On the political sociology of Samuel Huntington

Twenty years ago, in the Summer of 1993, the esteemed and controversial political scientist Samuel Huntington published his famous essay, “The Clash of Civilizations?” His thesis had two parts. First,

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. [bold added by me]

And second,

Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilisations.

In sum,

[Cultural] conflict between civilizations will be the latest phase in the evolution of conflict in the modern world.

After 9/11 this thesis grew in stature: on that day it certainly appeared religiously-motivated non-state actors hated America’s cultural freedom and liberal ways, and were hell-bent on destruction. This view nicely fit Huntington’s thesis. But not precisely. It is more plausible that non-state actors all over the world, including anti-US terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, were rebelling first and foremost not against US culture, but US political and military power: in short — against the US empire. Osama bin Laden himself wrote, in an open letter to the United States, “Why are we fighting and opposing you? The answer is very simple: Because you attacked us and continue to attack us.” He cited, first, the case of Palestine. To be sure, in the letter OBL mounted his rhetoric in the language of Allah, and called on the US to move toward Islam. But the focus is and was US political and military power. It is not missed by most of the world that the US is estimated to control between 700 and 800 military bases worldwide (source). The magnitude of the US empire is materially political in nature, and is signaled not only by resistance against it, but by the willingness of US foreign-policy thinkers following 9/11 to openly use the word. See, for example, Max Boot’s essay “The Case for American Empire” in the Oct 15, 2001 issue of the Weekly Standard. See also George Steinmetz’s excellent study, in Sociological Theory (December 2005), trying to make analytical sense of the US “return to empire.”

Pointing out that international conflict retains its political nature is not a criticism of Huntington’s thesis; it is a criticism of an imprecise application of his thesis. Huntington, the author of such books as The Soldier and the State (1957) and American Politics: The Promise of Disharmoney (1981), was well aware of the persistent nature of military and political conflict. Huntington’s essay, furthermore, if not spot-on, did have a certain relevance. Indeed, even in the highly politicized post-9/11 world there are cases in which cultural difference has become a prime basis of social conflict. And clearly, the focus Huntington’s thesis put on non-state groups came to be proven correct.

The sociologist Frank Furedi argues, however, that the primary examples of civilizational conflict have proven to be intra-societal rather than inter-national, much less cross-civilizational. Furedi recently wrote:

[Huntington] was right, for instance, to point out the significance of culture as a medium for the expression of conflict. But his assertion that such conflicts will assume the form of civilisational clashes was misguided. Aside from the dubious status of civilisational narratives, it is clear that the defining feature of the contemporary world is that these divisions exist within society itself. When Huntington claimed that ‘civilisational identities will replace all other identities’, he appeared to overlook the fact that such identities are constantly contested within a civilisation itself.

Here again the criticism of Huntington might be too acute. For example, Huntington’s contribution to 1975’s The Crisis of Democracy showed the author concerned, some might argue overly concerned, with the intra-societal erosion of political power held by US elites following the upheavals of the sixties and early seventies. A “democratic surge,” in Huntington’s formulation, had led to a “crisis of governmental authority.” Here is how he describes it:

The social texture of human life has become more complex and its management more difficult. . . . Because of the basic importance of the contemporary complex social texture, its management has a crucial importance, which raises the problem of social control over the individual. . . . Because they [citizens] press for more action to meet the problems they have to face, they require more social control. At the same time they resist any kind of social control that is associated with hierarchical values they have learned to discard and reject. The problem may be worldwide. (1975: 20-21)

These are not the words of a man prone to ignore intra-societal political conflict. Far from.

Still, Furedi makes an important point. Huntington’s understanding of internal US conflict pits those who adhere to “traditional US identity” against those who “insist on the rewriting of American political, social, and literary history from the viewpoint of non-European groups.”

This is indeed a hole in Huntington’s theory. As Furedi argues,

Multiculturalism, cultural relativism, anti-foundationalism, the counterculture and the therapeutic imagination are not the products of Islamic fundamentalist teaching or Confucian philosophy. Rather, this contestation of the cultural authority of the Enlightenment and of classical liberal democracy has emerged from within the soul of Western capitalism itself.

Huntington’s view of US identity as static comes especially up for criticism in his more recent book, Who We Are (2004), a book laying out the argument against Hispanic immigration on the basis it is a challenge to the “American creed”:

The persistent inflow of Hispanic immigrants threatens to divide the United States into two peoples, two cultures, and two languages. (source)

This argument rightly received a lot of criticism. Alan Wolfe, for one, called it “riddled” with “moralistic passion.” Amitai Etzioni, for another, argued the book was unscholarly and didn’t actually deserve much attention. He lumped it in with The Bell Curve, and with a purposive condescension asked, “How should such books be reviewed?”

It is possible to call Huntington’s (and The Bell Curve‘s) argument racist. I won’t argue against you.

But we should also point out, as Furedi does, the analytical and sociological baselessness at the heart of his view of US culture. The problem is his almost metaphysical belief in a uni-dimensional American “creed.” Seymour Martin Lipset, another great scholar, succumbed to this view as well, and his political sociology was all the worse for it. In American Exceptionalism, an otherwise great book — which every pundit who wrongly uses the term “American Exceptionalism” should read — Lipset laid out the American creed in five words:

The American Creed can be described in five terms: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire.

Yes, I agree. Americans love and celebrate all these things! Problem is, each one of those words can and does mean different things to different people. Take liberty. US social conflict — say, between those who oppose the Affordable Care Act and those who don’t — rests on different conceptions of liberty. It does not exist between those who celebrate liberty (the Real Americans!) and those who don’t (godless liberals). It is between those who see Obamacare as government power intruding on the individual, and therefore suppressing liberty, and those who see the extension of liberty in the extension of health insurance to millions of Americans who otherwise would go without it, and whose liberty without is severely restricted. Different conceptions of liberty are what is at stake in this political fight. Neither side gets to say they are the pro-liberty side. All sides like liberty. The only thing they get to do is make the argument for their definition of liberty, given a particular case, given a set of circumstances.

So Huntington and Lipset have done the easy part. They’ve shown Americans value liberty. But they have not provided that one definitive metaphysical conception of liberty, and they couldn’t if they tried. Besides, that’s not their job. They are not philosophers, much less theologians. The political sociologist’s job is different: to document and create theory out of the conflicts that occur beneath the creeds that evolve along the surface of the advanced democratic capitalist societies.

There are times Huntington — and Lipset — get underneath the surface, and unfortunately other times in which they don’t.

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