Last time I explored how James Doull – from a Hegelian perspective – understood the world in the century or two after Hegel, up to the fall of fascism and Communism. This week I’m following up with his analysis of the world he lived at his death in 2001 – still the world we live in today.
In reading Doull’s discussion of post-1989 politics I keep thinking back to Benjamin Barber‘s splendidly evocative title, Jihad vs. McWorld – originally a 1992 Atlantic Monthly article, expanded into a bestselling 1996 book. Doull’s staid prose would never feature such popular terms as “Jihad” and “McWorld”, but it seems to me that his analysis nevertheless rests on roughly the same contrast: a particularist embrace of divisions based on language, culture and “religion”, which emerges stronger as a response to a universalistic globalized technological capitalism. (As for the Jihad vs. McWorld terminology itself, it made a splash at first but didn’t catch on – perhaps because in these health-conscious times the preeminence of McDonald’s has been eclipsed by Subway.)
Doull expands on this contrast by discussing what might seem at first an unlikely figure: Hegel’s abstruse German critic Martin Heidegger. Even for one who can make some sense of Heidegger’s work – not an easy task – it is often difficult to draw out any practical implications from his abstract metaphysical speculations into the nature of being itself. But if there is anyone equipped to draw out such implications it is Doull, who has spent his life teasing out such connections from the ancient Greeks – Heidegger’s own inspiration – and beyond.
Heidegger himself gets most concrete in his article on technology (German Technik). Technology, for Heidegger, does not mean neutral tools – he would be revolted by the way that many in my profession (myself included) refer to, say, Google Drive or WordPress as a “tool”. A tool like a hammer – one of Heidegger’s favourite concrete examples – is something adapted to its environment, rooted in tradition, in direct contrast to modern technology, which takes natural processes and converts them into a stock of energy to be used instrumentally. (Heidegger resisted getting electricity in his home for many decades, and found himself chilled by photos of the earth taken by humans from the moon – the ultimate uprooting of humanity, to leave the earth.)
Now as I understand it, Hegel views human history as a dialectical movement in multiple senses – one of these being that progress happens through the clashing of opposites. And right around the time that the Marxist-inspired Communist régimes collapsed, world politics in the rest of the world lurched in the direction of their mirror image: the right-wing libertarian capitalism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. But I say “mirror image” for a reason. Both Communists and transnational corporations ask as their central question: what is most useful to humans? They are both modernist; they are both in some loose sense utilitarian; most fundamentally for Doull, they both root themselves in individual interests.
Heidegger shares none of this. To the contrary: according to Doull, Heidegger identifies the Technik he opposes with the system of individuals’ private interests. Doull thinks Marx’s thought is similarly based on such a system private interests – a debatable interpretation. Far less debatable is that post-1970s global capitalism is such a system. And it is in this context of expanded capitalist markets that, Doull thinks, worldviews in line with Heidegger’s have flourished. One might think the most obvious candidate for a Heideggerian worldview today would be deep ecology and similar radical environmentalisms, which take nature as valuable for its own sake. But that’s not Doull’s take. Rather, Doull notes how Heidegger saw human existence as fundamentally rooted in tradition, home, and language – things we abandon at our peril. He turned, that is, to a cultural or ethnic (rather than political or civic) nationalism.
So what Doull effectively ties Heidegger to is “Jihad”. Barber used the word “Jihad” as a shorthand to refer to the often subnational collective cultural identities of various kinds – linguistic, racial, “religious” – that tie people together with others in their group while pitting them against the rest of the world, from Québécois to southern Thai Muslims. And for Doull what this Jihad has in common with the capitalist McWorld is division: a viewing of the good of some humans as fundamentally divided from that of others, whether through their collective identity (Jihad) or through their individual interests (McWorld). This all is quite different in Doull’s eyes from the civic nationalism that had brought Hegel’s Prussia together. Doull would agree with much in Barber’s description of the fate of nationalism in the late 20th century:
Nationalism was once a force of integration and unification, a movement aimed at bringing together disparate clans, tribes, and cultural fragments under new, assimilationist flags. But as Ortega y Gasset noted more than sixty years ago, having won its victories, nationalism changed its strategy. In the 1920s, and again today, it is more often a reactionary and divisive force, pulverizing the very nations it once helped cement together.
What fascinates me about Doull’s analysis relative to Barber’s is how much deeper it it can go. It seems to me that Doull allows us to draw fascinating connections between contemporary phenomena we might otherwise see as disparate, by identifying the “Jihad” forces with Heidegger and “McWorld” with the “technological” worldview he despises. A simple such connection – one that Barber might have seen – is with the distinction of populism and technocracy, a construct I found very helpful for understanding recent conflicts in Thailand and beyond.
But beyond this, there seems to be a connection of these political forces with the strongest and most enduring philosophical forces of our time. I speak of the divide between analytic and “continental” philosophy, a divide that endures above all because it contains a disagreement about what it could even mean to do philosophy well.
Heidegger, after all, is a forerunner of all the major movements in twentieth-century “continental” thought, from existentialism to postmodernism – and now in the 21st century to Speculative Realism. By contrast, analytic philosophy bears close ties to technocracy and McWorld. Its quasi-mathematical mode of thinking is close in spirit to that of classical economics. Both fields were born in Britain and achieved their heyday in the United States – pragmatic utilitarian places where cultural nationalisms often seem bewildering (often with good effect). And it has established close interdisciplinary alliances with fields like computer science and cognitive science – technological fields that French and German philosophers rarely have much to do with.
To get a grasp on some of these connections, one could point back, as I so often have, to Thomas Kasulis’s intimacy-integrity distinction – analytic philosophy and McWorld as reductionist and universalist, continental philosophy and Jihad as culturally holist and particularist. I think it makes a good start. But I think Doull’s history gives us significantly more depth on the specific situation we find ourselves in now, the specific ways it all fits together.
I’m still digesting the implications of Doull’s history, and I think it has a great deal to recommend it as a description and analysis. I do have my concerns about it as well, and I expect to speak of them in the future.