Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Decline Of The West; or why Islam, China and "The East" are on the rise

I wrote a few months ago about the moral and ideological crisis that exists in the West, using the UK as an example.
It always pays to be a student of history, because then you begin to realise that many aspects of historical change get repeated. In the article mentioned above, I explained how extremist Muslims (and ideological extremists in general, for that matter) have been able to take advantage of the ideological confusion prevalent in the West in general (and the UK in particular, as an example).
I am not a right-wing conservative; if anything, I am a left-wing liberal. Nick Cohen's "You Can't Read This Book" that I mentioned in my earlier article may be about censorship, but the point he makes is a basic one. When a society no longer knows how to defend its own principles, it has lost its moral purpose, and can quickly become victim to outsiders with stronger (and more uncompromising) standpoints. Islamic extremism is an example of that, and how extremists have used "free speech" as an excuse to spread intolerance against criticism, and impose behaviours and practices on those of their own faith (or even non-believers), even if it breaks the law, and excuse it as "culture".

It pays to read history. While for some we may be living through a time of unprecedented freedoms, this is a dangerous illusion. The 1930s were synonymous with the "appeasement" of Fascism; in many ways, this is also what much of the West is guilty of in regards to the authoritarian regimes of the East now; the intellectual inability to tackle Muslim extremism is potentially as serious a problem. Compared with this, Fascism in Europe and Japanese expansionism was just a flash-in-the-pan moment. The stakes now may well be much higher in the longer term than those posed by Fascism and the Japanese Empire in the 1930s: China is the biggest (and soon to be richest) country in the world; meanwhile Islam is the fastest-growing (and intolerant) religion in the world. Regarding either of these issues, there seems to be no clear answer from the West. I'll talk more about why this is later.

This might sound like a preamble to "The Clash Of Civilisations", and I will accept that. I read the book without knowing firsthand that the author was a right-wing conservative. It makes for an engaging and well-argued piece of work. I may not agree with the author's politics, but the points he raises are worth serious consideration, especially that we are now twenty years after it was written.
It feels like we are at a pivotal moment in history. For the first time in centuries, the future of the West looks increasingly uncertain, while that of the East looks increasingly rosy.

Where exactly does true "freedom" exist? By "freedom", I mean the freedom to express your own opinion without fear of reprisal, let alone "democracy"; or the freedom to wear what you wish and behave as you like, provided it is not violent or aggressive?
In 2013, the number of places in the world is terrifyingly small in reality. In a general sense, this would probably include (and even this is debatable) the "Anglosphere" (i.e. the USA, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand), most of geographical Europe, Japan, and a small number of other former European colonies. Beyond that, we are getting into increasingly shady areas of grey.

On the optimistic side, the USA's future looks secure in the long term, if it can avoid tearing itself in two in "culture wars" over polarising issues such as gun control and social values. The USA's demographic make-up is due to change to being majority non-white in the coming decades, but this is unlikely to have a significant change on the stability of the country's future: as American values such as freedom of expression and (imperfect) democracy are sacrosanct and enshrined in its belief system, there is no threat to this being ideologically challenged.
That said, George W. Bush's "War On Terror" had an inadvertent effect on "The East": it gave authoritarian regimes a ready excuse to ignore the West's criticisms and be even more authoritarian. It fatally weakened the moral standpoint of the West to foreign eyes, as they traded some of their freedoms for a greater sense of security; this also boosted the moral standpoint of Muslim extremism as they attacked the "hypocrisy" of the West. From that point on, there was no way back.

While on one side the "War On Terror" fatally damaged the moral standpoint of the West in "Eastern" (and Muslim) eyes, it was also the West's perceived ideological weakness at home that has damaged it even further.
This has been especially true in the UK and Europe in general, which has seemed incapable of forming a strategy to ideologically defeat Islamic extremism. As I mentioned earlier, when a nation no longer knows what it really stands for, it can quickly become a victim to more virulent, outside ideologies. This partially explains why Islamic extremism has been allowed to flourish almost unchecked in the UK and some parts of Europe.
 The problem is also that while Muslim moderates outnumber the extremists, they are silent when criticised by their extremist co-religionists.
The Muslim moderates seem incapable of defending their moderation intellectually; either by an intellectual vacuum, or lacking the moral certainty that extremism brings. Either in the West or in Muslim countries themselves, moderate Muslims seemed to be easily shouted-down and persecuted by their fundamentalist peers.
Muslim extremism is therefore bound to expand as a greater and greater aspect of Islam generally because it is not clouded by doubt; all their decisions are chosen by God; not their nationality or anything else. Westerners are not prepared to sacrifice their lives for their ideas; Muslim extremists are. This is what makes Islam so dangerous to the West's ideological future; if neither the West nor Muslim moderates can beat the extremists, extremism will only grow. There is no such thing as having a debate with an extremist; the idea of "debate" is anathema to them.

The simple explanation for this is that both Islamic extremism, and the ideology of authoritarianism prevalent in the "East", do not have to tackle the issue of "freedom of thought" that exists in the West.

In the West, ideas are discussed and the answer is arrived at (at least in theory) through intellectual debate. Only by allowing freedom of thought and expression can all ideas (and therefore, the best one) be discovered.
The conventional wisdom in the West is that the most advanced and richest countries in the world would logically be those that are the freest. This may well be a simplistic vision, but one that any Westerner would recognise.
Francis Fukuyama's book "The End Of History" bought into this idea, predicting twenty years ago since the West had won the "war of ideas" with the Soviet Union, the rest of the world would follow suit, and join "the land of milk and honey"; where freedom and democracy reign.

Twenty years on from that, it is easy to mock such optimism.
The more nuanced reality is that, in many ways, the "East" did learn lessons from the West and the end of the Cold War. China, for one, learned how it was possible to have its cake and eat it: it implemented "Communism with Chinese characteristics" long before the Fall of the Berlin Wall, and thus over a thirty-year period became the world's most successful (and efficient) one-party Capitalist state. Russia, after the chaotic decade following the end of Communism, rediscovered the joys of authoritarianism under Putin, and follows a similar model to China, albeit with a few "democratic indulgences", such as technically having a multi-party parliamentary system.
The irony now is that the most politically-stable countries and those with the brightest economic prospects are almost all in the East. China and Russia's futures are secure; the same can be said of the Gulf States; Turkey's future, also looks rosy, in spite of now having an increasingly authoritarian (and Islamic) government. But Erdogan is simply doing what other "Eastern" leaders have done. The same can be said of the Gulf States; their culture may seem a bizarre hybrid of Capitalism and Islam, but it works for them. They have all learned to take from the West what they can apply easily to their own countries, and discard the rest, excusing it on "culture". This is how the East has been able to be more efficient Capitalists than Westerners; as they see "human rights" (and employee rights) as a Western indulgence, and only pay lip service to such ideas when they need to.

In the East, people are willing to ignore the concept of "freedom" as long as the economy is doing well. In the West, people see the two as inextricably linked. This is the key difference.

Easterners may well therefore look at the current economic and ideological malaise in the West as being a direct result of their "freedom". What a Westerner considers freedom, an Easterner could instead call "weakness", or "moral degradation". The USA is currently struggling economically; the UK is moribund; the Eurozone has become a German economic protectorate. So while the East is prospering because it has found a formula that marries Eastern authoritarianism with Western elements of Capitalism, the West is failing  (and getting poorer) because of weaknesses in the structure of its ideology.

To take the example of China (though there are many others, such as Russia or the Gulf States), its one-party command model of the country allows it to make decisions at a moment's notice. If it wants to build a dam, or a new city, it simply gets the ball rolling. If this plan fails (and causes massive unemployment, or other social and environmental problems), it just brushes itself off, learns some lessons, and tries another approach. While this is a simplification, for the most part, this is how the East gets things done. It is learning-by-doing, or a trial-and-error approach to government. The Soviet Union was another classic example of this methodology. The large exception to this rule, India, is a democracy: and because this system encourages debate at the expense of decision-making, it it means that large, strategic and long-term decisions are faced with interminable delays.

This is the problem that the West now faces, too. The trial-and-error approach that the East does as second nature faces huge hurdles in the West. The "freedom" that democracy brings to the West (that the East sees as inherently anarchic) means that governmental decisions (especially long-term ones) generally have to be arrived at carefully and only after long deliberation and debate. But the free nature of the West, and the "problem" of democracy means that no government can be at all sure that any long-term decision one government makes will be continued by the next. Institutional short-termism is therefore the natural result of freedom and democracy in the West. Even if governments do decide to stick with a plan, the right to free expression means that a government can quickly cave-in to popular resentment, because they want to be re-elected at the next election. This is the nature of democracy.

This also explains why, counter-intuitively, the East is better equipped at reacting to a crisis than the West. This explains why the American President may be on paper the most man person in the world, but is ineffectual at making any changes to his own country; and also explains why the Chinese Premier can flex far more muscle and effect change rapidly in his own country and the world, when he wants to. It explains why China can build Maglevs, and why the UK's own train network is a shambles.

I propose no answer to this situation. As I see it, there may well be none. The East and The West simply have different ideological ideas, and thus cannot be reconciled. The West is now institutionally and ideologically weak compared to the East. And yet, if the West is not consistent in its ideological support of freedom and democracy, then it stands for nothing. It seems pointless trying to preach to The East about our values; the evidence has shown that all that happens is that the other "culture" takes what it can to make itself stronger; it distrusts anything that will make it weaker.This is normal, and to be expected of any culture that has a sense of self-respect.

It is the West that has failed; it is the East that has won.

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