Friday, August 15, 2008

On the Psyche of Nations

On the Psyche of Nations: A Study of Carroll Quigley's Evolutionary Model in the Context of the Modern Indian Mindset

On 13th November 1957, the late historian Carroll Quigley delivered a typically insightful lecture entitled "Comparative National Cultures " at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces in Washington, D.C.

The lecture, available online here, is a comparative exploration of the courses along which Western and Asian national entities evolved over the course of the past millennium, in terms of their economic and technological development as well as their social and political characters.

Essentially, Quigley charts the evolution of both sets of national cultures in terms of the sequence of watershed developmental stages through which each progressed. While his verbiage is certainly tinted by the lens of Cold War geopolitics... he refers to the predominantly Asian group of third-world powers as the "Buffer Fringe" on the periphery of the Soviet bloc... his underlying analysis is of enduring value.

Briefly, his narrative of European history from 1000 CE to the present encompasses the following chapters:

1) Emerging from the clean slate of the dark ages, we see a feudal society that is authoritarian, but where political power is almost entirely decentralized. Much of the European continent is divided into self-contained economic and political units called manors, each presided over by a knight.

The knight is a fighting specialist, and his power derives from mastery over the supreme weapons of the era: steel weaponry and horse for offense, and a stone castle for defense. Since his castle is virtually unassailable before the advent of gunpowder, the knight cannot be compelled to answer to any higher authority and his manor is, for all practical purposes, an independent political and economic entity.

2) Around 1440 CE, the advent of a money economy results in a commercial revolution. Earlier, each manor had been a self-sufficient agrarian entity engaging in little or no economic exchange with other manors. The substitution of money arrangements for personal or barter arrangements leads to heightened commerce, a division of labor, increased specialization, and a higher order of economic efficiency.

3) There follows a revolution in weapons technology, particularly the advent and improvement of firearms, whose effects become dramatically evident from 1500 onwards. At every stage, the arrival of new types of weapons that alter conventional military realities is seen to have profound political consequences.

From 1000 to about 1250 CE, the knight enjoyed elite status by virtue of the dominance of "specialist weapons" in that day and age... weapons that only a few could afford to possess and in training for the use of which only a few could afford to invest. The knight was a specialist fighter who had trained for years to engage in armed combat; he possessed expensive horses and armour, far beyond the reach of the 97% of the population who were serfs or agricultural workers.

The arrival of cannon that could breach the walls of a knight's stone castle heralded the first stage in Europe's weapons revolution. The cannon was a supreme offensive weapon, capable of defeating the stone castle which had thus far been the supreme defensive weapon. Yet, cannon were extremely expensive and only the very wealthiest and most powerful knights, i.e. the ones who would become Kings, could possess them. This caused the authoritarian but decentralized society of self-sufficient knightly manors, to agglomerate into larger political units that were still authoritarian, still governed by an elite, but more centralized in structure: Kingdoms.

A more significant, and more dramatically transformational stage of the weapons revolution occurs from 1500 onwards: namely, the rising dominance of what Quigley calls "amateur" weapons. These are weapons that are cheap enough for the vast majority of people in a society to possess them, and easy enough to use that they can be mastered within weeks or months, rather than years of training.

This trend arrived at its apex in the mid-19th century, when the Colt revolver and rifle were cheap and ubiquitous in the United States. Every private citizen was as well armed as most of the agents of his government. As the French Revolution demonstrated, a great mass of people equipped with weapons as good as those of government troops, could not be compelled to obey their government by force. Quigley contends that modern Western democracy arose, at least in part, as a direct political consequence of this new military reality.

The investment by governments into researching military technologies since that time, beginning with the Gatling gun and on through tanks and battleships and aircraft and so on, reversed the trend in favour of specialist weapons once again. However, the upheavals that took place in the age dominated by amateur weapons were of profound and lasting consequence for Western national cultures.

4) Quigley argues that successive agricultural revolutions are particularly significant in explaining the divergence in evolutionary paths followed by Europe and Asia.

In Europe, the practice of leaving a field fallow for one out of every three years (so that the soil could recoup its nitrogenous nutrients) had been followed by and large from 1000 CE onwards.

From the 1700s onwards, this practice was replaced by crop rotation: the planting of leguminous crops like clover and alfalfa which replenished nitrates in the soil, in alternation with the food crops which depleted them.

The significance of this new process was twofold: not only was soil fertility restored more quickly, but the leguminous crops themselves could be used as feed for meat animals. This completely revolutionized prevailing techniques of animal husbandry: thus far, animal herds had been left to graze and forage for their own food. As a result, there was an explosive increase in the amount of food that could be produced per acre of cultivated land.

Another revolution in the 1840s brought with it chemical fertilizers and farming machinery, and the adoption of new agricultural techniques.

The most important consequence of these agricultural revolutions for the evolution of Western society was that the people of European nations came to enjoy an unprecedented surplus of opportunity. In the 1500s, says Quigley, 17 men had to labor full-time in order to produce enough food for 21; only 4 of every 21, then, could pursue any other occupation of any sort. By the 1950s, the labor of 4 men was sufficient to feed a hundred.

5) The fifth stage in the development of Western national cultures, according to Quigley's narrative, is the Industrial Revolution. It begins in the 1780s with the advent of the external combustion (or steam) engine, and is boosted by the arrival in 1900 or so of the internal combustion engine.

The chief benefit of the industrial revolution is the production of vastly more non-food products per man-hour than before. Its main feature is the large scale use of power from non-living sources, such as coal and oil, for production.

Factories become engines of mass production, cities grow and become the hotbeds of a new consumer society, and the possession of capital becomes a new currency of power in Western societies.

All this results in two compelling new motivations for European colonial expansion: every nation is in search of raw materials for its factories, and captive markets for its products.

6) Next, Quigley addresses the sanitation revolution, which transformed the state of public health in Western societies. Beginning with Jenner and the smallpox vaccine in the 1770s, infectious diseases were rapidly curtailed by large scale campaigns of vaccination. The work of Pasteur and Lister in the 1830s transformed European medicine's understanding of microbial pathogens and antisepsis. A spate of inventions followed in the 20th century, including antibiotics, surgical techniques, prosthetics and so on.

Quigley goes on to discuss the demographic implications of the sanitation revolution. Declining death rates and increased survival of childhood diseases lead to increasing populations with a preponderance of young individuals. Further on in their development, societies make attempts to limit birth rates for the sake of population control, even as life expectancies increase, so that individuals of advanced age begin to predominate.

There is also some comparison, at this point, of trends in population growth and composition between the West and the "buffer fringe", clarified here as referring to Asia. Quigley postulates, correctly, that by the end of the twentieth century, Western nations are likely to have an increasing proportion of middle-aged and senior citizens, while Asiatic populations will be overwhelmingly youthful.

7) Finally, the revolution in transportation and communications is briefly addressed. From macadamized roads in 1750 to railroads in 1830 and automobiles from 1900 onwards, the invention and availability of various modes of transport shaped the development of Western society in fundamental ways.

At the same time came new communications technologies; the telegraph arrived contemporaneously with railroads, electronic communications along with aircraft and so on. This trend has continued past Quigley's own death in 1977, with the emergence of satellite television and the internet.

At this point, Quigley points out that each revolution builds on the successes of preceding revolutions. For example, the industrial revolution required the availability of labor, food, and capital. Food became abundant as a result of the agricultural revolution, as did labor (because the emergence of new agricultural techniques freed up labor from tilling the land). Capital came from the commercial revolution, which had inspired mercantile explorers to mount expeditions to Europe's future colonies.

It might be considered that Quigley betrays a degree of Occidental chauvinism in the course of an otherwise comprehensive and illuminating discourse on the development of Western national cultures thus far.

Namely, he credits "Western Ideology" as the foundation of all the successive watershed developmental stages he describes. For instance, he cites "invention" as a key ingredient in the success of the industrial revolution. In his view, "invention" comes out of an aspect of Western Ideology: an "urge to innovate and provide better ways of doing things."

According to Quigley, "Western Ideology" is a combination of the "scientific outlook, the Christian outlook and the liberal outlook". Its key features are
1) the belief in the existence of an objective truth, and the urge to seek it out;
2) the recognition that unearthing such a truth or truths is a process of gradual approximation that unfolds over time, rather than one of sudden and ultimate revelation;
3) the idea that seeking the truth is best pursued as a cooperative effort, because a consensus resulting from the pooled discoveries of many will be closer to the truth than the observations of any individual;
4) a non-dualistic nature, whereby the material and spiritual are not considered to be separate or opposed; rather, the material is considered necessary while the spiritual is important, and spiritual goals are thought to be best achieved by working through material techniques.

Fair enough, one might say. As long as Quigley's thesis is borne out by our observations with regard to the development of Western society, let us accept that the philosophy he articulates as "Western Ideology" had something to do with it.

To his credit, Quigley does not contend that the fortuitous sequence of watershed "revolutions", whereby each successive stage could build on the foundation of previous stages, resulted from any sort of a grand plan. Rather, he says, it is a matter of happy accident that these stages came in the chronological order that they did.

Yet, it is in his application of this historical model to Asiatic cultures, viewed through an extremely distorted prism of interactions between Asian peoples and European colonists over the past 500 years, that the shortcomings of his Eurocentric point of view become most evident. In the next post, I will go over his comparative narration of Asian history since 1000 CE, but attempt to analyze it from a standpoint more appropriate to our stated quest: exploring the epigenesis of the Indian psyche.

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