There has been an interesting congruence this week between the workings of the Meme Merchants Consortium and Richard Landes’s, blog the Augean Stables, which has been cited here before on several occasions, most recently: Poison in the Well of Culture. Landes’s latest article, Romney Cites Landes, Offends Palestinians is a discussion of the recent controversy surrounding US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s suggestion that key differences in Palestinian and Israeli culture are responsible for the stark divide between the two societies economic productivity.
In reading Landes’s article I was struck by the congruence between our separate conclusions about two ostensibly different societies, in Landes’s case the Palestinians of the 21st century, and in the Meme Merchants case the Barbary Corsairs of the 16th to 19th centuries. Landes concludes [emphasis mine]:
On the other hand, Arab political culture, amply embodied by the Palestinian variety, promotes a cultue of contempt for hard work by leisured elites, widespread commitment to zero-sum games of dominance, an distrust of intellectual openness and external influences, a strong emphasis on rote learning and respecting those older and more powerful, hostility to women in the public sphere, ubiquitous protection rackets (e.g., Arafat the PA), a violent repression of public criticism… in a phrase, a culture dedicated to taking, not making.
I reached a similar conclusion in my article, Hostis Humani Generis – reflections on the enemies of mankind… over the weekend, that pirate culture is a kind of kleptoparasitism and that a key distinguishing characteristic pirate society and civil society is that, “…it produces nothing.”
I found the congruence of the timing and analyses of our two articles interesting.
I would add to the discussion the notion of ‘generativity’ as a primary quality of civil society and not just in terms of raw economic activity, but economic activity that can benefit and advance the whole of society and not just the ruling caste.
I would further add to Landes’s analysis that in the Palestinian Territories what you appear to have culturally is a recursion to a more or less bronze age warrior aristocracy, where the leisured warrior caste sees its only right profession as warfare, but has also somehow managed to stay latched onto the modern notion of nationalistic war where the suffering and sacrifices are born primarily by the lower classes.
You may find it worth having a read of Landes’s article, even if you don’t care for the angle about US electoral politics because it brings into focus two rather different ideas about how cultures become successful and stay successful. One notion, as represented in the discussion by Jared Diamond’s 1999 book, Guns, Germs and Steel that somehow access to “primary resources” is key to a culture or nations success and development. The second idea as presented by David Landes, [no relation to Richard Landes that I am aware of] professor emeritus of economics at Harvard University, in his 1999 book, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations argues that “cultural capital” can be an invaluable or determining factor in the success of nations.
As I remember, Nassim Nicolas Taleb in his book The Black Swan indulged in this point of view of his native Lebanon, that lack of resources was a kind of a resource, and that the thriving nature of its economy was shattered by a civil war that emphasized more reactionary thinking. I would try and pull out an appropriate quote, but my copy of the book seems to have disappeared.
Of course while you are digesting all of this it is worth keeping your eye on the ball of the Paradox of Plenty:
The resource curse (Paradox of Plenty) refers to the paradox that countries and regions with an abundance of natural resources, specifically point-source non-renewable resources like minerals and fuels, tend to have less economic growth and worse development outcomes than countries with fewer natural resources. This is hypothesized to happen for many different reasons, including a decline in the competitiveness of other economic sectors (caused by appreciation of the real exchange rate as resource revenues enter an economy), volatility of revenues from the natural resource sector due to exposure to global commodity market swings, government mismanagement of resources, or weak, ineffectual, unstable or corrupt institutions (possibly due to the easily diverted actual or anticipated revenue stream from extractive activities). [Wikipedia]
It will be interesting to see how long, or if, the parallel lines of thinking between two blogs will remain congruent.