Sunday, May 02, 2004

Letters on The Shield of Achilles

The following is the first in a series of posts more or less related to Phillip Bobbitt'sThe Shield of Achilles, to be contributed by myself and Collin May. We have no idea at present how many posts this will eventually result in, but we hope to make it worth your while.


I think your idea of corresponding on Bobbitt’s The Shield of Achilles and publishing the entries as posts on Innocents Abroad as we go along is particularly apropos given the vision we shared from the beginning regarding what this blog would be about. Not everything we’ve written over the last couple of years explicitly treats the fate of liberalism and/or the nation state, but those concerns have framed the context within which I believe every substantial piece that you, John and I have posted on IA neatly fits.

You’ll remember that the largest part of the very first post on IA [scroll down] was a criticism of the “End of History” and “Clash of Civilizations” theories explicated by Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington. My primary criticism of those theories was that they both rest on assumptions that are harmful to liberalism. One could respond that that’s merely a political critique – after all, there’s no reason to assume that what’s harmful to liberalism is necessarily untrue. [As a teacher of ours once said, “a wish is not a fact.”]

But politics isn’t physics – men are not particles reacting to the forces acting upon them according to universal, pre-determined laws over which they have no influence. There are consequences to treating the claims of liberalism as cultural artifacts – as Huntington does – rather than as fundamental political truths. I’ve read in reviews of Huntington’s latest book, Who Are We?, that he predicts the dissolution of the United States in the relatively near future. I have no doubt this prediction will come true – once a majority of Americans think about liberalism like he does. Unfortunately this is not an unlikely outcome because the opinions of educated Americans are now more likely to be informed by ideas similar to those held by Huntington than by the ideas held by, say, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.

Getting back to Bobbitt: the respective paradigms of Fukuyama and Huntington are deserving of more than just political opprobrium – they suffer from that defect common to the ideas of men who get caught up in the strength of their own insights: the theories have been expanded by their advocates beyond the realm of their legitimate explanatory power to become popular dogma. Bobbitt strikes me as quite possibly being a more subtle or thorough thinker than either Fukuyama or Huntington, though I admit part of what feeds this impression is the workman-like scholarship of his book (whereas Fukuyama and Huntington, scholars though they are, present their respective theses in books that are more revelatory than scholarly in tone, despite copious footnotes and, at least in Fukuyama’s case, an impressive bibliography). The Shield of Achilles might be thought of legitimately as a “third way” that profits from some of the insights of Fukuyama and Huntington. In some ways he is closer to Fukuyama (convergence towards the “market state”) and in some ways closer to Huntington (the market state replaces the more or less egalitarian nation state, and Bobbitt does not seem sanguine about its universal acceptance).

On the other hand, it’s far from clear that Bobbitt does not also suffer from an attachment to his perspective that may blind him to factors it doesn’t account for. I’m not yet in a position to make a judgment on that, but my default position is a general skepticism towards theories that attempt to explain or predict a great deal (a position with which I know you are highly sympathetic).

That said, there is no question The Shield of Achilles is worth discussing on the blog. I don't think the book has received its due attention (certainly compared to Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s respective books), probably because it's so long, and in parts, rather scholarly and dry. But this book treats the fate of politics, particularly bourgeois or market-oriented politics, and does so in a manner that seems to me at least less dogmatic than other similarly ambitious analyses. This strikes to the core of what we always thought IA should be (and in fact has been) about.

There’s a lot of meat on those bones Collin. I look forward to hearing from you.



Post a Comment

<< Home