The West: Its Legacy and Possible Future
Mark Wegierski considers unfolding developments in America, Europe and the Middle East
The following essay is a 2015 iteration of the draft of a presentation read at the 2012 Telos in Europe L’Aquila Conference — The West: Its Legacy and Future (L’Aquila, Italy), September 7-9, 2012
This piece of philosophical and speculative writing is an attempt to distill and synthesize over three decades of study and reading in political and social philosophy, and especially such major articles and books as Benjamin J. Barber’s Jihad vs. McWorld, Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations, and Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History – all of which have attempted to give a definitive explanation of various facets of the so-called world-historical crisis. (The term world-historical has been used in particular by Oswald Spengler, in his monumental work, Decline of the West, as well as by Hegel.) Especially since the 1960s, there have appeared a series of important articles and books that have attempted grand summations of the seemingly near-permanent crisis into which both the West and non-West have been plunged.
The delineation of a West and non-West has been established as a result of centuries of highly differing political history, traditions, and culture, in the Western and non-Western societies. One of the main differences between the West and non-West has been the Western emphasis on freedom and the individual.
In the 1960s, it could be argued that certain notions of radical freedom and individual autonomy that had germinated for several prior decades, reached the point of revolutionary explosion. In the aftermath of the 1960s, long-established notions of various traditions have been severely questioned, and both Western and non-Western societies have been thrown into almost continual social, cultural, and political turmoil. Nevertheless, much of this conflict can be explained in terms of a dynamic interplay of classical political theory notions of freedom, order, and security. Planet-wide cultural struggles over definitions of freedom, order, and security will determine the shape of the future.
Issues of balancing freedom, order, and security in society have clearly been given a higher profile because of the elevation of Western political philosophy in the world. Outside the West, many empires, kingdoms, nations, and peoples have been content to live for centuries in societies that mainly offered order, without much of what is today defined as freedom. This indifference for many centuries to what Westerners have considered natural notions of freedom is quite striking. It is something which is today quite difficult to comprehend, especially for Western people. Also, some thinkers of current-day non-Western societies find it difficult to account for this seeming indifference to freedom, and have elaborated various rhetorical approaches to explain or minimize it.
Even as the planet today possibly moves towards a post-Western, globalized world, the urgency for personal freedom in many countries of the world can be partially traced to the impatience with traditional arrangements which has characterized many Western thinkers and societies.
One also sees situations (as in Islamic societies) where a revolt against authoritarianism may in fact be driven by forces that are inimical to most notions of freedom, possibly actually desiring, at their most ambitious, Islamist totalitarianism. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the situation where the Bolsheviks fiercely agitated against authoritarian Tsarism, but eventually replaced it by a far more murderous totalitarianism (after a relatively brief transition period of liberal democracy under Kerensky).
Let us look at a number of definitions of freedom. The most conventional definition of freedom is doing precisely what one wants to do (presumably as long as one does not harm others). Freedom, to many people today, is defined in terms of personal and sexual freedoms, i.e., listening to whatever music one wants, indulging in whatever tastes one wants, and living whatever lifestyle one wants, without reference to received traditions of religion, nation, or history – or, on the other hand, to various politically-correct guidelines, for example, against sexism.
Conservative and some classical liberal thinkers have defined freedom in terms of persons aspiring to a more reflective existence, based on at least some study of the so-called liberal arts (philosophy, literature, classics, and history), which would allow people to live a more rounded, worthwhile life, and to exercise the full obligations of citizenship. According to this view, people have to be aware of the literature, history, and politics of their nation, in order to be able to meaningfully participate in its political life. Freedom is defined as the responsible exercise of one’s civic duties (being aware of politics, frequently engaging in responsible political debate, voting in elections based on very responsible assessments of the candidates, possibly standing for office, doing one’s jury duty if one is called to do so). Freedom defined in this way is considered supportive to notions of security, social order and virtue.
The third type of freedom is that defined by many left-wing thinkers today. While it offers a lot of personal lifestyle freedom, it also establishes very strong guidelines against various public behaviors and expressions considered impermissible and punishable by law or by social and professional ostracism. It also usually believes that one’s personal freedom is to a large extent dependent on one’s economic status – so a society where there are large disparities between rich and poor is criticized, as limiting the freedom of the poor. It is often claimed that economic democracy (i.e., a more equitable distribution of economic goods in society) is more important than political democracy (such as the right to vote – which is often not exercised). Left-wing thinkers encourage the obtaining of knowledge about politics and society, especially among those who are not economically privileged, and claim to embrace the idea of widespread political participation.
The fourth main type of freedom is that as defined by libertarian or capitalist thinkers. They believe to a large extent in freedoms defined as personal and sexual freedoms. At the same time, however, they wish to free individuals from almost all government taxation and regulation. Libertarians believe in political participation (if one voluntarily chooses do it), and if it is directed towards creating an ever-smaller state. Libertarians seem to combine aspects that could be conventionally seen as ultra-conservative, and as ultra-liberal.
A fifth definition of freedom, which may seem self-contradictory, is that claimed, for example, by Islam and other forms of traditional religious expression – submission to the will of God is the highest freedom.
Within many Western societies today, one sees the triumph of polymorphous sexual and lifestyle choices, along with the strengthening of various types of left-wing political-correctness, especially in academic life. However, despite the strengthening of the left, there are also marked advances in corporate capitalism. Corporations are growing ever-larger and more powerful, society is becoming consumption- and brand-driven, and an ever-smaller proportion of the population is controlling an ever-larger share of the economic wealth. The current-day system of most Western societies has been described by some as the managerial-therapeutic regime. It is said to be constituted by a therapeutic Left of state administrators, and a managerial Right of the trans-national corporations – both of which are said to be remote from more genuine notions of both Left and Right.
The condition of many Western societies today has also been characterized by some critics as decadence or decay. However, these critics — who stretch across various political outlooks — are often attacking the West from different angles, and criticizing it for different things.
The condition of the West today has introduced great strains and difficulties in the relations between West and non-West on the planet today. For example, North American (U.S. and Canadian) and Western European pop-culture is being spread around the globe, and is bringing what is considered moral decay into many non-Western societies, notably the Islamic ones. At the same time, the virtually open borders of the West mean that there is a huge influx of non-Western peoples into the West. Concurrently, the birthrates in Western countries have plummeted owing to the primacy of sexual and personal freedom and lifestyle choices in many of those societies. This combination of factors could introduce great stresses into Western societies.
The events of “9/11” have brought into focus the fact that there is a significant group of persons implacably opposed to what the West currently represents. Almost for the first time in its history, America was savagely struck at its very heart, in what was immediately, and correctly, called a war. In subsequent years, jihadist attacks have occurred in various Western countries, notably, Great Britain, Spain, Canada in October 2014, and France in January 2015.
The events of “9/11” also highlight certain issues of security today. With the spread of technology around the planet, almost any faction with a grievance can command the resources that can do enormous damage. If a faction is fanatical enough, it will consider the use of biological or nuclear weapons as entirely justified. If they could obtain biological or nuclear weapons, they would probably not hesitate in using them.
Some argue that so-called root-causes such as poverty, or the dispossession of the Palestinian people, are the real reasons for this anti-Western extremism. Actually, many of the jihadis have come from comparative and sometimes even great affluence, which has only fed their sense of grievance. And the total destruction of Israel would only be one stage towards achieving ambitions that are, in the jihadist rhetoric, globally encompassing.
Israel today, despite its massive armed forces, is in an increasingly intractable position. Any concessions it makes are likely to only increase the contempt in which it is held among many Palestinians, among many others in the Middle East, and among a considerable number of Muslims worldwide. At the same time, Israel – although increasingly characterized by some in the Western media as a blowhard regime — is temperamentally unwilling to undertake some truly draconian, punitive measures, and Western opinion is highly unlikely to allow it to do so. What would be the world’s reaction if terrorists managed to detonate a nuclear bomb in Tel-Aviv? What would Israel’s reaction be? Given the rhetoric emanating from some quarters of the Iranian leadership, Israel is certainly right to be concerned about the Iranian nuclear program.
The West has entered the so-called war against terrorism with various advantages and disadvantages. For example, the superb space-based and electronic technology of the West allows for fairly tight monitoring of much of the planet’s surface, and of electronic communications planet-wide. Its electronically-based weaponry makes it highly likely that it can soundly defeat any conventional army in the field.
However, many of the ideas prevalent in the West today tend to inhibit a successful prosecution of the war. The Western military effort is clearly hampered by the often debilitating impact of high casualties on the morale of the home societies (a situation much different from that of, for example, World War II), as well as by the imperative of not doing anything that would appear to be contrary to the rules of civilized war. The enemies of the West, in contrast, can act with total ruthlessness and callous disregard for lives (including their own), which could to some extent compensate for their lack of advanced technology.
Many consider the take-down of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq a disastrous misdeployment of Western strength, resulting in a veritable Sicilian Expedition. Getting bogged down in Afghanistan, chasing such chimeras as “democracy” – as opposed to launching a short, sharp punitive expedition – may be seen as maladroit. Some have argued that we are seeing the emergence of what has been called Fourth Generation War – which conventional Western armies are not adept in fighting.
It has also been suggested that there now exists a situation somewhat analogous to that of the Roman Empire, where a tremendously wealthy and comparatively populous America is able to enroll only a comparatively small percentage of its population in the military, whereas in some other societies such as Afghanistan, virtually every capable male from the age of sixteen up to very old age, is a warrior. The upshot is that even minor support for extremist factions in such societies may translate into considerable numbers of armed fighters. It should also be noted that the ratio of extremist Muslims to the general Muslim populations, is certainly comparable to the ratio of Bolsheviks in Tsarist Russia – and we should well remember what that tiny, fanatical faction was able to accomplish, when the circumstances turned in their favor. And America’s military is itself gargantuan in size, compared to the armed forces of Canada, or those of some Western European countries.
Nevertheless, Canada, as a Western “middle power” may have a helpful role to play in the struggle, especially as America since 2009 has had a President who is widely perceived as being somewhat ambivalent about the threat posed to the West.
There are also many intrinsic aspects of Western societies today that may weaken them in regard to preventing possible terrorist attacks. Large sectors of Western societies are highly critical of the West — from a multiculturalist direction — as well as very strongly concerned about possible human rights and privacy abuses in the prosecution of the war against terror. The West also has fairly open borders, and large immigrant populations in which the terrorists can blend.
However, it is unlikely that there could be the imposition of very tight border controls, immigration-restriction, or what would be viewed as a massive curtailment of the civil liberties of immigrant populations, in the West today. Although the societal and security contexts may be considerably different – with differing strengths and weaknesses — the West as a whole faces a dilemma similar to that faced by Israel.
Arguably one way for the current-day West to become more secure in the world would be an ever-accelerating process of cultural globalization. It is anticipated that non-Western societies will become increasingly like the West today. That is, they will increasingly exalt sexual and personal freedom. Their birthrates are likely to decline, they will become increasingly prosperous and consumerist, and North American and Western European pop-culture will become the global culture. However, a strong U.S. military will almost certainly have to be maintained for a considerable time, to deal with the possible final backlashes of traditional societies that are being assimilated to the global culture.
There is also the issue that some societies, for example, in sub-Saharan Africa, face such great obstacles today that they might never be able to become prosperous and consumerist. Another truly momentous question is whether the extension of the consumer society and consumer habits will result in the destruction of the ecosphere. While on the one hand, population is expected to decline as a result of consumerism, the populations of Third World countries are already comparatively high, and the shift in consumption-styles from those typical of Third World countries, to those typical of richer Americans, will place an even greater stress on the environment.
The main alternative to the universal globalization model would probably be some kind of conservative restoration in the West (or significant parts thereof). In regard to security issues, this would allow the West to defend itself more vigorously, sometimes with punitive and draconian methods – but at the same time to disengage from many global democratizing projects. Such a restoration would also presumably curtail the global reach and lifestyle extremes of North American pop-culture.
It may appear ironic, but a more truly conservative America might well be a far less aggressively imperialist and war-making America.
In such a scenario, most non-Western societies could probably better maintain their cultural distinctiveness, but the planet could resemble a series of armed camps, as these civilizations would be likely to clash.
The renewed self-confidence, and willingness to exercise its power, including technological power, of the West, would presumably shield it from the dangers posed by rival power blocs.
However, conflict between the various camps need not take the form of full-blown hot wars. Indeed, among the capabilities afforded by technology today is that conflict need not take the shape of full-blown hot wars but of trade blockades, cyberwar, and drone strikes.
Nevertheless, there would possibly be a series of cold wars and/or peripheral skirmishes.
While these neo-traditionalist Western societies would certainly claim to properly balance freedom, order, and security, they would doubtless be considered as highly repressive by left-wingers and libertarians. There would be far less freedom of sexual and personal lifestyles.
In Hegelian terms, the neo-traditionalist societies could see themselves as a proper synthesis of premodernity (the Affirmation) and modernity (the Negation) – that is, as the Negation of the Negation (i.e., as the true Synthesis). The inability to significantly challenge and overcome current-day late modernity would be seen as resulting in the Negation extended to ever greater extremes – a short-circuiting of real human progress.
The so-called global-culture society, on the other hand, would probably be characterized by various combinations of extreme sexual lifestyle freedom, left-wing political-correctness, and capitalism. It is difficult to see if any one of those tendencies would ever gain a global ascendancy. This kind of society could be seen as an ever-shifting kaleidoscope, as various ad hoc accommodations and coalitions between these three main outlooks would occur.
As the global-culture society was getting underway, there would be a period of extreme danger with a possible final backlash from some traditional societies. Thereafter, the primary dangers to security in most of the global-culture society would likely be internal, such as those arising from violent crime and economic disturbances in a society with few stable anchors. Among the forms these economic disturbances could take would be: the overstretch of the welfare-state, which would in the end probably entail massive cuts to entitlements; declining living standards in advanced economies because of competition from the less-developed world; a presumably transitory period of extreme exploitation of cheap labor in the less-developed world; possible business malfeasances such as those seen in the recent financial crisis (where very risky mortgages were packaged as high-grade investments and passed onto financial institutions outside the U.S.); ever-increasing numbers of various fraudulent or semi-fraudulent money-making scams — a society-wide collapse of trust; and the tendency of people to define their lives by their consumption habits, abandoning thrift, and falling into massive debts. A global-culture society would be extremely unsettled, hyper-modern, and in many ways vulgar and coarse. And, while organized warfare between countries might disappear, violence arising from organized crime, or between ethnic and cultural groups, or simply between individuals, might intensify.
The global-culture society — which is far from being the utopia some might imagine it as – looks to be the more likely outcome, from the current vantage-point. According to its critics, that society might in the more distant future come to resemble the dystopian settings seen in such movies as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (loosely based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) — the “gritty” variant; or in Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World — the more “antiseptic” variant.
Mark Wegierski is a Toronto-based writer and historical researcher