Conflicting Traditions and Universal Truths

Marching British Soldier - Photo by Roberto Catarinicchia

Rupert August

Part of the draw, if not the main draw, to studying topics such as power relations, social dynamics, and political trajectories – is the promise of unearthing some universal qualities which will make sense of the world in some underlying way. Conversely, there is the opposite proposition: that all traditions are distinct and particular to particular people. After all, if there is no such thing as a generic man without a distinct culture or tradition, then stimuli will be reacted to differently at both the micro and macro scale. Starting with some very high-level reductionist generalisations:

  • Humans adapt; both genetically and socially, to the environments in which they find themselves, leaving a permanent imprint on their descendants.
  • Society and tradition both exist. There is neither a historical, nor possible state of pre- or anti-sociality. For as long as these have existed something which might be recognised as hominid, there have been peoples who conceive of themselves as existing in a long history, with storied traditions, and set expectations. One can merely either affirm or react to a tradition, regardless of claims to a clean slate.
  • Hierarchies exist of desirable skills, and excellence at those skills, giving rise to a stratification to some degree, however much it might be resisted. This gives rise to elites.

There is always the spectre of standpoint, however, so as a caveat; even these observations, and everything that follows may be a particularly 21st century English perception.

With those in mind, here are three broadly (but perhaps not uncontroversially) continuous strands of political conflict in different traditions:

  • English/British Paternalists vs Individualists
  • French Liberal Urbanites vs Catholic Provincials
  • Spanish Centralists vs Regionalists
  • Japanese Modernists vs Traditionalists

With this starting point set then, why would all peoples not advance along a single social trajectory, coloured by a constant necessity of certain skills, and nurturing a constant social community? Primarily – by two intercedent qualities: chance, and geography. Firstly, the requirements and opportunities for survival and thriving presented by each type of environment are conducive to different types of organisation, and different overriding tendencies. Greater contact with rival groups and resource scarcity presents a different set of options and necessities, compared to abundance and sparse populations. As an example, the difference between a lush tropical area, compared to a desert – dotted with oases. Secondly, through factors beyond the conscious control of the peoples, events may occur which drastically affect the impulses and traditions, often permanently. Natural disasters such as a desertification of the Sahara pushing Hunter-Gatherer populations into close proximity and creating the necessity for short-term engineering solutions to feed them – created a system that would never be reversed, even as the early builder-kings of Egypt gave way to later organisations. Similarly, the traumatic early experience of natural disasters by the Sumerian (and likely the Anatolian) peoples caused them to prioritise and invest heavily into a priest-centric model of organisation. But more continually, any time a king dies prematurely or suffers some great misfortune, the tradition is altered, as others must take up responsibilities in an ad hoc fashion. Even if those powers and responsibilities are later taken back, the memory of them remains. For this, there can be few better examples than the White Ship Disaster of 1120, wherein the accidental sinking of a ship in the English Channel, killed many prominent men of the still-relatively-new Norman Kingdom of England, including the heir. This would trigger a succession crisis, and eventually a civil war which would see the rise of the house of Plantagenet, but the autonomy of the nobility was not easily relinquished even after The Anarchy, with frequent rebellions breaking out long after.

Between those two factors, however, there remains a single composite product that affects the unfolding tradition even more than both: how men of note act and react to these stimuli. The religious overhauls and the effective giving away of an empire by Akhenaten of Egypt were far from necessary. There is nothing in the water of the Nile, nor the sands of the hinterlands which made it so. Nor does it seem to be some crisis spurred by events beyond his or their control. He chose his path, and it’s one that few others would ever think to follow. So too perhaps the Lawgivers Solon and Lycurgus, when given the closest thing to a blank canvas on which to draft the futures of their peoples. These interact with a touch of demagoguery or media influence which helps to present certain eras as more preferable, or certain elements in a more positive light. This has no doubt been the case with many sections of Islamic society in relation to Muhammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhab, and Muhammad bin Saud in pursuit of traditionalist Salafism, against what could equally be (and usually is) considered the Islamic Golden Age under the more tolerant, less strict Abbasid Caliphate.

Over the grand scope of history, these factors all come together to inform the ongoing political traditions in which policies, proposals, and conflicts must take place. Issues take greater prominence in some traditions than others, and at times foreign traditions may be more completely alien – two examples being the Apollonian versus Dionysian types or the guilt-shame-fear tendencies of peoples. How this plays out internally in a population may also be decisive, as the regional, occupational, cultural, and psychological/genetic predispositions of different groups are amplified by their being raised to a position of prominence for one reason or another. A factory worker or urban labourer may be more predisposed to Socialist or Nationalist ideas whereas a landed aristocrat may be more disposed to a Conservative or Paternalist worldview. One of the universal examples of this is the rural versus urban divide, present even now in many places. The modern Liberal west or perhaps modernity itself might be seen as the triumph of the urban over the rural. In England there are three examples to compare: in the War of the Roses, the Yorks were preferred by the urbanites but did comparably little to upset the status quo beyond seizing royal power (for a time). During the English Civil Wars – the Parliamentarians were more popular among the urbanites again, but this time tried to remake culture along more puritanical lines and killed the king. In the Glorious Revolution, the predominantly Whig revolutionaries were satisfied with mostly leaving society as it was – but give themselves de facto ability to choose the king, and took some powers for themselves, but left the institution of the monarchy in place. Particularly in the case of the latter two, the actions are taken deliberately in the same tradition as lessons learned and looking forward – the later American Revolution is conducted in the same deliberate tradition. Elements of France then look to this tradition and try to copy it, but the result is almost unrecognisable by comparison.

For some examples as to how these factors may have played out more generically; France enjoyed a privileged position in the financial world during the 19th century – hosting a good number of leading banks and was an early player in financial neo-colonialism. This being a system that gave considerable influence in nominally independent countries such as Haiti – without the usually requisite costs of administration due to debt bondage forming the primary tie. In addition, they held privileged roles in Austrian, Ottoman, and most notably; Russian economic affairs, through grants of access to those markets, such as the financing of the Trans-Siberian Railroad, and industrialisation of Imperial Russia generally. All of this meant that contrary to the usual dynamic elsewhere of an enriched urban bourgeois class which finances and profits from domestic industry – instead the financiers are concentrated in France, increasing their number and influence there – while factory workers increase in number in Russia. As a result, France is supported in its bourgeois pursuits of arts, high culture, culinary delights, and luxuries; while Russia loses what might have been the significant bastion for advocacy of a Liberal Regime which found so much more traction elsewhere in Europe. The result is a Russian political tradition that finds Liberalism alien, except under earlier Emperors (and an Empress) as patrons. So too does it affect how France perceives itself – as it lends legitimacy to the idea of France as a fundamentally republican, urban, liberal (and perhaps Liberal) society at its best, due to this privileged position it held during its golden age in the Belle Epoque. It may even convince some that to go back to the glory days, means to commit to those values more stringently. A similar trend plays out in the UK, which culturally lives in the shadow of a period where it was the industrial heartland of 25% of the globe and boasted a privileged position in markets of much of the rest. This is a situation which is impossible to match since then but has nonetheless left much of England, particularly without its counter-balancing rural population since the undermining of the profitability of farming, and farming land-ownership through the Repeal of the Corn Laws. As such, our politics since then have been mostly concerned with urban affairs, and damage to our urban industrial base is seen as a blow to the society and culture more directly than the dismantling of agriculture. Reindustrialisation (particularly of the north of England) is seen as a return to the glory days, despite the geopolitical and economic environment having changed, along with the nation. Presently one of the UK’s major exports is academia, through hosting so many foreign students thanks to the prestige and ranking of many of the UK’s universities. As ever, this dynamic shifts political traditions and trends towards those favoured by academics and gives them a disproportionate power.

Is all of this generic? Do the same proportions of populations give the same resulting political milieu, regardless of prior tradition? Perhaps this might be the case, but the number of variables is too great, and there is a lack of a control group to measure accurately. The closest we can get perhaps is in Poland; where over a very short period of time, the Prussian and Silesian Germans were evicted and replaced with mostly Poles. In Prussia particularly, it seems that neither the Kaliningrad enclave, nor Warmian-Masurian, nor the Pomeranian Voivodeships have yielded the same calibre of men found among the warrior-aristocrat class of Junkers that came before them. Interestingly, however, political results maps do suggest that ‘old Poland’ is much more Conservative than ‘new Poland’ – all of the parts which were formerly Germany (see below), suggesting that an unmooring and transplanting of a people makes them much less conservative, but also that even a quick replacement of a population with much of the geography and infrastructure intact – does not enable a true replacement without the traditions and culture to go with them. This may seem obvious from even a cursory glance because people and peoples are of course different, but it changes the political dynamics and opportunities fundamentally. If we extend this into the realm of psychological differences, then the same strategies will not resonate with different movements or categories in the same way.

Old Poland vs New Poland – Political Leanings

A group that values merit will promote members of an opposing group who value patronage, but a group that values patronage will not promote members of an opposing group who value merit. A successful strategy in France will not appeal to the English tradition and vice versa. More than this perhaps, as alluded to elsewhere, there exist some general conflicts that appear across time, many of which contribute to the seemingly mostly fixed lifespan of empires; the details are a crucial factor that set them all apart from one another to monumental results. Indeed, to reiterate – it also means that a total overruling of what has come before is impossible and must exist inside a tradition that might deviate drastically over time, or even invert totally, but will still wear its influences. All western democracies and republics are post-monarchical in character, all western ethical systems are post-Christian, and all western political traditions are post-Nurembergian.

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