Why are South Koreans more advanced than Nigerians? Why does Japan seem to have more progress and prosperity than many Arab countries? Why are certain societies distinguished by specific skills that make them more successful than others?
The answer to such questions seems complicated and intricate, with many presumptive interpretations and unverified views. A variety of explanations and interpretations by some of the world’s brightest intellectuals, of the likes of the famous American intellectual Samuel Huntington, as well as Lawrence Harrison, David Landes, and others, can be found in a book entitled: Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress.
These vital discussions are the fruit of a 1998 Harvard symposium-cum-intellectual awakening session about the key role that culture plays in the advancement of societies. This theory, which is the main theme of the book, was analyzed by prominent intellectuals, be they proponents or opponents of the theory, thus leaving readers the chance to take sides, or even to question the issue themselves. For regardless of their stand on the issue, the articles and studies published in the book offer compelling and deep insights founded on solid arguments. However, the great thing is that readers do not have to take a crystal-clear stance; they can simply enjoy these essays that offer a complex look into our complex world.
The discussion of cultural factors and their key role in explaining cultural regression was prevalent in the mid-twentieth century. These ideas soon gave way to theories attributing prosperity or failure exclusively to economic and political factors; but now, they have made a comeback. A case in point is the Arab world today: after years of ignoring the cultural factors behind backwardness, now they are brought back to light with the increasing radicalism and terrorism waves and the prominence of dark sentiments of injustice and oppression.
Samuel Huntington is one of the greatest proponents of the theory that posits that cultural values play a big role in the advancement or backwardness of peoples. He goes as far as giving cultural values precedence over political and economic ones in terms of their effect on the progress of societies. In answer to the question of why certain peoples prosper and others who went through the same circumstances fail to advance, Huntington says values like discipline, seriousness, timeliness, and education are all cultural factors with vital roles in achieving cultural renaissance. He casts doubt on the ability of effective politics or economics to achieve such a cultural leap, despite some success stories like Singapore, which is curbing corruption not because of culture, but because of strict administrative laws enacted by the famous leader Lee Kuan Yew. Huntington explains the reasons behind his doubt that politics and economics can achieve well-established cultural development that yields a society capable of maintaining values of justice and transparency by saying: “The key question is, how can Singapore remain free of corruption? Can politics save a whole society from itself forever?”
Such questions tackling the culture of a specific society are sensitive, as they can easily be understood as discussing race instead of culture. David Landes says this sensitivity lies in the fact that “criticism of the culture hurts the ego and scars the identity and self-evaluation process; no matter how decently and indirectly you phrase it, it stinks of superiority.” Still, this fundamental issue must be discussed clearly, and that’s what Landes does in his research paper entitled Culture Makes Almost All the Difference. In his paper, Landes tackles the key and controversial issue of Western states’ role in the failure of poor states. From the dependency theory to neocolonialism to big companies, this is the viewpoint that was promoted. However, Landes says, these are mere excuses and illusions, and the real reason for the backwardness of Latin American states, for instance, is cultural, not dependent on external factors. He attributes this failure to the predominant culture in Latin America, which is based on conspiracy theories, blaming the rich North, greed, and a failure to learn from Western values. On the contrary, he says, Japan abandoned the idea of dependency and embarked on a long journey of cultural change in the Meiji era, by asking: “what happened to us?” instead of the question that makes societies paranoid and gives them a persecution complex: “who did this to us?”. The reason for Japan’s excellence is that it changed the cultural values that hold it back. This is why it prospered and Latin America didn’t.
Asking cultural questions reveals not only the differences that set apart different peoples, religions, and traditions, but also those that set apart the same people from the same religion. Why did the Protestants succeed and prosper more than the Catholics? The answer lies in the cultural dimension: Protestantism, especially Calvinism, was more educated given its self-reliant nature, unlike Catholicism, which relied on a priest that teaches sacred texts. Protestants also valued the concept of time, which emphasized the ideas of accomplishment, time, and discipline, unlike Catholics. Moreover, protestants believed wealth and success were the signs of God’s satisfaction with the people, not torture, misery, and fear of death, like Catholics.
This interesting book explains, for instance, the cultural factors that make corruption rampant in Asia but not in Europe. One of these factors is family bonds and extreme filial piety that pushes Asians toward nepotism and breaking the law. Family bonds become stronger than justice and the law. This is evident in Arab societies, which are rife with bribery, nepotism, and corruption. Thus, unqualified people are assigned to jobs they do not deserve, thus contributing to backwardness, all because of family or friendship bonds.
Writer Jeffrey Sachs, one of the biggest advocates for free markets and economic openness laws supported by the World Bank, has extensive experience in observing the progress and regression of societies. Sachs’ research argues that the geography and climate factors are also a reason for the backwardness of some African states, for instance, where the scarcity of natural resources and the hot climate contribute to the spread of diseases and epidemics. Meanwhile, in an outspoken essay, Daniel Etounga-Manguelle criticized African cultural values, such as the belief in witchcraft, the lack of seriousness, poor economic skills, and poor time management, blaming them for the backwardness of African societies. His main idea: there are no successful societies and failed societies; there are only cultures that encourage success and cultures that encourage regression.
That said, these cultural interpretations are largely opposed by several intellectuals, especially economists and anthropologists. The former believe that the reason for the regression of societies is the lack of modern economic laws. The latter believe in the concept of relative culture and despise talk of advanced and backward cultures and the comparison of societies.
Reading this book is like going down a fun, intellectual spiral that provides readers with tons of information, analyses, and insights. You may not come out with a definitive answer, but you will surely feel as though a light was shone on your understanding.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.