The eternal Axial Age

As I have noted before one of the most interesting aspects of ancient Greek history is that in many ways the socio-political identities and outlook of the Hellenic people before and after the Bronze Age were probably as distinct as that between hunter-gatherers and agriculturalists. That is, the citadel culture of the Mycenaeans was constructed out of recognizable elements. Take one dollop Near Eastern autocracy, add a dash of semi-civilized barbarian warlord, and finish off with the tincture of brutalist post-Minoan aesthetic, and you have the pirate kings of Achaea, who so plagued the kings of the Hittites and later transformed themselves into the “Sea Peoples.”

The story of what happened after the end of the Bronze Age is somewhat well known to us, because the roots of our civilizations are clear in the ideas which emerged in the period between 1000 BCE and 0 CE. The basis of the institutional religions which we see around us date to the Axial Age. Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and arguably Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, either arose or ripened in the one thousand years after the birth of Christ, but from a naturalistic perspective the bases of these traditions are present in the early Iron Age. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, Judaism over its history truly takes shape in the centuries leading up to, and subsequent to, the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud. But the disparate threads of Rabbinical Judaism were already there in the centuries before Christ; they were simply synthesized and extended later on.

Much the same can be said about science. On the one hand, a narrow view of science is that it is the cultural product of a group of individuals who began collectively exploring aspects of the natural world in the 17th century. Eventually this contingent cultural enterprise spread across the whole world. But the roots of the scientific enterprise can also be seen in the Pre-Socratic philosophies. It was already there 2,500 years ago. But the victory of Platonism, and later the rise of Hellenistic ethical systems, and finally the ideological uniformity imposed by Christianity, dampened the efflorescence of heterodox speculations which flourished for the few centuries around 450 BCE. The steam went out of the scientific enterprise, and it never truly became science as we understand it in the modern world. But pieces of it that came together later on were familiar to us of old.

And then there are the political innovations. The Greeks gave us all their different varieties; democracy, oligarchy, the mixed monarchy-oligarchy of Sparta. The Romans had their republic, and even during the imperial period rejected the institution of ‘kinship,’ though all the powers of a king were eventually accrued to the emperors.

But political debate existed outside of Greece and Rome. In China political and ethical philosophy were intertwined, the tension between Legalism and Confucianism would continue down through the ages after the official ascendancy of the latter during the Former Han. In India there was a variety of forms of governance characterized by differing levels of centrality before the conquest of the Mauryas set the horizons and template for much of the rest of South Asian history.

Democracy and republics faded. Republican governments eventually made periodic revivals. During the period of the American Revolution many were skeptical of the idea of such a geographically expansive state such as the United States being able to maintain a republican form of governance. The shift toward a more democratic self-identity in the early 19th century with the rise of Jacksonian populism was even more shocking, because for much of history democracy was seen as a failed Greek experiment which often devolved into illiberal mob rule.

I recall 15 years ago Steven Pinker observing that one reason philosophy has made little progress is that what one could not make progress in was consigned to philosophy, while the natural and social sciences waxed in their ability to model and explain the world around us. This is uncharitable to philosophy in many ways, but it gets at something real: we haven’t pushed much further beyond the Greeks on foundational questions. Similarly, Islam is the last major religion to have emerged, and the theology of Christian churches and the metaphysics of Buddhism and Hinduism are all one to two thousand years old. Instead of progress we’ve seen shifts back and forth in fashion. Reworking of templates, not the creation of new things.

Over the past few centuries we have witnessed something different than this. The birth of the modern. The explosion of democracy and liberalism, and economic well being through massive gains to welfare and well being to the non-elites. Between 1800 and 1970 the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled in Western societies shrank. Seen from the first half of the 1960s the future was shiny, infectious disease was going to be unknown, and robots would allow us a life of leisure.

Though we do have iPhones and other shiny devices, and nerds like me can consume lots information on the web, things have not quite worked out in exactly the way predicted. Yes, China and much of the developing world has improved in terms of vital statistics. And it looks like space commerce may finally arrive in the next decade. But we do not have a Mars colony in 2017, let alone a Moon colony.

Economic productivity combined with a demographic transition mean that extreme deprivation is slowly being strangled. But inequality flourishes, and the wage gap between the skilled and unskilled began to increase after 1970 in the developed world. Whereas at one point the Whiggish perception that history was progressive, and that it would end in some quasi-utopian terminus, was self-evident, today many are not as certain. The unipolar geopolitics of the 1990s has given way to a new farcical world of the “Great Game,” while secular Arab nationalism has faded to irrelevance in the face of a resurgence Islamic identity.

History does not move in cycles where the future reenacts the past. But much of the modular furniture of existence seems to be 2,000 years old. The Salafi movements the world over are fundamentally products of modernity, or the reaction to various elements of European modernity. Their roots pre-date the 20th century, and go back to revivals in the Arabian peninsula in the 18th century which parallel a reconstruction of self conscious orthodox Islam in India as the Mughal order was collapsing. But ultimately they are refurbishing the furniture put together by Ibn Hanbal in the 9th century, who himself might have been comfortable among Judaean Zealots. The Taliban are simply the Maccabees of our age.

From an American perspective the reality, the necessity, of the spread of democracy and the expansion of liberalism seem self-evident. Inevitable. Along with technology and science, it all seemed to hang together. In the 1990s the future was arriving as scheduled.

In 2017 the Russian experiment with Western democratic forms has not turned out how we wanted. Though China is economically liberal, it is not democratic. The global capitalist elite were as surprised as everyone else by 2008, and in the wake of that shock they have persuaded themselves that there is no need for a fundamental rethink of the institutions that they’ve developed over the past 70 years since the Bretton Woods Agreement.

As the Western economic elite continues to persist in denial, the cultural elite has been making a broad push to sweep post-1960s social liberalism throughout the world. This, all the while that Western societies have been demographically stagnant, and Western economic power has been declining in relative terms.

We are in the late stages of the long 20th century. The institutions and mores of the post-World War II are still with us, like Zeitgeist zombies. But the combination of global capitalism, individualism, democratic values always constrained by oligarchic preferences, and the universal acid of Critical Theory infused identity politics, does not hang together in a robust fashion. In most of the world if people have to pick between their ‘sexual identity’ and their ‘religious identity’, I think it will be the latter (assuming they concede that a sexual identity is a thing). In the early 20th century Marxists had to confront the fact that internationalism was not capable of overcoming nationalism. In the 21st century the identity politics of individual self-actualization and self-definition will likely confront 2,000 year old identities.

Ideologues dream of final victories. Of ideologies sweep through the world, from sea to sea. Global Communism. A world-wide capitalist order defined by free trade and free movement of peoples. China and India converting to Christianity and finally ending the civilizational conflict between Christendom and Islam, as Muslim MENA is constricted between Christian Europe, Africa, and Asia.

But pluralism has defined the last few thousand years. The final victory has been elusive. The old ideologies and religions do not die, they evolve, they reinvent, they repurpose. The stories are different in each age, but they live in a shared universe of characters who also repeat similar plot elements.

The second century BC was a strange time for the Roman republic. It was an empire in all but name. The ancient enemy Carthage was no more. But destitution was also coming to some of the Roman people. This resulted in reformers attempting to right the ship of state. The brothers Gracchi attempted to help the plight of the Roman poor with redistribution.  Marcus Livius Drusus expanded the franchise to non-Roman Italians. Political redistribution if you will. Gaius Marius began as a necessary general, but ended as a chaotic autocrat. The social cohesion of the Roman republic was breaking down. Faction began to dominate all of public life.

Into situation stepped Sulla. Sulla is not a contingent man. Sulla is a type. A reaction, usually a vain and futile attempt to hold the past together, and push it into the future, by brutal means. Sulla arises when social elites lose faith in the present, and attempt to recreate institutions from an idealized past.

Sulla is efficient. Cruel, but certain in his rightness. Sulla is not a clown. He is not narcissistic, for Sulla does have ideals, even if you hold that those ideals are cruel or callous. Sulla is a piece of furniture, found in many places at many times. The United States of America has not seen Sulla yet. I believe it will.

27 thoughts on “The eternal Axial Age

  1. Is China economically liberal?

    Chinese company directors are party members and have red phones on their desks for taking party orders; the government confiscates export-earned dollars in exchange for yuan; the State banks direct investment for strategic goals; the banks earn rents on savings that are used for State investment strategies; the upstream ‘commanding heights’ firms are mostly SOEs; there are strict controls on foreign ownership and investment; they have a highly ‘permissive’ approach to patents; etc..

    It’s not the free market that makes you develop, it’s effective strategic engagement with markets. This is what I’m taking from Chang, ‘Bad Samaritans’, at least.

  2. I know that you do not like people to “put words in your mouth” (I apologize if I’m going too far) but I wonder if, with those allusions to Sulla, you mean that the crisis of democracy in the USA is similar in certain ways to the crisis of the Late Roman Republic and may have a similar end.

    IMHO social global elites are really happy with the world and the USA as they are going now. I don’t really think that they need a Sulla. They control the economy and they control the Academy.

  3. “Is China economically liberal?”

    Compared to the pre-Deng era, unrecognisably so.

  4. Ignacio Egea
    The next time we get a financial crisis it will be pretty brutal because debt levels are higher this time around. As Razib noted there wasn’t a real reform after 2008 even if the public would probably have welcomed it. The last financial crisis helped induce a lack of trust in the elite by the public but didn’t dethrone them ultimately. The next one will produce a crisis among elites and elite ideology.

    In such an environment a populism with emphasis on protectionism and restricting immigration is likely to flourish. One beneficial side of such a new era might be that the economic left reascends on the left with identity politics being more strictly confined to elite centrists.

  5. The Pre-Socratics were a pretty varied group. Someone like Heraclitus is a forerunner of anti-science post-modernism, while many of the others were the originators of abstract theology (see here for details).

    Platonism proper, with its skepticism about knowledge of the material world, certainly can inhibit science, but its Aristotelian variant need not, and arguably provides the only solid basis for any kind of scientific realism.

  6. As the old adage goes, when choosing between optimism and pessimism, choose pessimism because optimism is much more likely to result in catastrophe.

    I tend to look at the future as a financial problem. The American republic has ~200T$ is obligations in excess of future revenues when you add social security, medicare, and Medicaid to the 20T$ of bonded debt. The system looks likely to be insolvent in a time frame around 2030.

    The disaster could be avoided by some truly major tax increases and benefit cuts. Increase the Medicare tax to 15% and the social security tax likewise. Raise the minimum retirement age to 70. Develop methods for hair cutting state pension plans, almost all of which are bankrupt. Impose a 20% VAT. Require everyone to have a national id card with biometric identifiers to work or get benefits.

    The odds against any of this happening are astronomical. The Republicans won’t increase taxes, and the Democrats won’t cut benefits (A whole raft of Democrat Congress critters have actually introduced a bill to increase Social Security benefits!) So, the crisis will come.

    The path of least resistance is a hyperinflationary blow off. After which the country’s financial institutions will be in smoking ruins, along with the bastions of the ruling elite like New York, Boston, San Francisco, and Washington.

    I do not have a vision of what comes next. My guess is that any institution that depends on financial assets or government money will be toast.

    Physicians can always barter their services for canned vegetables. Lawyers will starve because the insurance companies that fund their trade will be gone.

    The Army and the Marines can survive, but the Air Force is parked (won’t be able to buy gas for their shiny toys). The Navy will probably wind up in dry dock.

  7. “Require everyone to have a national id card with biometric identifiers to work or get benefits.”

    This would be a tool to solve many problems, fraud being at the forefront, but there is no consensus to trust the government or big business to keep the database, not to mention no consensus on what the actual problems are, much less consensus on the solutions.

  8. There is no consensus that there is a problem, except among the financially literate, but it exists and is looming. The ID card is only a small example of the kind of pain that will be inflicted. Of course it is nothing compared to the benefit cuts and tax increases that will be needed to avoid the catastrophic failure of the system.

    The question I am grappling with is whether any kind of liberal republic can emerge from the rubble. Or are we living through the last days of a beautiful dream?

  9. “’Is China economically liberal?’”

    Compared to the pre-Deng era, unrecognisably so.”

    If, by “liberal,” you mean the number of millionaires (and billionaires) has skyrocketed, then, yes.* But China’s economy is highly corporatist or even fascist. Try running a business that competes with one headed by a princeling and see how “liberal” the Chinese economy is.

    *And, yes, this corporatist-mercantilist economy has uplifted hundreds of millions out of poverty without a doubt, but it is not “liberal” in the (Western) classical economic sense.

  10. “I think democracies will start electing populists”

    I agree with this, and it is a direct result of the widening gap and cultural disconnect between the globalized elites and the ordinary, “blood-and-soil” native citizens of polities.

    However, I do think that America today is not quite the late Roman Republic, which, despite the great domestic turmoil had no external enemy worthy of existential contention. Now I think that our country is increasingly more like the Byzantine Empire after the loss of the Balkans (but before that of the Anatolian hinterlands), which is to say, that there still remains some chance of a great revival (both demographic and military-industrial), but the window is closing fast, given the acceleration of the growth of other major powers.

  11. By the way, I think America’s first post-war populist president was Richard Nixon… closely followed by Ronald Reagan.

  12. Pinochet strikes me as one of the closer modern incarnations of Sulla. Are there any more recent examples?

    Perhaps one barrier to the emergence of a Sulla in the US is that it is difficult to imagine many members of today’s social elite who could drum up any sort of support from the armed forces. But do you need the military anymore to push back populist factions?

  13. No, that is not what I meant.

    And I personally know people who have gone into China and established manufacturing businesses there (including one white American guy, who gave me a tour of his factory), and they are doing fine. I won’t say they found everything dead easy, the Chinese bureaucracy is never easy, but it was doable, they’ve done it, and they are prospering from it. And they are producing products which are competing against products produced by Chinese-owned companies there, successfully, and exporting them to Europe. Not the American guy – he is producing goods for local (i.e. Chinese) consumption, i.e. he’s supplying a demand for quality products within China.

    Frankly, your description of the Chinese economy as fascist is ridiculous. Maybe it doesn’t fit your preferred model of the way you would like it to be – that’s very likely.

  14. The narrative as I have heard it is that the early Christians enthusiastically adopted Platonism and ignored Aristotle. The beginnings of modernism occurred when Medieval Europeans re-discovered Aristotle by way of preserved Arabic translations.
    Could it be that simple? Again, Razib’s point would be made: the basics were discovered A Long Time Ago.

  15. The Turkish military was the guarantor of the secular revolution in Turkey. Erdogan has defeated them with his, at least somewhat populist, counter revolution.
    There are reasons a Western, particularly US, military is not like the Turks. But still…

  16. i know that platonism and aristotelianism have a parent-child relationship. but i think it’s pretty weird at this point to call the latter a variant of the former, even if the latter used similar currency to the former.

  17. I am happy I am not the only one who sees this final game to christianizse china and India as the final solution. Hard to convince my left-liberal Indians on this though.

  18. And I personally know people who have gone into China and established manufacturing businesses there (including one white American guy, who gave me a tour of his factory), and they are doing fine.

    I too have a black friend.

    I won’t say they found everything dead easy, the Chinese bureaucracy is never easy, but it was doable, they’ve done it, and they are prospering from it. And they are producing products which are competing against products produced by Chinese-owned companies there, successfully

    Bureaucracy is not the problem. There is bureaucracy everywhere, especially where the state is strong. The problem, as such, in China is the utter dominance of the marketplace by politically-favored players, the rule of law, including what little property rights there are, be darned. If you think that you can pose a challenge, let alone a threat, to an enterprise run by a princeling and prosper in China, you live in a fantasyland.

    Frankly, your description of the Chinese economy as fascist is ridiculous. Maybe it doesn’t fit your preferred model of the way you would like it to be – that’s very likely.

    Apparently a lot of people share my view since the Corruption Perception Index (by Transparency International) for China is at 79th, along with the likes of Belarus, Brazil and India, below Ghana and Bulgaria!

    As for fascism in China, you might want to speak to some peasants whose land tenure was terminated by pipe-wielding gentlemen, subcontracted by land developer-elites.

    By the way, to answer your ad hominem, my view on economics is not all that different from that pithy axiom attributed to Deng about cat and mice. I favor what works… for the citizenry at large, that is. And I don’t describe everything that works as “liberal.”

    To be more specific, for that past ten years or so, I’ve tended to support distributism for the developed world.

  19. As I suspected, all you know about China is what you read in the Western mass media, in which case I know much more about it than you do. I don’t intend to give a lot of personal detail to back that statement up, so I’ll leave it at that.

  20. We are indebted to the commies for demonstrating what will not work.
    I give them some slack because of the limited understanding of human nature at that time. If they had not time and again discredited an economic and political system based on Marxist ideas, many today would be tempted to turn to those ideas as we proceed further into our own decline and fall.

  21. As I suspected, all you know about China is what you read in the Western mass media, in which case I know much more about it than you do.

    Mr. Massey, not only is your remark a silly ad hominem, it is also a profoundly misinformed assumption. I was born in East Asia, grew up there partly, and later returned as an adult to work all over the area (NDA’d, so can’t talk about it). Frankly *I* don’t particularly like to reveal too much about it, but I was PNG’d from the PRC. But then, talking to the Uyghurs will do that, among other things. Let’s leave it at that.

    Later, I consulted for a bit for a law firm that specialized in resolving commercial disputes in China on behalf of foreign investors. In every case I consulted, the local Chinese partners “won” and the foreign investors walked away with pennies on the dollar (it was either that or nothing). To speak of China as a “liberal” economy in the Western classic economic sense is jackassery. It is benevolently corporatist at best or oppressively fascist at worst. I would, of course, agree that it is no longer communist or Maoist.

  22. ‘In every case I consulted, the local Chinese partners “won” ‘

    Remind me never to employ you as a consultant, in that case.

    This started with me making a perfectly reasonable statement, which is that the Chinese economy is hugely more liberal than it was in 1976, which it is, in relative terms.

    You piled on with all manner of irrelevant assumptions, plus made the deeply offensive comment about having a black friend, so don’t give me any crap about ad hominem attacks.

    I am now PNGing you. Goodbye.

  23. Ad hominem, appeals to (self-ascribed) authority, humorless fake outrage, trying to ban someone on another person’s blog… you have much in common with the “liberal” PRC government MO.

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