Review: The Illusion of Progress in the Arab World by Galal Amin (UAC Press, 2006)

Galal Amin’s sympathetic reading of Marx while his defense of an almost Burkean approach to Western liberal modernity will be hard on most of his “Western” audience, but in a crucial sense that proves his point. Both colonial and post-colonial understandings of “progress” have had a hard time engaging with the Arab world in specific and post-colonial cultures in general. Amin’s critique starts off like a traditional defense of a “moderate” Arab or Egyptian nationalism and a strong suspicion of the outside–an outside he admits was embraced by his father even if it was completely rejected by his grandfather. It is clear as you read that this is not Amin’s modus operandi as his questioning on liberal modernity and it’s Euro-American imposition does not entitle an outright rejection of the Western: Indeed, he describes his mother’s sympathy for a Australian women who married into his family as near ideal model. Amin has a personalizing touch and his questions can betray a humanism is not hostile to what, after modernity, we call the religious and the secular, yet they are probing about the trade-offs involved in “progress” and wonders if it applies even to “the West” much less to the societies in the “developing world” with strongly developed local cultures and traditions.

Amin is his most sardonic and almost scathing when writing about the United Nations Human Development Report as applied to the “Arab World” and methodically challenges its key assumptions and even its matrixes for both flourishing and basic development. At times the questioning seems mostly defensive and maybe reactive, but as the chapters go on, Amin expands it out and explores larger questions around the picture of development, reform, and progress. In the end, Amin moves from this very specific report to discussions about recent history and even literature: his literary engagement with Aldous Huxley being very productive and where, primarily, one gets a feeling of the positive program Amin may have beyond mere questioning of a liberal rejection of local tradition.

In the beginning, he does come off as more angry (or more precisely annoyed) than analytical, but this shifts through the work. While not entirely rigorous–he does rely heavily on extrapolation from (next) recent history–he does get more developed and less strident in his questioning. It should noted, however, that aside from hinting at a possible “multiple modernities” that could have been (but wasn’t due to colonialism and Western teleology), he does not give much of a positive program but “think about the trade-offs.” He does critique capitalism fairly seriously though in a way that would make Euro-American conservatives generally uncomfortable with the rest of his skepticism around modernity. His chapter on terrorism is interesting, but really needed furtherer development and could have been a quite engaging book in its own right. Overall I think this is a valuable read particularly for those who cannot imagine political spectrums outside of the US “progressive/conservative” dichotomy.

Two thoughts on “oppositional politics” in stagnation

An interesting turn among my Marxist friends, most of whom rejected most forms of Leninism for their historical degeneration to nationalism over time, is that they increasingly involve pre-1914 Kautsky or Zimmerwald left or various first and second international movements. Let me be clear, this being from people who have rejected most current “Marxist-Leninism” as LARPing. My response has been to leave the entire thing and may of these people have accused me of being a “reactionary.” This is fine if being historically-minded first means being ‘reactionary.’ Anyway, the point here is the tendency to “Revive the legacy” is the same tendency one has seen among the religious when they can’t overcome the culture to which they seem themselves as opposing but they also helped create. The idea that if we can only go back to a correct legacy removes both the responsibility and the impulse to go beyond. Such Marxist revivalism will probably have the same effect as Christian revivalism, as an outlet valve, frankly a delusional one from the liberalism that one has helped to “evolve” (“devolve”) in ones critique and participation in it. Time’s arrow goes one way. To oppose the Zeitgeist takes more than picking a flash pan in the past and pretending that if we were only more loyal to it, it would not happen again. If that was the case, why weren’t people loyal to the idea the first time?

Many years ago, in my studies of religious thinking, I read Mark A. Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” and reflecting on it, there is something that hit me. The scandal of the evangelical mind and the scandal of the liberal-mind are related. In the success of liberal thinking–success that liberals do not recognize as they cannot see that most conservatives actually accept but redefine “liberty, equality, and fraternity” increasingly that success has degenerated┬áthe left-liberal and right-liberal modes of thinking. In lacking an opposition that had substantive ontological differences, most of the liberal mind has become devoted to opportunistic pragmatism to maintain and spread–much again like evangelicals turned to pietism and eventually to prosperity gospel and other obvious nonsense–that liberals do not even understand or comprehend their own logic that let to their thinking (often rejecting the sources of their own ideas as “reactionary” or “privileged” which maintaining the hidden substance of those ideas) and without really challenging the narratives. In the end it turns to tribal emotivism and puffs of popular feeling masquerading as an opposition to a culture that one has already dominated intellectually so much that one’s assumptions are almost the air around you. Like Mark Noll said about the “evangelical mind” in its success, the scandal of the evangelical mind is “there isn’t one.” So too the what has happened to liberal thinking in its current moment of ascendancy.