Light-tight & might
It will take about seven years, according to mass media sources, for the United States to overtake Saudi Arabia as the world’s leading oil exporter. We are told that large harbour projects designed for the importation of gas are being redesigned for export. That voluble & entertaining billionaire, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, irritated by the leucophlegmatic attitudes of his fellow Saudi royals, has been lecturing them to be afraid, to be very afraid of the “fracking revolution.” Their kingdom has depended for decades upon holding the world to ransom through OPEC; almost all their revenues are derived from oil wells. Diversify or die, he is telling them: for “light-tight” shale will obviate crude sucking — is already doing so — & their game is up.
The future of North America might seem to be assured, as a supplier of cheap commodities (oil, gas, wheat, cotton, whatever) to the increasingly diversified & technologically sophisticated economies of the Tiers Monde. Combine this with our mounting debt, & one might easily predict the global feudalism coming to a home near you. Our job as Americans will be to export, at constantly falling prices, an ever-increasing quantity of raw materials, in the vain hope of working off that debt, while it compounds indefinitely. Or call it reverse colonialism if you prefer: the same old same old, but now with the shoe on the other foot, kicking our posterior. But do not waste energy in paranoia, fearing invasion & conquest by an alien power. We would only be invaded to enforce contracts.
Let us indulge this line of prognostication a little farther, in case it is over-optimistic. The world seems awash in fossil fuel resources, once we have the means to extract them. If fracking works for us, it may work for them, too, & our slight initial advantage in technology & geology will soon go away. They won’t need our oil. That would leave us to fall back on our manufacturing base; except, it was progressively abandoned. We can do “services” perhaps, under some form of indentured labour, once we have learnt to accept wages competitive with those in rising sub-Saharan Africa. Meanwhile the combination of the ever-continuing “green revolution” with falling populations suggests market reliance on the subsistence model in food: for us.
Now, that’s why readers come to me: all twenty of you. I can supply the pessimistic analysis when no one else will. I do it as a public service. It is not because I think my prediction will come true — no one can predict the future, for all trends are reversible — but because glib optimism is a danger to our souls. So would be glib pessimism, but that is not the sin to which “technological man” is tempted. He thinks instead that technology can solve his problems. But it solves problems only of its own choosing, & creates more as it goes along. And it does both entirely without a brain, or any anticipation, unlike clever Nature in which the acorn foresees not only the oak, but what it will need to grow, & the requirements of its neighbours.
While we no longer have the advantage of being Christian, in the West, we still have the fading benefit from having been Christian. We have, therefore, a vestigial suspicion of technology that is not yet necessarily shared in that Tiers Monde, & a dissatisfaction with ourselves that is incomprehensible to most external observers. As an atheist might put it, centuries of religion twisted us, & freighted us with a peculiarly Christian sense of sin. It is the flip side of the “personal responsibility” that still seems to weigh on some of our better citizens. We remain spooked by a morality that makes no sense at all, once we have admitted that man is just another animal, with appetites to satisfy by any available means.
The truth is, everyone is spooked. It would be ludicrously wrong to assume that men & women of other cultures had been living like animals, these last few millennia. All had religions. And even if Christianity honed a certain edge to the old flint, the basic moral notions have been shared in every culture — the more exacting the higher in civilization we go.
Still, we (& those Jews, hence “Judeo-Christian”) are spooked at a prophetic level I think the non-Western — or more precisely never-Christianized people — seldom visit. It was a point that kept coming home to me, as a young atheist travelling in Asia. And curiously, it came home less in contrasting my fellow travellers with the natives, than in contrasting Christian with non-Christian people who were Asia-born. It was a wavelength thing — this peculiar sense of the brotherhood of man, that comes from the acknowledgement of a common Father. In their case, it was a conscious acknowledgement. In my own case at the time, it was more subconscious: something “merely cultural.”
I used above the French original of the term, Tiers Monde, because the English translation into “Third World” has come to misrepresent Alfred Sauvy’s intention in coining it (around 1952). I think this French demographer — a Leftist, but an interesting one, who was for instance generally opposed to “population control” policies — was communicating something more subtle than “backward” in describing the countries that were then neither members of NATO, nor members of the Warsaw Pact. “Ignored, exploited, scorned” they might have been, but also, ambitious to make something of themselves.
The Soviet Empire is mostly gone, the Red Chinese Empire is transformed; various countries have risen out of the abject material poverty of the immediate post-War, China most spectacularly in consideration of her size. The term itself remains useful, for it distinguished between territories governed by Western “ideologies” — which I would define here as “deformations of Christianity” — & those colonized by the ideologies but dreaming of escape.
Most were governed, at first, by variations upon one Western ideology in particular: Marxism. To my mind, their first dictators bought into socialism from training in the fashionable schools of London & Paris; but in the sincere if false belief that it could lead quicker than free-market capitalism to industrial wealth & power. The idea was, omit the capitalist phase & move directly to the smokestacks. Their peoples were seriously bruised by their mistakes, starved & often butchered. But we are wrong to suppose that the motive of the first generation of Marxist dictators (whether or not nominally elected) was ideological purity. Even in the case of the unambiguously demonic Mao Tse-tung, the underlying intention was pragmatic; monstrously pragmatic.
In a sense, Sauvy anticipated China’s later adaptation of the “capitalist road,” along with many other parallel developments. “Maoism” was an incredibly brutal, self-destructive phase, or phases. (The principles behind the mass killings of the Great Leap Forward, & the Cultural Revolution, were rehearsed in Yenan during World War II, when ten thousand or so were killed off by way of experiment.) But eventually Mao died, & his successors, tired of murdering people pointlessly, resolved to try something that might work. In China, as elsewhere in the Tiers Monde, the inheritors of the Revolutionary State struggled to maintain “revolutionary legitimacy,” while also to feed their people. The trick was to grant carefully managed economic freedom &, if possible, no other kind.
Wealth, of course, is a means to power, & therefore attractive to any class that worships Power. Power in turn can appropriate wealth. The challenge has always been how to make a colony of human beings as efficient as a colony of ants, given the eccentricities of humans. From ancient Assyria at least, & forward, the worshippers of Power have been working on this. It now appears that the Organization Department of the Chinese Communist Party has come up with the best solution so far.
I brought religion into this earlier, in my usual apparently gratuitous way. Religious faith & counsel helps a society self-organize, from the family up, but is out of the question when the leadership intend to maintain control from the top, down. The “meta-narrative” of an ideology offers a fallback, for a while. When that fails, hands-on pragmatism remains as the means of maintaining a secular dictatorship, free from the religious “sentimentalities” of the past. The modern answer is the “mixed economy,” in which the power of socialist envy is married to the power of capitalist greed, to keep people’s minds from straying back to religion when Power begins to bore them.
In my view (which tends to monopolize this website), we have been approaching that from various angles. America, Europe, India, China are “evolving” towards the same thing — bureaucratic management of envy & greed, in the service of a genuinely godless political order, on a scale intrinsically inhuman. But in the moments before the Chinese system finally collapses, it must take the prize for efficiency. The Politburo in Beijing could indulge fresh thinking, of the most purely “unsentimental” kind, thanks largely to the pioneering work of Mao, who “let a hundred flowers bloom” & then cut them down, repeatedly. (The death toll was in the tens of millions.) This gave them the cleanest slate, & most docile population, on which to build “communist capitalism in one country,” & thus to beat the rest of us on efficiency alone.
As ever I am making a wild stab at a general understanding of our current situation. This necessarily involves history. But in public political consciousness, we are working from a history that has been reduced to “political economy” by both Left & Right, in Western academia over more than two centuries. To the European mind, post-Enlightenment, wealth & power are the only relevant things: “income” & “rights.” The rest is silence. The nature of the ancient religious “sentimentalities” — whether Eastern or Western — came to be less & less understood, until it is comprehensible only to the tiny minority who still refuse to buy in. The religious underpinnings of every social order were dismissed as irrational, as accidental, in the Enlightenment project to replace the living God with an abstract Man. They were taken to be arbitrary cultural obstructions to our material advancement. “Progress” had bulldozed, & would continue to bulldoze these obstructions — albeit with some “welfare” infilling behind, as the State appropriated the traditional educational, medical, & charitable functions of family & Church.
It was not appreciated that these cultural obstructions were purposeful; that many of the inefficiencies were purposeful; that in every society limitations on the creation of wealth were intentional, even when only instinctive. (Parenthetical segue to Elizabeth Anscombe’s magnificent long essay on Intention, 1957 revised 1963, where such concepts as “purpose” & “intention” are sorted out.) The obstructions had a function that is inconceivable to the modern observer. It was to keep Mammon in chains.
Starvation is a real evil, as everyone will guess, & worth doing something about. The ambition to eat & live, decently, is not a surrender to Mammon. But bloat is a surrender, & the intention towards bloat is a deadly sin (“gluttony”). This, anyway, is one way of describing the Christian construction. Gluttony, not the worst sin in the pléiade, until we make it so, is perhaps the sin most laughed at today — an indication of how poorly we are defended against it. (We reduce it to over-eating, for which we assume the cure is dieting & exercise.)
To my mind, the great evil in European Imperialism did not consist of economic exploitation. Instead that “exploitation” was merrily spreading wealth (until squandered in many cases by Marxist dictatorships). The great evil was instead exporting what was of no value in our Western culture — the how-to of gluttony — by the extremely bad example of our rapacity. What we had, or once had, was a religion worth exporting, because it was actually better than any other. Our extremely bad example restricted its spread.
Our missionaries, almost everywhere, worked at cross-purposes to the secular colonial authorities. They worked, whenever wisely, with the grain of native cultures, enlarging & redeeming rather than destroying. Tremendous effort was expended in the intellectual enterprise of meeting each culture half-way: in mastering languages, customs, comparative religion; in establishing means of communication at the deepest possible level. It was a mindset for which every individual soul counted, & in which, for the purpose of Salvation, no price was too high. They — not all the missionaries, of course; some were mere outriders for the State — learned as well as taught. (Conversely, some colonial officials were themselves deeply & very purposefully Christian.) Indeed one cannot teach without learning, & it could be observed that the great bulk of what has been preserved of the world’s cultural history is the direct or indirect product of that missionary enterprise.
But alongside it came an immense destructive force, the true exploitation, which consisted of undermining native religious & cultural traditions, & replacing them not with a “higher religion” but with the ideologies of Western nationalism & materialism. We re-programmed the world for “economic progress,” as the end for human striving in & of itself; & for its delivery through agencies of the State. This was the means by which, I think, many of our ancestors were able to reserve for themselves a lower place in Hell than any of the pagans they so casually oppressed, manipulated, & despised.
Today we are harvesting what we sowed. We “freed” people from native traditions which should never have been sneered at, while preventing the deep-cultural infusion of our own best traditions. We evangelized for an empty materialism. And now, the countries of the Tiers Monde embark one by one on entirely pragmatic enterprises, burying our materialism under theirs.
This would in turn provide the basis for my own worldly optimism. For while it is true that we made a hash of our Christian mission, hope is not extinguished. In the face of vacuous materialism, & under long-neglected angelic direction, it is now finally growing without our help from tiny seeds once planted — seemingly everywhere outside the West. Here alone is it shrinking, together oddly enough with our material power — as Christ leaves us to go where He is wanted. Even in the terms of this world, we have got what we deserved. And as Socrates argued, a just punishment should be welcomed.