Westernization or clash of civilizations?
As the Cold War was coming to an end in 1989, Francis Fukuyama, then an official with the US State Department, published a ground-breaking article, "The End of History," which he eventually expanded into a book, The End of History and the Last Man. In it he argued that the sorts of ideological conflicts characterizing much of the modern era were drawing to a close. A global consensus was developing in favour of liberal democracy and the free market, while other "ideologies," such as hereditary monarchy, fascism and communism were falling out of favour, having been conquered by an obvious superior. Widely discussed in academia and the popular media, the visibility of Fukuyama's argument was enhanced by the stunning spectacle of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dramatic collapse of the east European communist regimes later that year.
Fukuyama's thesis is only the most recent manifestation of the general belief that history not only has a purposeful character, but at some point will reach its final consummation, a notion owing much to Christian eschatology, albeit in secularized form. Hegel and Marx are Fukuyama's predecessors in this respect. All three are progressive thinkers, assuming that, as history moves, it is propelled forward towards a society in some sense superior to that in which we currently find ourselves. But unlike either Hegel or Marx, Fukuyama sees liberal democracy and capitalism as the ultimate achievements of the historical process.
A related school sees history moving as inexorably as Hegel, Marx and Fukuyama, but its adherents are far less optimistic over the goodness of the changes effected by the process. Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) is perhaps the best-known proponent of this view. For him technique—or rather Technique—takes on the character of an autonomous force, moving small-scale economies towards corporate capitalism, which in turn calls forth statist policies leading inevitably to totalitarianism.
For some observers technology's progress goes hand-in-hand with westernization. The ubiquity of McDonald's golden arches is only the most obvious manifestation of this phenomenon. It is usually thought to imply the gradual and eventual acceptance of typical western economic and political institutions, such as stock exchanges and a democratic form of government. Here Fukuyama's Hegelianism is tempered with a Nietzschean element. His "Last Man" is a middle-class suburbanite, working a forty-hour week, shopping at the local mall and watching television in his off hours. His life is plagued by a vague ennui with no higher purpose; it is a life shorn of struggle, risk or danger, preoccupied only with comfortable self-preservation. With the end of the ideological struggle of the Cold War, this Last Man is spreading his existence into the far corners of the globe, with no genuine alternative way of life standing in its way.
Not so, says Samuel Huntington. Writing in 1993 in Foreign Policy, the Harvard political scientist coined the term "Clash of Civilizations" to characterize the post-Cold War world. While the world had been characterized by an ideological bipolarity between 1945 and 1989, after the latter year it had become evident that the world could more accurately be seen as multipolar, with cultural boundaries separating several ancient civilizations. For Huntington these civilizations were best to be understood with reference to their religious roots. The largest civilizations are the post-christian Western, the Islamic and the Sinic or Chinese. But also of significance are the Latin American, Eastern Orthodox, subsaharan African, Hindu, Buddhist and Japanese civilizations.
One could, of course, quibble with his categories, but his central point remains: the world is not becoming westernized. In fact, as technology makes its way from the west into these other civilizations, the latter, far from becoming carbon copies of the West, find themselves physically empowered to reassert their own distinctive characteristics. This inevitably leads to intercivilizational strife. In the new century wars are likely to take place along the boundaries separating these civilizations. In fact, even now the borders surrounding Islam are especially bloody, with conflicts raging in Nigeria, Sudan, Israel/Palestine, Afghanistan, India/Pakistan, Chechnya, Bosnia and Kosovo.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US appeared to bolster Huntington's thesis, although President Bush and others sought to play it down for understandable political reasons. Nevertheless, a spate of new books has appeared devoted to understanding why "they hate us" so much. Ironically, their authors appear to be recovering something of the bipolar conception of the world that Huntington had so recently laid to rest. Multiple civilizations still exist, but the west now stands out as especially modern and corrosive, with "the rest" lashing out to avoid falling victim to its contamination. After all, the West is not merely one civilization among all the others; even in its prolonged state of decline it exerts tremendous power—power that at once attracts and repels those on the outside. Three recent books manifest this approach.
First Roger Scruton's The West and the Rest, published in 2002, argues that, while nonwestern societies stand on traditional religious foundations in which consent plays little if any role, their western counterparts are based on the social contract, with its associated voluntaristic conception of community and obligation. Westerners have expanded the range of their choices and have built an entire political system out of this. The western achievement has been to hold together communities through loyalty to a political process defining the rights and duties of citizens. Since this process does not require a religious basis, westerners have been able to separate church and state, religion and politics.
Paul Berman advances a similar thesis in Terror and Liberalism, published the following year. The war against terrorism is simply the latest round in a protracted struggle between the proponents of liberty and their totalitarian enemies. While this struggle was an intramural western one for much of the twentieth century, with fascists and communists carrying the antiliberal banner, the twenty-first century sees the latter being borne by Islamists, such as the followers of the late Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), who repudiated the dualisms he deemed intrinsic to Christianity and secularism alike, thereby affirming the more integral vision of true Islam. Neither Scruton nor Berman believes the West has anything of substance to repent of, except perhaps not being vigilant enough in its defence of its own liberal principles.
Now this year Meic Pearse has published his own contribution to the debate, Why the Rest Hates the West: Understanding the Roots of Global Rage. Unlike Scruton and Berman, Pearse does not approach the issue as even a critical partisan of the Enlightenment project. Pearse is a Christian, and as such he can see things that the other two cannot. Yes, the postchristian West is built on the enhancement of personal freedom of choice, but all this has come at a price. It is a price that the West has thus far been able and willing to pay, mostly due to its enhanced technical capacities. But the rest of the world has necessarily had to bear the cost as well, with far more danger to its very survival.
Although there are several sides to this western exceptionalism, Pearse's focus on the sexual revolution of the past four decades is noteworthy. In a wealthy society, the short-term effects of sexual indiscretions are cushioned in part by the market economy's enhanced productive capacity and the welfare state. An out-of-wedlock pregnancy does not generally threaten starvation—although it may increase the likelihood of continued poverty in certain sectors of society. By contrast, in a premodern society, which includes virtually every nonwestern civilization, any breach of the norm of sexual fidelity will have immediate serious consequences, not only for the individual involved, but potentially for the entire community, which is more dependent than we are on the cycles of nature.
So why can't the West and the rest simply agree to live and let live? It's not as simple as that. After all, western entertainment is broadcast throughout the world, its enticements making their way into societies ill-prepared to accommodate them. Hence the mixture of envy and resentment directed at the West, and especially the United States, its economic and cultural centre.
So what's the answer? Some commentators will urge that the "rest" needs more economic development to catch up with the West. More foreign aid will help to ease the bitterness fuelling terrorism. In other words, the rest of the world needs to become more like us, especially materially. That there is something to this cannot be denied. Constitutional government, the relative lack of corruption, the rule of law, societal differentiation and even the much maligned market are worthy achievements. These are what might be called the structural components of modernity.
Yet Pearse offers a different solution. The West must rejoin the rest. It must abandon its promethean ways and stop exporting its individualism, voluntarism and particularly its sexual excesses. This will not necessarily bridge the gaps among the world's civilizations, but it may make it easier for them to coexist peacefully.Subscribe