The Success of the West. And It’s Irrelevance.

Ever since the demise of communism as a competing ideology to the liberal-social democratic West in the late 1980s and early 1990s, those liberal-social democratic ways of organizing the world have become the world’s values. It isn’t the end of history, but it is — for the time being, the end of a somewhat contrived ideological battle between what really were two “sister” world views (social democracy’s governing ideas are best most earliest reflected in the Communist Manfesto). There are no real competing world views: Revolutionary Islam has no mass appeal, and what military or party authoritarianism exists in the world today somehow justifies itself by appealing to liberal-social democratic values.

I cannot imagine millions taking to the street anywhere for a restored Caliphate. But an end to dictatorship, and the accountability of government to the “will and needs of the people”? That will get millions into streets across the world.

I have struggled to find a term to describe the kind of governance and ideal society that inhabits the minds on many of the world’s educated people (and that is a huge number, counting even the marginally educated). Which is why I have decided to use the term “liberal-social democracy.” It is liberal in the sense that it takes 18th century liberal ideas (sovereignty rests in the people, government power is exercised on behalf of the people for the benefit of the people, elections are the best way to constrain government power and hold government accountable, the people are all equal citizens and all have equal responsibility to participate in the exercise of power, the individual human being matters in the context of the society that is governed) with 19th century social democratic values (the economy should be accountable politically to the people, the state is the organizing purpose of the society, the people acting in and through the state will to a certain extent provide some very basic services to all in the society as a way of fostering equality and looking after the well-being of both individuals and the society at large) and 20th century ideas of human rights to create a kind-of body of beliefs and practices that constitute the good society. Liberal-social states are reasonably humane, efficient, look after the well-being of the weakest by fostering social obligations, empower individuals to live up to their intellectual potential and foster their individual talents, do not unduly dominate others while at the same time promoting the universality of these ideals.

These values, these ways of doing things, come out of Europe and North America, and are definite products of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolutions and the problems they set before humanity. These values seek to use the intellectual tools of the Enlightenment and the material tools of the Industrial Revolution to ameliorate (if not end) the inequality, exploitation and misery created and exacerbated by the Industrial Revolution.

And they have become universal. The West can say it has truly succeeded in conquering the world.

What is interesting, however, is that as these values have become universal — and they have — the West has become less central and even less essential to the promotion of the very values it birthed and currently lays claim to. The West, in its victory, is becoming irrelevant.

The West has always lived uneasily with its proclamation of universal values. Because they have not always been universal. The statement in the American Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” was never really true — the long history of American racism at home and abroad clearly shows that Americans never really meant it. The French proclaimed a universal civilization, but decided very early that Muslims were not eligible to Frenchmen so long as they remained Muslim. In this, the West has been at its worst because what is has said about itself how been so at odds with how it has acted. Dominating others while proclaiming liberty. It is our least appealing quality.

One way Americans at least have dealt with this is to embrace a kind-of incarnational ideology — we are the embodiment of these very values, and so we cannot truly be judged by them. This continues to be the approach of the ideological right (especially in its support for Israel, which is also an incarnation of liberal-social values, and thus cannot be judged by them) and of course America’s ruling elites, who bristle at the very notion that they will be judged by the same standards they judge others. By incarnating these values in themselves, Americans (and to a lesser extent Britons) hope to control them. We are freedom. We are democracy. We are accountability. We are progress. We are the good society. We judge you because you hope to be just like us someday. You are even in the process of becoming like us. But you aren’t yet. So you cannot judge us.

But judge the world does. Because these ideas don’t incarnate. They aren’t embodied. And as these ideas spread, the West — especially its elites — are losing control over them. As the world becomes liberal-social (and that is what it is becoming), there will be other centers of gravity and opinion that will not mistake the exercise of power by Washington as liberal-social merely because Washington does it. As Malays and Brazilians and South Africans and Indians and Chinese embrace these ideals (and graft them on to local religions and local nationalisms), they will reshape them. The core hopes of government in the name of the people and for the benefit of the people, of economic progress shared relatively equally, of the rights and well-being of individual human being as a part of the society respected and fostered will remain, and they will be the way all governments for the foreseeable future will be judged as successes or failures. These things, I believe, have legs that will transcend local conditions (even as they are affected by them).

A liberal-social democratic world does not need America, however. It does not need its army, its economy, its banks, is intellectuals, or increasingly even its sclerotic example. America will grow — is growing — as irrelevant to the future of humanity as France, or Portugal, or even Britain. America is evolving from the first, to first among equals, to just another nation-state. My hope is Americans would embrace this future, but only a few will at first. This evolution is, will continue, to provoke a huge crisis of identity among American ruling elites (and even in the heartland), where so much national identity is built on the global domination and importance of “we’re number one!”

But do not forget — the irrelevancy of America and the entire West is predicated entirely on the success of Western values as promoted largely by the United States in the decades following the Second World War. Americans should be proud of that accomplishment. Instead, too many of them are frightened. And angry.

One thought on “The Success of the West. And It’s Irrelevance.

  1. Sometimes I think that the newer movements in the pantheon of Liberal Social Democratic values (feminism, gay rights,PETA etc.) particularly as they are used to critique the “Third World’s” evolution along this path, are more an attempt to stay ahead of the curve and support the West’s self image of exceptionalism by judging these movements as inferior, than they are actual critiques of the particular injustice.

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