An Abrahamic Framework for a Just Political Economy
This essay is a contribution from our symposium Toward a Just Political Economy. To receive a print copy and read the other essays, order here.
The Collapse of Political Economy
The invention of the individual is a relatively recent phenomenon. As the modern state’s development accelerated across the 19th century due to new technologies of transport and communications, complex social relations in both urban and rural areas collapsed. The response of ideological actors within the state, market, and civil society, was to encourage the creation of the worldview of progressive individualism. This doctrine was a way to socially engineer society for new purposes, namely, transhumanism and man’s escape from the restrictions of biology and nature. In this worldview, only the individual and state were meant to exist and, in a capitalist society, the market would mediate between the two. Because human beings are predisposed to form group feelings with each other this effort was destined to fail. The 14th century sociologist Ibn Khaldun termed this sentiment asabiya, meaning group solidarity or tribal feeling.1 When possessing asabiya, members of an in-group are inclined to subsume any sense of “self-interest” entirely into the interest of the whole. As complex social relations and networks melted away, “society” was meant to substitute the subconscious yearning of the individual to find group feeling in an abstract blob of people.
The rise of economics, financialization of the economy, collapse of complex social relations, and homogenization of society into a mass of individual consumers combined to bring disaster. America, hoodwinked for decades by an ideology that asserted free trade would bring freedom worldwide, finds itself on the back foot against a calculating actor, China, that eschews economics as an ideology, seeing it merely as a toolkit to advance other, primarily political, interests. In America, society is collapsing. Americans are killing themselves at record rates; drug abuse is at a record high; and ever more young girls find themselves on the Tiktok-to-OnlyFans exploitation conveyor belt. Marriage and fertility rates are collapsing—although divorce isn’t doing too poorly. The coronavirus has brought all of this to a head and revealed just how rotten America’s social base has become. Still, the worst has yet to come. The November election threatens a new wave of social unrest and political polarization. Coronavirus lockdowns have revealed that most of the economy is quite simply fake and non-existent, with millions of people working fake jobs with accreditation rendered increasingly worthless due to inflation.
This political-economic experiment has failed. Our world has not seen greater justice and equality as a result of the triumph of the individual-market-state nexus. More importantly, the liberal institutions that underpin this nexus have proven unable to update themselves in the face of a rising techno-surveillance society. Liberalism has failed to meet the technology challenge, and it is being dragged into the void left behind by its “creative destruction” of faith and family. Any “new deal” that looks to rebuild communities has to take into account that liberalism is now living on the exhausted fumes of its inheritance. There needs to be a willingness to look at post-liberal solutions. Note that post-liberalism is not a repudiation of liberalism but its evolution, continuing with the good and surgically eliminating the bad—much of which has contributed to the destruction of faith and community, ultimately threatening the existence of the Republic.
My contribution to this emerging post-liberal framework is to borrow and synthesize it with elements from foreign civilizational frameworks to build a more just political economy. It isn’t good enough to handwave about the common good. We need real creativity and reorganization of communities; we must consider the way political structures interact with and sustain the health of these vital building blocks of civilization. Faiths are the last real nationwide communities left in America’s social hellscape. In particular, the three Abrahamic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—possess the social technologies necessary to subsist for long periods of time, through rise and decline, prosperity and famine. They are anchors for civilizations in turmoil. It is incumbent we look at how exactly these faiths have survived around the world for such a long time so that we can adopt their traditions, methods, and norms to rebuild the foundations of today’s society.
I want especially to look at Islamic civilization’s heritage in matters of governance, political economy, and law. This legacy of thought is extensive and has existed in a symbiotic relationship with correspondent European traditions for over a millennium. It is not as alien as it may first appear, even if some wish it to be so. One of the modern state’s main problems, not just in America but worldwide, is that it opposes all forms of territorial autonomy not granted by the state itself. At best, this is bound within some sort of federalist structure. However, most of the thinking done by scholars and activists on autonomy and decentralization has focused on territorial autonomy. The Islamic millet system was a non-territorial form of autonomy that did not threaten the state’s control over its territory. Out-sourcing key functions of governance to communities, it devolved such duties as judiciary, education, and security. The millet system shares many principles with the American federalist system and can be adapted to the American tradition to help rebuild family and community, develop a healthy relationship with the state, and create a more just political economy.
Milletism is not integralism. Integralism, a political theory that has been in vogue among the Catholic right, entails the subordination of state to church to achieve a moral, common good. Integralism is only made possible by the existence of a centralized institution like the Catholic Church. Unlike the development of state-church relations in Europe, there has never been a centralized religious institution in Islamic civilization. The forefathers of America fled Europe to escape the tyranny and conflict arising between centralized religious and secular power. In doing so, they created a political and social system that at once prevented religious conflict from taking over at the top and ensured a level of decentralization that enabled various faith groups to live in peace. As such, there could be no a priori consideration of a division between the temporal and the divine, as these were not embodied in distinct institutions like the state and church, respectively. The boundaries between the secular (qanun, derived from the Latin “canon”) and the revelation (shar’i) have always been fluid. More importantly, this means the millet model followed a path dependency of development that provided both greater community autonomy alongside the state. It did not threaten political power and incentivized rulers to respect local autonomy. The millet system offers incentives to actors across social strata—except, of course, those whose interests it is to continually atomize and destroy social bonds for the sake of economic rent-seeking or radical political centralization, the road to tyranny.
The Basis of an Alliance Sacrée in the 21st Century
In introducing Islamicate ideas of social, political, and economic organization to a western audience who may react with bewilderment if not hostility, it is important to establish a basis of cooperation and dialogue. Especially in times where we see the rise of pedophilia in music and film to the aggressive silencing of our beliefs and traditions, the Abrahamic faiths now need each other more than they oppose each other. Times have changed, and while some still meme about crusades to conquer Jerusalem or jihads to conquer Rome, faith communities are besieged by an incredibly aggressive and totalizing ideology that renders these issues irrelevant.
In Genesis, God promised Abraham:
And I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.2
Over half of the world’s population belongs to one of the three Abrahamic faiths. Outside of East Asia and India, the Abrahamic faiths predominate. God’s promise to Abraham was fulfilled. The shared blood and history of the children of Isaac and Ismael mean that there are primordial values, applicable across space-time, that characterize the core essence of the Abrahamic worldview. This shared experience distinguishes us, on a planetary scale, from any other group of beliefs, be they Sinic, Indic, or otherwise. These values should operate as the basis of collaboration against the encroaching power of the state and aggressive ideologies. As the beleaguered bearers of a worldview still imbued with the presence of the divine, the Abrahamic faiths’ response to the challenges of modernity has so far been haphazard and poor. Organized collaboration based on shared interests is almost non-existent beyond interfaith conferences and flaccid statements about tolerance and coexistence.
The English polymath and Islamic scholar Abdul Hakim Murad has repeatedly called for an “alliance sacrée” between the Abrahamic faiths to resist encroaching secularization and its deleterious effects: family breakdown, social atomization, and the rise of ersatz religions turning into bloody revolutions and cults.3 If the imperative for Abrahamic collaboration is clear, then what are the fundamental principles that would underlie this collaboration? Ismail Royer offers a useful syllogism from the Muslim perspective:4
1. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism are all true in the things they agree on.
2. Christianity & Judaism are false in the things they disagree on with Islam.
Point 1 is the basis of cooperating for the common good in this life. Point 2 is the basis of salvation in the next. Point 2 can see Islam replaced with either of the other two religions, e.g. “Islam & Judaism are false in the things they disagree on with Christianity.” This syllogism is a succinct and logical summary from which all cooperation can henceforth proceed without ambiguity, with a clear statement on our differences in belief as well as a clear platform for cooperation.
Islamic Political Economy: The Millet System
Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second rightly guided Caliph of Islam, was a role model in many different ways.5 He was personally austere as a ruler, saying, “I will be harsh and stern against the aggressor, but I will be a pillar of strength for the weak.”6 This austerity also provided an incredible level of tolerance for his time. His edict in Jerusalem laid the groundwork for how Islamic rule would deal with the question of non-Muslims thereafter, guaranteeing their places of worship and their right to worship. He affirmed this himself by refusing to pray in the Sepulcher. His innovative governance introduced new administrative practices and taxes to ensure that the rapidly-expanding Caliphate could be sustainable. His impact would influence the forms of governance that would later emerge in other European Islamic empires such as Al-Andalus (across the Iberian peninsula) and the Ottoman empire (as it stretched into the Balkans).
One such form of governance, the millet system (or “milletism”), would arise in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman form of governance sustained the longest-lived Islamic polity, ruled the most territory, and belonged to the modern period, dissolved in 1923. Milletism was an Islamicate model of non-territorial autonomy and communal organization, although this model has been the subject of study and calls for emulation in post-Islamicate states such as Israel, where Ephraim Nimni has proposed a new sort of millet model to facilitate coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.7 Fragments of it still exist in places like Egypt and Turkey, and there are calls for a new form of milletism—fractal localism—to be implemented in places torn apart by communal strife, like Lebanon.
The Anglo-American model of common law, a federal system, and the principles of free association and self-government is very similar to the millet system. The Anglo-American system can thus interact and share ideas with this system, perhaps looking to tolerant solutions for governance over a multi-racial, multi-religious population. It could help to resolve the legitimate grievances of Native Americans and African Americans and also help to integrate new communities of immigrants, such as from the Muslim world, to maintain their community organization and faith and contribute to the American system.
When Muslims occupied new territories, only “public law” applied to the conquered populations, such as tax law, criminal law, land law, and the like. New subjects were to live by their own denominational laws, and more importantly, there were no further “campaigns” or programs to integrate them into the occupiers’ legal system and force them into an educational apparatus to remold them into new subjects, that is, national citizens. Even the Muslim civic population, as we saw, was not subjected to such an educational technology since education was both denominational and free of the state’s interference (because there was no “Muslim state” in the first place). Although Islamic conquests and rule over non-Muslim populations involved “domination,” this mode of rule can be comfortably described as one “at arm’s length.”
By contrast, European colonialism was intrusive and penetrating, aiming to change the very constitution of the colonized subject, to fashion him in new ways, to act on his body through a system of jurisprudence, to discipline him, to subjugate him into docility, just as European governance had done to its own subjects at home. But to implement this project, the entire social order—moral communities, customary practices, traditions, modes of material transactions, and every major traditional concept—had to be destroyed and then replaced. Long-standing cultures, continuously evolving over centuries are ecosystems that maintain webs of intricate and intertwined relationships between the human and the environment, between the communal and the cosmological.8
As Wael Hallaq explains in Restating Orientalism, the millet system was essentially the organization of every ethnic-religious group in the empire into autonomous, self-regulating communities.9 Local notables, including wealthy merchants, religious leaders, and nobles, acted as intermediaries between these communities and the Ottoman state. In return for their cultural and legal autonomy, these communities were expected to pay both fealty and a tax to the Sultan. They were also exempt from conscription, except in places where the Devshirme system was active in the Balkans. Outside of this, how each community organized itself internally was entirely dependent on its own beliefs and cultures, and this autonomy was respected by the Sultan.
This raises the question: did this not affect the state’s ability to control its empire? Not really. The imperial structure incentivized the intermediary layer of notables to accept the sovereignty of the empire and balance the needs of their people. More importantly, the millet system was a non-territorial form of autonomy. This meant that there was no consolidated area belonging to one particular ethnic group. Instead, every area of the empire that lay in or near consolidated, urban areas was deeply diverse. It also enabled groups like the Armenians or Jews to be dispersed over a wide range of territory yet retain their cultural distinction and religious autonomy. As a form of territorial sovereignty, nationalism would have disastrous consequences for this in the dying decades of the empire as it forced groups to violently seize territory from each other. The millet system therefore fostered both cultural cohesion and localism for the millets, as well as religious universalism in facilitating the unit of religious identities for these groups. That great homogenizing middle was not catered to.
Bear in mind that this was not an idealistic structure. This was a realistic consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of the empire—too weak to homogenize populations by force, but strong enough to give significant autonomy to divergent ethnic and religious groups without facing threats to the imperial system. In a sense, the empire operated on a sort of fractal localist principle, whereby its ability to consume an ever-increasing number of peoples through conquest further added to its robustness and universality—a sort of antifragility. This model of cultural and legal autonomy also prevented conflict from arising between the different groups of the empire, unlike the nation-state which forces groups into competition to seize the state and homogenize the other groups. The use of nationalism was spurred by the modern state’s need for a uniform population that could easily be accounted for to be taxed, conscripted, and turned into a labour force.
An example of milletism wider afield is that of the Jewish community’s use of Islamic courts, from the Ottoman empire to Morocco. In Across Legal Lines, Jessica M. Marglin explored court archives and talked with Jewish descendants of people involved in Maghrebi-Jewish life to piece together how the court system had worked before the French imposed a uniform, secular civil code.10 Although religious and political communities had their own courts, the state-backed Islamic courts also functioned as a sort of Supreme Court when communities could not, or would not, agree to a ruling in their own court. The Islamic courts tended to have a reputation for fairer and faster rulings, and could apply more lenient laws on marriage and inheritance (among other things) that would provide a plaintiff with a more attractive ruling. Both Jews and Muslims preferred having the option of their own communal courts and a “supreme” Islamic court for arbitration. French imposition of a uniform secular law was met with frustration if not outright hostilities in the form of non-acquiescence and even rebellion. Another example is the Christian use of Islamic courts in Cyprus. In the 17–18th centuries, 40% of lawsuits in the Islamic courts included at least one non-Muslim, with 27% involving only non-Muslims. Over a quarter of the cases conducted in Islamic courts were examples of Muslim judges using shari’a to arbitrate between two non-Muslims.11
There are two principles said to underline the millet system.12 First, decentralization cannot occur without facilitation from the top. This requires a state that is neither overpowering nor weak. If the state is overpowering, it will seek to homogenize and control communities as it will see no need to allow decentralization and autonomy. Resistance to an overpowering state is one of the principles of the Anglo-American system (in contrast to the continental European system) and is therefore conducive to this. However, if the state is too weak, it will not be able to stop communalism from breaking out and the different groups fighting each other. The situation in Lebanon gives us a sad example of what happens when the communities are strong and divided and the state is weak and nonexistent. If Lebanon wants to see a functioning communal-based polity, it will require a strong state to both create the constitutional structure of the wider system and appoint appropriate intermediaries as community leaders. That is to say, not leaders like Hassan Nasrallah, seeking to use community as a base for violence against other communities and other states.
The Middle East was once the jewel of what a multi-ethnic and religious social order could look like. Until the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was an example of the millet system par excellence, with various social groups of the empire expected to look after themselves through a complex, multi-layered network of largely privately-funded institutions such as schools, hospitals, and religious places (through Awqaf). Free association was the order of the day. It is a potential template, then, for the possibility of genuine religious communities, not isolating themselves from society, but building new, very engaged poleis that can act as hotbeds for trade, innovation, and a healthy community.
Before nationalist forces were unleashed by Europe, Ottoman Constantinople was a microcosm of the empire as a whole. By the mid-19th century, the population included 380,000 Muslims, 205,000 Armenians, 100,000 Greeks, and 37,000 Jews.13 As such, the capital of the Ottoman empire barely had a Muslim majority until the early 20th century. This time-span covered 400 years. Constantinople was divided into 455 mahalle (districts), with every race and religion occupying their own district, having a market, place of worship, and local courts according to their own customs and laws. If they could not successfully achieve arbitration here, the Islamic courts served as a higher, and popular, last resort. Armenians, Genoans, Greeks, Turks, Kurds, Albanians, and so on, all occupied districts that would carry the flavor of their respective traditions. These are essential facts that undermine the narrative that, until the dying decades of the empire beset by wars on every front and destructive nationalist forces acting from within, the Muslim rulers of the empire had engaged in the destruction of near eastern and Balkan Christianity. On the contrary, after centuries under Ottoman rule, the various Christian Churches flourished, able to avoid the inter-sect warfare that usually occurred between Catholic and Orthodox or Protestant. Instead, they were forced to live together under their various millets under the protection of the Sultan.
To reiterate: this is no theory of coexistence. This was a lived reality, the very social structure of the empire. The values of free association, communal traditions and laws, and the exercise of one’s faith were guaranteed by the House of Osman, a reality that continued until the mid-late 19th century when the Tanzimat reforms laid bare the differences in political and economic achievement between the various millets of the empire.14 Now, Muslim, Christian, and Jew had to compete in the same courts, in the same markets, in the same government, and in the same military. Massive inequalities surfaced particularly in education and the economy, where Christians leveraged their connection to the European powers to secure dominance in these areas and were seen as fifth columnists for encroaching European powers. The millet system was thereby torn apart as the centralized European state model came to replace the empire’s once-rich social fabric. Just as the French (among other powers) had annihilated the various languages and races of Brittany, Burgundy, and Aquitaine, the Ottoman empire adopted similar techniques and practices of European statecraft. It is no surprise that the dying decade of the empire saw post-coup rule by military officers trained by French and German officers.
America today sees this same encroachment. As religiosity declines, many are now aware that what is replacing it is not an arena of reason and liberty, but ersatz religions, cults, and wider political polarization. The decimation of complex civil society leaves people with few identities and allegiances—therefore, they pour their feelings into political movements. Meanwhile, the administrative state continues its long march into the rubble of American society, replacing what were once social laws and norms with formal legislation and police power. In turn, people have become far more susceptible to the powers of corporations who find it easier to turn men into consumers when they are stripped of religious or communal ties. Our allegiance is no longer to God, families and peoples, but to brands, political parties, and bespoke digital conspiracies. It is impossible to create a just political economy in such a hellscape. What is necessary is the painstaking rebuilding of communities, and as the few remaining coherent groups left, the Abrahamic faiths have a unique opportunity to spur this development.
The triumph of the individual over the collective has led to rapid social breakdown in the western hemisphere. Once touted as a sign of progress, many are now coming to understand what this truly means: economic stagnation, social atomization, political polarization, and a deep apathy to life manifesting as nihilism. The family and the community are the basic building blocks of civilization for a reason: they have proven antifragile properties that kingdoms and empires do not have. It should not be a surprise that studies all but confirm that elite lineages and wealth persist across generations and societal collapses. More importantly, these networks act as forms of intangible asset transfer across space-time. Ibn Khaldun noted that asabiya was the key driver of history. Ultimately, cases of individual heroism throughout history are but the sum of the desire of the self to sacrifice for the collective. This collective spirit’s rise and decline determined whether a civilization thrived or collapsed. It seems that the asabiya of countries in the Anglosphere has all but collapsed under the weight of active mismanagement and the passive corrosion of their internal dysfunctions.
The spread of QAnon around the world is a case in point. Few understand this phenomenon, but when you consider that people are abandoning old, rooted concepts of identity (much of it against their will, such as socio-economic decay and the decline of family in America coupled with American cultural hegemony abroad), in favor of tribal allegiances with like-minded people, it makes more sense. If you can no longer identify a shared reality with your local church or boomer parents, and you find a group of people who share similar interests and are willing to tolerate and welcome you, then it is likely you join into these groups. Creedal asabiya is the most universalizing force of tribalism. Unlike asabiya based on family or race, it can scale to include the entire human population. America was a nation built upon a particular creed; the Constitution was meant to embody what the Republic stood for, and all, regardless of their race or religion, were ostensibly welcome to pledge their allegiance to it and become Americans. The actual history is muddier, but what is clear today is that this creed is no longer a unifying factor in America.
Earlier, I discussed the Ottoman Empire’s millet system as a form of non-territorial autonomous identity and belonging. If you were an Armenian, Jew, or any other ethnic or religious group, you could expect your people to run networks of schools, courts, and trading enterprises strung around the world. The idea of blocs of people was nonsense; life is a complex, multi-layered puzzle of networks constantly pulsating, shifting, growing, and declining. This was destroyed in the conflict during the rise of the nation-state. Nation-states were created by herding and culling people into manageable populations labelled “nations," to be taxed, demographically managed, and forced into a political economy of consumption.
However, this 20th century phenomenon is a blip. As the leading ideology of the Western hemisphere, national-level identity, political control and culture may be dead but communities are starting to re-emerge as a potent force for organization at the local level, and millet-style arrangements may return to force as people rediscover the importance of communities and tribes. The old understanding of identity as rooted in what is tangible and near is now over. We are seeing a return to this organic form of human belonging and organization, this time borne via the cloud. The nation-state is woefully under-equipped to manage this new world—but this does not mean the rise of apolitical utopias. So, what comes next?A modern arrangement of this sort is what Nassim Taleb calls “fractal localism,” a localist philosophy that emphasizes a sort of subsidiarity (as in Catholic doctrine), but with a quantified, mathematical approach. From Lebanon, a country largely run by the millet system under the Ottoman Empire and retaining most of the features of the system today (but which has suffered from its shoehorning into a foreign nation-state model called “confessionalism”), Taleb’s thought is an upgraded millet system. In his draft of Principia Politica, Nassim Taleb lays out eighteen principles for his politics of fractal localism, the first of which is scalability. No scale-free politics can be imagined; at the federal, state, county and community level, people may have different sets of beliefs and relationships that make politics dynamic and complex. An autistified, path-dependent and individualist politics is anathema.15 Additionally, between the individual and the collective (i.e., the nation or society), there exist multiple layers of intermediary clusters of varying fractal gradations.
A useful way to imagine the government-community relationship is as a set of nodes. The centralized network can be said to be the maximal nation-state, with strong centralized authority that broaches no intermediary between itself and the individual. This most resembles American society today, owing to decades of evisceration of various layers of society. The distributed network is a situation we may find in Balkanized states, such as post-Yugoslavia, Libya, Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq, Somalia or Syria. In this situation, the state is either very weak or nonexistent—the libertarian paradise. The decentralized network is closest to the millet system as it existed in the Ottoman empire and much of Islamic civilization, and forms the basic structure of how we can re-imagine community-state relations today.
Part of the dynamics of nationalism is to tear people apart from complex systems in order to homogenize them into simple systems. According to mimetic theory, this allows the proliferation of mass violence as intermediary structures are torn away and people with different worldviews and belief systems are forced into one giant arena. Great examples of this are Facebook and Twitter, which have played a big role in fostering conflict—be it Facebook mobilizing Rohingya pogroms in Burma or Twitter forcing the different sides of America to perpetually exist in online gladiatorial combat. Familiarity breeds contempt. It is not as if America has never had political differences, if not intense polarization, on certain matters. The main difference is that today, via social media, Americans are forced to regularly confront the full gamut of the other’s views in an unnatural manner. This runs contrary to the liberal anthropology, assuming that regular exposure would instead breed cooperation and homogenization. On the contrary, Americans are now rediscovering the fundamental question of all human politics: how do we prevent ourselves from killing each other?
Human beings are like fractals. Rather than reaching ever higher levels of homogenization, human beings devolve into ever more fragmented allegiances, identities and tribes. A man may be part of a religion, a nation, a city, a community, a family, a football club, a particular position in his friend group, and so on. The Founders understood this in some form, which is why the principles of self-government and the federal system were created. Re-identifying the principles of fractal localism that enabled heterogeneous societies to live in relative peace, from the Ottoman empire (until its dying decades) to the United States, comes hand in hand with having a strong state that can facilitate this decentralization without it becoming a zero-sum game. But in order to have a robust communal framework like fractal localism, we need to rebuild communities in the first place.
Alasdair Macintyre and Social Technologies
In discussions around what exactly we need to do about the civilizational stagnation, there is too much talk about policies and government intervention. As of yet, there are no frameworks for community action, which is more important than government intervention. It is the duty of government to reduce the barriers to action; it is upon communities to take advantage of that reduction. I want to propose a few ways in which religious communities, who are some of the only real communities left, can help to rebuild wider society. It is not good enough to lay out critiques of the prevailing system, nor to merely propose theoretical salves for it. I want to propose a few real institutions that anyone can help in building, but I suspect that it will be the Abrahamic faiths that do most of the legwork in this regard. Alasdair Macintyre’s much misunderstood Benedict Option is one way to go about this.
What is very interesting about St. Benedict is that he quite inadvertently created a new set of social forms. He founded a monastic order and one thing about this monastic order was that they had to survive to make their living, so they had to be farmers. So, we have monks who are farmers. Now the interesting thing about monks is that they don’t breed. So there had to be non-monks around. Benedictine communities existed in a set of villages. . . Then it had a crucial symbiotic relationship with them. First of all, they were all farmers, so they exchanged these goods. Secondly, it is from the sons of these villagers that novices were found. And the monks therefore had a keen interest in the education of the community. So over time the monastery became the place that provided schooling and liturgy. The villages provided lay-recruits and so on. . . this is actually the creation of a new set of social institutions which then proceed to evolve a very interesting set of social institutions. So when I said we need a new St. Benedict I was suggesting we need a new kind of engagement with the social order, not any kind of withdrawal from it.16
As Macintyre explains, St. Benedict did not create an isolated homesteading community. He constructed a vision of new social forms, in which the monastic order was central but by no means self-sufficient. This order relied on lay persons; i.e., the set of peasant villages around them with which the monks could exchange goods and find novices to adopt the priestly vocation. Naturally, this spawned educational, economic, legal, and political requirements and institutions as this community scaled in complexity. By creating order and need, monasteries set the stage for rapid growth. This was not an isolated community, but one that attempted to build new social technologies based on an expansionary vision.
If we are talking about civilizational technologies, institutions embodying governance, law, power, asabiya, and such form its core. This matters far more than real technology; with a stable civilizational core, we can do great things. Technology can be made and remade. But without a core, it is useless. A man once declared that software was eating the world, and that we need to start building again. Those things are contradictions. If we are to start building again, it will not be by replacing community with the latest ersatz software-as-community idea. It will be by engaging in the painstaking process of building viable political, legal, and economic structures for the existence of family and community again. In looking at who could do this, Jonah Bennett argued that it will most likely fall to existing religions (the Abrahamic faiths, in particular) to develop social technologies to combat the various social ills facing society.17
He is probably right. But I am more concerned with what institutions we can build. I propose the creation of two institutions:
1. The inalienable charitable endowment (the waqf), to fund healthcare, economic and educational missionary activities
2. The “Community Wealth Fund,” a decentralized, public savings bank system modeled after the German Sparkassen Finanzgruppen
These institutions embody the belief that there is immense social decay and that it can be corrected, not by big state intervention, but by the collectivized response of religious communities to the needs of their neighbors. This is the true Benedict Option: a systemic, Abrahamic response providing on-the-ground support to besieged communities.
As mentioned in the chapter on the millet system, millets were powered through awqaf which funded private education, healthcare, and religious places of worship.18 The waqf was really the lynchpin of Islamic civilization, one of the great enduring institutions of human philanthropy that is yet unrivaled in its scale and intention. Its legacy exists today in the fact that Muslims have consistently outperformed every other people in the giving of charity, demonstrating how deeply its ethos pervades the Muslim mindset. Movements like effective altruism are a pale attempt at imitating the real thing and—lacking a robust moral framework—will never be able to come close to it.
America is suffering from a plague of rent seeking insurance companies that have hollowed out the medical profession and turned it into a vehicle for massive profits and massive suffering. Strategically placed awqaf funded by Abrahamic communities and philanthropic individuals can focus on the development of a network of free or limited payment healthcare providers that are placed within some of the most at-risk communities in America. Doctors and other healthcare professionals can be called upon to serve a portion of their time in these institutions in a missionary spirit, not to gain converts, but to save lives. Muslims are already carrying out such activities in America, based on community donations and often in poor clinical environments owing to a lack of systematic support.19 It is estimated that over 50,000 patients are served every year by Muslim-led initiatives such as this, and they are virtually all uninsured. These initiatives show the productive potential of a wide-ranging and systematic approach by Abrahamic communities to providing free healthcare that can bypass rapacious insurance companies and lackluster healthcare laws.
This does not have to be restricted to healthcare. Charitable endowments can also fund the creation of a network of educational institutes that cover everything from basic finance to technical skills to the liberal arts. “Educational missionaries” will be paid to travel along these circuits, encouraging a peripatetic approach to scholarship that also has a high impact on communities that need it the most. This is not just distributive monetary wealth that will dissipate as often does in poorer communities, but distributive knowledge wealth that will actively educate and heal communities of many of their social issues. Evangelicals and Mormons are famous for their globe-ranging activities in these areas, but as of yet, there is no far-reaching program to boost educational achievement and community creation in America itself. Once again, it is Abrahamic communities that tend to have the most robust networks for education and the moral framework which will see people sacrifice time and pay to serve others.
We should not approach such initiatives timidly. Rent-seeking insurance companies and universities act aggressively in stealing the wealth of the people, privatizing their profits and socializing the losses. In such a manner, any waqf-based approach to healthcare and education must be equally, if not more, aggressive in seeking to gain ground, save lives, and improve community education.
Community Wealth Funds
First things first, poorer communities need access to capital in order to get richer. It does not get simpler than that. The West Coast competes with the East Coast to create ever cooler gadgets and technologies for digital payments or stock trading, but none of them are interested in on-the-ground institutions that help the ordinary person to save (without looking to steal their savings) and invest in their own community. If formal laws will not work to prevent the grand theft of ordinary Americans’ wealth, then those imbued with the Abrahamic moral framework can step in to do so via the creation of Community Wealth Funds (CWF).
The key inspiration for the CWF comes from the Sparkassen model, a highly successful public savings bank criss-crossing Germany. The CWF would be a network of decentralized, commercial banks, with each bank independent and locally managed to ensure that it is community members who are managing the money of their communities, not distant actors in New York or London. A CWF would concentrate on business activities in the region in which it is situated. CWFs would operate as “impact funds” to invest community savings into community businesses with promise, therefore building deeper community bonds and a sense of shared prosperity. Your savings go into my business, my corporate taxes go into your healthcare, and the rising tide lifts us all up. And so on. Decentralization creates robustness which will prevent the systemic risks embedded in the financial system from destroying people’s savings through central points of failure; e.g., the Federal Reserve and the inevitable consequences of its interventions.
Like the Sparkassen system, the CWF will not be profit-orientated. It operates in the public interest by providing capital to individuals and under-developed regions that may not be able to access capital via traditional means. As it is not profit-orientated, we need not rely on usurious models of banking to generate massive profits and satisfy the bonuses of investment bankers and executives, focusing instead on having skin in the game via equity and cultivating the productive powers of a community. We will see how Benjamin Franklin established an endowment and lent money at interest. We can do one step better and commit to a real buy-in in communities through equity investment—we only succeed as far as they succeed. This ensures that the mission of the CWF network remains on course and incentives are aligned.
There is precedence for this. Benjamin Franklin endowed the cities of Boston and Philadelphia with 1,000 pounds in 1789, stipulating that after 200 years, the cities could claim the spoils.20 These endowments were dedicated to providing (interest-based) loans to married tradesmen to help them succeed in their trade and set up businesses.
The Trustees shall. . . let out the sum upon interest, at five percent, per annum, to such young married artificers, under the age of twenty-five years, as have served an apprenticeship in the said town, and faithfully fulfilled the duties required in their indentures, so as to obtain a good moral character from at least two respectable citizens, who are willing to become their sureties, in a bonk with the applicants, for the repayment of the moneys so lent, with interest, according to the terms hereinafter prescribed.21
The moral incentives are clear, but who among the financiers will take pay cuts and abandon lucrative careers on Wall Street to serve communities in Ohio, Wisconsin, or Kentucky? The Mormons are willing to do this owing to their moral framework.22 I remember seeing comments on Twitter from people who were bewildered at their willingness to answer the call of the Mormon Church to serve in the Ensign Peak fund or to serve as educational missionaries or pastors. If our atomized, secular friends do not understand this, we do. We have a moral framework in which we are answerable to our God, Prophets, and communities. This cannot be shirked for self-interest or profit motives, and so we have a very important position as being among the last people with a coherent course of action in serving community interests. The CWF model also ensures that decision-making and capital flows are largely kept at the local level, giving people a wide degree of power over their own lives and improving belief in democracy as a vehicle for change. This is firmly in line with the decentralized principles of fractal localism and the self-government and townhouse democracy of early American society; people need to govern their own lives and communities again.
State Decentralization, Law, and Surveillance Society
If we are to seriously consider a form of fractal localism to heal communities and restore economic power to cities and regions, the role of the state and industrial policy cannot be ignored. In discussing localism, it is often treated as a standalone phenomenon that could almost be achieved by itself through some sort of free-market style equilibrium between different communities. The lesson from history is that this is simply not true. There must always be a strong (not necessarily big) central power sitting well above the decentralized communities to ensure that it can hold a monopoly of violence. Without this balancing effect, communities would engage in perpetual warfare as equal competitors in a “truly free market,” whittling away profits in an unwinnable war. In this case, lives instead of profits. Such examples include the post-Ottoman territories in the Balkans and the Levant where weak states gave way to incessant communal warfare to capture the few extractive state institutions that do exist.
In this context, the federal system of the Union and the Anglo-American traditions of free association, the common law and self-government are nearly perfectly placed to cultivate a communal framework. They need only be seized and redirected toward the ends that the Founders had initially built these machines for. There are contentious legal debates occurring between what is labelled “originalism” and “common good constitutionalism.” The original Constitution of America was a limited document, with a wide range of assumptions made in its creation. The founders took for granted that a strong community ethos that lended itself to self-government would always exist and, therefore, the constitutional order of the Union would remain healthy. Rampant individualism and atomization are threatening this order, and no amount of grand legal fixes and theories can fix this. In this sense, it is not the constitution that has become irrelevant, but the social order whose wide range of social and moral technologies which has become defunct and led to the hollowing out of the communal basis of the constitution.
Law is not monolithic, nor is it static. It is a complex system of multiple legal theories and systems constantly developing and changing over time to conform to and shaped by the imperatives of political power and community needs. The arguments in favor of implicitly religious systems of law like common good constitutionalism rely on the idea that it is the technical word of the law that can enforce morality; this is an incorrect understanding of moral law, be it natural law or religiously-specific laws (e.g., shari’a, halakha, or canon law). These laws were merely the formalization of moral technologies that existed in their respective communities of believers, embodied through rituals, communal events (Friday or Sunday prayers), &c. Law lends itself to the imperative of the time and is never set in stone. It is constantly interpreted and re-interpreted according to the worldview and needs of the people. Less focus should be given to formalities in the legal system and more on the moral technologies undergirding society, which will in turn bring out the moral imperatives in the legal system while making redundant those elements which are not conducive to the moral imperatives of community, faith, and, most importantly, justice.
Creating healthy communities not only entails an economic order but also a moral and judicial order (in the intangible sense). What I mean by this is that as opposed to relying on homogenizing and terrorizing via the use of state security apparatus or wild mobs, we should be empowering communities to be able to police their own members. This means having a stable framework from which to do this, as well as being judged by one’s own peers as opposed to being subject to either national mobs or surveillance technology. I have already detailed how religious communities did this under the millet system. One interesting, modern attempt at wresting power away from the state and the mob is the “transformative justice movement,” an attempt at localized, community systems focused around penance, not punishment. This is remarkable in how it mirrors the justice system of Abrahamic faiths, with the goal not being to cancel or punish alone but to encourage penance and moral renewal.
I have previously written on the technification of social relations and how mob justice and surveillance technology is now replacing complex social relations.23 This is the nation-state’s response to losing control over a world that is rejecting the homogenizing logic of 20th century polities in favor of fluid networks. In this way, globalization is not necessarily dead as its spirit of free-flowing people and ideas continues to gain traction. If you were an Armenian, Jew, or any other ethnic or religious group, you could expect your people to be running networks of schools, courts, and trading enterprises strung around the world. The idea of blocs of people was nonsense; life is a complex, multi-layered puzzle of networks constantly pulsating, shifting, growing, and declining. What we are seeing is a return to this organic form of human belonging and organization.
The collapse of society in the West necessitates the identification and cooperation on shared strategic interests by the Abrahamic faiths. Operating in ignorance of each other, we become easy prey for the bigots and loathers who want to see our communities torn apart as theirs were. I have proposed a logical framework for this cooperation that ensures both the affirmation of our respective creeds in a respectful manner while also enabling us to work together on key issues that concern us all. The millet system is a distant but not-so-foreign framework to think about how different communities can coexist—and have coexisted—in peace while enjoying full liberty to cultivate their own religious traditions, worship, language, and culture. The millet system’s modern equivalent of fractal localism is a possibility for any future reorganization of how we approach community organization and how polities need not go in the direction of ever-greater centralization and homogenization but can use complexity as an antifragile strength.
However, we cannot ever remain on the defensive and engage in apologetics, nor is it enough to handwave about the common good. We need real creativity and reorganization of communities and the way the political structure interacts with and sustains the health of these vital building blocks of civilization. There are practical things we can start doing now to help our neighbors and create new material bases for society. In the American context, this means the Abrahamic faiths collaborating around the building of genuine institutions such as charitable endowments that finance education and healthcare, and providing non-usurious forms of financing for poorer communities. These can be built up from a moral base of shared principles and values that are shared between the Abrahamic faiths, and be deployed by our respective faith communities to tend to the immediate needs of our neighbors. People do not just need charity or stimulus checks; they need real, long-term projects that provide a new, healthy, and moral political economy. The two related institutions—the non-profit based organization of education and healthcare via charitable endowments, and the community wealth fund—can help to put money and control into the hands of poorer communities and to protect them from the rapacious appetite of the rent seeking economy.
The federal structure, the common law, the ideals of self-government, and religious liberty for all were fractal principles that sought to keep the engine of the Republic running for as long as possible. The future of America must be to look beyond 20th century liberalism, not in the direction of decay, persecution, and techno-tyranny but in pursuit of the ideals that grounded the American Republic at its founding. To escape this, rebuilding communities as an intermediary between state power and individuals is an absolutely necessary first step, lest the West go in the direction of China and see a technologically-equipped state mediate all forms of social relations. Building a just political economy is the first step in this direction.
1. For a more in-depth read on Ibn Khaldun’s idea of asabiya: Tanner Greer, “Introducing: Asabiyah,” Scholar’s Stage, May 02, 2015. https://scholars-stage.blogspot.com/2015/05/introducing-asabiyah.html
2. Genesis 26:4.
3. Abdal-Hakim Murad, “Can Liberalism Tolerate Islam?” Oslo Litteraturhuset, March 20, 2011. http://masud.co.uk/ISLAM/ahm/AHM-Can-Liberalism-tolerate-islam.htm
4. Ismail Royer’s syllogism, originally from Twitter (@IsmailRoyer). https://twitter.com/IsmailRoyer/status/1285935726698340358
5. Umar ibn al-Khattab was the second “rightly guided caliph”—that is, one of the early and pious successors to the Prophet Mohammed ﷺ. Umar was responsible for many of the pioneering administrative and governmental reforms in the Rashidun Caliphate. These reforms would come to set the “flavor” of Islamic governance ever after, particularly in relation to the manner in which he treated the newly-conquered peoples of the MENA region.
6. Muhammad Husayn Haykal, Al Farooq, Umar. 1944. Ch. 5, p. 124.
7. Ephraim Nimni, “Milletism for Israel,” lecture given at European Not-Territorial Autonomy Network Conference, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAjRIKqVHEA
8. Wael Hallaq, Restating Orientalism. 2018. 129.
10. Jessica M. Marglin, Across Legal Lines: Jews and Muslims in Modern Morocco. 2016.
11. K. Cicek, “Interpreters of the court in the Ottoman Empire as seen from the Sharia court records of Cyprus,” Islamic Law and Society, 9(1), 2002. 1–15.
12. Karen Barkey & George Gavrilis, “The Ottoman Millet System: Non-Territorial Autonomy and its Contemporary Legacy,” Ethnopolitics, 15(1), 2016.
13. Kemal Karpat, Studies on Ottoman Social and Political History: Selected Articles and Essays. 2002. 266.14. For the post-conquest treatment of Constantinople by the Ottomans, see: Halil Inalcik, “The Policy of Mehmed II toward the Greek Population of Istanbul and the Byzantine Buildings of the City.” 1969.
15. The term autistification means “where the presence of scientism meets the absence of culture, resulting in the promotion of technological-salvationist answers to complex global issues.” In essence, it is the radical simplification of complex issues by epistemologically-violent technologies. I apply it to the process of social atomization. See: Cameron Bandari, “Autistification and Its Discontents: From Self-Driving Cars to Self-Thinking Brains.” August 17, 2017. https://medium.com/@Cameronbandari/autistification-and-its-discontents-from-self-driving-cars-to-self-thinking-brains-8df419fdb27
16. Alasdair Macintyre, “Common Goods, Frequent Evils” conference keynote at The Common Good as Common Project, March 26-28, 2017.
17. Jonah Bennett, “Can Social Technologists Solve the Atomization Problem?” Erraticus, January 27, 2020. https://erraticus.co/2020/01/27/atomization-social-technology-community-alienation/
18. For more on the inalienable charitable endowment in Islam, you can read two papers from the Yaqeen Institute: Khalil Abdurrashid, “Financing Kindness as a Society: The Rise & Fall of Islamic Philanthropic Institutions (Waqfs),” Yaqeen Institue, January 9, 2020. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/khalil-abdurrashid/financing-kindness-as-a-society-the-rise-fall-of-islamic-philanthropic-institutions-waqfs/ and Zara Khan, “Reviving the Waqf Tradition: Moral Imagination and the Structural Causes of Poverty,” Yaqeen Institute, July 2, 2020. https://yaqeeninstitute.org/zarakhan/reviving-the-waqf-tradition-moral-imagination-and-the-structural-causes-of-poverty/
19. Fran Quickley, “Muslim Healthcare for All,” Foreign Policy, June 27, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/06/27/muslim-health-care-for-all/
20. Benjamin Franklin’s Gift That Keeps On Giving, see: https://www.historynet.com/ben-franklins-gift-keeps-giving.htm
22. Ian Lovett and Rachael Levy, “The Mormon Church Amassed $100 Billion. It Was the Best-Kept Secret in the Investment World,” Wall Street Journal, February 8, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-mormon-church-amassed-100-billion-it-was-the-best-kept-secret-in-the-investment-world-11581138011
23. Ahmed al-Dakhil, “On the Commodification and Technification of Urban Relations and Spaces,” Post Apathy, August 7, 2020. https://www.postapathy.com/on-the-commodification-and-technologification-of-urban-spaces-and-relations/
Featured image: Dusk on the Golden Horn painting (1845) by Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovsky via Wikimedia Commons.
Ahmed al-Dakhil is the pseudonym of a Muslim and writer based in the UK. He works on a variety of projects, including Post Apathy, a newsletter looking at the intersection of religion, technology, and modernity.