The World after the West

These days, there seems to exist a fairly large consensus among intellectuals of all persuasions and fields of interest concerning the economic future of the world. The West will further decline in economic weight, and its political and military leverage will decline accordingly. The future belongs to the emerging markets, the BRICS, or, in short, to the “rest” that was left behind when the industrial revolution took off in Europe and the United States. This vision of the future fits in perfectly with a growing body of historical literature pointing out that the rise of the West was largely accidental, and was mainly due to the convenient location of natural resources which were discovered at the right time, and other economic coincidences of the sort.  The twenty-first century, so it seems, will witness the reestablishment of traditional economic relationships in the world, namely, the return of the hegemony of the great Asian powers, China and India.

In fact, such analyses and the predictions that follow from them are deeply flawed. They are one of the many products of the grave lack of any sense of history or culture among many Westerners, intellectuals and the educated middle class alike.

To be sure, it is very probable -- indeed, almost inevitable -- that the West is in economic decline, and that our civilization will be dealing with serious social and cultural disruptions in the coming century. The West is collapsing under its own contradictions, under a lack of any moral vision or self-confidence, and the steady growth of government power accompanying this moral default. The truth in the common prediction is that the West will recede economically to the position it occupied in the world before the nineteenth century; but that is about all. This does not tell us anything about the condition of and further developments in the non-West; indeed, too often analysts assume without further investigation that the non-West will be able to carry on the economic, scientific and technological development that characterized the West in the past two centuries.  However, all the historical and cultural indicators at our disposal suggest otherwise.

Very common in the fashionable view of the rise of the West is the assumption that this phenomenon was largely coincidental, and that other cultures can achieve the same results if only they benefit from the right stimulants. This view reflects the traditional uncertainty about the reasons for their own success that has often bothered Westerners, and this uncertainty is not a unique attribute of the postmodern age. For instance, in the imperial era, Western success was explained in terms of unclear concepts such as respect for tradition and authority, cultural pride, and the work ethic -- and among the most desperate segments of public opinion, by stating that the white race was inherently superior to all others. All these explanations, including the modern one, miss the crucial point. The main reason for Western success was the Western philosophical paradigm, namely the combination of individualism and rationalism (meaning the application of the law of causality to the outside world). The basis of the value-adding capitalist economic system is the unhindered use by the individual of his own mind, and no other foundations will carry this system. If the West can be expected to decline drastically in the coming centuries, this decline will be due to the forces that are working against the mentality that made it great.

From this misunderstanding of the reasons for Western success and decline follows an exaggerated confidence in the potential of other cultures. We believe that all that is needed to achieve economic success is hard work and discipline like the Chinese are capable of, and that it is just a matter of time before the emerging economies overtake us, since all they have to do is basically to copy Western methods and technology -- in short, the useful parts of Western modernity that suit their immediate purposes. The success of emerging economies until now seems to validate this view. The paradox here is that, having lived in a Western-dominated world for so long, we no longer understand how fundamentally other cultures differ from ours, and assume without questioning that people in different cultures basically share our set of mind.

There is no doubt that the impact of Western modernism has been deeply felt all over the world, and has led to the disruption of traditional ways of life, to destabilization and cultural anxiety. But this does not necessarily mean that the world has learned the vital cultural lessons from the West. Mostly, modernism poses a question to these cultures that they cannot answer, and they remain caught in a state of limbo between the futility of returning to traditional cultural modes and resentment of Western influence.  In most non-Western countries, modernity and its attributes, like the free market and application of technology, are merely a superstructure, and the Western mentality -- individualism and rationalism -- is wholly absent.  The attributes of Western culture that most visibly contributed to its success are merely adapted by these cultures in order to catch up with the West, not because they understand the inherent virtues or principles underlying them. Of course, the most familiar example of this adaptation of the attributes of Western culture without taking over its essence, lies in the intellectual sphere: in all the anti-Western ideological movements, from anti-colonialism to the current multiculturalism in all its varieties. All these movements have only one goal: to promote the interests of the non-West against the West, and in the case of multiculturalism, to carve out a sphere of power and influence for the ethnic minorities in European countries. This goal does not come as a surprise to the historian, because it the goal all peoples and cultures have tried a achieve throughout history; but these movements cloak their ultimate objectives in Western language of human rights and freedom of self-determination. The problem is not so much that these groups behave the way they do, but that Westerners do not understand how history and culture work, and consequently are totally fooled by the verbiage with which anti-Western movements surround their craving for power -- and in many cases, for the destruction of the West itself.

It is also useful to note that the decline of the West -- especially Europe -- after the Second World War has often been misrepresented in the common historical narrative. In fact, this process did not so much constitute decline as voluntary abdication of power (as the West also did in relations with the Soviet Union). For a long time, the West reigned supreme in the economic sphere, and if it had wished to do so, could have asserted its dominance over the rest of the world politically as it had done in the past; the only thing lacking was moral self-confidence. Such events in postwar history as decolonization, the defeat of the Western powers in Egypt and Algeria, and the oil crisis of 1973 gave the impression that the West was in decline and that the future indisputably belonged to the non-West. In a way, this was an illusion: the West had just retreated out of moral weakness, but not because much constructive work was actually going on in the non-West. Nonetheless, this evolution engendered a kind of unmerited euphoria and even arrogance in other cultures, which is bound to meet with disappointment in the future.

So the question is: what will remain of the legacy of the West, when the West has collapsed and is no longer a rival for other cultures? Will economic growth and innovation be sustained, or will the rest of the world simply relapse in its old homeostatic condition, lacking the mentality that must underlie the capitalist economy?  Of course, it is not wholly unimaginable that the struggle of some non-Western cultures with modernity will give birth to a new civilization that integrates vital components of the Western mentality, but the birth of a new civilization is a process that takes centuries, not some decades of cultural exchange, as many analysts nonchalantly assume. But there is no reason at all to take it for granted that the accomplishments of the West will live on in any recognizable form. If we want to catch a glimpse of what the future will look like, we should look at the condition of the world before the Western ascendancy. And this return of history will be a lot more serious and unsettling than most Westerners can foresee, stuck as they are in the sociological and cultural categories of postwar democracy and the postmodern consumer society.

These days, there seems to exist a fairly large consensus among intellectuals of all persuasions and fields of interest concerning the economic future of the world. The West will further decline in economic weight, and its political and military leverage will decline accordingly. The future belongs to the emerging markets, the BRICS, or, in short, to the “rest” that was left behind when the industrial revolution took off in Europe and the United States. This vision of the future fits in perfectly with a growing body of historical literature pointing out that the rise of the West was largely accidental, and was mainly due to the convenient location of natural resources which were discovered at the right time, and other economic coincidences of the sort.  The twenty-first century, so it seems, will witness the reestablishment of traditional economic relationships in the world, namely, the return of the hegemony of the great Asian powers, China and India.

In fact, such analyses and the predictions that follow from them are deeply flawed. They are one of the many products of the grave lack of any sense of history or culture among many Westerners, intellectuals and the educated middle class alike.

To be sure, it is very probable -- indeed, almost inevitable -- that the West is in economic decline, and that our civilization will be dealing with serious social and cultural disruptions in the coming century. The West is collapsing under its own contradictions, under a lack of any moral vision or self-confidence, and the steady growth of government power accompanying this moral default. The truth in the common prediction is that the West will recede economically to the position it occupied in the world before the nineteenth century; but that is about all. This does not tell us anything about the condition of and further developments in the non-West; indeed, too often analysts assume without further investigation that the non-West will be able to carry on the economic, scientific and technological development that characterized the West in the past two centuries.  However, all the historical and cultural indicators at our disposal suggest otherwise.

Very common in the fashionable view of the rise of the West is the assumption that this phenomenon was largely coincidental, and that other cultures can achieve the same results if only they benefit from the right stimulants. This view reflects the traditional uncertainty about the reasons for their own success that has often bothered Westerners, and this uncertainty is not a unique attribute of the postmodern age. For instance, in the imperial era, Western success was explained in terms of unclear concepts such as respect for tradition and authority, cultural pride, and the work ethic -- and among the most desperate segments of public opinion, by stating that the white race was inherently superior to all others. All these explanations, including the modern one, miss the crucial point. The main reason for Western success was the Western philosophical paradigm, namely the combination of individualism and rationalism (meaning the application of the law of causality to the outside world). The basis of the value-adding capitalist economic system is the unhindered use by the individual of his own mind, and no other foundations will carry this system. If the West can be expected to decline drastically in the coming centuries, this decline will be due to the forces that are working against the mentality that made it great.

From this misunderstanding of the reasons for Western success and decline follows an exaggerated confidence in the potential of other cultures. We believe that all that is needed to achieve economic success is hard work and discipline like the Chinese are capable of, and that it is just a matter of time before the emerging economies overtake us, since all they have to do is basically to copy Western methods and technology -- in short, the useful parts of Western modernity that suit their immediate purposes. The success of emerging economies until now seems to validate this view. The paradox here is that, having lived in a Western-dominated world for so long, we no longer understand how fundamentally other cultures differ from ours, and assume without questioning that people in different cultures basically share our set of mind.

There is no doubt that the impact of Western modernism has been deeply felt all over the world, and has led to the disruption of traditional ways of life, to destabilization and cultural anxiety. But this does not necessarily mean that the world has learned the vital cultural lessons from the West. Mostly, modernism poses a question to these cultures that they cannot answer, and they remain caught in a state of limbo between the futility of returning to traditional cultural modes and resentment of Western influence.  In most non-Western countries, modernity and its attributes, like the free market and application of technology, are merely a superstructure, and the Western mentality -- individualism and rationalism -- is wholly absent.  The attributes of Western culture that most visibly contributed to its success are merely adapted by these cultures in order to catch up with the West, not because they understand the inherent virtues or principles underlying them. Of course, the most familiar example of this adaptation of the attributes of Western culture without taking over its essence, lies in the intellectual sphere: in all the anti-Western ideological movements, from anti-colonialism to the current multiculturalism in all its varieties. All these movements have only one goal: to promote the interests of the non-West against the West, and in the case of multiculturalism, to carve out a sphere of power and influence for the ethnic minorities in European countries. This goal does not come as a surprise to the historian, because it the goal all peoples and cultures have tried a achieve throughout history; but these movements cloak their ultimate objectives in Western language of human rights and freedom of self-determination. The problem is not so much that these groups behave the way they do, but that Westerners do not understand how history and culture work, and consequently are totally fooled by the verbiage with which anti-Western movements surround their craving for power -- and in many cases, for the destruction of the West itself.

It is also useful to note that the decline of the West -- especially Europe -- after the Second World War has often been misrepresented in the common historical narrative. In fact, this process did not so much constitute decline as voluntary abdication of power (as the West also did in relations with the Soviet Union). For a long time, the West reigned supreme in the economic sphere, and if it had wished to do so, could have asserted its dominance over the rest of the world politically as it had done in the past; the only thing lacking was moral self-confidence. Such events in postwar history as decolonization, the defeat of the Western powers in Egypt and Algeria, and the oil crisis of 1973 gave the impression that the West was in decline and that the future indisputably belonged to the non-West. In a way, this was an illusion: the West had just retreated out of moral weakness, but not because much constructive work was actually going on in the non-West. Nonetheless, this evolution engendered a kind of unmerited euphoria and even arrogance in other cultures, which is bound to meet with disappointment in the future.

So the question is: what will remain of the legacy of the West, when the West has collapsed and is no longer a rival for other cultures? Will economic growth and innovation be sustained, or will the rest of the world simply relapse in its old homeostatic condition, lacking the mentality that must underlie the capitalist economy?  Of course, it is not wholly unimaginable that the struggle of some non-Western cultures with modernity will give birth to a new civilization that integrates vital components of the Western mentality, but the birth of a new civilization is a process that takes centuries, not some decades of cultural exchange, as many analysts nonchalantly assume. But there is no reason at all to take it for granted that the accomplishments of the West will live on in any recognizable form. If we want to catch a glimpse of what the future will look like, we should look at the condition of the world before the Western ascendancy. And this return of history will be a lot more serious and unsettling than most Westerners can foresee, stuck as they are in the sociological and cultural categories of postwar democracy and the postmodern consumer society.