CENTRAL ASIA AND CIVILIZATIONAL TRENDS AT THE BEGINNING OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Aron Brudniy, D.Sc. (Philos.), corresponding member of the Kyrgyzstan National Academy of Sciences, laboratory head at the American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
Dinara Sydykbekova, Ph.D. (Philos.), independent researcher (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)
The authors of this article would like to take a look at how the civilizational megatrends at the beginning of the 21st century are having an impact on present-day Central Asia. It stands to reason that the beginning of a century is an extremely relative boundary, and the matter will concern trends that began taking shape during the preceding century.
The first and most obvious trend is so-called “civilizational dualism;” local interaction between two diverse civilizations is having an ever-greater effect on the life of the nations in the East (that is, the area that extends from the Middle East to Japan).
N.M. Omarov writes the following on the “civilizational dualism” of Central Asia: “The population of the region is distributed between areas of industrial and agrarian (pre-industrial) civilization. The first is represented in the capitals, industrial centers, and areas of mechanized agriculture, and the second is spread throughout the rest of the region. Civilization in the first instance occupies the modernized space in which freely established social ties, liberal values, a secular world outlook, and cosmopolitan cultural images have evolved. Civilization in the second case occupies the traditional space in which inherited social ties, patriarchal values, collectivism, and a religious world outlook hold sway. But this division is relative, since in reality the space of both civilizations is mosaic and intermingled.”1
But in the civilizational respect, Central Asia, and in this perhaps lies its historical significance, reflects the processes going on in other parts of the world on a much broader scale. And the elements of its civilizations are not only intermingled like the pieces in a mosaic, they are in a state of mutual permeation. Historically, the main characteristic of civilization consists of the specific forms in which people’s lives unfold. In the past, these forms differed quite dramatically from each other, particularly under the influence of religious norms and ideologies, but by the end of the 20th century, it became quite obvious that they were drawing closer together and becoming interrelated. It is enough to take a look at the fanatic fedayee with his hand raised in the gesture Churchill made popular (fingers parted in a letter V) to sense how elements of the West and East are intermingled in the contemporary world, for the Arab uses the Latin alphabet (victory) and even the Latin language (Victoria). And what about the Kalashnikov rifle as part of the coat of arms (i.e. a state symbol) of some of the countries that gained their independence in the 20th century? The list of such examples goes on and on, for globalization is already well advanced. We will agree that the first and second world wars were a product of western civilization and shook the entire world, but people in the world’s developing countries are protesting just as adamantly against the war in Iraq. Discussions about the clash of civilizations have a very obvious underlying political motive. It consists of the fact that any game, including a political one, requires at least two players. World communism is in no way suited to playing the role of the second. China is still not strong enough (in another 20 years this will change). We are left with Muslimism as a possible foundation on which world terrorism can permanently flex its muscles. Admittedly, there is also Latin American terrorism, but focusing attention on it is not advantageous for the same political reasons. The enemy should be external, and in Pax Americana, Latin America is a kind of brother-in-arms, a target of criticism and support.
The Iraqi war has clarified a great deal and primarily that America is too strong to be opposed by any country, but not strong enough to control them all. It turns out that the way to a world government, and all the countries of the world are moving in this direction, is ambiguously like the main road to Pax Americana, although the U.S.’s dominating role in the western world is still obvious.
But what should we understand by civilizations?
Just as the economy is inconceivable without the use of land and water, history is inconceivable without the use of life, that is, without a way of life, its goals and resources, and ultimately its meaning. Of course, the meaning of life is for it to go on, but different regions of the planet have different views on precisely what way.
Several authors assert confidently that the clash of civilizations is basically the opposition between Muslim and Christian ideals, norms, and values, whereby this opposition is fraught with conflict. But hasn’t the opposition between Christianity and Muslimism become a myth in the 21st century?
“The myth is leading us into a world in which proper names reign,”2 maintained Iu.M. Lotman, a well-known Russian literary critic, and of course he was right. The resilience of the myth on the “Christian” and “Muslim” civilizations seems to be associated with the names of Jesus and Mohammed. In actual fact, the difference between the civilizations mainly lies in the fact that western civilization is distinguished by freedom of thought, and eastern, although inclined to search for “true belief” (from which the term “true believers” comes) and consolidation of its advocates, is not always oriented toward Mecca. There can be no doubt that the Indians and pro-Communist Chinese comprise that part of eastern civilization which is based on the self-awareness of the residents of huge (by European dimensions) spaces, on respect for genealogical and religious roots, and on the feeling of kinship. This kinship, in its eastern perception, is not the same as the European concept. People in the East are very well aware that kinship gives rise to both natural trust and acute hostility, for people who fall into discord with each other are usually close. Cultural differences also coincide with civilizational differences.
It goes without saying that European countries, that is, products of the collapse in the Roman Empire, formed the nucleus of the western civilization. England, France, Germany, and ultimately the whole of Western Europe are former provinces of the Roman Empire. And after its collapse, Latin remained the means of communication on scientific and cultural topics in these countries for many more centuries to come. That is, a certain cultural inertia existed, which showed the existence of western civilization. If the journal in which we are discussing these problems is published precisely in Russian and English, this not only indicates that the cultural inertia of collapsed empires still exists, it confirms again the existence of the western and eastern civilizations with the cultural standards that correspond to them.
Of course, civilizational differences rest on an economic foundation. But an analysis of the historical experience of Central Asia shows that production or, to be more precise, participation in the process of production plays a much lesser role in accommodating to a civilizational way of life than the active consumption of the products of production and the notorious material benefits which western countries are abundant in. And the economic process, which has accommodated to the norms of civilization, appears to currently rely not on industrialization, but on the commercialization of all aspects of civilian life.
And this was essentially to have been expected.
Schmidt’s well-respected German dictionary (he actually founded this publication, but many authors contributed to it) correctly says that civilization, by accommodating people to regulated joint action, provides them with comfort, but at the same time makes such demands on people (comfort is attractive, people can’t manage without it, money has to be spent to gain it, and, in order to do that, money has to be found, that is, earned or bargained for) that they do not have any time or desire left to be cultured and … civilized! What a paradox! But this is the way it is.3
Now we have the opportunity to judge the first results of the process that began during the 1990s.
When the states of the post-imperial space were gaining their independence, the term “civilized countries” was very popular, it was presumed that by rejecting the values of state-monopolistic socialism, “civilization” and the achievements and values inherent in it would reign victorious. It was not clear precisely what civilization was meant, it was just civilization “in general.” And the nations accommodated to it. Commercial capital formed with amazing rapidity, and the necessary economic foundation emerged for assimilating the norms of a civilizational way of life.
Accommodation to the civilizational world is giving rise to new standards of the quality of life, but at the same time they are rather disappointing. In 1934, Russian poet Pavel Antokolskiy wrote:
Adverts, hooliganism, money, sport
And boredom at every turn. But not the sort
That curled the lips of Byron’s fops
In a leering grin.
It is a different kind, vulgar, like lust and sin,
Clamoring brashly amidst the restaurant din.
Since then nothing has changed. Admittedly, there was no television at that time. But what about today? You turn on the television and all you find is adverts, hooliganism, money, and sport, with boredom at every turn, on both sides of the television screen.
Over time it transpired (and this was also to have been expected) that it is primarily the ruling elites in the civilized countries predominating in the western world that are systemically accommodating to their values. The illusion that new forms of a civilizational life were being rapidly assimilated gradually dissipated, and authoritative representatives of the older generation became nostalgic for the past in the eastern way, when the pensioner was relatively well taken care of, although he was not allowed to follow the traditional norms of Islam. But it is far from elderly guests from countries where Islam is most deeply rooted and efficiently armed that are answering the call of the muezzin today. A prominent diplomat noted with cool composure in a conversation with the authors of this article that the export of Islam is capable of having a political and an economic effect. Here we cannot help but recall Reggie Debray, who maintained that, “a word has its economic value, since its added value is politics.”4 But after all, the liberal model of public life, toward which Turkey is oriented, is not so akin to eastern civilization, and it is not by accident that Ankara with touchy stubbornness is demanding to be “allowed into” united Europe. After all, everything the successive Turkish governments are criticized for, their passion for American subsidies, corruption, the desire to look for (and find) terrorists based on national characteristics, and export their own cultural-political norms, are attributes inherent in the countries of united Europe. The outer appearance of “western civilization” has already been assimilated. And it was Kemal Atatürk that endowed precisely outer appearance with such great significance! Take for example his fight against the traditional headgear—the red fez with tassel. People often forget this these days…
There is every reason to believe that acute attention to forms of lifestyle is associated with the genesis of civilization, what is more, with the very nature of society. Moreover, albeit latently, the powerful genealogical trend in the development of the civilizations is also related to this.
So much is written about family, kin, clan, and other relations in Central Asia! The word “family” scares off some authors and arouses discreet pride in others. But in actual fact, a distinct process is again obvious here, which exists beyond its boundaries, and is perhaps global.
“Ethnologists have shown that so-called archaic societies were able to disguise their political or social maneuvers behind kindred relations. This may give rise to the question of whether our contemporary society is trying to disguise genealogical motives behind politics or economics.”5 This thought by F. Sonnabend is absolutely correct. It expresses the trend inherent in the 21st century, but ingrained in the essence of civilization. Let us make a semantic analysis of the processes going on in Central Asia.
Society is heterogeneous by nature. Large (or not so large) gaps exist between the rich and the poor, between social groups (ethnic-religious), between families, clans, regions (local), between men and women (gender). The first is the product of the market economy. It views society according to the extent it assimilates material benefits. The social gap is created by history itself, and historically it changes in different regions of the planet. In England, Catholics and Protestants live in peace, whereas in Ireland, they are in conflict and spill blood. The local gap is most strongly expressed in young and developing countries. At one time, the young United States was almost torn apart by the distance between the North and the South. And we all know what role the clans play in countries with a transitional economy, primarily in Central Asia. And finally, the gender gap, that is, between the social and personal roles of man and woman. The main question of social philosophy is simple. Why? But as simple as this question may be, finding an answer is extremely difficult. But it is worth looking for.
We will ask the question, “What is a nation for?” If it exists, it has a function. The nation prevents civil society from collapsing, just like historically (at one time) ethnicity prevented the clans that united part of the nation from falling apart. The nation reduces local gaps.
The next question, “So what is the state for?” It reduces or retains within certain limits the gap between the rich and the poor, between the representatives of different ethnic-religious groups, and so on.
Now we will ask, “What is civilization for?” (or “What is its function?”). Civilization is a system of social self-preservation that satisfies human needs to a certain extent. But what does this mean? This means that forces are constantly at work in society that are capable of destroying it. They are related to satisfying people’s needs. And these forces can only be reconciled by means of civilization, because people can satisfy their own needs by means of others.
What are these needs? They are human needs and the basic one is the need of man for woman and woman for man. This need gives rise to children. If there were no children, there would be no society. In other words, it is civilization’s function to optimize the gender gap, and it is possible that it was this function that gave rise to civilization.
If we accept this viewpoint (and an increasingly greater number of specialists are inclined to accept it), the role of family appears much more serious than we have recently been used to believing. Indeed, in the world in which western civilization predominated (with its tendency to give the “nation” significance), the role of family is latent, although the very nomination of George Bush Jr. as presidential candidate speaks volumes in itself.
As we finish writing this article television reports on multi-thousand anti-war demonstrations in San Francisco, Buenos Aires, and Paris are followed by a speech by the indignant Iraqi vice president, appealing to his Arab brothers-in-arms who are essentially blocking the country (so far only Syria has protested). The situation of course will change, but it is already clear that the heavy “Abrahams” plowing their way through a desert storm to Baghdad are not the realization of Huntington’s conception on “the clash of civilizations.” The bearers of the spirit of western civilization are unlikely to approve of the methods with which this civilization itself is being introduced at the beginning of the 21st century for political considerations. No, the ideas of western civilization (here Malraux is absolutely right) espouse keeping one’s word, determination of spirit, freedom, the values of private property and private life, as well as respect for public interests.
Perhaps the 21st century will find optimal forms for combining the public and the private. And it would be good to think that in so doing the main role will be played by a serious analysis of the genealogical roots of the western and eastern civilizations.
1 N.M. Omarov, Mezhdunarodnye otnosheniia v epokhu global’nogo razvitiia, Bishkek, 2003, p. 170.
2 Iu.M. Lotman, “Mesto kinoiskusstva v mekhanizme kultury,” Trudy po znakovym sistemam, No. 8, Tartu, 1997, p. 147.
3 See: “Ziwilisation,” in: Philosophisches Worterbuch (begrundet von H. Schmidt), Stuttgart, 1957.
4 R. Debray, Le Scribe: Genese du politique, Paris, 1980, p. 291.
5 Quoted from: N. Rulan, Yuridicheskaia antropologiia, Moscow, 2000, p. 254.