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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Mobile Versus Immobile Societies

Samual Huntington and Bernard Lewis have described the current conflict with Al Qaeda as a Clash of Civilizations. An interesting perspective along those lines that I hadn't seen before is being put forth by Reuven Brenner in the Asia Times in an article titled Unsettled civilizations: How the US can handle Iraq. He describes the clash as being between an immobile civilization and a mobile civilization. An immobile civilization is generally agrarian or evolved from an agrarian society:
The main feature of agrarian societies has been their immobility. In these societies - as in almost all societies until the Industrial Revolution, and in much of the world still today - wealth was derived from the land. Farmers learned the minute details of cultivating their lands, of adjusting to changes in weather conditions and of the soil. This knowledge is so place-specific that it is no surprise that farmers were severely taxed by a maze of institutions, whose role centered around the idea of defending "one's land". It's always the least mobile who bear such burdens. [...]

In a world where wealth is derived from agriculture and natural resources (whether forests, coal, gold, diamonds, oil), the control of the territory must be insured. Controlling them means protecting, administering, exploiting and occasionally capturing lands. Without such controls, another land or resource-based country's army would capture the place. The institutions, values, culture, indeed the whole outlook of these societies, is shaped by being wedded to the territory. And though there are variations across such cultures, they give birth to one type of civilization - call it the "immobile" one.

Feudal lords, aristocracies and landed gentry, armed forces and police, government ministries, priesthood and bureaucracies provided protection to a place and, at times, imposed threats on neighboring, similarly immobile societies. A weak king or a weak ruler left his subjects at the mercy of his rivals. That's why people paid taxes - call it protection money, if you wish. The amount people willingly pay for such protection bears relationship to the costs of moving to a different area, out of both the plunderer's and the tax authorities' reaches. When people could not thus escape, and taxes became exorbitant, the immobile people occasionally rebelled.

Kings, feudal lords and dictators of various persuasion understood these features of immobile civilization. They saw the relationship between the areas they controlled and those controlled by others as hostile. One's gain of territory was another's loss. It was a zero-sum game world. Anything that would allow people to move more easily from one place to another was perceived as clear and present danger. It weakened one's power - and the tax base. Over time, people specialized in the myriad institutions of "immobile" civilizations and had a large stake in its survival. Whether their belief that this civilization continued to be "the best" when population grew was sincere or not, is irrelevant: delusions can be powerful when they serve one's interests. And deeds matter more than words.

It is not surprising, therefore, to observe throughout history and up to now that many rulers and governments have done everything in their power to condemn any trade or any group that drew its power from mobility. They were suspicious of merchants, traders, bankers and financiers, even people dabbling in technology, unless these technologies addressed solving the immediate problems of the immobile population. Some or all of these occupations had inferior status - usury laws being an early means of rationalizing such status. And although initially traders did not have such inferior status in Islam - Mohammed after all was a merchant before becoming a prophet - by the 10th century business become marginalized. This happened with the closing "of the gates of Ijtihad" (independent reasoning as applied to the sharia) in the 10th century, with some sects taking the Koran far more literally than others.

The priesthood helped conserve the status quo by teaching mythologies in the Middle East and later in Europe. India's caste system reflected a similar frame of mind. The bania, or businessman, is placed third in the four caste hierarchy, behind the brahmins (priests, teachers, intellectuals - the myth-justifying and preserving group) and the kshatryias (landholders, warriors, rulers), and one step ahead of the shudras (untouchables).
People in mobile societies, on the otherhand, have access to market capital and institutions that enforce contract law outside of government fiat. And it is this freedom to enter contracts that is the problem:
However, there is nothing more threatening to the institutions of immobile societies - based on the idea that contracts are a matter of status and hierarchy, and that everything is prohibited unless explicitly permitted - than a move toward contractual law. It takes time to escape perceptions shaped over centuries by institutions fitting an immobile world, and move from "status" to "contract". [...]

The mismatch between customs, traditions, institutions, skills and language - all still fitting a smaller, relatively immobile population - and the institutions needed to give an increasing number of young people hope and a stake in the future brings about instability, much as it happened in Europe for centuries. A fraction of these societies' members understand what's at stake, are ready to make the necessary adjustment and establish the institutions that would allow making the transition toward a "mobile civilization". This group looks to the US for guidance and support, political, military and financial. In contrast, members of the "immobile civilization" within Islamic countries consider that without the US's support, the "mobile" groups would lose power. With traditional leaders at the helm, traditional institutions would be sustained, and the glory of Islam could be revived. [...]

And much of the dangerous European torturing of language notwithstanding, there is no reconciliation between the two values. There cannot be. In this sense, the Osama bin Ladins of this world are right too: one of these societies must give up their fundamental values - or fight.
Based on this categorization of the civilizations, the author walks out on a limb and makes recommendations:
If the lasting remedy for preventing terror is then to speed up the move toward establishing institutions conducive to a "mobile" civilization within Islamic countries, what can the US do? First, as can be inferred from the above, the US had little choice but use power: the chances of domestic forces getting rid of a ruthless despot sitting on billions of gallons of oil are slim, if not nil. But what should the US do now? As the historical evidence summarized here suggests, expecting that one can create democratic institutions in countries where large segments of the population are still mired in mazes of institutions fitting an immobile civilization, is a dangerous delusion. Of course one can write beautiful constitutions, set up courts, institute voting. But remember, all Latin American countries, and some Middle Eastern, did that, without bringing about much real change. Who will enforce the spirit of these laws and institutions? Ataturk, remember, did it with the backing of the army, which followed him, having been the hero of the Dardanelles during World War I, defeating the allies at Gallipoli and being the only undefeated Ottoman commander when the empire collapsed at the end of World War I.

Iraq does not have either such a hero at present, an army, or even a reliable police force, and it is not clear how long it would take to build them. Without the presence of a force capable and willing to act, institutions promising "democracy", "rule of law", and "right to property" are no more than facades, giving rise to another "cargo cult". This term emerged on an isolated island in New Guinea. During World War II, airplanes would regularly arrive full of cargo, part of which was distributed to the natives. After the war, the planes stopped coming. Distressed, the natives built thatched-roof hangers, a beacon tower made of bamboo, and an airplane made of sticks and leaves. Priests prayed for the cargoes to return. And they waited. Many countries around the world, in the Middle East and Latin America in particular, became such cargo cults. Yes, the terms and institutions sound familiar: they have constitutions, promise equality before laws, have courts, and people vote. These societies have adopted the facade of a mobile civilization, but for the moment, leaving out its content. There cannot be such a thing as "democracy" where there are no "democrats". There may be a few in Iraq, but it does not seem that there are too many.

There seems to be little choice but for the United States and its allies to do two things: leave no doubts among Iraqis that the army is there to stay to back the emerging institutions. However, in order to bring about a speedier transition toward long-term stability, the US can encourage the move toward institutions that are the backbone of mobile civilizations: those that diminish corruption and encourage trade.

To achieve this goal more quickly, the US could suggest creating an international public trust fund, which would offer each and every Iraqi a fraction of oil-revenues, drawing on the Alaska model (as explained in my previous article for Asia Times, Oiling the wheels of a tribal society November 20, 2003). The other portion would be transferred to central and local governments, through institutions held accountable for the spending. This arrangement would ensure that people have an immediate stake in the new Iraqi system (pretty much as the giving of land and apartments had in post-communist countries), and incentives to cooperate and prevent sabotage, and offer collateral to up-start small commercial entities. The act would also offer a clear signal that the US is there not as an army plundering the country's resources, but to enforce the establishment of the type of institutions that an oil-rich, ruthless dictator would not do, imposing heavy costs on the rest of the world. It would give Iraqis collateral and something to start a new life with. Also, with less money flowing through a central government's hands, there could be less corruption. [...]

With revenues from oil being widely dispersed, the chances of much funding going for rebuilding centralized military and police powers are diminished. "Power" is dispersed and brought closer to the people.
Yup, that's all there is to it. Hang about for a few decades until they evolve into a mobile society. Works for me.

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