Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Fall of the West?

I often read right-conservative warnings that the Western world is about to collapse. They emphasise the following:

1) Demographic decline
Western countries have low fertility rates and several are already declining in population. Poorer non-Western countries have soaring populations. This means economic disadvantages for the West, as an ever-increasing population of pensioners is supported by an ever-decreasing population of workers. It also means military disadvantage as the West simply runs out of young people for soldiering, while non-Western countries experience youth bulges. Finally it means that the Western population is becoming a shrinking proportion of the world population.

2) Cultural cringe
Westerners are accused of having lost confidence in their traditional cultures and values. This perspective argues that Westerners have become so apologetic for the abuses of colonisation and historical racism that they have become self-loathing, contemptuous of their own cultures yet obsessed with celebrating the cultures of others. This argues that Western multiculturalism is allowing assertive and aggressive cultures (especially jihadist Islamism) to conquer Europe.

3) Pacifism: The strong anti-war sentiment especially of some European countries is presumed to strengthen more aggressive enemies.

4) Immigration: The combination of low fertility rates and mass-immigration from non-Western cultures fills the cities of Europe and North America with non-Western populations, who might eventually outnumber the natives.

Perhaps there are some reasonable concerns here. The bulk of this, though, seems entirely backwards: it is the non-Western cultures that really need to fear. The non-Westerners face a global, growing, utterly dominant wave of culture that has already driven languages and traditions to extinction. The West isn't vanishing, it has already won.


The Fall of the Old West
A thousand years ago Ireland was a cluster of rival kingdoms, speaking forms of early Irish and Viking Norse. The legal system was based on Brehon Laws, with no courts, prisons, executions or juries. Almost the entire population was rural and agricultural, there was no parliament or police, the land was heavily forested.

Today almost everyone speaks English, we have a parliamentary democracy with a justice system inherited from English common law, the population is mostly urban and literate, most people work in services and industry, the land is a patchwork of grassy farms intersected by a huge road network. An Irish peasant from the 11th century would see this modern country as a foreign land.

Two major events caused these changes. First was the expansion of Anglo-Norman and later English power into Ireland, the deliberate subjugation of Irish traditions and replacement with English law, language and culture.

The second was a series of technological, cultural, and economic changes that swept both England and Ireland, destroying traditional cultures and handicrafts, largely alien to both places. This was modernity. Industrialisation, secularism, centralisation of government power, democracy, the welfare state, liberalism, urbanisation: products, and drivers of the shift to modernity experienced sooner or later by all west European states.

These changes sped up after independence: we are only a few generations in Ireland away from arranged marriages and rural rituals to avoid provoking invisible fairies.

When people talk about the West today they're usually talking about modernity, not about the agricultural, religious societies that preceded it. Enemies of Western cultures are usually enemies of these modern cultures, not of traditional cultures. Sayyid Qutb, one of the founders of modern Islamism, saw it that way in 1943, complaining that the West is 'based on science, industry, and materialism . . . is without heart and conscience'.

During the Cold War, the 'West' was used to refer to the liberal, democratic NATO countries. Yet the East then was also following the modern European ideology of industrialised Communism. If we include the authoritarian Western ideologies along with the liberal Western ideologies we see that Euro-American political ideas have swallowed the world.


Political Legitimacy
The modern nation state that exists almost everywhere now is a child of Europe. Superficial evidence comes from the official names for countries:

Republic of Zimbabwe
Republic of Angola
Socialist Republic of Vietnam
People's Republic of Bangladesh
Togolese Republic
Federative Republic of Brazil
Republic of Yemen
Republic of Cuba
Republic of Niger
Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste
Republic of Indonesia

Even (the Islamic Republic of) Iran seeks legitimacy through the language of republican democracy. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently boasted of Iran's superior democratic system:

“Human rights are being violated in Europe. The same situation is in the United States, in Asia and Africa.”

“We have an independent judiciary and we have transparent legal proceedings,” he stated. “We have mass media, we have free press. They criticize the government.”

He also said that Iran is “among the best in the world in this respect.”
Tyrants like Saddam Hussein held mock elections, trying to win support by association with democracy. That his democracy was skin deep was less significant than his attempt to appear democratic, his implied acknowledgement of the moral authority conferred by Western-style elections. Almost all the world's countries today use the language of republican democracy, a sign of the global attractiveness of West European republicanism.

In real terms democracy has boomed over the 20th century. In 1900 almost no independent states had universal suffrage. By 2000 dozens did. In the 1990s and 2000s democracy spread rapidly into eastern Europe and Latin America. A 2011 Pew Research Center survey found that democracy was widely valued in Muslim-majority countries too:

Democracy is widely seen as the best form of government, especially in Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt, where more than seven-in-ten hold this view. Moreover, people in the Muslim nations surveyed clearly value specific features of a democratic system, such as freedom of religion, free speech, and competitive elections. And publics in many Muslim countries increasingly believe that a democratic government, rather than a strong leader, is the best way to solve national problems.
Signs of the dominant Western political narratives and symbols are everywhere. An odd one is the measurement of time. Today the Gregorian calendar, introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, is internationally recognised. Whenever we fly across world time-zones with Greenwich Mean Time slashing a line down the earth from London, we experience the lingering effects of the British Empire's political and technological world domination.

A final signal is the appearance of world leaders. Here is the Chinese Emperor Guangxu, who reigned until 1908:
And this is the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party today, Hu Jintao:
Nice and neat in his Western suit. Lest any doubts linger, look at the 2000 United Nations Millenium Summit image, showing the world leaders of the day:
None of the Western leaders are wearing traditional Asian or African clothes, most of the Asian and African leaders are wearing European-style suits. Europe's suits have, along with its flags and anthems, become standard for most of the world's political cultures.


Soft Power
British historian David Starkey caused controversy after the London riots by saying that Britain's youth had embraced 'black' culture. No doubt Britain has been influenced by the cultures of the Carribbean and South Asia, but the flow of culture has been mostly in the opposite direction. I checked the most popular recent films in various non-Western countries earlier this year for a clue:

Nigeria, August 12–14: Bad Teacher
China, August 1-7: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part Two)
Indonesia, May 27-29: The Tourist
United Arab Emirates, August 11-14: Horrible Bosses
Bolivia, August 11-14: The Smurfs
Venezuela, August 12-14: The Smurfs.

All these countries flocking to the cinema to watch American and British films. The same is not true in reverse. When I turn on the television I see The Simpsons and the BBC News, not some Arab or Bolivian comedy.

One reason for this export of Western cultures is technological: the early domination of Hollywood, advantaged partly because World War I inhibited its European rivals, beamed pictures of American culture into theatres around the world. I grew up watching Batman and Superman, as have children in Asia, Latin America and Africa, anywhere that television has helped speed the flow of American cultural exports.

Likewise the rise of communications technologies in the industrialised West had important impacts on culture there. For example cameras that could perfectly reproduce an image made realistic artists redundant, pushing artists towards less representational art. Before the gramaphone, the only way a consumer could hear music was by paying a musician to perform, or learn to play. After the gramaphone consumers could listen to the recording of some distant musician, pushing their local performers out of business. Technology changed culture, and with time that technology would head east and south, changing the culture of non-Western countries in similar ways.

Hence the number one single in Argentina today sounds like something that would play comfortably on Irish radio. In China the number one single is Miley Cyrus's Party in the USA: so the West is in decline?


Machines
Chinese industrial output has grown, certainly. But industry itself is Western, a product of Western Europe's Industrial Revolution. Far from rejecting Western systems of production, countries like Japan and China have instead become incredibly adept at embracing them. Their old agricultural societies have vanished.

This is what Shanghai looked like around 1891-1900:

And this is Shanghai today:

If China is outpacing the West, it is by being Western.


The Universal West
There is nothing to gloat about here, since the rise and rise of Western industry, culture, politics and economics is hardly a projection of natural European culture. European cultures were the first victims of modernity; the Europeans today boasting about human rights and personal freedoms are descended from witch-burning bigots, serfs, slave-traders, imperialists and the like. From Edward MacLysaght's Irish Life in the Seventeenth Century:
At that period in the upper classes family alliances were often concluded by the marriage of quite young children. After the ceremony the bride and bridegroom were forthwith taken back to their respective nurseries or schoolrooms to await an age more fitting to matrimony.... Thus Mr. Berry, in his article on the Jephson family of Mallow, states that the grandmother of William Jephson, who himself was married at twelve yaers old in 1686, was a bride at twelve and had her first child - his father - at fifteen.
Today traditional cultures are criticised for arranging child marriages, but that was Europe's past.

With the bad has gone the good: traditional agricultural skills, folk medical knowledge, endless songs and poems and arts. Before any Australian Aboriginal languages were threatened by English there vanished the dialects of Europe.

Now the technologies that rendered rural Europe's traditions redundant are sweeping the rest of the world. The political systems that emerged from increased complexity and urbanisation are being adopted - good and bad - in other countries. The very division of countries into discrete tax-collecting states is Western, the result of political reforms which destroyed the old kingdoms and empires of Europe. The symbols of statehood - flags, coats of arms, presidents and embassies - are ubiquitious.

Pessimistic Western conservatives warn about the Islamification of Europe, yet Europe's marital customs are nowhere returning to the early marriage, high fertility patterns of traditional Asian or African societies. Instead the opposite is happening: fertility rates are plunging in the developing countries, once again following the lead of Western Europe:
In wealthy East Asia the changes are most obvious, explained here by The Economist:
Although attitudes to sex and marriage are different from those in the West, the pressures of wealth and modernisation upon family life have been just as relentless. They have simply manifested themselves in different ways. In the West the upshot has been divorce and illegitimacy. In Asia the results include later marriage, less marriage and (to some extent) more divorce....

The first change is that people are getting married later, often much later. In the richest parts—Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong—the mean age of wedlock is now 29-30 for women, 31-33 for men (see chart right). That is past the point at which women were traditionally required to marry in many Asian societies. It is also older than in the West.... The second change is that, among certain groups, people are not merely marrying later. They are not getting married at all.
The Economist goes on to explain that divorce rates in East Asia are still lower than in the West because 'divorce has been common in the West for decades', but that Asia was catching up. Actually in this sense Ireland, with a divorce rate of only 0.8 per 1,000 population, is more Eastern than the East: Japan has 2.5 per 1,000, 3.5 in South Korea and around 2 in Asia as a whole. Malta, having just legalised divorce, is starting from zero.

The most obvious alternative superpower shows little sign of out-growing the West. China's total fertility rate is 1.8 children per woman. The US has 2.1, UK has 2, France is 2. China's birth rate is 12 per 1,000 population. US is 14, UK is 13, France is 13.


Politics and war
When I make these arguments I meet two criticisms. First, people point out that industrial, modernising China is nonetheless not democratic, and could pose a real challenge to the security and domination of Western powers. If they take some aspects of the Western, modern world, they may be using them to undermine the political power of NATO.

This may be true. Non-Western powers could expand and dominate by being better at Western modernity than the Westerners, especially if they can do so without the liberal stream of Western politics.

The second criticism is that I exaggerate the influence and importance of Western technology and popular culture, and that young Muslims, for example, who wear Western clothes and listen to hip hop, are still wedded to the old, illiberal religious beliefs.

I'm not sure about this. There have been changes in fashion in some Muslim-majority countries in recent decades, with a revival of the hijab for example. I'm not sure if this is indicative of a real Islamic cultural revival of the sort that rejects the Western alternatives. Yet it still seems to be emerging via modern technologies, the same technologies that overturned the traditional cultures of Europe.

So is the West in decline? Culturally it seems ascendent, with rising economic powers quick to mimic at least its materialist, modern aspects. Religiously it is holding its own, the decline of Christianity in Europe countered by growth in Africa. Politically, democracy is probably more widespread than ever before and though the rise of China may offer an alternative, that alternative bears little resemblence to traditional Chinese imperial government, taking its cues partly from European authoritarian experiments like communism.

Demographically most of North America and Europe continue to experience population growth, though at a slower pace than developing countries and heavily affected by immigration. If the West means white-skinned racial groups then its proportion of world population will indeed fall, though few people accept that old racist idea: today an African or Asian immigrant who embraces liberalism and secularism is Western.

Economically the handful of industrialised European and North American countries that led the way in terms of wealth have been joined by Asians like Japan, South Korea and Singapore, with a great raft of middle income countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America rising after them. This means that the centre of balance is shifting east, but not because Eastern economic systems turned out to be superior. Rather Eastern countries became better at Western industry and capitalism than the West. The game is the same, but non-Western countries have learned how to play.

Militarily the rise of China could pose a challenge to American hegemony. But the rising China is industrial, not traditional, and communist, not imperial. The rise of China is the rise of another West, albeit informed by illiberal ideologies.

If I was a conservative Arab or Chinese person or Latin American, I would be despondent about a future that looks likely to be heavily influenced by Euro-American modern cultures. The rest of the world is experiencing the modernising, homogenising wave that destroyed the traditional cultures of Europe long ago. So the future looks Western, no matter whose capital it is governed from.

2 comments:

  1. nice one Shane, another top-notch post.In India though westernisation has become a class issue more than a cultural issue since in general the richer you are, the more "westernised" you tend to become. I suspect this might be similar in many other countries.

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  2. Thanks Rohan. I hope it is not too confusing, it took me a long time to write and I wrestled with a group of conflicting ideas.

    So basically I want to say that what people call "Western" has little in common with the old folk cultures of Europe. Having largely replaced them, that Western/modern culture is now expanding at the expense of traditional cultures outside Europe.

    Of course it's not all one-way, we do increasingly eat Indian or Chinese food, and things like tea, coffee, etc. are intimate parts of "Western" culture today despite being alien to its past.

    But if I were a conservative in Ireland, wanting to protect a traditional religious and folk culture, I'd be very worried. And I'd feel the same if I was a conservative in China or Saudi Arabia or Kenya either. I think most people would choose to abandon difficult manual farmwork in favour of better-paid industrial/services jobs.

    Fascinating point about India and class. I guess that was true in Ireland once too: the wealthier people were English-speakers. In time that caused Irish-speaking to become a stigma, and people pushed to learn English. But later the Irish nationalists often praised the Irish-speaking, poor, technologically backward peasants. So perhaps there too traditional culture was associated with the poor and rural, which made urban nationalists praise them, but also made the poor struggle to "modernise" and learn English.

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