Sunday, 8 May 2016

Can Spengler Explain the Islamic State?


At university, I was sometimes jokingly accused of a tendency that, no matter what the actual topic was, the title of my writing assignments always began with “Spengler and the ...” If you take a look at my list of publications or even the posts of this blog, you will be able to establish that this was nothing more than a malicious falsehood. Still, Oswald Spengler remains a central point of reference to me and yes, sometimes I publish essays under a title featuring his name.

This and all other illustrations of this post are taken from
"Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves", a
filmstrip drawn by Sándor Lengyel, 1963.
All the more so as the range of nouns that can appear in such a title together with Spengler's name is virtually endless. Relying on his encyclopedic knowledge, Spengler wrote about almost everything. First and foremost, however, he was a civilization theorist. A recourse to his thoughts therefore commends itself most clearly when a phenomenon is examined in the context of the civilization that produced it. This is the case with the problem of how the Islamic State is rooted in Middle Eastern culture.

What would Spengler say about the Islamic State? This question sounds utterly speculative, but serves a very practical purpose. It enables me to speak with some authority about a topic I am not an expert in. It is possible – indeed, probable – that the below analysis will be wrong on some aspects of the Islamic State or the Middle East. Nevertheless, I take comfort in the fact that this would not be an error in the matter. The matter is what Spengler would say and I am pretty confident of knowing that.

Spengler and Islamic civilization

To answer this question we must first look at what Spengler said about Islamic civilization.

If the only thing you know about Spengler is that he conceived of history as a sequence of cultural cycles, you may be surprised to hear that Islam as such was not among them. Spengler regarded Islam as the late phase of the so-called “Arabian” culture, which flourished in the Middle East throughout the first millennium AD. Like the famous orientalist Bernard Lewis, he started the story of Arabian culture with the birth of Jesus. Early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Zoroastrianism all played a part in the gradual unfolding of the possibilities of this cultural soul. The emergence of Islam in the 7th century merely represented a puritan turn within this culture: Instead of the deeply experienced mythology prevailing in Jesus' lifetime, Islam promoted a purely abstract conception of God and a joyless implementation of the divine law. Due to its religious zeal comparable with that of the English puritans, Islam conquered the whole Middle East in less than a century.

Continuing the English analogy, Spengler describes the Umayyad Caliphate, the empire emerging from these conquests, as an enlightened monarchy, in which the conquering Arab aristocracy played a dominant role. This “ancien régime” was overthrown in 750 by the “Abbasid Revolution”, which – despite the monarchic government – represented a sweeping democratization of Islamic society. Indeed, the popular revolt that brought the Abbasids into power included radical movements with communistic ideologies, which went on to stage radical insurgencies in the next century. In the wake of these mass movements, however, well-functioning political institutions gradually lost their relevance to powerful individuals. This development manifested itself in the rise of military leaders and their dynasties acting as “protectors” of the caliph, whose power was reduced to mere formality.

Spengler considered the “islamic golden age” of the Abbasid Caliphate the closing, civilizational phase of the Arabian culture, in which its fully developed cultural forms experienced an extensive growth. Like late Antiquity and Western modernity, it was a well-developed and vibrant civilization. Its political life was based on the democratic ideal of the equality of every single believer. Economic activity concentrated in large cities pursuing trade and finance. In intellectual life, religious fervour gave way to rationalistic schools of thought, which conducted lively debates in a liberal and cosmopolitan atmosphere. It is important to note that Spengler's account is entirely consistent with the assessment of professional historians. Claude Cahen drew attention to the remarkably advanced forms of business partnerships available to merchants of the Abbasid age to finance a commercial venture. Bernard Lewis emphasized the tolerance that the Classical Islamic Civilization showed towards both different muslim denominations and other monotheistic religions. By reading some stories from the One Thousand and One Nights, you can form an idea yourself about how liberal even sexual morality in these large cities was.

While scholars agree on the outstanding achievements of the Abbasid age, they fiercely debate the question as to why this splendid period came to an end. Spengler's answer is that a culture, like every living form, has to die. A cultural life-cycle – including its civilizational phase – lasts around one thousand years. In the case of the Arabian culture, this life-time elapsed in the 11th century, with the Seljuk turks seizing the sultanate and completing the deconstruction of the Caliphate's political institutions. From this time on, Middle Eastern history has been nothing more than the rule of ever changing warlords over an indifferent, sterile, and formless population. This means that, from Spengler's perspective, the past thousand years of Islamic culture constitutes a post-civilizational condition (although he did not use that term).

Spengler and Islamic post-civilization

The characteristics of post-civilizational societies belong to the least elaborate parts of Spengler's cultural theory. He did not devote much attention to these periods of history, which he thought were lacking any deeper meaning or direction. Still, there are a few points made by Spengler concerning these post-civilizational phases which can be applied in placing the Islamic State in the context of Middle Eastern culture.

The first characteristic of post-civilizational societies Spengler points out is their ahistorical and apolitical nature. The masses have lost their faith in the democratic ideals of civilization and live in complete submission to the will of the elite which happens to rule them. “Men live from hand to mouth, with petty thrifts and petty fortunes, and endure.” Remarkably, Spengler borrows the name of Middle Eastern peasants of the late Ottoman period to denote this general attitude as “fellahness”. As there is nothing to strive for, “muslim society ceased to have a history at all. Its problems were solved (...). While Western man lived through its history, centuries ceased to mean anything for Islam.” This analysis fits the often noted phenomenon that Middle Eastern societies tend to resign themselves to dictatorial rule offering little to no opposition to it.

The second characteristic constitutes the spiritual basis for the first one. A life of suffering can be endured only with a kind of piety. Post-civilizational societies see the return of a primitive form of religion, which Spengler calls “second religiousness”. Second religiousness answers the need for metaphysics at a time when the rational critique of traditional values has already shown its self-destructive force. The old belief in the mythical quality of everyday phenomena reappears, but in a simpler and more rigid form. In the case of Islam, a folk religion revolving around images of heaven and hell, last judgment, fairies and saints emerges. Spengler concedes that "there always (...) will be a handful of superlatively intellectual, thoughtful, and perfectly self-sufficing people (...). But the fellah-religion itself is once more primitive through and through." In the eyes of the outside world, inhabitants of these post-civilizational societies appear as extremely pious people, and this is indeed the impression that followers of Islam make on Western observers today.

The third characteristic is the “hardening” of cultural forms. The post-civilizational period sets in once a civilization has been fully developed both in its shape and in its extension. The characteristic style of a culture now petrifies into hardened types, which thereafter continue unaltered for centuries. “The living form has become formula”, retaining a culture's characteristic expressions “as stylistic rigidity”. The overall style of such a period represents a state of “absolute finished-ness”, the “immutable fixation” of a cultural life that has completely fulfilled itself and cannot change anymore. It is in this sense that Spengler describes the Islamic world as “complete, conclusive and unalterable”, in which life is organized according to a formal casuistry. This analysis of contemporary Islam is entirely consistent with the diagnosis given by generations of orientalists, who have repeatedly complained about the rigidity of today's Islam compared to the open-mindedness of Abbasid civilization.

The decline of Islamic civilization since its golden age has in fact been so often pointed out by Western scholars that many muslims dismiss it today as a colonialist concept. Writing at the end of the colonial era, Spengler's talk of the “fixity of modern Islam” seems to belong to this line of thought. The important difference, however, is that he considers this rigid form the final stage of every civilization; hardening can only increase as time passes. These were the conditions Herodotus found in ancient Egypt, the first European travellers found in China, and we find in the Middle East today. The Western civilization will not avoid this fate, either. We live in a liberal and open-minded phase now, corresponding to the late Roman Republic and the Abbasid caliphate, but hardening awaits our civilization, too, within the next couple of centuries.

If post-civilizational societies are essentially invariable, the next question to pose to Spengler is how changes can occur at all in a society like today's Middle East. Spengler basically sees three possibilities: The first is that such a society is destroyed by an external power as the Ancient civilization was by the migration of the Germanic tribes or the Mexican by the Spanish conquistadors. The second possibility is that a new culture is formed on the soil of the civilization. This happens relatively rarely, but Spengler explicitly asserts that the Arabian culture came into existence on the ruins of the Babylonian civilization. Theoretically, this could occur yet another time.

The third possibility is the most common: Spengler emphasizes that civilization is not a living form and therefore it does not belong as intimately to the people who created it as a culture. Its form of expression is no longer style, but merely fashion, which can be borrowed by other civilizations or even by barbarians. This happened when the Egyptian society adopted the Ancient civilization in the Hellenistic period or when Japan, itself a tribal society, borrowed the entire use of forms of the Chinese civilization in the 7th century AD. The most important examples of this phenomenon, however, took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, when almost the entire Eastern world including Japan, China, India, and many muslim countries adopted customs and institutions of the triumphant Western civilization. 

Spengler and the Islamic State

Spengler died in 1936 without having the opportunity to say anything about the Islamic State or Islamic fundamentalism in general. As these phenomena emerged from a post-civilizational society, however, we may try to analyze them in terms of the general features of post-civilizational condition identified by Spengler. Unfortunately, such an attempt does not prove successful.

The gradual hardening of Islamic civilization has been going on for several centuries. The rigidity of Islamic State institutions could be regarded as the most recent stage of this development. The theory, however, does not explain why the hardening process has taken such a violent turn these days. The concept of second religiousness, for its part, does not seem to fit Islamic State ideology at all. The most important feature of second religiousness is a return to ancient myths in a primitive form. The goal of Islamic fundamentalism, however, is precisely to revive the purity of original Islam by stripping away the primitive cults – as well as liberal interpretations – that have overlaid it in the past centuries. Finally, you cannot plausibly accuse of fellah mentality a group of people whose official aim is to defeat the Western civilization and to conquer its lands. At most, they could be regarded as the warlords who happen to rule the helpless majority of the population this time around. For such an offhand classification, however, they seem too doctrinair and ideologically motivated. 

The most important reason why the Islamic State does not fit into the model of unalterable post-civilizational societies is that it, in many respects, represents a radical change in the Middle East. Is this an example of the changes contemplated by Spengler? Destructive as it is, it obviously cannot be attributed to an external power. Neither does it consist in the adoption of the institutions of another civilization, something the Islamic State vehemently opposes. Theoretically, however, it would be possible to interpret the emergence of the Islamic State as the birth of a new culture.

A strong argument in favour of this interpretation would be that the imminence of the Last Judgment features prominently in Islamic State's ideology. In Spengler's view, the expectation of the end of the world for the near future plays an important part in the spiritual condition in which the soul of a high culture is born. This would also explain the militancy and the internationality of Islamic State leadership: Both are typical characteristics of early cultures as the Trojan campaign of Ancient Greek tribes and the Crusades led by the Western nobility illustrate. Still, I do not think this interpretation would be correct, particularly because one of the key features of an early culture – ardent religiousness – is missing here. The religious ideology of the Islamic State is all about strict rules of conduct and much less about the awe of the wonders of the world that inspire the mythology of early religions.

To sum it up: The Islamic State can be considered neither a simple example of post-civilizational societies as described by Spengler nor the result of a change in such societies contemplated by Spengler. The necessary conclusion appears to be that the Islamic State cannot be explained in a Spenglerian framework.

Mao and the Islamic State

The reason for this may be that the world itself has transcended this framework. All previous civilizations were characterized by urbanization, money economy, and the politics of the masses. Despite this advanced superstructure, however, they all rested on an agricultural basis which essentially retained neolithic forms of production. None of these civilizations witnessed an industrial revolution. The mechanization of agriculture and the related shift of economic activity from farming to manufacturing was the unique achievement of Western civilization. This development, in fact, suggests that human history may be breaking out of the loop of the cultural cycles, which, in Spengler's vision, were all rooted in farming. Industrialization may usher in a new era, in which new laws of historical development apply. 


What is certain is that industrialization made the West far superior to the rest of the world and enabled it to impose its will on other civilizations. As Bernard Lewis pointed out, this posed an unprecedented challenge to these civilizations. Up until the early 18th century, the Ottoman Empire had been able to match pre-industrialized Western Europe on the battlefield. As late as in 1793, the Chinese emperor had rejected with disdain the request of a British deputation to reopen Chinese ports for trade. Back then, there had been no reason to deviate from the “complete, conclusive and unalterable” forms in which these post-civilizational societies conducted their affairs. Western industrialization changed that balance of power dramatically. By the early 20th century, both the Ottoman Empire and China were in shambles, at the mercy of Western – or Westernized – powers. The humiliation experienced at Western hands during the 19th century made both societies realize that the continuation of their millennia-old ways of living would mean a permanent surrender of self-determination.

The responses they gave to this challenge were quite different, however. On the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, Kemal Atatürk successfully created modern Turkey on the model of European nation-states. Other parts of the empire – following a brief colonial rule – tried to apply the model of totalitarian dictatorships to achieve modernization, with much less success. China, on the other hand, was reunified after a long and bloody civil war under the rule of communist leader Mao Zedong. While Maoist ideology aimed at modernization, it was directed not only against traditional structures but also against Western capitalist values. Maoist rule inflicted pain and suffering on millions of Chinese but managed to restore China as a sovereign nation and, with the adjustment of course under Deng Xiaoping, contributed to China joining the ranks of the world's largest economies.

I think the Islamic State must be understood in this context. It is apparently another brutal response to the challenge posed by Western modernity to older post-civilizational societies. Like Maoism, the Islamic State is directed not only against Western values but also against the structures it inherited from recent dictatorships. In pursuing its objectives it inflicts pain and suffering on the population just like Maoism in China. Even international terrorism, which has become the hallmark of the Islamic State, is not a unique feature of its methodology: In the past decades, numerous terrorist attacks have been committed in the name of Maoism in India, Nepal, and Peru. The declared aim of the Islamic State is to regain the power the Middle East once exercised on the world stage. However unlikely, it cannot be excluded that its brutality will contribute to the achievement of this aim in the long run.

We may wonder how many in the Middle East will survive to see that day, but the Islamic State does not seem to care. This is, again, a trait reminding us of Mao, who in 1957 famously stated: "I’m not afraid of nuclear war. There are 2.7 billion people in the world; it doesn’t matter if some are killed. ”

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