How The World Works

The question that is central to the pursuit of truth in the Western philosophical tradition stems from the renowned Hegel-Marx debate, which marked the pinnacle of philosophical thought in the West, and the question is a perennial one: are humans the main agents in shaping the reality of the world? Or are there bigger forces above and beyond humans that are shaping reality? Hegel and his followers argued in favor of a view that is called “absolute idealism”, where the relationship between the mind of man and the world is one based on the mind’s ability to shape reality.

Opposite of the idealists were the realists, who believed that the inherent nature of the world was one of chaos and anarchy and the main objective was survival. Realism and the imperial policy of “divide and conquer” is arguably the most preponderant of all the theories pertaining to international relations. Marx broke off from Hegel despite Marx’s immense respect for Hegel and after having learned a lot from him. Marx argued that there is a force bigger than the human mind that is shaping reality, namely, economics. The idea that economics is the biggest force shaping the reality of the world is derived from an outlook that is commonly known as “historical materialism.”

Hegelians and Marxists alike were interested in discovering both the totality of natural laws as well as what can be considered the master plan for human history. Yet, the key to unlocking the totality of natural laws and the master plan for human history is purportedly missing, which in turn leaves both philosophers and theoretical physicists “groping” for the totality of natural laws and the master plan for human history in the words of Isaiah Berlin. As Khalil Gibran said, say not that you have found the truth; rather, say that you have found a truth. The unification of natural laws and the discovery of a master plan for human history would lead to a “theory of everything” that would enable human beings to act in accordance with the laws and the master plan in order to achieve bliss and salvation.

            Absolute idealists believed that if humans were to be left free to pursue their individual ends in life, the issues of war and inequality would be resolved on their own. Historical materialists believed that humans had to intervene in the course that history was taking by applying resolute scientific laws and proactively resolving the issues of war and inequality by forging economic equality between men through the empowerment of workers and relieving the reins of economic productivity from the hands of first feudal overlords and later the bourgeoisie and those who exerted social clout over the working class. Marxists believed that if economic and social equality between men were achieved, religion as a preponderant institution based on the inequalities between men inherent in a feudal and capitalist system would crumble. What the Marxists overlooked was the fact that a number of occurrences in history have suggested that revolution and human intervention in the course of history have often made matters worse.

Another strand of philosophical thought would emerge in Britain and later in the United States, which is known as “analytical philosophy.” The analytical philosophers are characterized by their constant struggle in finding out who is right and who is wrong. Outside of the Western philosophical mold that is comprised of Hegelian Idealism, Historical Materialism, and Analytic Philosophy is the Islamic tradition that is primarily based on a classic form of Theo-centrism that the West has done away with since the advent of the European Renaissance and Enlightenment approximately 500 years ago. Whereas Hegel argued that humans were in charge of the world’s destiny and while Marx argued that economics is unmatched in its preponderance over life all while the analytical philosophers struggled to come to a conclusion, Islam argued that God shaped the course of history and was the sole determinant of reality.

There are sub-alternatives to the determinants of social reality mentioned already, such as race, sex, and institutions as purported by DuBois, Freud, and Durkheim respectively. What is psychological and what is sociological in the determination of reality is differentiated by a blurred line, and many thinkers have arrived at differing conclusions about what determines reality.

            There is also the issue of what the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “the collective end” for which all human beings were working towards. History, as defined by Isaiah Berlin, is the account of the relations of humans to each other and to their environment. According to Durkheim, people formed something that was analogous to the human body, with each part working collectively with the other parts towards some end. Durkheim’s thoughts formed the foundation of what is known as the theory of “structural functionalism” that in turn is shaped by the division of labor. In this day and age, the division of labor is global in scope, and in turn the global scope of the division of labor arguably serves as evidence of the validity of liberalism that has passed the test of time. Thus, the goal becomes one of fostering “private markets in public arenas.”

All major world-systems were in agreement that the end goal was a semblance of what Aristotle deemed as “justice” and the diminution of war and inequality, but what was in dispute was the means to the end. Notions of truth, justice, and beauty are accompanied by divergent interpretations. Due to divergent interpretations of basic notions of the absolute good, systems that were built to achieve utopia end up in failure. As Berlin wrote:

“It seems truer to say that to be utopian is to suggest that courses can be followed which, in fact, cannot, and to argue this from theoretical premises and in the face of the ‘concrete’ evidence of the ‘facts’. That is certainly what Napoleon or Bismarck meant when they railed against speculative theorists.”

There are also those who have completely disavowed of speculating on what could be a collective end in the course of history. They are known as Existentialists, and they believed there was no collective end because life was inherently meaningless and thus everything was determined by an all-pervasive subjectivity. Martin Heidegger, who was arguably the most prominent of the 20th century Existentialists, argued that the end goal was merely death. Meaninglessness became the central theme of a social phenomenon that is now prevalent in many cultures, which is known as “nihilism.” In a nihilistic environment, meaning is ultimately deconstructed to nothingness, and the fulfillment of this nihilistic project has ushered in an overarching structure of philosophical thought known as postmodernism.

Before postmodern thought, justice stood for a tangible cause that could be attained regardless of your philosophical orientation. Now, the very meaning of justice is under scrutiny due to postmodern thinking. All that is left when normative terms like justice are deconstructed, according to the postmodernists, is power. Everything equates to the pursuit of power. As Joseph Nye suggested in a book titled “The Future of Power”, human behavior is determined by a process known as “power conversion”, where energy and resources are converted in the way of attaining power. Thus, postmodernism is a highly pessimistic view of the world and people in general. Whereas Modernism was premised on industrialization and the globalization of communication and commerce, post-modernism is tearing away at these very premises of traditional thought.

However, with the advances in globalization and technology, power is now disbursed and fragmented. As Moises Naim argued in a book titled “The End of Power”, the overall improvements in public health, advances in technology, greater access to education and information, as well as growing economic prosperity in the world has removed many barriers to power. It is now easier for ordinary people to acquire power, but harder to sustain due to greater accessibility. Multipolarity in the international system is also evidence of the dispersal and fragmentation of power on a global level. As a result, rising powers like China have resorted to what one would consider as hubristic behavior and have broken what was normally a “virtuous circle” where the Chinese would lend cash to America for their government projects and in return America would open its market to China, all while China abstained from becoming a naval power and allowed America to patrol international waters and global channels of commerce.

China’s ascension as an economic superpower is largely due to its entrance into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 and the transfer of manufacturing power from the West to China. With growing economic clout, China is now resorting to military buildups in the South China Sea as well as bullying smaller groups like the Uyghurs and violating the “one country, two systems” framework set in place towards Hong Kong. Economic interdependence with China has largely inhibited many countries from adopting measures that would deter Chinese bullying, but eventually countries must come around to addressing China’s bullying of vulnerable groups if the interdependence is to continue. Ultimately, all human interactions are based on contracts and trust, and China must restore its trust with other nations if it is to sustain its status as the world’s economic powerhouse.

The latest coronavirus pandemic has imposed isolation and social distancing on all of us and in turn has prompted us to explore the nature of reality as well as the question of how the world works. This pandemic is the latest of the cyclical busts after a major boom in the last few years. One can argue that the boom and bust cycle that is inherent in the capitalist system relates to the psychological cycle of mania and depression exhibited in human behavior. Eventually, a “New World Order” prompted by the reevaluation of the traditional dimensions of world order such as militarism, strategy, politics, diplomacy, international law, and industrialization would enable health, scientific progress, economic prosperity, and education to become the main priorities of all nations and the main pillars of a new world order. The issues of climate change, mutual assured destruction (MAD), and failed states are collective security issues that require all nations to work within a framework of cooperation, thus prompting a reevaluation of the traditional dimensions of world order mentioned before.

Despite the improvements in living standards and quality of life over the past few decades, there are still major disparities that need to be reconciled. For one, according to a particular Oxfam report, 99 percent of the world’s population fail to meet the 760,000-dollar mark in cash and assets that would enable entry into the top one percent of the world’s socioeconomic pyramid. Intellectuals like Jeffrey Sachs attribute this large disparity between the top 1 percent and the 99 percent to American corporatism and the failure of American corporations to assume social responsibility for ordinary people. To acquire affluence as a means of becoming a relevant player in the prevailing system and to engage in statecraft that would enable the creation of a new world order would require something that many of us overlook, which is fortune and luck. As Bernard Baruch put it:

“If you are ready to give up everything else and study the whole history and background of the market and all the principal companies whose stocks are on the board as carefully as a medical student studies anatomy – if you can do all that and in addition you have the cool nerves of a gambler, the sixth sense of a clairvoyant and the courage of a lion, you have a ghost of a chance.”

In a classical sense, what signifies good fortune and luck is love when one resorts to Socrates, who suggested that the acquisition of love signifies a friendship with God. Otto Von Bismarck attributed the rise of America as a major power to God’s love, when he said that God loves three things: fools, drunkards, and the United States of America. Otto Weininger, an Austrian philosopher of fin-de-siècle Europe, wrote that love is the greatest thing of all.

According to the late Stephen Hawking, the universe will one day come to an end, thus bringing an end to history. The question is: how will it end? In a historical sense, will liberalism be the prevalent worldview and world system at the end of history? Populism? Socialism? Or perhaps Islam? After all, according to a report from the Pew Research Center, Islam will be the world’s largest religion by the year 2075.

Regardless of what is trending, we are currently living in what Dr. Amitav Acharya calls a “multiplex” world where different world systems exist beside one another. For the United States, the two foundational principles underlying policy are the preservation of freedom internally and coexistence with adversaries who happen to espouse different world-views and world systems, as stated by Kissinger. What is possible is the accommodation of all world-views and world systems within a framework of cooperation and pluralism forged by world leaders that would tame extremism by adopting the principles of tolerance and mercy that in turn would enable a transition out of conflict and towards peace.

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