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Civilizations as...

Battle of Symbols

Civilizations as Symbols

All symbols possess opposites or dualities. Find one symbol, like masculine, and there will be an opposite symbol in juxtaposition to it like feminine. Symbol opposition has been expressed as the great paradox of life evident in ancient symbols like Yin and Yang.

As evidenced in the founding of America at the intersection of the duality symbols of freedom and equality and their expression in America’s two political parties, duality symbols have found a strong application in creating the world’s most powerful nation.

But duality symbols have also been powerfully exploited for international political purposes. One of their most potent political uses on an international scale was in the development of communism. In The Communist Manifesto (1848) Marx and Engels used duality symbols of bourgeoisie and proletariat in proposing warfare between the classes within a particular society.

While it is obvious that Marx was wrong in many ways, he was also right in many ways. Writing in Dissent (Winter 1998), Shlomo Avineri notes that they were wrong when they predicted massive polarization between two great classes within particular cultures. For the most part, this has not taken place in the advanced industrial societies. However, the polarization and duality did take place on a global scale between capitalist and proletarian nations. The class struggle envisioned by Marx within nations has really become an economic struggle between nations. As Avineri notes, “If Marx and Engels's analyses are mostly invalid for the advanced nations today, they have been vindicated by the facts of globalization - the sweatshops of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with their child labor, their horrendously unsanitary working and living conditions, and their lack of minimum-wage laws and basic social welfare networks.”

One of America’s greatest scholars of international relations suggests that this modern struggle between “capitalistic and proletariat” nations has really evolved into a clash between eastern and western civilization.

In the important book The Clash of Civilizations, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington notes “The fundamental source of conflict in this new world will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural. Nation states will remain the most powerful actors in world affairs, but the principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.”

For Huntington, civilizations have replaced nations and ideologies as the driving force in global politics today. He argues the future will be driven not by ideologies or economics, but by ethnicity, religion, and other cultural forces.

In many respects Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis is really about the application of symbolism on a world scale and the growing congregation of smaller symbols under two grand international symbols. Understanding the world as a battle between these two grand symbols may help the western and eastern world create a new contextual map rather than chase short flashes of political content sure to be erupting here and there like so many miniature volcanoes over the coming years.

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