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What will the 21st century be about?
by Bouke S. Nagel
2014-09-15 10:41:16
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“History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Mark Twain

Let´s suppose that we are involved in the experiment of a mad social scientist. He or she finds two pre-modern tribes in the Amazon rain forest situated close to each other. The scientist then provides technology for one of these tribes, which is eager to adopt it. Such a tribe may appear modern after a while, but under that veneer ancient belief systems would still be in place. Unfortunately, history itself supervised this particular trial in the period between 1850 and 1950.

Pre-modern tribes in Europe and Asia modernized their economies and weaponry without changing their internal belief systems. I am referring of course to Japan and Germany. Outside observers in those days thought these states to be modern, but they were anything but. Feudal societies with access to advanced technology then engaged in slavery, ethnic cleansing and genocide. Even today the state of Germany has a “Staatsoberhaupt” or chieftain, which makes me think of an Indian tribe.

Moreover, barely one generation ago, married women in the America, China and Europe were subjected to the whims of their husbands, who were (legally) masters of their wives. Fortunately, these parts of the world tackled issues like sexism, racism, poverty and homophobia in various degrees. The past decades were therefore marked by meaningful changes, especially in China which managed to lift 500 million people out of poverty, although our planet is far from perfect of course.

If we take a closer look at the world between 1850 and 1950 from this perspective, one cannot fully agree with the statement of Josef Stalin who once said that the 20th century entailed a clash between ideologies. Instead, the horrendous events in this time period can also be regarded as a transition phase in which societies like the US, Japan, China, Russia, Germany and Spain were engaged in a struggle between forces committed to feudalism and those opposed to it.  

On the northern hemisphere this led to massive destabilization. It began in the US in which agrarian states with a feudal mind-set engaged their industrialized and slightly more modern counterparts on the issue of slavery. The result: civil war. In the same time period feudal Japan improved its industry and weaponry during the Meiji period in order to secure a place in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century several ancient empires furthermore collapsed in China, Russia and Central-Europe.

Afterwards, the void was filled by extremists. They presented societies with two choices. Either go back to a fabled Golden Age, which was supposed to last for a thousand years, or take the Great Leap forward by adopting modernization programs. These programs were implemented regardless the consequences for the populace. While Central-Europe and Japan regressed back into the Middle Ages between 1920 and 1945, China and Russia applied forced modernization during the 20th century.

If history holds any clues for the future, one can say that the world of today is similar in many respects. On a line beginning in Indonesia going up to India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and ending in Syria, we are witness of the struggle between feudalism and modernity once again. In Syria the line splits into two. One of these lines enters the so-called spring revolution countries and the other one plunges into the heart of Africa. Along this new fault line societies are growing increasingly unstable.

Although there are regions which seem to be advancing, modern appearing hubs, like Dubai or Bangalore, are still part of societies in which violence against women is rampant. The (legal) status of women over there is similar to standards employed in Europe fifty years ago or worse, not to mention the attitudes of people in these regions towards gays, minorities and other religions. And then there is North Korea with its king worshipped as a god by the populace like the pharaohs of old.

This fault line saw two genocides happening so far. In Rwanda one tribe nearly eradicated another one at the end of the 20th century. And a country-wide reform program implemented by Pol Pot and his followers led the world to witness the horrors of the killing fields. In Iraq today cleansing has just begun, which is extensively documented by the perpetrators themselves. Over the past months pictures appeared in the media reminding many of us of the of Nazi death squads in Eastern-Europe.

All these developments lead us to the question what the 21st century will be about. I think it is safe to assume the world will not see the end of history that was proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama. Nor will there be a clash between civilizations as Samuel Huntington predicted. What seems to be in store for us will be a continuation of the struggle between feudalism and modernity in new theatres in the world under different circumstances, which will lead to increased instability, violence and extremism.

Fact is that more and more societies in our world are entering a transition phase due to access to advanced technology, rapid economic development and urbanisation. This especially holds true for Central-Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, India and South-East Asia. If we do not do anything to assist people in these parts of the world to deal with this kind of change, it is likely that many will fall prey to a similar darkness that plagued the shores of Japan, China, Russia and Europe over sixty years ago.       

The underlying problem is outdated societal software in the form of tribalism and/or feudalism, which is incompatible with hardware like advanced technology and complex economic systems. Forces committed to feudalism therefore oppose the notion of human dignity and seek out to cleanse societies in order to attain purity, whatever that means for those plagued by this particular form of madness such as Anders Breivik or those murderers in black roaming Iraq these days.


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Bouke S. Nagel2014-09-16 13:14:36
Thank you for your response to my article.

There are two groups on our planet who seem to agree on one thing: religion has no place in a modern world.

On the hand I am thinking of hard-core atheists such as Richard Dawkins and on the other hand I am referring to representatives of organized religions themselves.

If you follow their arguments to its logical conclusion we either have to regard all forms of religion as superstition and treat it as impediments to progress. Or we have to revert back to the middle Ages as is proposed by fundamentalists of all major religions in our world.

To me your comment seems written by someone who is part of this particular debate.

But did you notice that I did not use the word religion once in this text?

And in doing so don´t I at least make the suggestion that I disagree with both groups?

Emanuel Paparella2014-09-15 15:13:51
I may be wrong, but it appears to me that the rather obvious assumption in the above analysis is that scientific technological progress and enlightenment equals modernity and progress and that moreover progress is unstoppable and inevitable; it cannot be impeded by reactionaries who wish to return to a feudal medieval social system. Positivists of all stripes champion such an argument considering anybody who takes religion seriously (a William James or a Carl Jung, for example) retrogrades dabbling with superstition and regress. To be modern is simply to accept science and technology as the ultimate superior achievement of man in history perfecting itself more and more. The native Americans and other tribal primitive societies still in the first stage of religion and myth need to simply move over as the train arrives in the prairie with white men inside targeting and killing buffalos for sheer sport and polluting and degrading the environment. That same white technological positivistic man has eliminated 90% of the continental forest of North America and has exploded some sixty atom bombs from 1945 till 1962 degrading the environment with radiation and increasing known diseases, not to speak of the unknown, but it is all passed as “progress.”

What is intriguing in the analysis above is that not even Karl Marx ever championed it as presented. He seemed to have a more cyclical approach to history and in Das Kapital explicitly declares that in certain respects (in the realm of human dignity and social stability and the equality of all in the eyes of God) Feudalism was preferable to savage capitalism whose only criteria for success seems to be profits and rampant greed and the exploitation of the worker. He considers a socialistic system as the better system and the ultimate social achievement. This is not to deny that he also misguidedly said that "religion is the opium of the people."

I would only add: given the shabby historical record of the 20th century which produced two World Wars and genocides and gulags and lagers galore in the midst of rampant hedonism and loss of faith and trust in the future, do we really wish to imitate that less than exemplary century?

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