I sometimes think of society as precarious. It can seem easier to destroy something than to create a new thing or to re-create what was lost. It’s natural to take things for granted, until they are gone. Wisdom is learning to appreciate what you have while you have it.
There is value to this perspective, as it expresses the precautionary principle. This includes a wariness about messing with that which we don’t understand… and there is very little in this world we understand as well as maybe we should. We ought to appreciate what we inherit from the generations before us. We don’t know what went into making what we have possible.
Still, I’m not sure this is always the best way to think about it.
Many aspects of society can be as tough to kill as weeds. Use enough harsh chemicals, though, and weeds can be killed, but even then weeds have a way of popping back up. Cultures are like weeds. They persist against amazing odds. We are all living evidence for this being the case, descendants of survivors upon survivors, the products of many millennia of social advance.
In nature, a bare patch of earth rarely remains bare for long, even if doused with weed-killer. You can kill one thing and then something else will take its place. The best way to keep a weed from growing there is to plant other things that make it less hospitable. It’s as much about what a person wants to grow as about what a person doesn’t want to grow.
This is an apt metaphor for the project of imperialism and colonialism. Westerners perceived Africa and the Americas as places of wilderness. They need to be tamed, and that involved farming. The native plants typically were seen as weeds. Europeans couldn’t even recognize some of the agrarian practices of the indigenous for it didn’t fit their idea of farms. They just saw weeds. So, they destroyed what they couldn’t appreciate. As far as they were concerned, it was unused land to be taken and cultivated, which is to say made civilized.
Most of them weren’t going around wantonly destroying everything in sight. They were trying to create something in what to them was a new land and, in the case of the disease impact in the Americas, a seemingly uninhabited land in many cases. Much of the destruction of other societies was incidental from their perspective, although there was plenty of systematic destruction as well. However, my point is that all of this happened in the context of what was seen as “creative destruction”. It was part of a paternalistic project of ‘civilizing’ the world.
In this project, not all was destroyed. Plenty of indigenous people remain in existence and have retained, to varying degrees, their traditional cultures. Still, those who weren’t destroyed had their entire worlds turned upside down.
An example I was thinking about comes from Christine Kenneally’s recent book, The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally.
The areas of Africa where many slaves were taken were originally high functioning societies. They had developed economies and established governments. This meant they had at least basic levels of a culture of trust to make all this possible. It was probably the developed social system and infrastructure that made the slave trade attractive in those places. These Africans were desirable slavves for the very reason that they came from highly developed societies. They had knowledge and skills that the European enslavers lacked.
This where my original thought comes in. From one perspective, it was simply the destruction of a once stable society built on a culture of trust. From another perspective, a new social order was created to take place of the old.
The slave trade obviously created an atmosphere of fear, conflict, and desperation. It eroded trust, turning village against village, neighbor against neighbor, and even families against their own kin. Yet the slave trade was also the foundation of something new, imperialism and colonialism. The agents of this new order didn’t annihilate all of African society. What they did was conquer these societies and then the empires divied up the spoils. In this process, new societies were built on top of the old and so the countries we know today took form.
If these ancient African cultures were genuinely precarious societies, then we would have expected different results. It was the rock-solid substratum that made this transition to colonial rule possible. Even the development of cultures of distrust was a sign of a functioning society in defensive mode. These societies weren’t destroyed. They were defending themselves from destruction under difficult conditions. These societies persisted amidst change by adapting to change.
It is impossible to make a value judgment of this persistence. A culture of distrust may be less than optimal, but it makes perfect sense in these situations. These people have had to fight for their survival. They aren’t going to be taken for fools. Considering the world is still ruled by their former colonizers, they have every right to move forward with trepidation. They would be crazy to do otherwise.
In comparison, I was thinking of societies known for their strong cultures of trust. Those that come to mind are Scandinavia, Germany, and Japan. These societies are also known for their xenophobia. They may have strong trust for insiders, but this is paired with strong distrust of outsiders. So, there is some nuance to what we mean when we speak of cultures of trust. Anyway, it is true that cultures of trust tend to lead to high economic development and wealth. But, as with the examples of Germany and Japan, the xenophobic side of the equation can also lead to mass destruction and violent oppression that impacts people far outside of their national borders.
As for cultures of distrust, they tend to primarily keep their distrust contained within their own boundaries. Few of the former colonies have become empires colonizing other societies. The United States is one of the few exceptions, probably because the native population was so severely decimated and made a minority in their own land. It also should be noted that the U.S. measures fairly high as a culture of trust. I suspect it requires a strong culture of trust to make for an effective empire, and so it oddly may require a culture of trust among the occuppiers in order to create cultures of distrust in the occupied and formerly occupied societies. That is sad to think about.
Cultures tend to persist, even when some people would rather they not. Claiming societies to be precarious, in many cases, could be considered wishful thinking. Social orders must serve one purpose before all others, that is self-perpetuation.
The core of my message here is that we should be as concerned about what we are creating as what we are destroying. The example of Africa is an example of that. A similar example is what happened to the Ottoman Empire. In both cases, they were divided up by the conquering nations and artificial boundaries were created that inevitably led to conflict. This formed the basis for all the problems that have continued in the Middle East and the Arab world extending into North Africa.
That world of conflict didn’t just happened. It was intentionally created. The powers that be wanted the local people to be divided against themselves. It made it easier to rule over them or to otherwise take advantage of them, such as in procuring/stealing their natural resources.
We Americans inherited that colonial mess, as we are part of it. America has never known any other world, for we were born out of the same oppression as the African and Middle Eastern countries. Now, the U.S. has taken the role of the British Empire, the former ruler now made a partner to and subsidiary of American global power. In this role, we assassinate democratically-elected leaders, foment coup d’etats, arm rebel groups, invade and occupy countries, bomb entire regions into oblivion, etc.
The U.S. military can topple a leader like Saddam Hussein and destroy the social order he created that created secular stability, but the U.S. can’t rebuild what it destroyed. Anyway, that isn’t the point. The U.S. never cared about rebuilding anything. It was always about creating something entirely new. Yet the Iraqi people and their society persists, even in a state of turmoil.
The old persists as it is transformed.
What exactly persists in these times of change? Which threads can be traced into the past and which threads will continue to unwind into the future? What is being woven from these threads? What will be inherited by the following generations?