anybody dares touch any more.

I must say I touch it only gingerly. Growing up in the aftermath of Naziism and in the shadow of the Cold War, I developed an instinctive horror of mass action, sufficiently sensitive as to distrust social action of any sort. Yet I concede that any functioning society, however decentralized, however "libertarian" must operate on some set of shared presuppositions--even if they be no more than the presuppositions of decentralization. It was the irony that Durkheim was asserting (with, I suspect, conscious mischief) that "in a contract, not everything is contractual."  "Contract" exists, as modern sociologist would say, only "embedded" in a pattern of presuppositions, without which the system would never get into gear.

How could we so completely miss such a point?  I suppose there are a lot of suspects, but I'd point a finger at the "public choice" crowd--the "theorists" (if they deserve the name) who have refashioned Jevonian economics into an acccount, both descriptive and normative, of public life (and, not incidentally, conquered and colonized the political science faculties).  Once again, I'm ambivalent: I've read Buchanan&Tullock, Mancur Olson and the lot; there were times when I read little else.  There is still so much here that is compelling; yet what a cramped and distorted a vision it is, not least because it fails to grasp that it is a vision, and that it works, if at all, only in an aggregate that shares its vision with all (or most) of its contradictions and its blind fair.

I haven't the least notion of where sets of shared presuppositions come from, how they come into being--who could have anticipated Islam?  I'm reasonably certain that you can't simply impose them top-down--and that the utter failure of Leninism in our (parents') time has done much to discredit the idea that there are any sets of shared presuppositions at all.  Pity.  It leaves us with a theory of society which, however plausible, seems so often to walk the earth like a zombie with all the sap squeezed out.

Afterthought:  For a curiously hostile view of asabiyyah from a Muslim source (in Raleigh, NC) go here. See also:

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition:
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.
--William Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, sc. 3

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