In those now almost forgotten days of the Cold War, there was a theory among certain academics that East and West were becoming increasingly alike, converging so to speak somewhere in the middle between capitalism and communism. Sceptics were sure this would never happen, but in a way it did, to the extent that social protection increased, albeit at a glacial pace, in the West, and the Eastern European countries dabbled in market economics even before the Berlin Wall fell.
Nowadays we’re witnessing another, more complex kind of convergence which no one has bothered to name, perhaps because it’s happening at a dizzying rate:
In yesterday’s news a Kenyan herder bought shares in the national cell phone company as his cows grazed beside him in a place that isn’t even on the map. This, on the heels of some of the worst violence Africa has seen over the unpopular result of a presidenial election, requiring the intervention of the former U.N> Secretar General and Condoleeza Rice, to resolve.
The March 8th Economist features an Islamic movment started by a Turkish preacher named Gulen who founds modern schools all over the world, espouses democracy, and competes for influence with the more traditional Muslim Brotherhood.
As if that were not enough to confuse world-watchers, how about the BBC’s report that Arab soldiers have been oeprating in Afghanistan for months? Unable to check this out on the BBCs website, I have to rely on my memory that they were from the United Arab Emirates. They operate outside the American-led coalition and concentrate on getting to know the needs of local people, helping them in their daily lives. I see this as at least a three way convergence between standard guerilla practice since the Cuban Revolution, Al Quaeda’s embrace of technology, and American military organizational methods and skills.
While we’re watching China and India buy up Western companies and crimp our access to oil, we need to keep an eye on transformations in the Muslim world that aren’t about jihad. In the days of the Cold War, Coca Cola and Levi’s played a role in undermining the Soviet monolith. In today’s world, so many memes, products and technologies are playing a role that the thing most likely to happen is the unexpected. We thought we knew that since September 11th, but we need to widen our viewing lens to include the whole world.
“The Economist” doesn’t seem to have done so when it pans Jeffrey Sach’s new book “Common Wealth: economics for a Crowded Planet” because it’s based on the assumption that everyone is as reasonable as the author. It misses what’s most relevant: that actors are spawning solutions that correspond to a complexity unimagined in the days of convergence theory.