The Central Liberal Truth by Lawrence E. Harrison

Vince Carducci

Although the book has the word liberal in its title, it is hardly progressive.

The Central Liberal Truth

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 288
Subtitle: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself
Price: $28.00
Author: Lawrence E. Harrison
US publication date: 2006-05
UK publication date: 2006-05
The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so."

-- Max Weber

American development analyst Lawrence E. Harrison's new book takes its title from the observation by Daniel Patrick Moynihan that, whereas conservatives believe culture, not politics, determines a society's prospects for success, "the central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself." A follow-up to the 2000 book Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress, which Harrison co-edited with Samuel P. Huntington, The Central Liberal Truth surveys the belief-systems of dozens of nations around the world. Based on three years of research conducted by an international team of more than 60 contributors and advisors, Harrison's study finds that some cultures are indeed more prone to social, political, and economic progress while others are more resistant. It endorses the idea that culture is a critical factor in development, but it need not be an immutable one. It therefore recommends a course of action to remedy the shortcomings of "progress-resistant" cultures and to help them down the road to developmental success.

Making copious use of excerpts from essays written by a variety of authors for the Culture Matters Research Project at Tufts University, The Central Liberal Truth at times reads like the Reader's Digest guide to health and prosperity in the modern world. And like the foundation of "old-fashioned American values" upon which the Reader's Digest editorial perspective rests, The Central Liberal Truth has a marked preference for cultural belief-systems that look a lot like America circa 1950. A former USAID officer who held several Central American assignments from 1965 to 1981, Harrison is the first to acknowledge that his model of a "progress-prone" culture is based on the United States and a progress-resistant one on Latin America. Where Harrison's colleague Huntington, in his book Who Are We: The Challenge to American Identity, coined the phrase "cultural Anglo-Protestantism" to describe what essentially constitutes a progress-prone value-system, what might be termed "cultural Hispano-Catholicism" can similarly be taken to stand for value-systems of the progress-resistant variety. One prizes rationality, encourages material pursuits, and operates on the basis of real-world pragmatism. The other is by and large emotive, it eschews materiality, and embraces idealistic utopianism. Other value-systems compatible with cultural Anglo-Protestantism are Judaic and Confucian cultures, while Orthodox Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, and Islamic value-systems are compatible with cultural Hispano-Catholicism.

Readers having a basic familiarity with social science literature will recognize the outlines of Max Weber's thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, first published as a series of essays in Germany in 1904 and 1905, as underlying Harrison's dialectic. Weber is evoked more than once in support of arguments in The Central Liberal Truth, but it's through the filter of a 1950s American viewpoint. To be sure, in the opening salvoes of the Cold War, Weber was taken up by the American academy, primarily through the efforts of Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons, as providing theoretical ammunition against Karl Marx's historical-materialism to explain the rise of Western industrial society. In particular, it was Weber's assertion that certain cultural factors, primarily those stemming from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the anxieties it induced, were as much responsible as the economic innovations of capitalism cited by Marx in prompting the dramatic shift from traditional to modern society, first in Europe and then elsewhere in the world.

When applied to development studies, the Weberian analysis became the keystone of what's known as the modernization thesis, initially articulated in the 1950s and 1960s by political theorists such as W.W. Rostrow, who served as an advisor on national security under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. It identifies cash market economies, public education systems, democratic governance, and broadly available health and welfare services as among the indicators of "advanced" nations, with lesser-developed countries possessing these attributes to varying degrees depending on their rung along the developmental evolutionary ladder. The modernization thesis, developed in the United States and for decades a central tenet of US foreign policy, eventually gave birth to several opposing perspectives, including dependency theory and liberation theology. The first, developed in the 1970s in Latin America, explains underdevelopment as a legacy of colonial exploitation; the second is a charismatic utopian strain of socialism espoused by Catholic missionaries in many parts of the lesser-developed world. Both are briefly mentioned and summarily dismissed by Harrison (who cleaves to the modernization thesis), though he never provides any direct evidence to refute them.

Whatever its pedigree, the application of Weber found in the modernization thesis and likewise throughout Harrison's book is seriously flawed. First, it takes for universal law what Weber presents as an historical explanation as to why a specific social group came to achieve elite status by the end of the 19th century in certain northern European countries. It further takes for cause and effect what Weber says is an elective affinity, a more complex concept that describes how independent variables work in concert with observable social results (in this case, the Calvinist idea of success in one's calling as a measure of personal salvation buttressed by the accounting advances of capitalist accumulation as an objective method for keeping track). Finally, it assigns positive value to social developments (i.e., modernity and its techniques of rationalization and bureaucratic authority) that Weber is at best diffident about. In fact, at the end of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism Weber famously describes the modern condition as an Iron Cage in which the inherent value of everything, including human life, is obliterated through the cold calculation of infinite means-end rationality.

But more than being a simple misreading, this misappropriation of Weber serves a kind of social Darwinism that, while perhaps as American as a rapacious CEO's back-dated stock option grant, must be rejected nonetheless. Harrison points out that modern capitalism developed in northern Europe first, a result he speculates of the inhospitable climates there, which fostered a process of natural selection of the culturally fittest to survive. He then goes on to say that the incentive to industry is lacking in warmer climates as evidenced by the slower pace of life and lower achievement in terms of development in those parts of the world. This is exactly the argument used by English and American eugenicists at the end of the 19th century to justify the "white man's burden" of world domination. Its logic was refined into the concept of Nordic superiority, the Aryan ideal pursued by the National Socialist Party in Germany. It isn't really cultural value per se that interests Harrison, but how cultural Anglo-Protestantism, in the form of progress-prone culture, can prevail globally. Thus it isn't culture but ideology Harrison promotes. This makes The Central Liberal Truth not only myopic but potentially harmful.

Although the book has the word liberal in its title, it is hardly progressive. It advocates the very "disembedding" (to use one-time Tony Blair advisor Anthony Giddens' term) of local cultures that has given rise to various fundamentalisms of recent years, much as Culture Matters co-editor Huntington foretold in another of his quite frankly misguided books, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of World Order. It should give readers pause that one of The Central Liberal Truth's dust-jacket blurbs is from Francis Fukuyama, neocon fellow traveler who recently tried to wash his hands of the fiasco in Iraq far too long after the fact. The Central Liberal Truth presents a vision of global manifest destiny not unlike that of the Project for a New American Century, if under a kinder, gentler guise. So as our fearless leader says, "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me ... won't get fooled again."

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