Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Barbarians

The Barbarians are at our gate and they are threatening our democracies.  They are not the uncivilized or uncultured people from ancient times which prevailed both in Western and Asian cultures. They do not necessarily use violence, but superficiality as their main strength. In doing so, they undermine the very foundations of our societies. Is it the end of  western civilization which invented art, music, literature and wonderful monuments?

The sack of Rome was perpetrated by the Barbarians. But this does not explain why the sophisticated society of ancient Rome, with its advanced technology and powerful armies fell to less developed people. Edward Gibbon's monumental work* argues that   the Roman Empire succumbed to barbarian invasions in large part due to the gradual loss of civic virtue among its citizens and the rise of Christianity. He wrote:  'the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors." (chap. 39))'. 

We may disagree with this explanation but the fact is that there is no consensus among historians about the decline and fall of civilizations. Jared Diamond's book 'Collapse' attributes the decline of civilizations to external disasters . Another scholar, an American anthropologist, Joseph Taintner explained the collapse of complex societies to diminishing returns on investments in social complexity like education, energy or technological innovation.

This issue has also been discussed by prominent philosophers. F.Nietszche elaborated his doctrine on the overman  (übermensch) as part of his critique of Christianity and modernity as an expression of decadence and nihilism. This vision opposed the idea of progress and equity and the advent of the new man was a liberation from the 'tyranny of Reason'. On the contrary, he saw his age as the final chapter in the levelling and mediocritization of men. He wrote : " The total degeneration of humanity down to what today’s socialist fools and nitwits see as their “man of the future” – as their ideal! – this degeneration and diminution of humanity into the perfect herd animal (or, as they say, into man in a “free society”), this brutalizing process of turning humanity into stunted little animals with equal rights and equal claims is no doubt possible! Anyone who has ever thought this possibility through to the end knows one more disgust than other men, – and perhaps a new task as well! **. 

Barbarians of today are, by no means, the higher men described by Nietszche. They do not see the complexity of societies. They use simplistic, superficial arguments to gain support from the population. Sometimes, they use (or even control) the media to manipulate public opinion and increase control over democratic institutions. They claim that their power stems from the people and that they have the legitimate right to change the rules of law to their advantage. They don't read books and newspapers and their only source of information is  commercial television with reality shows, soap operas and hardly any programme on classical music or fine arts. They mark the triumph of superficiality as opposed to deepness.

This is perhaps the most acute sign of this major transformation of our societies. But it is also the most dangerous one because it gives rise to forms of extremism and populism. Their strength is the use of simplistic and demagogic arguments such as the eviction of immigrants (especially muslims), the introduction of barriers to foreign goods and capital and exit from the euro area. Wise and clairvoyant politicians seem powerless and often fail to persuade their public opinions that these ideas are flawed.

But they must be fought on the terrain of ethics, not just because they are immoral. First, the return to the old currency would imply terrible consequences for businesses and citizens: more exports for few and failure of many living on imported products which become more expensive; incapacity to borrow on financial markets as debt will be reimbursed in euros with a depreciated currency; aggravated risks for the banking system which will transfer the increase of financing costs on businesses and citizens. Second, the return to protectionism in the form of giving preference to domestic products and protecting national firms does not make much sense. If  we rise tariffs against imported products, say from China or Japan, domestic exporting firms will be penalized in selling their products in those countries and the result would be a diminishing purchasing power for the more modest categories of the population. Third, the issue of immigration: in economic terms, the deportation of hundreds of thousands of immigrants would put in danger the survival of businesses which employ a large quantity of foreign workforce such as the construction sector, agriculture, hotels and restaurant; in human terms, we have a moral obligation to help them just as human beings regardless of their religion or color of the skin. .

In sum, they are no welfare gains from these measures but this needs to be explained in plain language to every citizen. Needless to say, education is the best argument against barbarians.


*  The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (vol. I, 1776; vols. II, III, 1781; vols. IV, V,VI, 1788–1789). all London: Strahan & Cadell
**     Nietszche, F. Beyond Good and Evil- Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.

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