Civilization – a good thing, within limits….

Civilization is a good thing, mostly.

It’s when you get more of it than you’re ready for that it causes problems.

Cultures have inertia, and people need time to adapt. Someone who grows up in a state of low civilization – say, a small village or a clan structure, using personal reputation, barter or simple ‘cash’ tokens – does not find it very easy to adapt to a much higher state of civilization – say, a nation state using an infrastructure for banking with payment cards and identity documents and all the rest of that.

This ‘lag’ isn’t even just one generation long; it can take family structures, traditions, and values several generations to adapt to new realities and start producing people who are comfortable with and can effectively utilize the larger structure and all it entails.

Right now the people pushing globalization, are the ones who’d succeed if it happened. They understand that once everybody is adapted to it and able to take advantage of it, it’ll be better for everybody – but they don’t have the cultural memory of their six-times-great grandparents to understand what it would do to everyone else for the next five generations until they all ‘catch up.’

And part of that is, people don’t WANT to ‘catch up’ in ways that involve changing what they regard as fundamental bedrock values of right and wrong. Right now, in the polynesian islands, there’s a trend where culturally Chinese shopkeepers are increasingly in command of businesses and locals whose values are more traditional for their culture, are being crowded out.

Why does this happen? You tell a Polynesian shopkeeper that it isn’t okay that when his cousin’s getting married the family just shows up and empties the shop of its inventory to furnish the wedding tables. He’ll understand you to be telling him to be a dishonorable person who doesn’t support his family. Traditional Polynesian values are that families, and not individuals, own property, and therefore someone keeping anything he owns from his family is just being greedy and evil. The cultural Chinese, who’ve been doing commercial business for many centuries longer, are outcompeting the traditional Polynesians in that part of the world, because their culture has had time to adapt to the realities of commerce, and they are honorable people who support their families … by paying for the shop inventory they take when they’re getting married, or else staging a smaller wedding.

This kind of value clash is also the driving force behind militant Islam. These people have very strong ideas of what is right and wrong, and they have very correctly identified western commercial culture as giving those with “wrong” ideals and motives (by their own standards) an advantage. In economic terms, this means that continued exposure to commercial culture will destroy their traditional ideas of right and wrong – where real decisions are made by religious authority and with the permission of the religious community. Adapting to the kind of reality western-style business creates would mean decisions are made instead in a permissionless way by whoever has the money to buy the resources to implement them. And they cannot abide that adaptation because to them it is the destruction of their values and their way of life.

I literally cannot fault their logic; they are absolutely right that our entire capitalist way of life WILL choke the life out of religous authority in the long run. Heck, it already has. I live in a place where separation of church and state was written into law two hundred fifty years ago, and I like it that way and I think they should too. Obviously, they vehemently disagree.

Anyway, the whole ‘globalism’ debate is all about whether we can find ways to be honorable decent people – a system of values that works with globalism and allows us to take advantage of the institutions it will evolve, and tells us what is honorable and decent under that system. If our culture is still sufficiently tied to other ideas of decency and honor, such that we cannot yet find ways to be good people and also participate, then globalism will be bad for us.

So it comes down to how much and how fast. How fast can our culture adapt, and how much should we push those who haven’t adapted yet? These become moral questions because adaptation itself will change our ideas of right and wrong. We, like the Chinese shopkeepers in that area, would see the relatives of that Polynesian shopkeeper as thieves whose actions are morally indefensible. We see the religious authorities who prevent some types of commerce as obstructionists who are depriving the people of good honest business. But the moral questions aren’t the same from the other side of the line.

In the same way, we have to ask ourselves, which of our own values will be evil when seen from the point of view of a society adapted to genuine globalism? How about patriotism? How about secrecy? How about privacy? Are these values that work in a global framework? Maybe, and maybe not. I can’t really tell yet. I hope so, because I like them. But I can’t identify them as necessary or crucial to global culture.

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