The rebels of Christian Caryl's "Strange Rebels" are a motley lot. They include Margaret Thatcher, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and his followers, Pope John Paul II, Deng Xiaoping, and the Afghan insurgents who fought back against the Soviet invasion of their country. The most obvious common thread that unites these stories is the fact that the stories are roughly simultaneous: All of them are centered in one way or another in 1979. This was the year of Thatcher's ascendancy to power, the Iranian revolution, the Pope's pilgrimage to Poland, the invasion of Afghanistan, and the start of Xiaoping's sweeping reforms of the Chinese economy.
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In Caryl's view, moreover, these were not simply notable historical events but genuine turning points in history, pivotal moments that no one saw coming. No one could have predicted that the new pope would come from outside Italy, let alone that he would play a decisive role in political developments in Eastern Europe. Thatcher was a highly unlikely choice to topple the Labour Party in Britain, and few observers expected Communist China's sudden, if limited, embrace of capitalism. And Iran, in the early 1970s, seemed both stable and prosperous; the overthrowing of the shah by, of all things, a radical religious movement, shocked pretty much everybody.
But if, at the time, these developments were completely unanticipated, Caryl, a deputy editor at Foreign Policy and contributing editor at Newsweek, argues that we can with the virtue of hindsight discern a certain unifying pattern. The year 1979 represents a pivotal year in global affairs largely because it represents the resurgence of two aspects of human life — religion and free market economics — whose profound power many observers had come to underestimate:
"(These events) have much more in common than at first meets the eye. The forces unleashed in 1979 marked the beginning of the end of the great socialist utopias that had dominated so much of the twentieth century. These five stories — the Iranian Revolution, the start of the Afghan jihad, Thatcher's election victory, the pope's first Polish pilgrimage, and the launch of China's economic reforms — deflected the course of history in a radically new direction. It was in 1979 that the twin forces of markets and religion, discounted for so long, came back with a vengeance."
This is an interesting if not entirely convincing thesis. Part of the trouble lies in the simplifying assumption that finds Caryl speaking as if these developments constituted a single movement that pushed history, as he writes, in "a radically new direction" — rather than, as one might have said, in several new and unanticipated directions.
One can find certain areas of common ground between, say, the Thatcher years in Britain and the Iranian Revolution; if nothing else, both represented a kind of return to traditional values and a rejection of modern progressive movements. But one has to retreat to a very high level of abstraction indeed to see that common ground as more significant than the deep differences that separate the values Thatcher's supporters appealed to and those that catapulted Khomeini into power. The Iranian Revolution is one of the book's central stories, but it is in many ways the odd one out, in part because the Islamist state the revolutionaries dreamed of was, in its way, every bit as utopian (and thus potentially every bit as dangerous) as the Marxism that Thatcher and Pope John Paul II took themselves to be opposing.
Moreover, to see "markets and religion" as closely related forces that tend to push historical events in the same direction is to ignore the deep and complex tensions and contradictions that exist between them. Indeed, many religious people oppose market freedoms, for the obvious reason that the basic idea of market thinking — that all values can be reduced to economic values — is deeply incompatible with the religious thought that some values are sacred and thus not convertible into or even commensurable with any amount of money. It is not only religious conservatives — those who, for instance, would limit markets in drugs, sexually explicit materials and other items perceived to be immoral — who will feel this resistance. Rather, it will be felt by anyone who feels drawn to the idea that some aspects of human life — those connected with the dignity of the human individual, perhaps — are valuable in a way that precludes their being treated as commodities.
To his credit, Caryl acknowledges that reality may be somewhat more complex than his thesis suggests. Indeed, at one point he pauses to caution us against thinking that we can reduce all human motivation to economic motivation. "Economic determinism is not particularly good at explaining why events happen precisely when they do," he writes, adding that "we cannot understand political dynamics without recourse to the ideas that motivate people to action."
At the end of the day one might reject Caryl's overall thesis and still enjoy the book. "Strange Rebels" is, after all, more chronicle than interpretation, and it is carefully researched, broad in scope and smoothly written. Whether or not we agree that the 21st century began in 1979, or share Caryl's views as to the nature of that beginning and of the century thus far, he is undoubtedly correct that we could not possibly begin to understand the world we now live in without understanding what took place during that eventful year.
Troy Jollimore is a 2013 Guggenheim fellow. His books include "Love's Vision" and "At Lake Scugog: Poems."
By Christian Caryl, Basic Books, 407 pages, $28.99