Absolute power corrupts, goes the old truism.
But, more importantly, it provincializes and isolates its wielders from the experience of the vast majority of humankind — the relatively powerless. This explains the wishful thinking that has characterized the speeches of Western statesmen and the fundamental assumption of the mainstream media in Europe and America since the end of the Cold War: that Western–style liberal democracy and capitalism would be gradually generalized around the world. One event after another in recent months has devastated this facile optimism, plunging a broad swathe of political and media elites in the West into intellectual confusion and bewilderment.
As I write, ethnic cleansers, jihadists, and ultra-Zionist settlers are re-drawing the Europe-created map of the Middle East. China and Russia threaten their neighbors. Narendra Modi, the new prime minister of the ‘world’s largest democracy’ is implicated in the mass murder of a religious minority, but backed by the most powerful business interests in India. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and right-wing extremism also define the politics of Israel, Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Turkey, and Egypt. Bloody insurgents in Central Africa have long muddled national borders. In North Africa, Libya, evidently ‘saved’ by Western humanitarian intervention, has actually become the first failed petro–state.
To this spectacle of uncontrollable chaos, the most commonplace Western response seems to be despairing accusations about American ‘weakness’ and what Barack Obama, as president of the ‘sole superpower,’ should have done or ought to do. Roger Cohen of the New York Times is not untypical among the pundits blaming extremism on “European nations with populations from former colonies,” which “often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.”
The believers in the West’s capacity to shape global events and congratulate itself eternally were afflicted with an obsolete assumption even in 1989: that the 20th century was defined by the battles between liberal democracy and totalitarian ideologies such as Fascism and Communism. Their obsession with a largely intra-Western dispute obscured the fact that the most significant event of the 20th century was de-colonization, and the emergence of new nation-states across Asia and Africa from the ruins of Western empires (a process in which anti-colonial activists often found themselves confronting liberal democracies that were also ruthlessly imperialist: thus, Winston Churchill, the great savior of Western democracy, was regarded as a racist oppressor by his Indian subjects). But for people luxuriating at a higher level of abstraction, accustomed to dealing during the Cold War with nation-states organized simply into blocs and superblocs, it was always too inconvenient to go down to the thicket of distinctions and particularities that make up the real world.
If they had indeed risked complexity and contradiction, they would have found that the urge to be a modern nation-state along Western lines initially ordered and then disordered the vast majority of the 20th century’s new nation-states. Resentful of European dominance over their societies, Asians and Africans sought to find the means to true power and sovereignty. In this quest, the Western model of state-building inspired China’s Mao Zedong as much as Iran’s democratic prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. For many Asians and Africans, the tremendous success of Western Europe’s very small countries showed that human beings could radically manipulate their environment and boost their collective power with the help of a political institution like the nation-state.
This was the harsh lesson the swift victories of Napoleon had first taught Europe; many other European societies then learned how to deploy effectively a modern military, an industrialized economy and create a feeling of belonging and solidarity (often by identifying dangerous enemies within and without). By the 1940s, competitive nationalisms in Europe stood implicated in the most vicious wars and crimes against religious and ethnic minorities witnessed in human history; and postwar Western Europe was forced to imagine, under American auspices and the pressures of the Cold War, less antagonistic political and economic relations, which eventually resulted in the European Union.
But the new postcolonial nation-states had already started on their own fraught journey to modernity, riding roughshod over ethnic and religious diversity. The lifestyles of Europeans and Americans were what we in postcolonial Asia had been promised by our socialist and secular nationalist icons — Nehru, Nasser, Mao, and Sukarno. More recently, non-Western ruling classes have looked to McKinsey and Company — the herald of modern globalization — rather than Marx and Mazzini to help define their socio-economic future; but they have not dared to alter the founding basis of their legitimacy as ‘modernizers.’ As it turns out, the latecomers to modernity, dumping protectionist socialism for global capitalism, have got their timing wrong again.
In the 21st century, that old spell of universal progress — whether through Western-style socialism, or capitalism and democracy — has been decisively broken. The optimistic assumptions dating from the 19th century that these universalist ideologies and techniques will deliver endless growth and political stability cannot be sustained. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living — in the East and South as well as West and North — with illusions.
We had expected the new countries in Asia and Africa to conform to the nation-state pattern constructed in Europe from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries. We had expected these societies to become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational and less religious as economic growth accelerated. We had most recently expected them, after the discrediting of socialism, to imitate the triumph of consumer capitalism in the West, and for the new middle classes to pave the way to democracy. The reality is that these nations, instead of converging on the Western model, were becoming disorderly in complex ways that make Western conceptions seem what they always were: the product of a particular and unrepeatable historical experience.
The trick of the Mercator map that made Europe bigger than it is obscured the many discontinuities of class, religion and regions of the world outside Europe. There were never more than a handful of countries — Japan and Norway, perhaps — that coincided with culturally homogenous entities, and forms of governance and the state — from Singapore to Saudi Arabia — were always incredibly various. We are also coming to realize that the dynamics of Western nation-building through rapid industrial growth were not and could not be replicated, largely because the enabling conditions of the 19th century — such as small, relatively homogenous populations, or the ability to send surplus populations abroad as soldiers, merchants and missionaries — were missing, especially in the large and populous countries of Asia and Africa. The political and economic institutions and ideologies of Western Europe and the United States had been forged by events — revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest — that did not occur elsewhere.
And so religion has failed to disappear under the juggernaut of industrial capitalism. Not only Islam, Hinduism and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also such quietist religions as Buddhism have experienced militant revivals as ideologies, often simultaneously, for oppressive regimes and the wretched of the earth. The middle classes, whether in India, Thailand, Turkey or Egypt, betray a greater liking for authoritarian-minded leaders such as Erdoğan and Modi than for the rule of law and social justice. But then, Western ideologues during the Cold War absurdly prettified the history of capitalism in the West, obscuring its umbilical link to imperialism abroad and widespread coercion and suffering at home, apart from a few clearsighted observers, such as Raymond Aron, who knew that nowhere in Europe, “during the long years when industrial populations were growing rapidly, factory chimneys looming up over the suburbs and railways and bridges being constructed, were personal liberties, universal suffrage and the parliamentary system combined.”
As the Russia of Yeltsin and now Putin confirm, capitalism always was compatible with the denial of democratic rights. China, too, has achieved a form of capitalist modernity without Westernization. The openly undemocratic small centers of global capitalism — Singapore and the Gulf kingdoms — may in fact be less prone to violent anarchy than their neighbors. The overall scorecard for the nation states of the mid-20th century can only discomfit those expecting a worldwide upsurge of liberal democracy in tandem with capitalism. Nations that had been insufficiently or too fervidly imagined — Myanmar and Pakistan come to mind — could not break free of their flawed beginnings, and have kept lurching for much of the last half-century between civilian and military despots. Today, even ruthless despotism, as the shattering of Iraq, Libya, and Syria reveals, is no longer a reliable bulwark against ethnic disaffection, or a dissolvent of tribal solidarity.
Countries that managed to rebuild commanding state structures after popular nationalist revolutions — such as China, Vietnam, and Iran — look stable and cohesive when compared to a traditional monarchy like Thailand or a wholly artificial nation-state like Iraq. The bloody regimes inaugurated by Khomeini and Mao survived some terrible internal and external conflicts — the Korean and Iran-Iraq wars, the Cultural Revolution and general blood-letting — partly because their core nation-building ideologies secured consent from many of their subjects. Many formally democratic nation-states, on the other hand, such as India, Indonesia, and South Africa, have struggled to maintain their national consensus in the face of global capitalism.
Nation-states already struggling against ethnic and religious disaffection and various sectarian rebellions have seen their internal unity further undermined by capitalism’s dominant ethic of primitive accumulation and private gratification. Ostensible democracies such as India and Israel have seen their foundational commitments to collective welfare reconfigured by a nexus of neoliberal politicians and majoritarian nationalists, who now try to bludgeon their disaffected subjects into loyalty to a ‘Jewish state’ and a ‘Hindu nation.’ Large sections of their angry and fearful populations have become vulnerable to demagogic passion.
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, which wisely decentralized after a long spell of despotic rule, is much less affected by religious-political mobilization. Still, many populous countries trying to catch up with the West through rapid industrial growth face the problem of ‘surplus population’ with no colonial possessions to send them to. These latecomers to modernity can only colonize their own territories, uproot their own indigenous peoples: the result is endless insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, wars and massacres, the rise of such anachronisms as Maoist guerrillas in India and Nepal, the increased attraction of unemployed and unemployable youth to extremist organizations, and the endless misery that provokes thousands of desperate Asians and Africans to make the risky journey to what they see as the center of successful modernity: Europe.
The outbreak of armed and fanatical religious-political movements, ethnic civil wars, anarchic secessionism, the return of piracy, unreliable global capital flows, large-scale, culturally discordant migrations, and the emergence of new centers of wealth and power in the Persian Gulf, Latin America, and East Asia — each one of these factors aggravate a widespread sense of disorientation and uncertainty. The loss of sovereignty — individual and collective — seems to have been an increasingly common experience since 1989. The collapse of communism enabled capitalism to renounce its ethic of responsibility. In practically every country, old social compacts based on a commitment to state action and collective welfare have given way to a belief in the miracle of markets. Uncontrollable capital flows have demoted even the elected leaders of former imperial nation-states such as Britain and France into enablers of investor-friendly climates. Social democracy is in retreat across Europe; but it had barely been built in large parts of Asia and Africa before being discarded. The rich and the middle class retreat into gated communities, and move their investments and assets offshore; the poor, deprived of public goods such as health and education, are left to fend for themselves. It is every person for themselves.
The global crisis, which is as much moral and intellectual as it is political and environmental, puts into question above all our long submission to Western ideas of politics and economy. Whether it is catastrophic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or disastrous interventions in Libya, the financial crisis of 2008, soaring unemployment in Europe, which seems like a problem with no solution, and is likely to empower far-right parties across the continent, the unresolved crisis of the Euro, hideous income disparities in both Europe and the United States, the widespread suspicion that big money has corrupted democratic processes, the absurdly dysfunctional American political system, Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, or the dramatic loss of a sense of possibility for young people everywhere — all of this separately and together has not only severely depleted the West’s moral authority but also weakened its intellectual hegemony.
This is why its message to the rest of the world’s population can no longer be the smooth reassurance that the Western way of life is the best, which others should try to replicate diligently in their own part of the world through nation-building and industrial capitalism. Such one-size-fits-all ideas now lie bankrupt in a bewilderingly diverse and volatile world — one in which the blood-spattered European idea of the nation-state has achieved its grimmest consummation in the Caliphate of ISIS and its savage cleansing of religious and ethnic minorities.
The collapse of communism in 1989 led to a new ideological fervour — originating in America and spreading to Europe and the rest of the world — on behalf of such values as efficiency, flexibility and marketization. Their effects in Russia already in the 1990s were pointing to a new future of oligarchy and messianic imperialism. Twenty-five years later, their real meaning in the non-Western parts of the world — widespread dispossession, destruction of traditional livelihoods, and denial of dignity — is all too clear. Impossible projects of Westernization across the Muslim world that uprooted hundreds of millions could only stoke aggressive ideologies of anti-Westernism. Even the rulers of quasi-successful China, unable to resolve its environmental crisis or stem growing inequality, is likely to defuse its contradictions through a hardline nationalism directed at its neighbors, particularly Japan, and its protector, the United States.
What this varied picture asks for is greater attention to specificity and detail, the contradictory dynamic of nation-building and modern capitalism, and the particular historical experiences of non-Western societies, rather than the usual narcissistic breast-beating about Barack Obama’s or Angela Merkel’s inaction or vacuous celebrations of Western democracy and freedom. At this time of confusion, we also need rather less of ambitious but provincial ideologies and boosterish McKinsey projections and more of the great critical and cosmopolitan traditions — embodied by figures as diverse as Kierkegaard and the Buddha — that upheld paradox, contingency and open-endedness over symmetry and closure.
For centuries human beings have tried to understand their world by reference to notions of ultimate design: for a long time it was God, then the secularized modern era brought forth such replacements as revolution, communism, and, most recently, free markets. Looking at our own complex disorder we can no longer accept the idea that reality is an incarnation of an a priori rational or moral order. This realization ought to provoke a fresh un-illusioned reckoning with, first, the world as it exists, and only then with what we would like it to be.
Reflecting on the world’s ‘pervasive raggedness,’ the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz once spoke of how “the shattering of larger coherences” into “smaller ones, uncertainly connected one with another, has made relating local realities … with the world overall, extremely difficult.”
“If the general is to be grasped at all,” Geertz continued, “and new unities uncovered, it must, it seems, be grasped not directly, all at once, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars — piecemeal, case by case. In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.”
Take for instance, the tribal communities fighting multinational corporations in India. Governing ‘liberated’ zones deep within Indian territory, these insurgents known as Maoists remind you of the struggles of indigenous peoples in Latin America, the Chiapas, rather than anything in Europe. They do not seek revolution; they just want to be left alone in their forests. Less militant agitators, such as the villagers in Orissa who successfully campaigned against bauxite mining by corporations on their sacred land, also appear to belong to a ‘pre-historic’ socio-political formation. The unbroken devotion of the Tibetans to the Dalai Lama is one of the many indications that modernization and high economic growth has not led, and will not lead, to secularization — it is more likely to provoke a kind of fervent religious politics that we saw first in Iran. In Indonesia, a small-city mayor called Joko Widodo has become, with ameliorative policies aimed at the urban poor (slum-dwellers, street vendors), the preferred alternative to a discredited breed of politicians — mostly manipulators of party machineries and lackeys of international capital — that can no longer pass off routine elections as democracy. And if Iraq achieves a modicum of stability it won’t be by reviving the doomed project of a nation-state in the Middle East; it will be achieved through a return to the Ottoman-style confederal institutions that devolve power and guarantee minority rights.
The Western path to modernity can no longer be regarded as “normal;” it cannot be the standard against which historical change in other parts of the world is measured. Europeans had created their own kind of modernity in the very particular historical circumstances of the 19th and 20th century, and other people have been trying since then, with varying degrees of success, to imitate it. But there are, and always were, other ways of conceiving of the state, society, economy, and the good life. They all have their own specific difficulties and challenges. Nevertheless, it will be possible to understand them only through an open and sustained engagement with non-Western societies, and their political and intellectual traditions. Such an effort, formidable in itself, would also go against every instinct of the self-regarding universalism the West has upheld for two centuries. But it will be needed if we wish to seriously confront the great problem confronting the vast majority of seven billion human beings: how to secure a dignified and sustainable life amid deepening inequality and animosity in an interdependent world.