The Mirage of the 'Right Side of History'
A Manichaean view of history impedes civilizational regeneration.
Abu Zayd Abd al-Rahman ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun al-Hadrami (commonly known as Ibn Khaldun) was born in 14th Century North Africa, in what today is known as Tunisia. He dedicated his life to teaching, scholarship, and synthesizing a grand theory of history from the knowledge he acquired in his travels. He would end up in the employ of imperial courts and universities throughout North Africa, Al-Andalus, and the Middle East. Today, he is regarded by many as the founder of the modern field of historiography. Internationally, he is most well known for his cyclic theory of history, the idea that civilizations decline due to continuously inherited inertia and a breakdown in social and communal bonds.
Ibn Khaldun posited that, eventually, these declining states come under pressure from foreign actors, who succeed in replacing the endogenous elites of these static civilizations with their own (often nomadic peoples from the Sahara or Eurasian steppe). Despite their much smaller numbers, the greater social solidarity (asabiyyah) of these external actors, based on personal loyalty and proven communal bonds of the tribe rather than the impersonal and bureaucratic structures of the state, offered these so-called “barbarians” superior vitality and tangible military and diplomatic advantages relative to the more established, but calcified, civilizations.
Once these outside groups become insiders and members of the civilizational establishment, however, the process repeats anew. Civilizational wealth and status creates a force of irresistible entropy whose powers only increase in time until a new outsider group rejuvenates society again. One critical extrapolation of this worldview is that no two societies are necessarily at the same stage in their lifecycle. The rise and fall of civilizations entails many staggered cycles, not a unified or linear one.
The rise and fall of civilizations entails many staggered cycles, not a unified or linear one.
Ibn Khaldun was writing at a time when the Arab unity and conquests were in the distant past. Bedouins had displaced them as the dynamic actors in North Africa, and Turkic and Mongolian peoples had for centuries been politically and militarily dominant across most of Asia, including Arab-majority lands. It is, therefore, unsurprising that he thought of nomadic peoples as the locus of both the bane and regeneration of settled civilization. But there was an important aspect of his anti-triumphalist worldview that is often overlooked—one directly related to his place of birth and upbringing.
North Africa, and the region near his home of Tunis specifically, had once been the seat of the Carthaginian Empire. After that empire’s destruction at the hands of Rome, the area had become a key part of the rising Roman empire. Anywhere Ibn Khaldun would go, he would encounter ruins of these historic, and once mighty, people. Some of these sites had even been reclaimed by the sands of an expanding Sahara. The increasing desertification of the region might itself have been a constant reminder that once civilizations decline and die, they often disappear with little chance of resurgence.
This tragic and historical view, which today we might refer to as a case-studies-based analysis, flies in the face of conventional teleology, where ideas detached from material, historical grounding duel for future supremacy as Platonic archetypes. While there are modern historiographers, such as Peter Turchin, who have a stance similar to Ibn Khaldun’s, the position is uncommon today. Contemporary discourse in the Western world is flooded with assumptions of linear progress, decline as a temporary—if perhaps shocking—state of affairs, and, perhaps most jarringly of all, with the belief in a universal “right side of history” that lies outside of the bounds of geography, circumstance, and societal particularity.
Contemporary discourse is flooded with assumptions of linear progress and the belief in a universal “right side of history”.
But much like Ibn Khaldun observing not just the ruins around him but also the trends of his time, we can cast our eyes on what lies within reach of our own experience. The hubris of a belief in “the right side of history” is not even unique to ideologues of our contemporary zeitgeist. Spain saw the confluence of smallpox’s devastation in the Americas and the technological disparity between its armies and that of the Aztec and Inca as divine sanction for its conquest—a special role for Spain in history as a missionary power. Spain would also be the first of the maritime European empires of the modern era to decline into virtual irrelevancy.
Britain reached the apogee of its global power in the 19th Century in large part because of a favorable geographic position and its being the first country to industrialize, yet came to justify its continuous expansion as that of teaching civilization to benighted dwellers of the “darker” continents. Today, its legacy is notably that of having contributed disproportionately to the creation of present-day conflict zones around the world. The Soviet Union saw itself as an ideological vanguard of a new world order and collapsed with a rapidity that shocked the planet after a period of overextension and bloated defense spending.
In our time, the United States and its junior partners often ignore any signs of relative power decline on the world stage and persist in the assumption that they are an ideological superpower first and foremost and an instrument of both providence and history.
Driven by ideology, the United States and its partners assume they are an instrument of both providence and history.
What all of these beliefs have in common is an immense chauvinism that disdains non-compliance and refuses to recognize particularity and divergent historical circumstances. In our pathological conception of Progress, we imagine all societies within a linear, convergent progression that moves always forward. We see them as taking part in a universal and shared march—albeit at different stages of “development”—toward some perfect, ultimate state. This delusion gives leaders in more powerful countries, notably in the West, the impression that they represent the inevitable future form of civilization and thus possess the right to pontificate on how other nations or civilizations should conduct themselves.
But by acting in this manner, the prophets of linear progress neglect all the situational factors that cause disruptions or divergence and that may be as relevant and important in history as an emphasis on continuities or convergence. This possibility is reflected not only in material differences in natural resources, geography, ecology, and unique histories of disparate lands but also in how different cultures, moral systems, and political regimes might adapt to a competitive world shaped by the juggernaut of modernity. For example, pursuing socio-economic development for the first time in the 21st Century possibly leads a developing country to form a different relationship with modernity than a society, such as Japan, that has begun or completed that process already in the 19th or 20th Century.
Even technology, the one social phenomenon that seems to grow ever onward and upward, creates new challenges as it solves older ones. Anthropogenic climate change seems the most obvious example, but it is hardly the exception. Technology’s dependence on modern logistics and supply chain networks means it too can decline as the society and infrastructure on which it depends begin to falter. The ancient Mediterranean saw multiple societies shatter or become weakened by the chaos of the Bronze Age collapse. Many in early medieval western Europe marveled at the massive Roman aqueducts, overawed by the majesty of an era whose glory and ingenuity seemed to them alien and lost forever.
The presentist bias of today’s trendy intelligentsia seems to preclude many from understanding that what all these divergent and often non-linear developments show is that there is no “forward march” or “right side” to history. While there may be a reasonable course to adopt in a particular place and time, no such universal direction exists for everyone at all times. To believe in such a (historical) universalism ironically betrays one’s more parochial disposition than his cosmopolitan aspirations.
The exhortation to defend the “free world” from the allegedly-unified specter of “authoritarianism” recalls the false Manichaean constructs of the past.
Such views are the very hallmark of the imperial British and contemporary American sense of self-importance, but they are not widely shared by most other cultures. Today’s commonplace exhortation to defend the “free world” from the allegedly-unified specter of “authoritarianism” recalls past false Manichaean constructs like “civilization against barbarism” or “the true faith against the heathens”. The way to a more sober and reflective approach to historical events is to try and see the bigger picture—which rejects the certainty and comfort of grand teleology as well as its tendency to millenarianism.
Recognizing that observations like these posed very serious problems for the statesmen of his day, Ibn Khaldun began to seek a model of statecraft that could retain the will, dynamism, and creative virtues typical of barbarians, while harnessing the benefits of social order as encapsulated by civilization’s technological and scholarly achievements. Ibn Khaldun believed he had found such a lifeful synthesis in the Mamluk Sultanate that ruled over Egypt and the Levant. This state was dominated by Turkic, Albanian, and Circassian warrior-slaves purchased in distant lands in childhood and imported to Egypt. They had the temperament and upbringing of nomadic warriors but had also acquired the education and training of civilized professionals.
The Mamluk state displayed strength. In the 13th century, it was the only kingdom in western Eurasia to successfully repel the Mongol invasion on the battlefield. It was to this country that Ibn Khaldun would go later in life, undoubtedly for professional opportunity but also perhaps to observe successful statecraft firsthand. He would end up in Damascus during its besiegement by the invading Emir Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane) in 1401.
Waiting in siege, the Turkic steppe-conqueror learned of Ibn Khaldun’s reputation and summoned him to his camp. Two different people with very different lives and temperaments thus engaged in many cordial meetings filled with discussions over history and politics. The scholar who dedicated his life to studying nomadic warriors and their unique traits and the nomadic warrior who patronized scholarship were on different sides of the war, yet they exchanged ideas and parted as friendly acquaintances. That war ended soon after with a Timurid victory, but the Mamluk state would still survive for over a century.
Which one of these men represented “the right side of history” in their encounter? Neither of them did if one is thinking as a typical universalist or moral absolutist. Both of them, perhaps, if one has the nuanced sense of historicity that is necessary to grasp the multi-faceted nature and complexity of the real world. Ibn Khaldun knew this and habitually refrained from developing grand narratives and ideologies out of the contingencies of life, the various historical events, and his own phenomenological experience.
We must ask ourselves why so many of our contemporaries do not.
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