Wither the “Western” liberal model?
Affray and ruin? No. Just the start.
Cheer up. Do not underestimate unleashed humankind’s Reason and curiosity.
All men desire to know (Aristotle)
Quel temps pour être en vie! (What a time to be alive!) (French, anonymous)
We’re all riding on this freight train,
Made of rocks and sticks and mortar…….
Well the driver’s sleepin’ at the wheel,
Maybe there just aint no driver…….
We’re all ridin through this emptiness,
You just got trust your neighbour.. (T Bones Band)
FEATURED, The first Modern Man? Odysseus refuses immortality.
Sir William Russell Flint (1880-1969), 1907, CALYPSO AND ODYSSEUS, oil on canvas, 101.5 by 127 cm.
The fork in the road?!
John Martin 1852, The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah , oil on canvas, 136 x 212cm.
Henri Matisse 1953 Memory of Oceania 284.4 x 286.4 cm, Moma, Gouache on paper, cut and pasted, and charcoal on
paper mounted on canvas
- There is currently much pessimism on the future of the “Western” liberal model, particularly from within the camp, some extreme, like talk of Europe “committing suicide”.
- It’s easy to get downhearted, if you lose perspective.
- This gloom appears misplaced, misses perspective, the wider context of Modernity.
- Modernity’s breakout – driven by the “Western” liberal model – is epochal, the biggest transitional shift in humankind’s history, a 5 million year event.
- It has brought unimaginable Progress, material and otherwise, including an explosion in knowledge, and also cultural expression.
- But it’s a Faustian bargain. The genie is out, no going back. Relentless competitive curiosity is now unleashed.
- It will likely bring further Progress, but the outcome will be messy, sub-optimal, because:
- a/ of inherent reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, thus facilitated by:
- Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,
- Man’s nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.
- b/ adjusting to, coping with the relentless economic and associated change is painful. A Sisyphean burden?
- c/ self-serving sociopathic autocrats will always try exploit unrest engendered by change.
- Also there is risk of dangerous “mishaps” which can have drastic near term consequences, like WW1, and, recently, the 2003 Iraq intervention.
- However one transformational positive outcome of the breakout is that humankind now has meaningful collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which factor has had such dramatic consequences in the past, like killing the Bronze Age.
- Though, oddly, the end of the Bronze Age then midwived the radical proto-modern experience that was Classical Greece.
Prognosis for the “West”? Tears all round?
Many informed current observers are negative if not desperate in their outlook for the West, the “Western” liberal model.
Thus Mr Pankaj Mishra in the London Review of Books (21 September 2017) reviews a clutch of recent books wrestling with a topic that doesn’t get much bigger, the future of the Liberal West, including its relationship with the rest of the world, books like: The Retreat of Western Liberalism (Edward Luce), The Fate of the West: Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (Bill Emmott), The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics (Mark Lilla), The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (David Goodhart) and especially The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (Douglas Murray). Greg Sheridan (in The Australian, 21 Sep.2017) reviews the last book approvingly in an aticle headlined Angela Merkel signals ruin for Europe.
All these books, by commentators well disposed to the West, take a dim even “Apocalyptic” view of prospects and in conclusion Mr Mishra – a fierce adversary of the liberal construct, known for castigating the depredatory excesses of “Liberal capitalism”, both inside and imperialistically outside – tags the authors as reactionaries, then (unfairly, illogically) lumps them with the Charlottesville white suprematists as all missing “the ancien regime”.
These writers join many past political philosophers pessimistic on the West’s future.
The pessimists fall into two broad camps:
1/ nostalgic reactionaries who cannot see the West succeeding if it abandons certain Old Order precepts, especially the Christian story. Per the recent book by Mark Lilla these might be called Shipwrecked Minds;
2/ wary supporters who don’t see the Western model having the wherewithal and resilience to survive its foes.
Perspective: long prologue for Modernity
It’s a long and intriguing story and it’s worth outlining as perspective before attempting a prognosis.
Arguably it started with the old Greeks, as an outstanding if not unique early case of proto-democracy, and of thinkers prepared to slough off traditional religious frameworks (usually incorporated into some secular autocratic power structure) in asking frank questions about their world, their natural world, and Man’s conduct of his collective social affairs.
Interestingly this occurred within the context of an apparently prosperous strongly growing, competitive, trade-oriented, quasi-democratic economy, until they were eclipsed by infighting then by the Macedonians.
After a long hiatus – most notable for the remarkable 600 year experience of old republican cum imperial Rome, then, as it succumbed to voluminous waves of eastern incursions, the fortuitous leg up Rome’s large footprint gave to Christianity’s spread – the immediate pathway to Modernity finally arose in Europe with the 18th C Enlightenment, crucially building on the 17th C scientific revolution and the associated philosophical upheaval, again in the context of a growing economy, of rising literacy, the printing press, and especially of ongoing and growing questioning of the Christian Church’s authority, which dated back especially to the 14th C upheaval of Black Death.
Arguably too, and somewhat analogous to the ancient Greek experience, the roots of the liberal breakout in Europe lay far back in Anglo-Saxon England, where the quasi-democratic practices of immigrant Germanic tribes evolved to restrain monarchs (cf Magna Carta 1215), and the moot evolved into parliament as a representative institution.
Then arguably the modern liberal economy was born in 17th C Netherlands – its secular competitive ingenuity honed and stimulated by fighting off the regressive Old Order Spanish empire – which helped to nourish the takeoff soon after in England.
A familiar precis.
Modernity’s troubled gestation
However, stepping back, we see the emergence of Modernity has been protracted and intensely painful, compromised by two major sets of factors.
The first is “unenlightened” reactionary Old Order behaviour, expressed through concerted fightback, reflecting still potent traditional self-interests, appetites, loyalties and attitudes, religious (particularly theistic / theocratic) and nationalistic and racial.
First after the late 16th C religious wars in France, following the early 16th C Reformation, the 17th C saw central Europe engulfed by the Thirty Years War (1618-48), as the violent and fruitless culmination of the Counter-Reformation, ie the Rome-based Catholic Church, led by the Papacy, in league with sympathetic secular leaders fiercely resisting the Protestant Reformation.
Oddly, alongside this reactionary fightback, there emerged in the Netherlands a small but dynamic pocket of progressive proto-modernity, a republican government atop a buoyant growing innovative competitive economy and a vibrant secular culture patronised not by the Church or monarchs but mainly by increasingly prosperous private people.
But the Old Order viewpoints persisted.
Thus the late 18th C bright New World adventure of the United States – its revolutionary secession from the British Empire, consciously launched as it was with laudable Enlightenment aspirations – was tragically compromised from the start by the bad Old Order ways.
Thus the founders instead established de facto a “selective democracy”, inconsistent with Enlightenment ideals, as they clung to slavery, big time, in the South, where about 5 million whites “oversaw” about 4 million enslaved blacks, basically for the money, fortuitously feeding cotton to a Europe then booming, ironically thanks to its “modern”industrial take off.
Alongside this the US governments violently evicted the native Americans, again for commercial gain.
Meanwhile similar Old Order priorities also saw ambitious large scale European imperialist colonial adventures in the 19th century, also, like the USA, with a racist flavour, ie particularly in India, plus a raft of interventions in Africa and elsewhere.
But then secondly, in tragic hugely destructive blowback, these residual reactionary attitudes also gave us WW1, as traditional Old Order European rivalries which had plagued the continent for centuries resurfaced, only, ironically, now among nations that much better armed and resourced militarily owing to the economically productive industrial take off. So an old fashioned war was fought with modern weaponry, multiplying the tragedy.
Some paint WW1 as the inevitable resolution of growing tensions in Europe, but ultimately it only happened after a match was thrown, and the relevant supervising politicians misread the total circumstances.
The second major complication has been enterprising sociopathic autocrats or dictators, history’s Bad Boys, exploiting the social unrest / chaos engendered by the modernizing process, again with calamitous results, thinking here of the three great “modern” revolutions (France, Russia and China), the latter two both midwived by world wars.
So the French Revolution gave us the Terror then Napoleon.
The Russian (Bolshevik) Revolution, sprouting from WW1 induced chaos there , brought forth Lenin and Stalin.
Then WW1, crucially compounded by the Depression, also gave us Hitler.
Finally the Chinese Revolution gave us Mao.
Bad Boys, like Genghis Khan, have always worried history but the Modernity’s wider better resourced context gave them much richer pastures.
Some desperate Christian critics of the Enlightenment like to blame it and atheism for these totalitarian nightmares but quite the reverse is the case. Thus the astute Great Dictators, taking advantage of the unrest, each resorted to Old Order ways to legitimise their fiercely illiberal anti-democratic regimes, each propagating quasi-religious regime supporting ideologies.
Thus it’s often rightly remarked that the post-Tsarist Russian experience – both Soviet and now Putin – is really just neo-Tsarist, rule by the traditional strong man.
Outcome: Humankind’s technological break-out! An epic watershed. A 5 million year event!
The gestation was unimaginably painful but it’s now clear Modernity has delivered humankind a species-shaking watershed, an historic breakout from eons of impoverished struggle.
Technologically impelled per capita economic growth has delivered:
a/ mass prosperity, for first time in the species 5m year history, notwithstanding unfinished business,
b/ a leap in life span, longevity,
c/ a leap in quantums of leisure time,
d/ a reduction in the intensity (per capita) of intra-species violence, notwithstanding (as various researchers have observed) the 20th C setback.
e/ in most “Western” countries, much improved governance in conduct of private economic affairs, especially corporations, eg see “When Corruption and Venality Were the Lifeblood of America”, (review by Sean Wilentz NY Times, 19 Sep. 2017 of The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, Richard White, Oxford). “White’s book ought to worsen its [The Gilded Age] already dismal reputation for sordidness and rapacity.” White’s earlier work includes “a scathing exposé of the giant post-Civil War transcontinental railroads”.
Altogether it is by far the most dramatic single change in collective circumstances in the species 5 million years history.
Outcome: now humankind capacity to respond to climate change
The other incredible outcome is that for the first time in its 5 million year history humankind can use its new collective technical prowess to react to natural challenges, especially like climate change, which phenomenon has had such dramatic consequences for homo sapiens in the past, starting of course with the inter-glacial global warming c14,000 years ago which allowed Man to blossom. Then in recorded time there have been other portentous climate interventions, like the droughts that ended the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the Maya, but particularly whatever happened c1200BC to kill off a bunch of Bronze Age civilisations in the Eastern Mediterranean.
One fascinating speculation is that the end of the Bronze Age appears to have then helped father, make space for, the eventual extraordinary proto-modern Classical Greek effloresecence (Josiah Ober’s term), a clear progenitor of the modernizing breakout in Europe near two milleniaia later.
Outlook: the Faustian bargain. No getting off the train: Man’s curiosity unleashed
However the uncovering by ingenius humankind – finally- of Modernity, can be cast as a Faustian bargain.
Modernity brings a bounty. The cup runneth over.
But it comes with a catch.
Firstly, now the process is unleashed there is no turning back, no leaving the train. Technological innovation is out of the box and humankind’s unleashed self-serving competitive curiosity will keep driving change. We’re riding the Tyger.
Second, Modernity, driven by technical change, brings relentless economic and related changes, bringing winners but always some direct losers. So adjustment to change is constant and painful, a Sisyphean challenge.
Third, the Old Order does not go quietly, many cling to it. Modernity’s assault on, undermining and swallowing of the Old Order, tradition, is painful and disruptive.
There is a range of reactions, from active fightback to resignation.
A measure of reactionary resistance from Old Order interests, attitudes, seems inherent, reflected in Man’s appetite for the Otherworldly / supernatural,
Organised religion, well meaning or otherwise has exploited this predilection.
For many people there is tantalising appeal in belief in the “irrational”, as an antidote to the travails of life in this world, particularly among poorer and less educated people.
TS Eliot wrote in Burnt Norton, “.. human kind / Cannot bear very much reality“
For some there is also nostalgic attraction to tradition, including racism and social class.
Aged only 20 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (Mary Shelley, daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) published Frankenstein in 1818, as the Industrial Revolution gathered pace but was still young. It is rightly billed as a Romantic novel, reacting to the 18th C Age of Reason, an allegorical comment on the dangers of Modernity, what can go wrong.
Outlook: four propositions favouring the “Western” liberal model
First, despite its long and painful gestation, the Unintended Consequences of Old Order resistance from within, and despite stern opposition from antagonistic threatened external forces (like the Soviet Union, the USSR, for about 45 years during the Cold War, now like the Islamist rebellion and Putin’s neo-Soviet Russia), self-evidently the Western model has delivered, is delivering
An optimum modus operandi?
Second, perhaps controversially, heroically, there’s an argument that the secular Liberal democrat model (LDM), ragged and imperfect though it may be, is basically the optimum way, the go to way, for humankind to conduct its collective affairs, and is “Western” only in sense it happened to emerge there.
So it has universal appeal or relevance akin to natural laws of physics and other sciences, and as illustrated by its take-up beyond the home countries.
A curious observation in world affairs is how many patently non or anti-democratic countries pay lip service to the “Western” model, in many of their public announcements, and also in their theatrical efforts to maintain a pretence of democracy at home, through courts, conducting some version of parliament, holding elections etc.
Inherent appeal to most educated people?
Third, supporting the second point, there’s a case that this model will have inherent appeal to a majority of educated people almost everywhere, people generally attracted to a rule of law / governance based competitive but compassionate, tolerant, democratic, rights ruled way of life.
Why? Because ultimately the the number of Good People exceeds Bad People.
This proposition is supported by history’s outcome, particularly post WW2
Obviously the core West, as in Europe and the US (and direct outliers like Canada and Australia), basically subscribes to this model and will continue to.
But particularly post WW2 the model has spread – to a greater or lesser extent – beyond the home counties, especially to parts of Asia (notably Japan, India then Korea, Indonesia, Thailand etc), and also to parts of the Americas beyond the US and Canada. The outcomes in different cases vary, are not all mirror images of Westminster, but significant nonetheless.
In particular, after the egregious practical failure of the Red Road, we have seen populous China abruptly embrace the market economic part of the “Western” liberal model, with dramatic economic and now wider consequences. Their economic modus operandi might come from an Economist essay, though of course they still keep tight reins politically, wherever that might lead.
Outlook: Europe and Islam? Western model will prevail.
Regarding alarm over Islamic migration into Europe, the talk of an existential threat, the fundamental issue is how the imported “culture” will interact.
The influx of refugees to Europe will obviously shift the complexion of society, render it more cosmopolitan and diverse, but ultimately, and crucially, the first loyalty of the majority of the newcomers in time will likely be to some version of the progressive liberal “Western” model, not to some imported antithetical ideological regime, religious or otherwise.
Thus end of the day the “Western” model, based on reason, freedom and tolerance, seems a far greater threat to the “ten pound weakling” that is regressive Old Order illiberal theocratic Islam than vice versa.
This prospect for Europe recalls the dramatic “cultural” transformations occasioned by non-European inward migration experienced by the US starting some while ago and by Australia in recent decades.
Islam may prove harder to digest but digested it will be, another illustration of a striking and irresistible outcome of ongoing Modernity, the swallowing of traditional cultures, or mind-sets, one way or the othert.
Outlook: much better than many think?
Where from now?
Is the outlook really so dark for the Liberal West?
Far from it. Rather, based on the demonstrated success to date of the “Western” liberal model, there is a strong case for dogged Whiggish optimism.
Barring unexpected exogenous mishaps the likely overall long term prognosis for the West is far from gloomy.
Progress remains likely, in terms of economic and social outcomes, if not always smoothly.
Outlook: but messy. Challenges of adjustment will remain, are endemic?
However the outcome will always remain turbulent to a degree, messy and sub-optimal.
Technological changeis now relentless, driven by humankind’s competitive self-interested curiosity, commercial and otherwise. This change has underwritten rising prosperity globally, and, crucially, for the first time in millions of years of history, will help humankind respond to natural challenges like climate shift.
But it also necessitates constant economic adjustment which is painful for those directly affected.
First the two major factors that impaired Modernity’s gestation remain alive, evident today, are more or less inherent, ie
a/ an irrational if understandable appetite for the therapeutic Otherworldly (religion (eg violent theocratic Islamism) and otherwise),
and b/ residual (if spurious) belief in race and class carrying inherited differentiating characteristics ,
The Radical Enlightenment, arguing the case to its logical conclusion, attacked both.
Second, posterity will always have to cope with Bad Boys.
Outlook: risks of “mishaps”, an their Unintended Consequences.
There’s a case that WW1 need not have happened. However once triggered, by a sequence of events starting in Sarajevo, the Unintended Consequences were devastating, especially for all those directly affected, the victims and their families.
The ill-fated 2003 US intervention in Iraq (compounded by Libya 2011) is shaping as another major unnecessary “mishap”, with costly Unintended Consequences. For some protgonists the intervention was well-intentioned, seeking to evict violent dictators but reality is it has unleashed a sustained violent backlash from Old Order interests. Thus it has stoked intra-Islamic Shia-Sunni violence, and has triggered resentful Islamist violence against the West. The strong Old Order religious reality is that Iraq was no candidate for early adoption of anything like the “Western” liberal model.
However Modernity survived WW1 (and its corollaries like the Russian Revolution), and will survive the 2003 intervention, if at a cost.
However the rise of China, in particular, has for some resurrected the so called Thucydides Trap, the notion that its rise will somehow bring inevitable conflict with the US as the pre-eminent global power (much as ancient Athens and Sparta squared off, disastrously). WW1 is another popular example, with then Europebeing unable to accommodate peacefully the rise of Germany.
Yes there are dangers accommodating China but China has a pressing interest in avoiding serious conflict.