Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
Kathleen Miles is the executive editor of Noema Magazine. She can be reached on Twitter at @mileskathleen.
Noema Magazine’s new print issue will be hot off the press very soon! The theme of this issue is “passage.”
What follows after rupture is the passage to something new. The forces that have been gestating in response to breakdown emerge to forge fresh ways of thinking. Practices grounded in newfound purpose are then imbricated in society through institutional innovations that affirm the path ahead.
In his “A Study of History,” Arnold Toynbee identified this movement of “challenge and response” as the driving dynamic in the rise and fall of civilizations. Those who meet the challenge flourish. Those who fail are marginalized in the unrelenting march of transformation.
It goes without saying that the lessons of history offer little prospect of a linear leap from yesterday to tomorrow. The past rarely recedes willingly and, indeed, more often than not reappears to deflect or derail the most hopeful intentions.
In this issue, Noema seeks to trace the contours of the present historical passage and their interrelated implications. Here are the main themes:
The Return Of Civilizations
The paradox of this moment of transition is that the great economic and technological convergence forged by Western-led globalization did not lead toward a singular cosmopolitan order. It engendered instead a cultural divergence as prospering emerging nations, most notably China, once again attained the wherewithal to chart a path forward rooted in their own civilizational foundations. Economic and technological strength fosters cultural and political self-assertion.
What exists today is thus an interdependence of plural identities, neither fully convergent nor divergent. And it is the geopolitical clash between China and the West that is the most dangerous and difficult to navigate. Never before in history have two civilizational realms challenged each other at the global level where the extent of their integration is itself the terrain of contestation.
To explore this fraught aspect of the passage to a new world order, Noema asked several contributors to address scholar-diplomat Bruno Maçães’s thesis that we are witnessing “the return of civilizations” — discrete ways of life cultivated among one’s own kind — as a challenge to the universalist claims of liberalism embodied in neutral, procedural rules for ordering societies that lack any identitarian content of their own.
In our collage of responses, Chinese political scientist Zhang Weiwei argues that China’s system of governance is superior because it is rooted in the civilizational legacy of a unitary state administered by meritocratic elites led in modern times by a disciplined party. For the Shanghai scholar favored by leadership in Beijing, such a system is better at delivering the “substance of democracy” than the merely formal democracies of the West with features like the separation of powers. As Zhang sees it, China has shown that non-Western modernization can be a viable alternative to the liberal order for the Global South.
Shashi Tharoor, the Indian parliamentarian and former under-secretary general of the United Nations, argues that civilization states are, by definition, “exclusive” and “profoundly illiberal.” The journalist Pallavi Aiyar discusses the clash playing out in India today between, on the one hand, Hindu nationalists who claim civilizational ownership and, on the other, the adherents of Nehruvian secularism that marked the country’s birth as a modern nation in 1947.
Former Singaporean Foreign Minister George Yeo argues that the West needs to shed its hypocrisy and instead “refresh and extend” its liberal ideas globally to tolerate “the yearnings of non-Western peoples.” Finally, the eminent historian of Eurasia, Wang Gungwu, notes that “civilizations can coexist across boundaries as they have for centuries” but warns that “when civilization power is claimed as universal and conflated with national interests, or when it is invoked in the name of national empire, the world becomes a dangerous place.”
The Geopolitical Economy Of Deglobalization
Closely linked to the return of civilizational realms is the geopolitical economy of deglobalization. Economic blocs are forming that seek to disentangle the global integration of markets and supply chains through competitive regional and nation-building industrial policies aimed at strengthening self-reliance and resilience. As Nils Gilman and Yakov Fegin have pointed out elsewhere in Noema, this new paradigm of a “designer economy” — in which the state steers investment, departing from the free-market ideology of the past — has garnered broad consensus in the U.S., from left environmentalists to right-leaning security hawks.
In the case of the West and China, when it comes to sensitive technologies, there is a conflict of values between blocs aligned by politico-cultural affinities. Whereas between the U.S. and Europe, there is conflict over interests — for example, when it comes to subsidies for investments in green tech — even though values coincide.
The disruptive shifts noted above, combined with the cut-off of oil and gas supplies from Russia to Europe and the scramble to replace them, have contributed to backsliding on climate pledges, which has pushed the world into a kind of carbon purgatory where the transition to clean energy is stalling even as the window to avert a cascade of irreversible climate consequences is closing. The urgency of moving toward a sense of “planetary realism” is fading under the pull of the present.
One illustrative case is Germany. Though it has one of the strongest green parties anywhere, the canary is back in the coal mine there. Not only has the governing coalition eased a future ban on combustion-engine vehicles; it has also restarted mothballed coal-burning plants to keep industry and households humming.
Beyond Electoral Democracy
Another aspect of the present passage is the protracted dysfunction of democracies across the West. From Israel to France to Mexico, decisions taken in the halls of power fill the streets with protests. In the United States, Washington is paralyzed along partisan lines while state governments battle over abortion rights, same-sex marriage, school curriculums and the integrity of the electoral process itself.
It has become clear that electoral democracy, in which all-out partisanship foists binary choices over complex issues on a diverse public, cannot in and of itself resolve the crisis of governance. New institutions that enable nuanced solutions by encouraging negotiation and compromise in the broader civil society are screaming to be born.
Institutions that marry public deliberation with more direct democracy, from citizen assemblies to what David von Reybrouck calls the “preferenda,” are emerging in response to the failure of representative democracy to mend the breach of distrust between the public and the institutions of self-government.
The AI We Empower Will Demand More Of Us
The most game-changing development is the arrival of generative artificial intelligence. Many of those birthing this inorganic offspring of humanity harbor the hubris that, if nourished with ever larger language models, AI may one day quicken into consciousness equal to the spirit we understand, to paraphrase the mocking Earth Spirit in Goethe’s Faust. Others worry that this ostensible servant will become our new master.
Those wiser among us grasp that realizing AI’s promise will require the vigilant guidance of humans who possess the sense, conscience and socially relational qualities that cannot be imparted to machines.
Looking beyond the usual debates on AI, astrophysicist Sara Walker offers an original take, arguing that all intelligence is the result of evolutionary lineage. “Technology, like biology,” she says “does not exist in the absence of evolution. Technology is not artificially replacing life — it is life.”
A Greater Labor Share Of Wealth
To the extent generative AI divorces productivity growth and wealth creation from employment and income for the mind-laboring jobs of professionals as well as the non-college educated, it will have to be alleviated by fostering an ownership stake by all in the robots displacing gainful occupations.
Embracing this idea of “universal basic capital” would increase the labor share of wealth by capturing more of the value being created by intelligent machines in the first place instead of trying to fix growing inequality by redistributing income after the fact. Getting beyond industrial-era paradigm inertia that still pits capital against labor is part and parcel of any successful transition to a digital economy that works for all.
In one way or another, the various essays and features in this print edition of Noema reflect these connected themes. Resolution of the challenges they pose will define where we end up on the other side of the passage we are presently going through.
Here’s a glimpse of the art that can be seen in print, in Issue IV: