The Islamic Vortex (Part 3b)
“This time is different” is a slogan designed for derision. Greer set me back onto it again, but it’s familiar background hum, and could have come from anywhere. In it’s most typical usage it applies to the psychology of business cycles, as the epitome of bubble denial, which is to say: investor hubris. (This book might be the best known example.) With blunt irony, it is placed in the mouth of a fool, who is prompted to declare that things won’t turn out the same this time around (so of course they will). It’s what somebody is expected to say shortly before losing their shirt.
There are a few quite simple things that can be said about the presumption, whether learned or instinctive, that things will almost certainly not be different ‘this time’.
— It is a cognitive stance that conforms almost perfectly with the dominant sense of ‘wisdom’.
— It is strongly aligned with the heuristic that history has important lessons to teach us (and that the lessons of deep history are especially profound).
— It is skeptical with respect to Utopian schemes of improvement.
— It has an emotional correlate, in aversion to enthusiasm.
— Every civilized (or even merely cultural) tradition has an identifiable version of it.
For all these reasons, it has a reactionary bias, due to its affinity with everything that resists the progressive impulse and its fantastic illusions. It remembers that change has happened before, and what happened when it did. Even when explicit, relevant memory is lacking, it assumes that tradition incorporates wisdom, and thus provides a bulwark against reckless enthusiasm. It is unmistakably biased, because there has been enough past to make it so.
The guiding maxim of Outside in – Optimize for intelligence – is not primarily wise. Among the readers of this blog, however, wisdom is the prevalent mode of realism, and it is displayed in crushing abundance. When our digression into Egyptian practical neoreaction strayed into the exultant discovery of a rare moment in which everything changes, the push-back commentary was quick, hard, and relentlessly wise.
Learned wisdom, rooted in historical recollection, expects to be countered, usually by fools. Of all the things that have happened before, innumerable times, among the most common is a delirium of novelty, accompanied by rationalizations of greater or lesser sophistication. History is able to test doctrines of novelty, by excavating ancestral anticipations whose very existence amounts to a refutation. For any claim to the unprecedented, exposure to precedents is an embarrassment that cannot easily be survived.
From an occluded future, the disturbance of wisdom can draw no sustenance, but history offers it partial refuge, in two interconnected ways. Firstly, it can contest the time-scale of normality, pushing expectations into deeper and more expansive cycles, in order to relativize a formation of wisdom to a long-settled innovation, whose ‘naturalness’ rests on nothing beyond a comparative durability of change. Wisdom is challenged to deepen its memory, and to recall the difference it has mistaken for a foundation. If anything done can be undone – and even has to be – then what will not be undone, in time? Every establishment was once established, and thus rests upon some sub-basement of historical fragility.
Secondly, the precedents of innovation, when abstractly apprehended, disturb wisdom more effectively than they support it. Sometimes it has been different, unless growth itself is an illusion. Everything, seized at the right scale, is new. Ultimately invention envelopes wisdom, rather than the contrary. (This is not, admittedly, an uncontroversial claim.)
Moses, Jesus, and Mohammed each said “this time it’s different.” A sufficiently mechanical wisdom would even assert that, in this, they all said the same. At the very least, as original founders of distinctive establishments of wisdom, they each preclude a primordial refusal of innovation. An absolute wisdom would judge each worthy of crucifixion, or its equivalent in derision. If wisdom is to be the iron criterion, the Abrahamic faiths are all the works of great comedians. How could it be denied that — when strictly and consistently considered — religious inspiration is inherently unwise? (This is not a judgment I am dogmatically rejecting.)
The state, too, is an invention. It seems to be roughly as old as the institution of literate priesthood, with canons of wisdom to match. That time it was different, and recorded history began. Even then, a deeper and more enveloping wisdom can be conceived, associated with a lost (and unwritten) presumption: this nonsense is not going to last. Perhaps proto-states had been tried, and failed, innumerable times before. The prehistory of political abortions might even have exhibited sufficient richness to make the birth of the state obviously foolish. Equally, through a dilation of time-scales ultimately indistinguishable from wisdom itself, we can still stubbornly presume that this nonsense is not going to last. Or at least, if we refuse this presumption, judging it unrealistic, we have to do so as defenders of innovation, rather than as faithful voices of tradition.
So we return to the leading question of this series: what is the destiny of the Islamic State? Clearly, wisdom offers us no answer. The modes of reason engaged are quite different. We have to correctly identify the real innovations in the history of the state, and come to an equally realistic judgment about the relative priority of religious civilization and political order. Is the Islamic State a state, that happens — incidentally — to be Islamic? Or does Islam decide whether or not it is culturally tolerable to sustain a modern state? These questions are open to revision, and refinement, but the essential divergence of conclusions is inescapable. Either universal political science is possible, or it is not.
If universal politics is judged impossible, that is — in the delicate American turn of phrase — a BFD. The practical recognition of such a reality would make a difference, a durable change, and a disintegration of time. Islam either masters the state, or succumbs to it. That ‘choice’ is a war.