History, Human Rights, Politics

Purity or Universalism?

A few days after his recent passing, the Manhattan Institute reposted a speech by V. S. Naipaul from October 1990. The title, “Our Universal Civilization,” captured the triumphal and optimistic spirit of that moment, nearly one year after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In order to render this universal civilization in greater relief, Naipaul related the following about his travels in Asia [emphasis added]:

Traveling among non-Arab Muslims, I found myself among a colonized people who had been stripped by their faith of all that expanding intellectual life, all the varied life of the mind and senses, the expanding cultural and historical knowledge of the world, that I had been growing into on the other side of the world. I was among people whose identity was more or less contained in the faith. I was among people who wished to be pure.

If we had read this paragraph without knowing its date or the subjects’ actual geography, religion, and history (in this case colonized non-Arab Muslims), we might have surmised that Naipaul was talking about parts of America and Europe that he had perhaps visited in the months preceding his death. “People whose identity was more or less contained in the faith” could easily apply to certain constituencies in the West today, the more so if one allows some latitude in the definition of the word ‘faith.’

Nearly 30 years after he delivered this speech, Naipaul’s assumption that this was primarily a religious or Muslim phenomenon seems quaint. Today, we can see that the wish to be pure has emerged in opposition to universalism in many parts of the world including our own. We can no longer claim that it is just Islam that has grown resistant to the universal civilization envisioned by the West in the late twentieth century. Some groups within the West itself have also rediscovered their own craving for purity.

In his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington was already dismissive of Naipaul’s idea of a universal civilization:

The idea of a universal civilization finds little support in other civilizations. The non-Wests see as Western what the West sees as universal. What Westerners herald as benign global integration, such as the proliferation of worldwide media, non-Westerners denounce as nefarious Western imperialism.

Here too, at the end of this excerpt, we find a connection to those in the contemporary West who similarly denounce global integration and worldwide media. Ironically, today’s reality devalues Huntington’s clash of civilizations to little more than a willful construct, a mirage, and an inadequate template. The clash today is not between different civilizations but within each civilization, not between countries but within each country. It is not across borders, but across other fault lines within those borders.

Looking all the way back to 1900, we can theorize that universalism and the wish to be pure have each been dominant at different periods, especially in Europe. Before WW1, there was a period of universalism and globalization brought about by faster communications (the telegraph) and faster transportation (the steam engine, the train, the automobile). Then there was a  30 year period where the wish to be pure gained more and more adherents, some for ideological purity (communism), others for racial or nationalist purity (nazism, Francoism).

After the widespread destruction of WW2, the United States was so dominant that it could impose its view of universalism on the world, in Europe and Japan first, then on the former Soviet bloc after 1990, and ultimately via trade on China and other emerging markets too. This surge in universalism ended in the decade of the 2000s, with disillusion after the Nasdaq crash of 2000-02, the attacks of 9/11, the Afghan and Iraqi wars, and the 2008 financial crisis. As a consequence of these events, we are now dealing with a turn in the historic trend away from universalism towards the wish to be pure in many parts of the world. As was the case 100 years ago, this wish has two main arms—one for ideological orthodoxy and the other for ethnicity and nationalism, something we may call localism.

Orthodoxy and Localism

The world’s main competing social and political blocs can therefore no longer be understood as a historic confrontation between East and West, North and South, Socialism and Capitalism, or Christendom and Islam. Although some politicians remain wedded to them, these models do a poor job explaining the present state of play. The main competition now is between universalism and the wish to be pure. Purity manifests itself in thought or ideological orthodoxy—polarized media such as Fox and MSNBC and college campuses—or as geographic localism, as seen in the resurgence of nationalism. By contrast, universalism is about the competition for ideas (not orthodoxy) and about globalization and diversity (not localism).

The orthodoxy is motivated by a ‘progressive’ belief that society is perfectible and that any backsliding in the ‘wrong’ direction is unacceptable. Adherents to this belief ascribe a righteousness and inevitability to social change usually reserved for scientific discovery. The localism has its roots in disenchantment with globalization, nation building, mass migration, rent-seeking cosmopolitan elites, and international institutions. Its main effect has been to re-energize a nationalism and a populism thought to have died in the West at the time of Naipaul’s speech. As Anne Applebaum remarked in a recent essay about Poland for the Atlantic, “Sooner or later, the losers of the competition were always going to challenge the value of the competition itself.”

The two principal building blocks of universal civilization are globalized competition—not only in goods, but also in ideas—and freer movement of people. But competition creates winners and losers. The winners have often been individuals or groups with a weaker connection to ideology or to geography (say investment bankers who can work as effectively in New York, London, or Hong Kong). By contrast, the losers have typically had a stronger connection to ideology or geography or both and have increasingly sought to capitalize on that connection.

Of course, universal civilization committed many errors of its own that contributed to its fall from favor. Rising inequality and rampant cronyism have played a part in convincing people in many countries that globalization does not share its wealth widely and does not spread its opportunities universally. So, Naipaul was right to identify a “wish to be pure” but he was wrong to believe that it appeared in only a few places that were culturally different from the West. We have it here, on the Left with orthodoxy and on the Right with localism.

Origin of a Wish

But where does this wish to be pure come from? It is a way to change the rules of the game. If you can’t win at game A, switch to game B where your odds may be better. If competitive capitalism doesn’t deliver for you, switch to cronyism or to socialism. If the competition of ideas is a strain and you resent the financial success of the more competent, switch to the cleansing orthodoxy of a party line. If globalism and diversity don’t work for you and you envy the progress of the immigrant or minority, switch to localism and ethnocentric nationalism.

After the spoils of competition have been distributed, those who consider that they got less than their just deserts have an incentive to question why and how somebody deserves something. In their upended logic, if winners have deserved more by going to college, then there is something wrong with college; or if it looks ex-post that it was helpful to some people to be part of a certain ethnic group, then there is something wrong with that group; or if intellectual property (software, media, technology) has delivered more wealth than real property (real estate, extractive industries, gold), then there is something wrong with intellectualism.

There are two main ways of deserving:

  • Merit: This is about competitive performance, hard work, and competence. It is the ethos of universalism.
  • Faith and Identity: This is about loyalty to God or to the group. It is the ethos of the wish to be pure.

The rewards of merit are largely uncontrollable, especially in a hyper-competitive society. But faith and identity can deliver for people who organize in groups to restrict competition from outsiders.

There is a global trend today of people in many countries looking for a shortcut towards success by reinforcing their identity, through either orthodoxy or localism. This pursuit of purity holds that if a person were truer to his identity, then his mind and body will be cleansed of the toxins that contribute to his misery. If a believer is more religious, his co-religionists and his god will reward his devotion, respectively; if a nationalist is more patriotic, his nation will reward his loyalty; and if a person of a certain gender or race is more representative of his demographic, his community will reward his solidarity.

This mode of thinking is no longer chiefly found in developing countries or god-fearing theocracies. The global wish for purity is nearly everywhere and it is spreading.

Purity for the Many

The main problem with the quest for purity is that it is fine in one’s own home or church but it becomes a problem in the public square, which—by virtue of being inherently diverse and competitive—is configured to resist the wish to be pure. In all but the most homogeneous countries or regions, the desire for purity is difficult to reconcile with competitive politics.

Yet it is very much present in politics today, here and abroad. In the United States, both parties cater to constituents whom they view as having a purer American identity. Both parties try to thwart competition and to reinforce group identity. The battle lines are drawn among the 80 to 90 percent who constitute the middle class and poorer segments of the population. Increasingly, they are called upon to choose between two forms of purity, the more ideological orthodox vision that seeks to equalize outcomes as much as possible in the name of fairness, diversity, and inclusion, or the more traditional localist vision of a mainly white, mainly Christian America that is increasingly challenged by shifting demographics.

Cronyism for the Few

Meanwhile, the wealthier 10 to 20 percent of the population have done a superlative job of taking care of themselves. They speak the language of universalism but are increasingly involved in anti-competitive rent-seeking occupations and hoarding the American dream for themselves and their children. Unlike the rest of the population, they have access to the best education, plum jobs, and huge pools of capital.

Upon closer examination, each proposition of purity is a subterfuge to harness the backing of the multitude while a small percentage of the population consolidates ever more power and wealth. This may sound like cynicism at first but this template of cronyism for the few, purity for the many fits the data in most countries in the world. The main thing that the cronies at the top have in common with those seeking purity is that they both want to limit competition in one form or another.

In a recent article entitled “America Is Moving Toward an Oligarchical Socialism,” Joel Kotkin provides a good example of this phenomenon:

Particularly since Donald Trump’s election, the leaders of corporate America—especially in tech and finance—have merged with the Democrats. They appeal to progressives by advocating politically correct views on immigration, gender rights, and climate change, while muzzling conservatives both inside and outside their companies.

If we want to be honest, socialism, capitalism, theocracy, and nationalism have all shown themselves to be flawed. Socialism and its more pernicious extreme, communism, are unattainable notions that cannot accommodate human beings’ natural competitive drive for more personal comfort and efficiency. Capitalism has had its periodic moments on center stage but its Achilles’ heel is that it has nearly always been corrupted by cronyism.

The wish to be pure exemplified by ideology, tribalism, nationalism, and religious orthodoxy promises a better tomorrow but never delivers except for the leading cronyistic elites. It promotes at great cost an illusion of purity that eventually wears thin except for the more ascetic members of society. By then, it is too late as the few at the top now command all the levers of money and power and have no qualms decapitating and ruthlessly suppressing any revolt that dares extend its neck.

This is the story of the present. Nearly all constituencies are working to limit competition, the lifeblood of universalism. In an increasing number of countries, a small entourage of cronies are trying to hoard wealth and power while at the same time selling a sterile purity to the people. Universalism and competition will be on their back legs for as long as the people fall for this destructive manipulation.

 

Sami J. Karam is the founder and editor of populyst.net in New York City. You can follow him on Twitter @sami_karam

39 Comments

  1. Your conclusions seem to be weirdly detached from your arguments. It could easily be argued from what you present here that merit based competition is just another orthodoxy.
    Not saying your conclusions are wrong, just that I can’t get there from what you are giving me to work with.

    • I agree. Competition is good for advancing capabilities, and is a key ingredient within capitalism. But liberty and equal protection under the law suffer under competition, which is basically what is occurring within democracies today where these foundational notions of the Enlightenment are being challenged by those who have benefited from the wealth, health, safety and freedoms delivered.

  2. AC Harper says

    There’s a good debate to be had here, but the article exposes the authors bias towards progressivism. Rather than universalism (hooray!) vs wish to be pure (boo!) you could make an equally valid argument about criticism of inequalities vs maintenance of order, or laissez faire vs family honour. Yet none of these comparisons are ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’.

    • Of course AC, I also see it like that. Laissez faire in its purest form is as good or as bad as is pure family honour and group identity. It’s always and and. But some people lean more to the first, others to the other side, also not bad I think.

  3. I find the conflation of “Economic Universalism” with both ‘laissez faire’ and ‘lower inequality’ to be rather puzzling. There is precious little evidence to suggest that laissez faire economics do anything but *increase* inequality, and rapidly lead to consolidation of power by monopolistic elites, which the author remarks upon within the same article.

    Maybe there’s some ideological connection there, but it’s not clear how one is supposed to reconcile the two.

    • neoteny says

      The solution to your conundrum is in this sentence:

      Capitalism has had its periodic moments on center stage but its Achilles’ heel is that it has nearly always been corrupted by cronyism.

      Crony capitalism isn’t laissez-faire capitalism.

      • Right, right. But how do you resolve that problem, and avoid crony capitalism developing from laissez-faire capitalism, without resorting to regulation, an ostensibly ‘purist’ value?

        • neoteny says

          without resorting to regulation

          Some think that the exact source of crony capitalism is regulations. Of course your average voter is hot for regulations — as long as said regulations benefit her. But even regulations made in good faith have unintended consequences — and Public Choice Theory predicts that regulations made in good faith (i.e. without aimed at benefiting cronies) will be few. Anarcho-capitalism would be a solution — but its appeal is very low in the general population.

        • Most regulations beyond the obvious, after-the-fact ones are the result of crony capitalism. The key is to keep the power of the state down, to increase liberty, to increase equal protection under the law. Once politicians who seek re-election over wise management are no longer able to easily grant gifts to special interests, such ills will be resolved.
          Power corrupts, etc.

          • Look, this idea that government regulations created crony-capitalism is flatly counter-historical. Massive monopolistic corporations (i.e, the ‘robber barons’) first developed in the US around the time of the civil war and used their influence to put patsies in power well before the federal government, backed by a huge popular mandate under Teddy Roosevelt and FDR, began to swell in size and impose regulations to curb their reach.

            I’m sure there are plenty of examples of regulatory capture leading to perverse economic incentives, but business interests capturing government existed well before the red tape ever did.

            So again, where is your real-world example of laissez-faire capitalism without cronyism?

  4. Davide says

    ”If globalism and diversity don’t work for you and you envy the progress of the immigrant or minority, switch to localism and ethnocentric nationalism”

    I stopped reading there. Much of the complaints against those are based on legitimate security threats, social cohesion, racial and cultural discrimination against Western majorities. Not ”envy” against the progress of the minority.

    There isn’t even a wish for purity at all. You are confusing a wish for preservation and survivalism with a request for purity that simply isn’t there. Goodbye condescendent universalist.

    • augustine says

      I didn’t stop reading but that sentence did stand out glaringly.

      The “progress of the immigrant”, not to mention the corollaries of “tolerance and coexistence”, is closely associated with the impositions of universalists. Their execution of deeds and realization of ideals has to a large extent got us to where we are now, and largely by the clever manipulation of the less powerful. Globalists care (if we are even talking about people caring here) less for the proletariat than the orthodox.

      The author might have less polemically contrasted the valuation of ideas vs. tradition, or liberalism vs. conservatism. Could it be that the polarities under discussion are actually inter-dependent instead of antagonistic? They are certainly not mutually exclusive, as Mr. Karam seems to suggest.

      This essay started off with an interesting idea of contrasts but ultimately fails as a consideration of the socio-political landscape because it is barren. It presents an argument that can only be considered seriously from an atheistic, materialistic viewpoint.

  5. Isn’t universalism just its own form of purity – the imagination that the global tribe is the purest tribe there is? This framework is highly debatable. There is clearly a feeling of pure, free and advanced being that comes with “global” versus regional consciousness. It has every bit the deceptive emotional allure.

    The author would benefit from reading Peter Thiel’s Zero to One – Thiel explains, from his vantage point as an investor in some of the most successful companies of the 21st century, that capitalism only works when competition is low.

    Technological innovation produces new fields where one firm can take a monopoly on a new technology. It was one of the most fascinating parts of reading Thiel’s book – that a right-libertarian would openly admit that competition annihilates profit, and the only way for a firm to really get ahead is to control its own lane and own the territory. That is how every prosperous multinational company – Apple, Amazon, Google – did it. They had a near-monopoly on their own field and their competition was so outperformed that there *was* no competition. Apple’s products, Amazon’s markets and Google’s proprietary search were all hoarded and used to make these firms rich. The last thing major corporations want is competition, and they know it, and they operate accordingly.

    • neoteny says

      Apple, Amazon, Google […] had a near-monopoly on their own field

      “Near-monopoly” isn’t monopoly: having the largest market share in some market segment doesn’t mean having a monopoly in that particular market segment. For example Apple had a 51% market share of the smartphone market in the second half of 2017 (by revenue, not by units sold), but that doesn’t make Apple a monopoly in the smartphone market segment: there’s pretty healthy competition there, consumers can choose from a wide variety of smartphones.

    • ga gamba says

      They had a near-monopoly on their own field and their competition was so outperformed that there *was* no competition. Apple’s products, Amazon’s markets and Google’s proprietary search were all hoarded and used to make these firms rich.

      I think you’re repeating ill-informed and over-egged news clippings. “I’m hearing a lot about Apple.” Though Apple was neither the first to introduce the smart phone nor the digital music player, it was its easy-to-use, perhaps even intuitive, interface (vice its competitors’), its reliable hardware attractively designed, its legion of influential fans that differentiated it from the pack, and, I think most importantly, all the third-party apps (using the iOS SDK) that gave iPhone capabilities its competitors didn’t have.

      Yet, at the height of its quarterly sales in Q4 2011 and Q1 2012 it was 23% of global sales. In the first quarter of 2018, 15.6 per cent of all smartphones sold worldwide were an Apple iPhone. In Q3 of 2007 when it was launched it was 3.4% of global sales; this is when Blackberry, Motorola’s Razor, Samsung’s many models, and Nokia were the dominant players; Blackberry, Nokia, and Motorola are nothing now. Samsung was saved by the Korean gov’t, which forbade iPhone’s Korea launch until 2009 (it also forbade Blackberry earlier), and, more importantly, the Android OS, which gave hardware makers like Samsung a decent operating system. With the growth of Android apps and the entrance of all the Chinese makers Apple’s sales have slipped. Some of these makers are going forward with other OS such as Tizen.

      Apple achieved prosperity not through controlling most of the market, and certainly not monopoly, but because the profit margin of its iPhone is enormous (gross margin of 64 per cent for iPhone X). The ecosystem created by app developers made its mobile interesting and desirable. In a sense for a while it was a fashion item like the ‘hot must-have’ trainer and the ‘it’ hoodie that (young) people queue to buy.

      As for Amazon, it is only 8% of US retail sales, the market for two-thirds of sales. Now, 8% is a lot, but it’s still less than Walmart. Amazon’s recent growth is coming from its partnering with other retailers, large and small, who establish virtual shops on Amazon’s platform – this is a replication of the shopping mall. I expect a future foray to be in automobile sales, for example the Chinese makers who haven’t yet entered the US market and who may want to avoid costly dealership networks at first. (Asia doesn’t have the large showrooms and new car lots found in the US.) Further, the digital platform allows it to offer hosting/cloud services and content creation and distribution – you never saw Sears producing TV series and films. Amazon has many more revenue streams in development than Walmart and it will inevitably pass that retailer in due course.

      Last on your list is Google, the most potent of the three; its dominance is search and Youtube video, yet neither is a revenue earner in and of itself. It’s adverts mostly, and Youtube is still losing money whilst it tries to entice consumers to pay for viewing already released films and original content. Still, no one is paying real money for search or to view most of the content hosted on Youtube. AdWords is about 2/3rd’s of revenue and AdSense is about a quarter. Basically, Google is a market research company that, unlike all the other marketing and advertising companies before it, has its own well-used platform of services well liked by consumers.

      Now, how would you come to believe these companies “all hoarded” the products and services? (Frankly, hoard is a weird word to use to describe the phenomenon, as if it’s a resource like water, oil, or gold.) I think it’s due to how mass media has shifted its coverage of the digital economy from cheerleader to antagonist because it found its advert revenue being eroded whilst concurrently policies and candidates it favoured were rejected at the polls. Dinosaur media lost its dominance of sense making by the public; Trump proved he could bypass them and overcome the overwhelmingly negative reports of him and his campaign. Remember, political campaign spending is a major revenue stream for legacy media. Trump proved their loss of relevance, and if they’re irrelevant why spend the money advertising there? Partnering with Facebook, which is what Trump did, to create messages crafted to each voter, is more effective than a lot of half-page adverts published in the NYT. Basically, legacy media’s message is that Brexit, Trump, and any other rightwing figure in Poland, Hungary, etc. is due to Silicon Valley. Think of all anti-tech reports that are run since 2016. (In 2012 the same media outlets were all trumpeting how smart Obama was for using social media.) Major international newspapers like the NYT and the Guardian run any report of a problem involving Uber, AirBnB, etc. A dispute, an altercation, a crime between a taxi driver and a passenger is of global importance? C’mon! When it’s Uber it sure it.

      Being a reporter, pundit, and editor for an established media player such as CNN or the Guardian made attractive people who have a gift for words, and no other skill, influential and important. The ongoing collapse of journalism, which has many people working for peanuts, if not for free, to simply get exposure and gain followers, has offended a group of people who once took their esteemed place in society as deserved and a given. The coordination, the nexus, between public officials and the press is less important. Silicon Valley supplanted the press. And they aren’t happy about that. Legacy media’s campaign against the digital economy is mostly about self preservation, and it’s whipping up emotions of the public and the elected officials to press for laws that put the digital players under tighter control. Youtube’s announcement that it would fund the establishment of new media services for legacy players was it capitulating a bit to extortion by tossing legacy journalism a bone.

      In conclusion, I encourage people to evaluate the numbers obscured by the narratives. There’s a reason why progressives dislike statistics. The data often wrong foots them.

  6. I have the habit to divide my friends and family in universalists and purists, though do it in a rather vague way. Naipaul (not friend or family) of course, was (in my eyes at least) a typical universalist, but also Fukuyama and Said were (rather naive) universalists. Anecdote of a Dutch author in discussion with Edward Said on the occasion of the death of Egyptian singer Umm Khultun: – I imagine, you are a great fan of her- To his surprise ( a purist himself, as are most romantic authors); – No not at all, I prefer classic Bach and Mozart (universalist composers, as I consider them). Surprises are at every corner.

  7. I think it is unfair to criticise this essay for being an incomplete or only partially valid argument. Given the space available and the difficulty of collating a complete argument this is always going to happen. It is, however, a useful contribution to what should be a wider discussion on Quillette about different ways of understanding the world. I suspect it has no more merit than the foundations of the post-modernist movement. That is to say, if we used the ideas presented as the only way to understand the world it would soon collapse into nonsense but that isn’t really what is being offered. I think it is interesting to consider the commonality in thought process between Islamic Fundamentalists, Right Wing Nationalists and Post-modernist Identitarian movements. On Quillette the general view is that these people have all focused too much on a single idea about the world and the Universalist versus Purity way of looking at it clearly has some traction towards achieving a better understanding of this.

    The author may be wrong about some things – few or many – but that doesn’t matter unless we are all going to be purists. What matters is whether the author is right about some things and whether their arguments contribute to a wider understanding of the world.

  8. I wonder whether the post modernist movement and ideas maybe called universalist or purist. Culture relativism, as I see it, hovers somewhere in-between.

  9. So according to this typical centrist outlook, we need real capitalism, with true competition, without cronyism and monopolies, so that the universalist dream of free flowing ideas, goods, services and wealth can trickle down to all those who merit it. Simplistic drivel.

    • It’s Hayek and Friedman I.S.A., so, rather simplistic, yes. But a strong mover it is!

  10. Aylwin says

    The very first 10 words, “A few days after his recent passing, the Manhattan Institute…” constitute a glaring dangling modifier.

    The rest of the piece seems to be a pet, grand hypothesis straining for justification.

    A couple of specific criticisms:

    That comical graph puts a peak of universalism at 1914. Are you freakin kidding? Have a look, for example, at the Wikipedia article on the causes of the WW1 (excerpt: “[explanations] look at such factors as political, territorial and economic conflicts, militarism, a complex web of alliances and alignments, imperialism, the growth of nationalism, and the power vacuum created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire. Other important long-term or structural factors .. include unresolved territorial disputes, the perceived breakdown of the balance of power in Europe, convoluted and fragmented governance, the arms races of the previous decades, and military planning.”).

    In the table of attributes of universalism vs attributes of “wish to be pure”, under the Business section there is “lower regulations” and “over regulated” respectively. This is a gross simplification and inaccuracy. The EU works via regulation to create a level playing field and common regulatory framework. Similarly the federal law in the US. The UN and the international court of justice do the same at a global level.

    There seems to be a conflation of universalism with (free market) capitalism. Universalism can incorporate the best of a form of market capitalism and the best of a more compassionate caring for those less fortunate. Universalism can recognise the benefits of global competition (recognising that e.g. individuals making decisions in their interest can perform a far better bottom-up allocation of resources than top-down control, and can motivate) and a social concern (overarching regulation can guide the market to better long term outcomes such as environmental care, whilst also using some of the generated wealth to, say, work to improve the lives of those, for whatever reason, excluded from the progress).

    • Aylwin
      It would be a dangling modifier if “his recent passing” could possibly refer to the Manhattan Institute. Clearly it can’t.
      I hope that the rest of your argument is on steadier grounds.

  11. This is an unusually confused piece for quillette. As anyone with eyes can see, today it is the universalist who wishes for purity; it is the universalist who with quasi-religious fervor denounces as bigotry any desire for local cultures to perpetuate their unique and historically-rooted patterns of life and meaning.

  12. Definitely not in agreement with the idea that “decreased regulation” of capitalism leads to lower inequality. In fact, the deepening chasms of economic inequality, the increasing deregulation of the financial sector, and the massive decline in organized labor in the United States should make it obvious that capitalism can produce incredibly negative outcomes for those not in the top income brackets.

    This is a major source of contention within the Left side of the political spectrum in the United States. Some are quite fine to leave economic inequality un-critiqued as long as that inequality is “proportionally distributed” across demographic groups in the United States: https://nonsite.org/editorial/identity-politics-a-zero-sum-game

  13. What about to change the whole dilemma into globalism and authenticism?? Purism in Europe has a strongly negative connotation, it’s all because of Hitler, the pure race and such stuff. Universalism also is something dubious, who is the boss in the world?
    Of course, it’s all highly hypocritical, but that’s how we live these days, enormous digression between what we really feel, and what we are supposed to say or feel. Funny! Has to do with age, I fear, youngsters are not yet cynical ( as I am).

  14. Farris says

    The article is premised on a false dichotomy created by the author, universalism v. purity. His conflict is only true if all his definitions are true. The lines are simply too black and white. For instance if one is open to immigration but not to “open borders” under the author’s definition that person is a “Purist”. Furthermore the article fails to mention socialist or communist cronyism manifest in places such as Russia. The world is simply more nuanced than would the author proposes. Cronyism is not a product of capitalism but rather a product of the failure of the rule of law or adherence to property and civil rights. There is much more evidence for citing Individualism v. Collectivism and how migration occurs between the two. For instance as a business prospers it seeks to maintain profitability by controlling cost. The biggest threat to successful businesses is low budget up starts. Successful businesses squelch competition by one of 3 ways or a combination thereof: 1. Collude with other like successful businesses to keep out competitors, 2. Buy up competitors, 3. Collude with government to keep out competitors. One and two have higher costs than three, especially since one can be illegal. Capitalists who chose option three thus move to collectivists to maintain their profitability status. Theses capitalists/collectivist succeed by curbing or compromising the rule of law.
    The author’s bright line distinctions between universalist and purist fail to recognize cross-over.

  15. Circuses and Bread says

    This the first time I’ve seen an article in Quillette that I thought just plain stunk. The author has an obvious bias towards this political philosophy he terms “universalism”, which judging from the table included in the article, is the wellspring from which all goodness and righteousness come from. This is opposed to a “wish to be pure”, which the author seems to view as evil incarnate.

    Happily, I have no dog in this fight. “Universalism”? “”Wish to be pure”? Conservatism? Liberalism? Let’s not discriminate amongst political philosophies: they’re all worthless.

  16. The dilemma/dichotomy is not new, has a long European history. The French (and Pinker’s) enlightenment of Diderot, Voltaire and others was a typical universalist stance and movement, the individual human mind, freed from creeds and authority, all over the world, no longer ethnocentric. Logically, there was a reaction to come to that (nicely illustrated in some of the comments above too), because humans are more than enlightend and free beings. The backlash came with the German Romanticism, feelings and local authenticity, the roots and belonging to your region. Tribe, blood and soil, history, religion and rituals, the village and the peasantry in local outfit,the nation with its flag, is what counts. Note also the sequence: first came the universalism of the enlightenment, only then the purism and autenticity of the tribe and the closeby. All men , of course,need both! Because, there is always more than is dreamt of in a certain philosophy!

  17. Richard says

    “In every relativist there is a fundamentalist about to be born, and in every fundamentalist there is a relativist waiting to be liberated. ~ Peter Berger

    • The first one, I can’t believe, impossible (unless that you mean that somebody really and firmly believes in that relativism, not bad at all, I would say), the second one, I would like to hope so, but, also, highly unlikely! Who is Peter Berger?

  18. The same curiously hollow naivete that characterizes so much Quillette content (with some very notable exceptions).

  19. Most of this article is a post modern twist (falsification) on reality.
    The desire of centrists to slander the left and the right in the same time.
    Your table in the politics section is wrong: universalists are the ones who want a one party system. Also in the business section, universalists, globalists prefer monopoly corporations and more regulations. In the culture/media section you are also wrong, universalism is totalitarian, it claims to support competition of ideas and tolerance, but hey practice the exact opposite. In the rewards section you are also wrong: globalist universalists despise competence and hard work, they deny the competence of white peoples, instead they claim all peoples are identical.
    Universalism is a leftist ideology, not just for the far left, but for centrists also. Universalism believes in the blank slate, and in race-denialism.
    Universalism leads to open borders and low average iq populations, that take down meritocracy. Intentionally or un-intentionally, universalism leads to anti-meritocratic systems.
    Nationalism of high iq ethnicities, PRESERVES meritocracy, that is the only thing that preserves meritocracy. Practically. The denial of this, is the fatal flaw of centrism.

  20. peterschaeffer says

    The notion that “Universalism” is associated with “Lower inequality” and “inclusive”(ness) would seem to be both empirically and abstractly wrong.

    Empirically, the contrary case is very strong. The trend towards “Universalism” has been associated with every rising inequality in the USA, the UK, and many other countries. For better or worse, cosmopolitanism has been associated with higher, not lower inequality. Of course, this makes sense. Imported cheap labor makes the poor poorer and the rich richer (as it is intended to). Imported cheap goods do the same. Ordinary workers become ever more dispensable. Elite exports become ever more valuable.

    The Brexit map of the UK (or the Trump map of the US) shows exactly this pattern. Areas with high inequality/high Universality (London, NYC, California) voted for Remain/Hillary. Areas with low inequality/Universality voted for Brexit/Trump.

    Theory also supports this argument. “Universal” values are a combination of neoliberalism and identity politics. Neoliberals either don’t care about inequality (most of them) or actively favor higher inequality (the rest). The advocates of identity politics generally oppose inequality. However, economic inequality is their lowest priority. Racial, sexual, sexual preference, sexual identity, immigrant status, etc. are (by very far) their highest priority.

    Consider that the word “Damore” gets more hits in Google than “minimum wage” and you have an idea of the priorities of the “intersectional” left. Note also the (extreme) dominance of identity politics in those areas (NYC, California, London) those areas with the greatest inequality. You would think that peak inequality would trigger a comparable reaction. You would be wrong.

    The notion that “Universal” values are associated with “Inclusive”(ness) is also questionable. Of course, it depends on how you define “Inclusive”(ness). In today’s world, the “inclusiveness” is a code phrase for discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual preference, sexual identify, immigrant status, etc. If that is you definition of ”inclusiveness”, then Universal values are tied to “inclusiveness”. However, if you think discrimination is wrong, than Universal values are (these days) anti-inclusive.

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