Western Civilisation

The Enduring Legacies of the West

In her new best-selling book How the West was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly and the Stark Choices that Lie Ahead, the international economist Dambisa Moyo predicts the collapse of Western economic dominance. She sees the financial crisis of 2008 as yet another step in “a fundamental transition from one economic power to another; from the West to the Rising Rest”. Yet there obviously remains a long way to go before such a transition could be completed. The United States alone still represents nearly 30 per cent of world GDP. Home to some of the world’s best universities, the United States remains the most economically competitive power and, on balance, Moyo herself rates it as still the best endowed in terms of natural resources. Moreover the United States continues to maintain the lead in transparent and credible institutions, while in terms of the rule of law it remains one of the world’s leaders. Spearheading the West’s civilisational achievements is a process of industrialisation that has positioned humanity in sight of material adequacy if not abundance, together with a long record of stable, law-based government, belief in the individual, and a status for women surpassing that of all other cultures.

What threatens such triumphs more than economists—or indeed most of us—care to know, is Western indifference, along with the fact that the West’s citizens are largely unaware of its remarkable civilisational achievements. Rather than confidence about its identity, the West seems to register boredom. For this reason above all, over the medium to long term, it is probably true to say that the West is slipping from history’s centre-stage to its wings. Whether it’s China, “planting” Confucian institutes around the world, or Islam, urging sharia law where it can, cultures displaying a surer feel for their own worth appear to outshine the West. In the case of Islam, the contrast with the West’s tepid projection of its own image helps explain why the Western media pays such disproportionate attention to a phenomenon whose narrowly-based global economic profile must finally undercut its staying power.

If enough Western citizens showed anything like the passion others display about identity, the West’s most precious humanising achievements would have more chance of being adequately taken up by successor cultures. Absent the suitcase nuclear device carried by a suicide bomber, the most serious danger for the West today does not lie primarily in terrorism nor in the economic growth of non-Western cultures. It lies in powerful negative feelings about the West from within.

So against the possibility that the Rising Rest does finally prevail, how can we ensure that those Western historical achievements we believe to be most beneficent for the species—for example, respect for the individual in a law-based culture and women’s equality—are taken up effectively?

The detachment and sense of futility so pervasive in the West today have many sources. The West took shape around the nation, and ordinary people are still very often attached to it. But their feelings of identification have taken a battering since the 1970s from the mix of negativity and condescension with which articulate elites came to view such feelings. This is not to deny that hard realities also eat away at citizens’ attachment to the Western nation. With markets moving away from enfeebled nation-states, increasingly important political decisions are withdrawn from the national arenas of democratic opinion. Moreover the nation-state can no longer defend citizens properly from the effects of processes originating outside its frontiers, for example from de facto border violations arising from organised crime, arms trafficking, epidemics and pollution. And the retreat of religion as the warm lifeblood of everyday men and women also contributes immeasurably to feelings of detachment and futility.

But I want to focus on a further, seemingly distinct reason for Western indifference and loss of meaning, one which, along with bitter internal divisions, acts as a monumental magnet to anti- and non-Western forces. That cause is a profound Western inner hostility, a hatred of the West rooted significantly though not solely in the intellectual classes. Modestly at work from at least 1914, this hostility gathered particular strength from the 1970s.

Today I stand amazed at Western indifference about Western civilisation with its benefits that draw millions to its shores. But for much of my life, I was far from indifferent; I was hostile. By training I am an historian, so you might imagine I’d have thought enough about the West as a distinct civilisation to register something of both its virtues and defects. Not so, because from about seventeen years of age, I was also a Stalinist-type Marxist, unrelenting in a low-key antagonism to the West. I was drawn to the “nothing-but” ways of thinking characteristic of adolescents. The West was (nothing-but) greedy, (nothing-but) dominated by monopolies, its mass media hell-bent on burying our brains in trivia: what was to think about? It’s true that as a Marxist I was big on Hegel’s idea of “contradictions” and so might well have considered Western virtue as well as vice. I also admired Hegel’s injunction to those in quest of truth: look into the mind of your enemy just as earnestly as you do that of your friend. But for me, the unrelieved awfulness of the West quarantined it from Hegel.

Since in earlier days as a communist then Trotskyite, I did what I could to build hostility towards the West, I now ask myself what I can do by way of reparation. I think this lies in helping as best I can to decide which Western values and traditions are most likely to enrich a shared human future and which we’d most wish to hand on to successor cultures. 

Suppose we took Hegel seriously and agreed that virtues and vices co-exist within a social whole rent with contradictions, what would a narrative of Western virtues contain? Depicting a regime which respected human rights, private property and the rule of law, such a narrative might begin from the idea that an individual had basic human rights. In its eighteenth-century Enlightenment form, “the individual” really meant white men, but others—women led the way—used “human rights” as a breach in the wall of white male hegemony through which those others would eventually stake claims to “human rights”. A narrative of the virtues of the West as a civilisation would also include the secular state. It would include an independent judiciary and of course representative institutions. Historically, the early forms of the latter gave entrepreneurs enough safety from arbitrary political grabs to trigger the kind of economic productivity and eventually the industrialisation which now puts humankind in striking distance of conquering poverty.

Christianity would have a central role in my narrative. It was with the West that Christianity entered the stage of history, and the West now exits centre-stage hand-in-hand with the retreat of Christianity; not so much as formal institution or abstract Truth but as a living source of personal and social identity. Of the thick, congealed web of ties between the West and Christianity, one strand has to do with pluralism. After about the sixteenth century the West began slow and halting steps towards international ascendancy, spreading material wellbeing through sustained breakthroughs in industry, trade and science. Outside the West, historically what had most stifled enterprise and material wellbeing was monolithic state authority.

Crucial to the West’s leap forward into modernity had been very early limits placed upon authority, whether of emperor, king or church. The first significant curb on state power in the West occurred when Jesus, in his parable of the tribute money, tacitly contrasts Caesar’s public jurisdiction with the inner authority of religion, which governs the person-to-person relationship between the individual and God: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). In The City of God, Augustine elaborated this separatist approach, while in the fifth century, St Gregory’s Pastoral Rule enjoined the clergy to civil obedience. By the fourteenth century, Marsilius of Padua argued that the state, not the church, guarantees the civil peace, and it is reason, not revelation, to which appeal must be made in all matters of temporal jurisdiction. Building as it did on earlier developments, this was to become the accepted Western view.

The division between state and church confronted the culture at large with endless conflicts of opinion and interest so that the ripple effects inevitably touched the lives of the humblest subject. From the early Christian heresies to the Reformation, throughout Western history dissent drew on this division, opening the door to a fuller use of reason. If the division between the Western church and state marks the root source of Western pluralism, this forms a sharp contrast with what Roger Scruton, in The West and the Rest, describes as the vision contained in the Koran. Here, sovereignty rests with God and his Prophet, and legal order is underpinned by divine command. Thus in principle—though not always in historical reality—Islamic tradition does not treat church as separate from state. While today’s jihadists fight in principle for a state ruled by holy men, examples of the way such a principle works may be glimpsed in the rule of yesterday’s Afghani Taliban and today’s Iranian mullahs.

The triumph of the secular state in the West means that government, whether in its law-making, law-administering or law-judging sides, is not in the gift of tribal, family or religious affiliation. By contrast, tribal, family and religious groupings can and often do exert a strong influence over the public sphere today in some of the violent hotspots in Africa and the Middle East. The global media focus since September 2001 on the explosive, quasi-tribal politics of Iraq and Afghanistan, where Western powers have tried to set up secular authority, tells us that the birth of a secure, effective secular state is no pushover. Such a birth occurred in the West long ago, and our relative prosperity and peace are unthinkable without it. And we shouldn’t think that the secular state was easily bought. Not until 1648 did the European political classes, exhausted after decades of religion-based war, embrace the idea of a secular state. So today, the secular state stands in a notionally neutral space common to all but with family or religious allegiance to none. The Enlightenment, anchored in major part in the Christian ideal that all believers are equal in the sight of God, underpins today’s commitment to the principle that all citizens in a democratic nation merit equal rights. But without the secular state, this will crumble as ideal and eventually as reality. For in the absence of the secular state, sooner or later one or another religious group would gain superior access to the state, to power, and with this, a superior access to the nation’s social resources.

Uniquely among the world’s great civilisations, tradition and custom in the West allow citizens to criticise, including to condemn its characteristics past and present. In rightly contesting current losses in living standards, in justly protesting a monstrous widening of the gulf between citizens, any critique of the West needs to be clear about its point of departure. It does not involve the yearning for perfection which characterises the True Believer, whether in the former Soviet Union, the Communist Party, in a Green paradise or a seventh-century caliphate. With the goal a polity without absolutes, one of compromise, toleration and secular loyalties, the best point of departure is rooted in the less exciting and more mundane West glimpsed again and again in its own history: for example representative institutions and active party political structures less disconnected from their constituencies than those of today; trade unions, neither overly bureaucratised or state entangled but where energies are more tied to those of rank-and-file workers. And a renovated civil society.

Civil society is based on the model of voluntary association and rooted in an “assumption about moral equality” which political theorist Larry Seidentop, in Democracy in Europe, sees as Christian in origin and later, liberal. Throughout its existence, civil society has involved a chosen act of adherence, fostering reciprocity, social trust and autonomy. Civil society has been foundational to the Western nation, achieving its earliest and strongest form in England, as Montesquieu, Hegel, Marx amongst others have testified. The roots of civil society point to the distance from the state which is its defining feature: civil society emerged over centuries, by accident and from below.

From the eighteenth century, the term “civil society” attached itself to social organisations in the West which fall between the parameters of family and state. Figuring prominently were the market and media, with the famous coffee houses of England and France (meeting places for both investors and newsmongers) attracting special mention. Through the network of community associations which comprise civil society, citizens engage with each other voluntarily as they polish a public mode of speech and behaviour. Public without being coercive, voluntary without being privatised, civil society allows individuals to associate in the complex networks which co-define and co-determine it today: networks of sports teams, work groups, amateur and professional associations of all kinds. The degree of trust developed through the institutions of civil society underpins the health of the body politic in a thousand subtle, unrecognised ways. As the very heart of democratic politics, civil society encourages in the citizen a less passive attitude towards the state.

Growing signs of social dysfunction in the West have helped spark a recent increase of interest in civil society. Accompanying rapid economic development since the 1980s have been ominous signs of social unravelling. These have included increases in family breakdown, suicide, drug-taking and crime. This has helped give rise to the idea that to intensify market relations beyond a certain point is to erode what shapes social cohesion and civil society. Taken together, today the clubs and societies of civil society form a conduit through which self-organising and egalitarian citizen energies find their way into the polity and culture. Historically, the crucial thing about the bodies comprising civil society has been that they stood at a distance from the state. It was above all that distance which gave them autonomy and underpinned their sturdy norms of generalised reciprocity. Today however, increasingly government funding takes the edge off autonomy and threatens to convert the clubs and societies of civil society into something approaching—while never attaining—an arm of the state. A renovated civil society should step, if not completely clear of that funding as a poisoned chalice, then at a clearer remove from it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about current criticisms of Western civilisation is the way they can (most often safely) assume their audiences will know almost nothing of its history or its rarity where the well-being of ordinary men and women is concerned: from their representation and relative liberty in the polity, to the historically unparalleled prosperity such men and women enjoy and in medical, welfare and educational provisions. Indeed, partly because the everyday side of the Western story is not widely known, criticism these days can safely assume the indifference of those very men and women whose current standing, in comparative perspective, outshines all others. The West’s failure to realise its uniqueness as a human project is in part a reaction to the West’s own tradition of portraying itself in glib, chocolate-box-cover ways. The British historian Norman Davies is right in seeing as the “really vicious quality shared by almost all accounts of ‘Western civilization’ … the fact that they present idealized, and hence essentially false, pictures of past reality”. Idealising helps open the door to indifference and then to a sense of phoniness.

Like all civilisations, the West, as the late historian Tony Judt put it, constitutes “a distinctive palate of peoples and traditions”. A synthesis of traditions from Greece, Rome, Christianity and the invading Germanic tribes, the West was and is a civilisation in itself, a set of ideals and institutions, which, in the words of David Gress, were “sometimes contradictory and sometimes harmonious … abused and exploited as often as they were honoured and upheld”. Before the 1960s, popular ideas of the West treated liberty as a noble abstraction (enter the chocolate-box cover) invented by the Greeks and transmitted to the modern age largely untouched by history. From ancient Greece one moved to a kind of moral perfection via “Magic Moments”—Magna Carta! The Mother of all Parliaments! The Copernican Revolution! 1776! The Atlantic Charter! We know that the actual history of the West includes brutal war, slavery, religious bigotry, torture, economic inequality and racial arrogance. Such defects are shared by most great cultures, so awareness of Western defects shouldn’t be allowed to obscure what is unique about the West.

I was intrigued by an aspect of this uniqueness uncovered for me when historian Patricia Crone, in Pre-Industrial Societies (1989), asked whether we should think of Europe as “First or Freak”? In answering that Europe was “first” in terms of significant breakthroughs in modernity such as industry and science largely because it was a “freak”, Crone hooked me. For much of history, elites outside the West deemed Western elites to be barbaric. Outside Europe, heavily authoritarian and centralised states created highly sophisticated elites set apart from the great majority of their subjects in the most extreme possible waysin dress, housing, health, body and speech. By contrast, as Crone puts it, the “vermin-infested … illiterate and half-studied barons and clerics” who ruled medieval Europe were barely distinguishable from the masses. Moreover the states ruled by such Western overlords were often impoverished and weak. Why then did Europe forge ahead in technology by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Partly because, among non-European civilisations, the dignity of labourvital to sustained technical and overall economic progressstood so very low in the sociocultural pecking order. And thus in Europe a state without money generated an aristocracy without manners along with bearers of high culture without a proper disdain for flywheels and cranks, let alone for the uneducated men who put such things together. 

Also unique about Western civilisation is one of the most vital inner secrets of its dynamism—a role for women which, in comparative perspective, was, from the beginning it seems, distinctively advanced. Very much a minority phenomenon, the ripple effects of this distinctive role spread—despite formidable hostility, despite painful reversals—from major foundations in Christianity and in Germanic tribal tradition, through slow cultural contagion to shape—not a high but a higher social status for Western women than obtained in the other great civilisations. Rarely given its due weight as historical dynamic is the fact that women mother. If modest improvements in the position of women gain traction and become cumulative, such improvements tend to bear rich and unpredictable cultural fruits. For of course the effect of those improvements has never been confined to women.

Partly through the child-rearing process, the consequences of improving the status of women profoundly shaped the way men and women alike were formed within the family. Men and women came to have denser and slightly more benign connections with each other across all of family, religious, social and economic life. This took the harshest edge off male oppression, and softened—I don’t want to overstate this even for the advanced cases of England and Holland—at least some of the normal strangeness of each sex to the other; what Nicci French, a popular novelist, goes so far as to call the “basic foreignness” of men and women. Broad cultural currents and patterns engendered through a somewhat more equable association between the sexes became central to modernity. This was an association with incalculable cultural influence, engendering habits which found and find reflection not only in the cognitive riches and style of the West but in its entire sensibility. (Some claim to sense such processes in reverse, so to speak, in what they see as the relatively greater mental and emotional rigidity of men from cultures with much less routine, quasi-peer-based intercourse between men and women. These are in general cultures with sharp and ideology-backed hierarchical division between the sexes.)

Along with secularism, an advanced role for women helps define the West, and goes far in explaining the Arab rage expressed on 9/11. In trying to understand that rage, the Anglo-Dutch author and academic Ian Buruma underlines the role of women: “the issue of women lies at the heart of Islamic … anti-Westernism”. The Hollywood actor Meryl Streep adds: “The position of women is (I’ve always felt this) precipitating a lot of the destabilisation in the world: the rise of fundamentalism is all about fear of women.” Though the detail of connection needs teasing out, in my view Streep is on the money. As early as 1899, in his book The Liberation of Women, the Egyptian nationalist and reformer Qasim Amin noted the progress of women’s rights in Europe and America and the contribution of women to civilisation in the West. He linked the relative underdevelopment of the Muslim world with “the inferior position of Muslim women”, seeing this as the “greatest obstacle that prevents us from advancing toward what is beneficial to us”. While Islam in general accepts modernisation, it often rejects Westernisation, for, as Bernard Lewis writes in What Went Wrong, it is the “emancipation of women, more than any other single issue, [which] is the touchstone of difference between modernization and Westernization”.

Currently we witness sporadic conflict across the West over the face scarf for women, in particular the burka. The hijab or veil does not cover the face, and symbolises only that the wearer is a Muslim, not that she belongs to any particular strand within that faith. By contrast the burka involves covering a woman from head to foot, and affirms a fundamentalist version of Islam. A gathering if low-key Western response to the burka tends to be played out in questions important in themselves but not the main thing about it—for example, do wear the burka to enhance women’s choice, don’t wear the burka so as to help keep citizens safe from possible terrorist attack. More fundamentally, anxieties over the burka tap into a dimly-sensed but very real threat to the state as a secular state: as a neutral zone for all citizens. How does wearing the burka constitute such a threat? Along with affirming a fundamentalist Islam, wearing the burka affirms the status of feminine inferiority mandated by this brand of Islam. The burka is above all a symbol of such inferiority and is in keeping with a divinely-ordained global law—the sharia—to which national law is subordinate. For the same reason, the rest of the community must accommodate itself to any difficulties entailed in being unable to see the face of the wearer, whether in banks, courts, schools, universities or other public places. It follows that if sharia law is pre-eminent and operates beyond the law of any nation, then Muslim men and women stand in a similar position. To sum up: the basic threat implicit in wearing the burka is that, no matter what they feel or say, when women wear the burka, willy-nilly—as a hard fact of sociopolitical history and reality—the effect is to strengthen a conscious, explicit global challenge to the secular state, driven with increasing success by a small Islamist minority among Muslims. Though millions of Muslims desire (as the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy puts it in Left in Dark Times) “the enlightened Islam [dear to] so many democrats and secularists from Karachi to Algiers, from Sarajevo to Jakarta”, from the 1980s, Western indifference—and in the case of a highly articulate minority, hostility—to what the West stands for, has in my view critically attracted the challenge to modernity mounted by Muslim fundamentalism concerning the secular state and the role of women.

I’ve said that almost uniquely, tradition and custom in the West allow citizens to criticise, including to condemn its historical and current characteristics. I rate this near the top of the West’s virtues, up there with its unique role for women. Europe’s sins of commission and omission are legion, and it is the virtue of critique that has let us analyse them, indeed allowing some to build whole careers. Since at least the sixteenth century, distinct social strata have crystallised around this virtue. They have come to occupy highly visible politico-cultural niches, their power vastly enhanced by the technologies of the mass media. Ironically, this ancient virtue, the virtue of critique, now speeds the West’s decline, as an overemphasis on Western defects has come to obscure its virtues. This we should not allow. As the British philosopher A.C. Grayling puts it, no critique should detract from the basic truth that today’s citizen enjoys rights and liberties which make “every ordinary Western citizen the equal of a sixteenth-century aristocrat”.

It has taken centuries of often bloody struggle to prise from the powerful and the rich their monopolies of power and wealth. Today, we watch once-established gains in rights and liberties fray as the rich and powerful reclaim them. They do so in the process of threatening basic human bonds and structures, enforcing a killing pace of life along with a genuine increase in material plenty. (In terms of material benefit, Robert Skidelsky is right to say that “globalization, however imperfect, does often work for the poor”.) As to the hostility to the West of its intellectuals and the indifference of the population at large, in significant ways the latter has arisen over decades from the former. Especially since the 1970s the West has been depicted as virtually nothing-but imperialist and oppressive, with vibes of hostility from intellectuals translating into feelings of indifference among the populace at large. So the big question is this: who really thinks enough of the West to defend its most humanity-enriching achievements?

Yet if we can tap the rich life left in existing Western institutions and traditions so as to reverse the cancerous forms industrial progress assumes today, humankind across the globe will be poised to abolish scarcity. And this is surely a necessary condition for unravelling other dilemmas facing our species.

Miriam Dixson’s most recent book is The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and Identity—1788 to the Present.


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