Asked what he thought of Western civilisation, MK Gandhi is said to have replied it would be a good idea.
Though the quotation may be apocryphal, the idea is ancient: civilisations often look different from the outside. In some ways, Western decline may actually be good for civilisation — if we manage to retain what has been good about the Western tradition.
Amid chronic economic sluggishness, government cuts to services, stagnating living standards for all but the rich and repeated setbacks in the war with the Islamic State — which recently scored hits on fronts in Europe, Africa and the Middle East — it’s not surprising to find op-eds worrying Western civilisation is dying. A recent op-ed by Robert Skidelsky typifies this sort of gloom, but the thinking is as old as civilisation, and it often follows the same plot: a civilszation is based on a zeitgeist, and when that zeitgeist withers, so too will the civilisation. Sixteen centuries ago, Saint Augustine wrote his City of God to defend Christianity against Roman critics who said the spread of the foreign religion had weakened the Empire internally — an argument revived in 1776 by Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Western Empire — and Oswald Spengler argued in Decline of the West said the West’s loss of its soul had caused itt to enter its decadent phase. Most recently, Niall Ferguson concluded his 2011 best-seller Civilization by writing “Today, the biggest threat to Western civilization is posed not by other civilizations, but by our own pusillanimity – and by the historical ignorance that feeds it.”
But in fact, that’s not how empires fall. As my friend Peter Heather wrote in his own history of Rome’s fall, Rome didn’t collapse from within but from without — in its own case, succumbing to the barbarian invasions. Having been exploited for centuries by the Romans as the Empire grew rich, they came back to grab their share. In his follow-up Empires and Barbarians, Heather accordingly coined the provocative ‘Newton’s Third Law of Empires’: ‘the exercise of imperial power generates an opposite and equal reaction among those affected by it.’ After all, let’s remember that while the Romans did build a pretty impressive civilisation, they also enjoyed watching barbarians get fed to lions.
We’re not all that different. As I have been writing, the Western empire was founded upon no small amount of injustice, oppression and exploitation, and created an income gap between the West and the rest which was going to always be unsustainable. I’ve used the example of South Africa to illustrate the logic of imperial rise and fall; just as South Africa did near the end of the last century, the world economy has begun its equalisation phase. The principal difference between us and the Romans is that it is not labour but capital which is bringing about the Great Convergence now underway — not barbarian invasions into the Empire (despite what conservative populists would have us believe) but the out-sourcing of jobs as businesses go looking for the cheap labour of the Third World.
The resulting economic slowdown in the West has forced governments to cut back their spending, a pressure which has only grown most intense as populations age and commitments on pensions and health care gobble up ever-greater shares of government budgets. So governments have had to cut elsewhere — including in military and police budgets, which has constrained their ability to fight terrorism. So far, Western politicians have approached austerity with a depressing tribalism that protects their own constituents at every one else’s expense. Justice for all is surely an ideal for which we can do better than just pay lip service.
The fact is that the West is literally paying the price of its past excesses, but trying to turn the clock back would hardly be a celebration of civilisation (and anyhow won’t work, given increasing resource-constraints). From what research tells us, Islamist terrorists have diverse motives, but there can be no question that organisations like Islamic State have benefited from resentment towards these excesses not only in Third-World countries, but in the marginalised communities of the rich countries populated by emigrants from the former colonies.
And yet, it’s worth recalling that many immigrants to the West are attracted not just by its greener pastures, but by its culture and liberties. Managing our relations with the world in a way that that would apply the principles of democracy and justice in our foreign affairs — not lectures, but policies that actually restored the balance in world affairs lost by our past behaviour — would lessen the sting of our past misdeeds. Western civilization, one true to its greatest virtues both at home and abroad, is a great idea; and it’s one whose time has come.
Besides, it’s worth remembering that a far bigger threat to Western civilisation, and indeed all civilisation, is posed by climate change, yet another consequence of Western excess. While the West has stared down terrorism before and will do it again, no human society has ever dealt with the scale of environmental change we are grappling with now: a level that scientists are increasingly saying is near to a tipping point that could destroy whole societies. That is a story for another day.