Thursday, August 16, 2012

Political Conflict and Cultural Creativity

I've only read one thing by John Gray, his book "Straw Dogs." I find his overall world view dark and repugnant. I only later found out he had once been a Hayekian, but had for some reason taken a turn toward the dark side. In this piece he has at BBC, that darkness shows -- but he's not entirely wrong. He's right that conflict, competition, and freedom are important for culture. This is merely a repetition of Nietzsche's insights. There is little wrong with this statement, to be sure:
Culture may not need democracy or peace, but it can't develop without some measure of freedom - and that requires a diversity of centres of influence, working openly and at times in opposition to one another. Rightly, we've learnt to mistrust any directing cultural role for the state. When artists and writers rely solely on government, the result is at best nepotism and mediocrity.
In this, he fails to note what was really working in Medieval and Renaissance Italy -- the division of Italy into conflicting, competing polities. Nietzsche notes that ancient Greece, Medieval Italy, and 19th century Germany were all cultural powerhouses, and they were all simultaneously united by culture, language, etc. and divided politically. There was a delicate balance between unity and division that resulted in cultural creativity. I see the same story as well in Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies. To get creativity in philosophy, there has to be freedom to allow conflict and competition. However, Gray is wrong about one thing -- but wrong in a subtle way -- and that is the role of politics in cultural creativity. Collins shows that when politics is involved in philosophy, creativity slows or even ends. But -- and here's the difference -- when there is government support without politics involved, or if there is conflicting political forces each supporting the arts, one can get cultural creativity. It is probably impossible for there to be truly apolitical government support for anything, which means if there is going to be government support combined with cultural creativity, there will have to be conflicting polities. The good -- and bad -- news, then is that we can expect a period of incredible cultural creativity very soon. Around 2020, if Turchin is correct. There was certainly considerable cultural creativity in the U.S. the last time there was a spike in violence in this country, c. 1970. In reality, it was more in the lead-in to 1970, just as the lead-in to the Civil War, the American Renaissance, was highly creative culturally. I see the conflicts arising. We should see the cultural creativity in the U.S. emerging soon if Turchin is correct.
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