Academic journal article Theory in Action

First World War: Still No End in Sight

Academic journal article Theory in Action

First World War: Still No End in Sight

Article excerpt

Book Review: Frank Fiiredi, First World War: Still No End in Sight. London: Bloomsbury, 2014. ISBN: 978-1441125101 (Hardcover). 288 Pages. S29.99.

[Article copies available for a fee from The Transformative Studies Institute. E-mail address: journal@transformativestudies.org Website: http://www.transformativestudies.org ©2015 by The Transformative Studies Institute. All rights reserved.]

Frank Fiiredi, Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent-Canterbury, has written a survey of the decline in direction and leadership as it has been felt by Western ruling and intellectual elites starting with the backdrop of 1914's Great War. Although not the initial cause, he views the First World War, whose centennial is currently upon us, as the watershed moment for what Fiiredi contends is a real and perceived loss of authority. Fiiredi suggests that the ideal of democracy has only just managed to survive the century, and that 'intellectual attention' needs to focus on this political principle in order to begin to solve the problems that have beset the planet since WWI (Fiiredi, p. viii). However, rather than toying to re-invigorate the values of humanism, universalism, progress, and democracy, as Fiiredi suggests, maybe it is timely to begin a thoroughgoing historical, economic, and sociological re-contextualization of Enlightenment principles, which, crucially, resists a postmodernist methodology.

In its historical context, the ideal of democracy emerged in the Enlightenment, with an early radical advocate being Baruch Spinoza, who referred to the establishment of state power based on genuine and participatory consent as that 'perfectly absolute dominion, which we call democracy' (Spinoza, p. 385). It is important to remember that Spinoza was writing in the Netherlands at the time of its so-called Golden Age in the 17th century, a period of world economic superiority based on the vigorous development of markets and industry initiated in medieval times. It is also referred to as the birthplace of the modem economy (Bavel, p. 46). It was this particular convergence of contemporary factors in the economy and the state that enabled Spinoza, with some guidance from philosophy and science, to articulate a vision for a just and rational administration of humanity within this new experience.

It is through Spinoza that what might be termed the left wing of the Enlightenment emerged, a process which can be viewed as a basis to the mechanics of radical democracy and, indeed, a crucial precursor to libertarian communism. Füredi, in kind, sees the solution to society's ills and failures as lying within a political perspective that emerged within the growth of capitalism, and, in this respect, he follows Marx. But there is another perspective-one that unfortunately does not provide any neat solutions involving changing people's minds about things-and this has been explored by some of those who have studied the longest longue durée of human existence: the time when there was no state and, despite Marxist teleology, no economy (Clastres, p. 189-208). This was the time of the primitive, the savage, and the hunter-gatherer, by far the most stable and enduring form of human organisation the world has seen.

When humanity lived without a state, indeed even in opposition to its formation, the basis of human fulfilment did not lie in democracy but in the autonomous organization of peoples in societies where there was no political division. Furthermore, because these societies were not states, they did not have what Gauchet calls 'the logic of expansion' (p. 41) that exists within all societies organized on division, and they were not driven to make universal their way of living. This empire-building characteristic is as deeply rooted in any modem state as it is, most interestingly, within all left wing ideologies, right up to libertarian communism. It seems that all of us who offer solutions to the world's ills operate, like Spinoza, within the ideological parameters set by the philosophies of state organization and, in the modem day, capitalism itself. …

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