Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The pervasiveness of modernization theory

This post is pretty narrowly associated with my academic interests, but one of the things that continues to stun me about modernization theory is how it just won't go away. It's been attacked, discredited and destroyed in more ways than Robert Deniro in Cape Fear, and yet likewise, it seems almost impossible to kill off. Not only does it still get a respectible hearing in the Establishment foreign policy press, it also continues to explicitly inform policymaking in the many critical theaters. Specifically, the militarized nation-building projects the U.S. is pursuing in both Afghanistan and Iraq remain deeply indebted to a theory that one would long ago have thought was not just dismantled intellectually but also discredited politically.

And yet, you can't excape arrant nonsense like this, from Michael Daxner's contribution to the latest issue of the eminently mainstream if wonkishly liberal World Policy Journal:
As a whole, Afghans want their collective integrity and dignity restored; they want and need the traumas from 30 years of terrible violence to be eased with food, justice, and employment. They want their long efforts toward modernity revived. Indeed, though it may be difficult for Westerners to imagine that Afghanistan even remotely resembles a modern nation, there have been significant attempts to modernize the state and society stretching back nearly a century from King Amanullah Khan, who assumed the throne in 1919, through President Daoud Khan, who initiated progressive rule from 1973 to 1978, and on through the Soviet occupation. Even the last 30 years of war effectively continued the process of modernizing the country--in its own rather cynical, but apparently irreversible, way. Stinger missiles, sattelite phones, guerrilla warfare tactics, and the ever-present Toyota Hi-Lux (a 4x4 vehicle favored by the Taliban) are all vestiges of this modern era. We must understand that decades of conflict have created enormous tensions between traditional lifestyles and modern attitudes.
Where to begin? Note first the condescending attitude toward the reader, that dresses up misleading platitudes as profundities that we probably just don't get. Then consider the embedded assumption that there is a "collective" Afghan people, who have a single discernable will. (That would be the "nation" that the coalition forces are supposedly helping to "build.") Then there's the assumption that what this collective will desires is some quantum Daxner calls "modernity," which is not only the desired future of this supposedly unitary Afghan people, but also, oddly, part of Afghanistan's past, which we detect in residual form in "Stinger missiles, satellite phones, and guerrilla warfare."

Those menacing "vestiges" do not cause the author to question whether there might, in fact, have been something not so great about those anterior modernizing efforts, from the ecologically disastrous dam-building of the 1950s, through the sanguinary Soviet occupation, down to the galvanzing discipline of the Taliban. Failing that, Daxner assumes that the opposite of modernity must be "tradition," thus failing to grasp the nature of the forces who oppose what he calls "modernity."

In fact, virtually the reverse of all these assumptions is closer to the truth about Afghanistan. First, the Taliban are not a "traditional" group in any sense of the word. They are an artifact and output of the horrors the country has experienced over the last 50 years--a reaction, quite specifically, to the manifold and inevitable failures of the various awful modernizing projects that Daxner speaks of with bizarre reverence. In other words, while the Taliban is undoubtedly vicious, culturally retrograde, and completely disdainful of all the pieties of liberal humanitarianism, we should not let this obscure the fact that they are also adamantly opposed to "traditional" tribal leadership, and by some measures (not unrelatedly) the most effective centralizing political force that Afghanistan has ever experienced.

What's more, pace Daxner, Afghanistan is not a nation in any meaningful sense of the term (e.g. a people who imagine themselves as forming a single community). In fact, other than a sliver of once and future expats (and, ahem, the Taliban), there's virtually no one in the country that actually wants an effective, unified central government. Rather, Afghanistan is a multiethnic land run by warlords whose power bases reside in the control of various local resources (poppies, timber, fruit), from which they extract rents and in exchange for which they deliver (more or less capriciously) various kinds of political goods to the local populace, including education, infrastructure, security, and justice. No one with any power wants the country converted into some Asiatic version of Switzerland, which is apparently Daxner's fantasy.

All this has sharp implications for policy. It's true that the occupiers are not universally scorned. After all, they provide a resource stream from which rents can be extracted. But the interest in effecting the changes that these humanitarian "development" moneys are supposedly trying to bring about is minimal at best. For this reason, any political alliances we may form can only be tactical. Trying to produce a politics based on parliamentary democracy is worse than simply a waste of time: it is actually likely to make the overall situation more combustible. In general, trying to judge success or failure in Afghanistan according to a yardstick defined by an idealized fantasy of the West will only lead to the wrongs kinds of conclusions about what is relevant to American or NATO security concerns in the region.

Of course, if you see the world through the lens of modernization theory, you'll never get any of those insights. Which is why it's so scary that, despite everything, despite half a century of everything, modernization theory continues to occupy Washington's mind like some horrible intellectual golem.

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