Friday, October 3, 2008

On the Psyche of Nations- Part II

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

The section of Dr. Quigley’s lecture dealing with the development of Asiatic national cultures is startlingly brief by comparison with his lengthy exposition of their Western counterparts. Expectedly so, perhaps… by his own admission, his perspective is that of an occidental historian. His interest in the then “Non-Aligned” group of Asiatic nations focuses on their utility as a “buffer fringe” between the West and its Communist nemesis. He is interested in studying the East only in terms of how the West has interacted with it, and draws only such conclusions as the West may find useful in plotting an advantageous course of future interaction.

The line between assimilating Quigley’s universally valuable insights on the development of national cultures, while eschewing the prejudices that mark him as a man of his time and place in the world, is a difficult one to negotiate. Indic scholars have grown wary of the condescending, self-aggrandizing narrative that professional “Indologists” of the West have sought to superimpose upon our civilization. So tired are we of being flogged with the same old Macaulayite and Mullerite litanies, that the first critical observation we encounter from a new and unfamiliar source will sometimes put our teeth on edge, priming us to reject everything coming from that source in toto. The obvious disadvantage is that it amounts to tossing the baby out with the bathwater.

Let us, then, remind ourselves that Quigley is an American thinker of early Cold War vintage, a creature of his era, and a product of his own national culture. Still, he is no child of Macaulay, nor a motivated belittler of Indian national culture in the mold of Fareed Zakaria or Romila Thapar. He is not out to bash us, either in the language of traditional Churchillian imperialism, or in the tones of today’s Marxist collaborators who package their condescension in the snide verbiage of revisionism.

To give Quigley a fair hearing for our own sake, it is best to brush any lingering post-colonial chips off our own shoulders at this point. Raising an ideological shield bars our vision even as it wards off blows. The true test of our judgement is to determine when being open to external perspectives may better equip us to defend ourselves.

To begin with, Quigley attempts to explore the development of “buffer fringe” national cultures down the ages, in terms of the same series of revolutions as he applies to his analysis of the West. However, his chronology of the East begins at the time Europeans first encountered the nations and peoples of the orient. Not at 1000 AD, as in his exposition of European national cultures, but some five hundred years later.

Indeed, for the purpose of his comparative analysis, Quigley is quite uninterested in the course of Asiatic history before 1500. This initially rang a few “Indologist!” alarm bells for me, but on further contemplation I actually find it refreshing. He’s clearly not interested in contriving a back-story to denigrate us as deserving victims of exploitation. Rather, he earnestly explores the story of his own people, featuring Asian civilizations as characters encountered in the course of their expansion… altogether a more intellectually honest effort.

Quigley pays not even lip service to the lost millenia of golden ages that Asiatic scholars are always agonizing over… no Mauryas, no Guptas, and equally no Hans or T’angs. Instead, he begins with a generalized view of the dystopic East that European maritime explorers and merchants first encountered.

His view of Asian societies at that time is unapologetically Eurocentric. He sees them as rigidly hierarchical structures, ossified by the sheer weight of tradition, where a very large ruling class which he terms “the quartet” cooperated amongst themselves to exploit a food-producing peasantry. This “quartet”, in his view, consisted of (a) Government officials and bureaucracies, (b) military personnel and armies, (c) bankers and financiers and (d) landlords.

Lest such a characterization, with its obvious parallels to the Varna system, put us at once on the defensive—let us pause to consider that this was exactly how contemporary Asiatic societies must have appeared to the first European visitors, given their prejudices and their ignorance of what had gone before. Quigley is harking back to the atavistic first-impressions of the Westerner on arriving in 16th-century India or China. That is quite separate from the malicious parallels that motivated saboteurs of India’s civilizational narrative came to draw in the age of colonialism, and seek to reinforce in the age of soul-harvesting.

The other thing Quigley admits in effect, is that Asiatic societies operated on a vastly higher scale of organization by that period than their European counterparts, which were constructed around self-sufficient manors as the discrete and isolated subunit. He is actually talking about a national ruling class, organized to exploit a country full of peasants. Corrupt, power-hungry and short-sighted perhaps… but organized at a level beyond anything the Europeans even attempted until the Turks menaced the Danube in the seventeenth century.

There is little doubt about this. From C. Northcote Parkinson to Franz Kafka, European intellectuals emerge from contemplation of Asiatic national entities with a sense of awe at their gargantuan proportions. Parkinson, in his seminal “East and West”, lays out the most fundamental distinctions between Europe and Asia. Asia had vast, fertile land masses isolated by great stretches of water (the Pacific and Indian Oceans) and mighty natural barriers like the Himalayas and the Steppe. This allowed for the agglomeration of closely related civilizations into vast quasi-national entities, the great empires of India, Persia and China, but it also isolated different civilizations almost completely from one another. Europe, meanwhile, was characterized by the abundance of navigable bodies of water… the Mediterranean and North Seas and numerous rivers… as well as having almost no insurmountable natural barriers. Thus, even as the earliest political entities were isolated and self-sufficient, commerce was able to develop extensively across the whole region, ideas traveled rapidly between cultures, and different peoples could be united temporarily under the banner of a reasonably competent empire, such as the Romans, who could muster the ability to mount an invasion across a modestly challenging barrier like the English Channel.

Quigley observes that, circa 1500, Asiatic agricultural methods had not evolved to the levels of efficiency that contemporary Europe’s had. Asian peasant farmers did not widely employ the techniques of crop-rotation with fallow fields or leguminous planting that brought about revolutionary increases in Western civilization’s capacity to produce food. Instead, they used such techniques as fertilizing soil with human excrement, which yielded less food per acre than contemporary European farming to begin with. On top of this, no transformational developments in food production, such as greatly accelerated the advancement of Western civilization, ever took place in Asia.

Is this observation about Asiatic agricultural practices true, and if so, why was it so? That’s just the first of several questions which the Asia-specific part of Dr. Quigley’s lecture raises… but to which we must seek the answers for ourselves, because Dr. Quigley himself lacked the necessary perspective to answer them in a manner we would find useful.

To some extent, maybe Dr. Quigley’s entire emphasis on technological revolutions is deeply influenced by pre-eminent American historical discourse of his day. His illustrious contemporary, Louis Mumford, was honing his theories of technics and civilization at about this time… emphasizing the difference between technology (the harnessing of science towards practical applications) and technics: the dynamics of interplay between technology, inventions, methods, and the societies which employed them. Contemporary trends in Western humanities academia encouraged a good deal of post-industrial navel gazing, with great emphasis on the role of technics in shaping the course of a society’s development. Perhaps Quigley’s assigning such importance to the appearance or lack of technological revolutions as a determinant of human history, is reflective of this.

But what of ourselves? Leave aside malicious Marxist and Liberation Theologist caricatures of Indic society as a rigid hierarchy where knowledge was the jealously guarded preserve of all-powerful Brahmins. The 1500s in India were a period of Mughal dominance. They were marked by a Brahmin polity divided between servile collaboration with the Mughal administration and ideological resistance as fugitives in Hindu enclaves, and a Kshatriya aristocracy similarly divided between subsidiary alliances with the Islamic overlords and sporadic military self-assertion. This is clearly a much more complicated picture than the “quartet” to which Quigley simplifies matters… and yet, neither Brahmin nor Kshatriya nor Mughal is relevant here. When we talk of agriculture we talk of the Shudra.

What was the truth of the Shudra’s inadequate adoption of agricultural techniques? Were his methods really less efficient than those of his Western counterpart? Was this because, as the revisionists relentlessly suggest, the evil Brahmin had connived to deprive the Shudra of knowledge? I don’t think so… the Western peasant certainly wasn’t being sent to agricultural college by his feudal lord, and had the brains to figure out crop rotation for himself. Unless we decide that the Shudra was generally less intelligent by comparison, and there is no basis for concluding that he was… why couldn’t he, similarly, have discovered and practiced crop rotation?

Quigley would probably answer this with his notion of “Western Ideology” lending itself to innovation and advancement in a manner superior to anything we Asiatics possessed. To us that seems chauvinistic and petty. It surely makes no more sense to argue that Sanatan Dharma was inferior to Western Ideology, than to hold that the Shudra was intrinsically more stupid than the European serf. However, we must allow for the possibility that a Dharma under siege and threatened with extinction, as it was in the age of Islamic political dominance over the subcontinent, may not have provided as hospitable an intellectual environment for reflection and innovation as Western Ideology during the renaissance... simply because the priority was ensuring survival of the old ways in a new and hostile milieu. When a civilization is fighting to preserve its traditional heritage, a task that must often be performed in surreptitious ways for fear of reprisal, the prevailing ethos is far from conducive to intellectual progress. Security in the present is a prerequisite for looking forward, and the Hindu of the 1500s had very little.

The Marxist might argue that Hindu civilization's lack of the innovative spark was an intrinsic failing, having nothing to do with external threats; that the Shudra, after several millenia of ideological bludgeoning under the horrendous caste system, had lost his will to innovate long before the advent of Islam. This is demonstrably untrue.

Indian agriculture may not have kept up with its European counterpart into the leguminous-crop-rotation revolution of the 1500s. Through the first millenium CE, however, Indian farming could boast of as much innovation as farming anywhere else in the world. We had developed the domestication of animals, the plough and harness, the wheeled cart. We had irrigation, we had the wickerwork basket to remove chaff from grain by tossing it into the air; and as even Quigley admits, we used human excrement as fertilizer. Surely that wasn’t a “Brahmin” innovation! No, anything to do with human excrement was by definition a technique developed by the the “lower” castes… amply demonstrating that the Shudra and the Bhangi were as intelligent, innovative, and well-informed about their lines of work as any European peasant.

It is possible that Asian cultures in general didn’t come up with those early agricultural innovations as rapidly as their European counterparts. After all, Asia had a surplus of agricultural labor and generally a more hospitable climate compared to Europe, so the pressure to innovate might not have been as urgent. However, the fact remains that through about 1000 AD, we did not lag behind in food production to any significant degree. The Indian peasant of that time was almost certainly better off than his European contemporary.

Why, then, did we fail to keep pace with the Europeans in agricultural innovations, and perhaps other innovations as well, past the end of the 1st millenium CE?

Did India’s parallel to the crop-rotation revolution never have a chance to arrive, because of the exigences of our history in the second millenium CE? Could this have to do with the shock of an alien invasion that, for the first time, posed an existential threat to evolved, intact and fully functional Indian society? Is it because by the 16th century in India, given the fractured social contract that was forced into existence between the Islamic overlords and the Hindu polity… the Shudra had become divested from his national culture, with no stake in its progress or betterment?

I believe this latter explanation to be closer to the truth. The Marxists' and Western Indologists' insistence that the Shudra simply never had the will to innovate because the caste system was tyrannically restrictive of his intellectual capacity, is not borne out by even the most casual observations. However, it is conceivable that the Shudra, and others of the more earthy Varnas, faced a dire crisis of identity after the Islamic invasions. A sense of being set adrift, of losing the specific investment in Indian national culture that they once possessed by virtue of their role and function in a vibrant, flourishing Hindu society. After all, a schism was developing in that society before their very eyes; large sections of Brahmins, Kayasthas and Kshatriyas were trying to accommodate the new political reality of Islamic dominance in ways that must have seemed an abdication of their responsibilities under the Dharmic social contract. It is easy to imagine this shaking the faith of the masses in the solidity, or even the survival, of their Hindu national culture.

Understanding this distinction is all important.

The Marxist and Western Indologist say: Hindu society was fundamentally flawed by the existence of an oppressive caste system, which hamstrung the development of our national culture and ensured that the "lower" castes never had a stake in such development. In other words, Hindu Dharma was never viable as a national culture, and isn't viable as the foundation of Indian national culture today. This is the essential ideological argument employed by those who would forever constrain the emergence of Hindu political identity at the level of a national culture, and for India's sake, it must be torn down.

The truth, which emerges on closer examination and the application of Dr. Quigley's comparative model of civilizational development: Hindu society developed a national culture as vibrant as any in the world, but came under extreme duress because of the onslaught of an alien, expansionist Islam. In the trauma of adapting itself to survive this onslaught, schisms and cracks appeared in Hindu society that were detrimental to the development of a Hindu national culture at the same pace as that of European nations. Progress, as Quigley measures it, clearly was slowed far below optimal rates. And yet, it is a testament to Hindu society's innate strength... not its weakness...that it successfully survived many existential threats, and survives to this day with its essential character unchanged. How many other cultures that came into contact with the expanding imperialism of Christianity or Islam, survive today in any recognizable form? Even the Zoroastrians continue to exist, only because they sought refuge with the world's most ideologically hospitable national culture.

The Marxist insists that Hindu national culture was fundamentally flawed, and is worthy only to be discarded. The Indian must recognize that, while rife with imperfections, Hindu national culture survived blows that obliterated many others; and that the damage sustained as a result of those blows can and must be repaired for India to realize her potential.

It is the mission of the Marxist, the Western Indologist and the Missionary to ensure that we give up hope of repairing the damage, that we persist in viewing our heritage as a disposable commodity worth preserving only in the sterility of museums. It is to their benefit that we continue to stumble around as easy prey in an ideological wasteland. It must be the mission of all 800 million of us to reclaim what is ours, and to reinstate it as the basis of our national culture, in the face of an onslaught better organized and more fiercely motivated than any Babar or Mir Qasim could have mustered.

When the Europeans got to India they found a civilization that was already riven and bleeding. They encountered a similar situation in China as well; Marco Polo found Kublai Khan, an Islamic Mongol overlord, in charge of the Middle Kingdom. The Dutch and Portuguese, three centuries later, dealt with a declining Ming dynasty besieged by Mongols to the north and rising Japanese power to the east. Credit must, however, be accorded to the Ming dynasty’s founder Chu Yuan-Chang. In 1371, he ended the 90-year Mongol rule of Beijing… too short a period to make a serious dent in Chinese Dar-ul-Harb.

In my next post I’ll continue with the rest of Quigley’s lecture, dealing with subsequent stages in the development of Asian national cultures. Again, I’m sure there will be more questions than we’ll immediately have answers for. In the course of seeking those answers, perhaps, new paths towards reclaiming, repairing and reinstating our own national culture will suggest themselves.

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