Afghanistan is a Modern Society

Several months ago, I blogged a bit about the changeover of power in Guinea – at the death of a long-running ruler, the ‘official’ group of kleptocrats and authoritarians was suddenly swept aside by a new, up-and-coming group of kleptocrats and authoritarians, promising ‘democracy’ around the end of the year.

At the time I was cautious about writing off the new lot out of hand – though it was always likely that they would be indistinguishable from the previous group, it wasn’t impossible that from some anomalous personal scruple or (more likely) the continued pressure of the popular groups who had been struggling against the old government, there might be some change worth noticing – no prospect of a substantially non-shitty arrangement, but perhaps better, insofar as I’d rather live in a representative democracy with civil rights than not.

Turns out my caution was misplaced: protests banned, more than 150 shot, and the head of the military junta planning to stand for election.

Of course, any unwarranted glimmer of hope in my analysis is quite different from the sort of messianic optimism that so many people have displayed over these latest elections in Afghanistan: manifestly rigged, and besides run between rival coalitions of warlords, drug barons, fundamentalists and ultra-conservatives, who seem quite able to defy western pressure when it comes to enshrining the rights of rapists in law, but not when it comes to stopping Americans from setting off bombs in civilian areas.

Here’s an interesting thing though. There’s a certain reflex that I think many Western observers make, a mental knee-jerk which involves saying “of course, it’s terrible that these countries, like Guinea and Afghanistan, are so enmired in instability and corruption – but that’s because they are ‘less evolved’, more ‘primitive’, and over time they will build up the sorts of institutions and culture needed for democracy, like we have.”

The thing is, though, these are not two countries that have remained isolated from progress so as to retain an intrinsic ‘backwardness’. They are remarkable rather for the intensity with which they interact with the rest of the world. Afghanistan’s modern history is largely the history of British, Soviet, and American occupations, and the contests of factions backed by those forces. Guinea was shaken up top-to-bottom by French colonialism, and then economically heavily influenced by the companies that extract its minerals (with whom, no doubt, Camara, the new ruler, has by now successfully negotiated a suitable understanding).

That is – if ‘modernity’ is understood principally in terms of ‘what is characteristic of the last few centuries and their novel developments’, Afghanistan and Guinea are examples of highly modern societies. Understanding why Shia men in Afghanistan are legally entitled to starve their wives until they agree to sex is a matter of understanding modernity.

(Of course, there is a different way of understanding modernity, that focuses on things like enlightenment ideals, the scientific method, etc. but that’s much harder to judge of than the merely temporal sense, and perhaps deserves a different word.)

The ‘Guinea is undemocratic and repressive because it is pre-modern and ‘old-fashioned” idea must suppose that there is a sort of self-subsistent force impelling people towards greater and greater democracy and freedom over time. But there isn’t – there are only people, and at the level of millions of people they appear as ‘class-actors’, groups defined not necessarily in purely economic terms but in terms of how the circumstances of their life condition their thoughts. We don’t get democracy in proportion as it ‘grows’ naturally, but in proportion as we can take it and as the ruling class find it convenient to give it.

And at that level, things are complicated – the same development might promote greater freedom in one place and less in another. And that latter effect is just as much the outcome of ‘modernity’ as the former.

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