Creative Destruction

Should we be concerned that cultures are open to unfetterted attack from the marketplace? If you are confident in your culture, then there is no need to worry. It is a strong product and the marketplace will reward you with a thousand years of prosperity. But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive. Protectionism and regulation will not work, Hayek would say. Your culture will stagnate and adherents will fall by the wayside.

Isn’t it funny how everyone, everywhere thinks their culture is under attack, eh? The Islamic States fear the coming of Western Imperialism, while the Christian West complains that their time-honoured traditions are being undermined by an unjustified favouritism to alien minorities. (via CY).

I suggest this is because people know their own culture, with all its nuances and foibles, better than any other (indeed, that’s true almost by definition). They also see competing cultures as monoliths that could not fail to obliterate their own creed and traditions, given half the chance. They see themselves as the quaint corner shop, battling against a rampaging Tesco. For them, the idea of multiculturalism is an anathema. It opens up your precious culture – your soul! – to a barrage of attack.

Andrew Neil has some bad news for these people. Unfortunately, it seems the global economy we have made for ourselves has already ripped open our culture for all to attack. Our way of life is left as bare and as vulnerable to market forces as a independent high-street shop.

This week The Business publishes Neil’s lecture What China can teach the West. He says that Europe, Britain included, has a myopic and stagnant attitude to governance and economics. This will result in Europe being eclipsed by Asia, not only in the realm of economics, but of education and culture too.

It was Neil’s commentary on Hayek’s “evolutionary rationalism” that caught my eye. Institutions, especially governments and economic systems, should not be a product of deliberate design. Instead, systems should follow an evolutionary path, the product of countless human decisions. A free-market, left to its own accord.

Though Hayek clearly preferred evolution and the market to revolution and central planning, he was not a small-c conservative … [He] had no truck with those who sought to preserve the status quo, existing hierarchies or to block change. He supported the market for the very reason that it is disruptive; he relished Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”.

Neil’s implication is that economic and cultural influence are intertwined. Only the briefest glance towards the USA is enough to convince most people on this point. So presumably, these economic ideas can be applied to cultures too. In this sense, we can define multiculturalism as ‘the cultural marketplace’, a willfull encouragement of healthy competition. Give individuals a free set of alternative choices, and they will make their cultural and even ethical decisions. The societies and cultures to which they belong will mutate a little.

Should we be concerned that cultures are open to unfetterted attack from the marketplace? If you are confident in your culture, then there is no need to worry. It is a strong product and the marketplace will reward you with a thousand years of prosperity. But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive. Protectionism and regulation will not work, Hayek would say. Your culture will stagnate and adherents will fall by the wayside.

Concerned that your daughter is offending your family honour by having a boyfriend? (via DK). Well, change your honour system, because it’s not testing well with the target market. Bothered that people are forgetting the true meaning of Christmas? Why not simply change the meaning of Christmas, to pull in the faithful? Better still, consider a merger. Take the best bits from both cultures, and sack any superfluous traditions that are holding you back.

Update: Over at The Thames, Jenks considers how our global business culture is developing. Considering how people choose to do business is a welcome bridge between the economic evolution proposed by Hayek, and and the cultural evolution I’ve been pondering here. Meanwhile at Pickled Politics, a debate rages about who, exactly, are the victims in the race riots that have plagued Sydney this week.

7 thoughts on “Creative Destruction”

  1. Hey Rob,

    I know where you are coming from on this. However, I think you need to clarify yourself a little in paragraph 7. It can read like a horrible crude darwinism that supports the subjugation of the disenfranchised or cultures that have been weakened by being written out of history. “Protectionism will not work” – protection of the status quo? Absolutely. “If your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive” – or perhaps it will need to keep battering down the door erected by a heterosexist hegemony that has deliberately and consistently denied basic civil liberties to the ‘lgbt community’. We would not see the images we see in todays news were it not for activists from cultures weakened by institutionailsed prejudice refusing to compromise and accept anything less than equality.

  2. If we’re using phrases like “evolutionary rationalism” as Hayek does, then a crude form of Darwinism may be on the cards, but I think there are subtle differences. First, human cultures should not be considered separate species in competition with each other. Rather, they could be like the different races and tribes, who can interbreed for evolutionary advantage!

    I am surprised you think that this take on cultural evolution harms the LBGT community. Why can’t activism be a part of this evolution? If we are today seeing gay weddings, then the heterosexist hegemony you describe is clearly not strong enough to supress it. The activists have drawn attention to their rights, but the culture succeeds because it is a way of life that many people genuinely want to choose.

    To round off the analogy, perhaps the culture you describe can be likened to the new mammal found in the Borneo jungle: its always been there, but only now can it come out into the open – and the world is a richer place for it. I am also reminded of the story of one of Darwin’s Galapagos tortoise who lived as a ‘He’ for about a hundred years, before it was revealed she had been a ‘She’ all along…

  3. Apologies for not being clear – I don’t think the concept of “evolutionary rationalism” is harming to the LGBT community. I was just asking you to clarify what you mean by the term “culture”. Perhaps you could explain?

  4. Certainly not! Exploring that concept is most of the point of the blog! It is why there term multiculuralism is so hard to pin down – your concept of what culture is will determine your concept of multiculturalism. As a result, this post has a certain amount of tongue-in-cheek about it (I hope that is clear). In this sense I’m using a rather restrictive definition based around religion, which tends to exclude based on something other than religious faith.

    I don’t see why it shouldn’t extend to other types of culture though. Its precisely because ‘culture’ is such a multi-faceted thing that I think ‘multiculturalism’ describes the modern world so well. If multiculturalism was simply two religious traditions living side-by-side, it would probably be less interesting.

  5. OK, I’ll try and clarify why I felt compelled to post the original message. “But if your culture is weak, it will need to change in order to survive” jumped out at me on a day when I had been reading a lot in the news about the first civil partnership ceremonies in the UK. It made me think about the enormous suffering people have endured and the courage people have shown to get to where we are today. We have not got to where we are today (and by we I mean the LGBT “community” / queer “culture” if you will) by changing our aims or settling for anything less than equality. It’s a question of semantics and not, I think a particularly interesting point so I’ll get back to work now.

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