Three Longs & Three Shorts

The Attack of The Civilization State

Much has been written about the rise of hyper-nationalism with strong men at the helm across countries the world over. This outstanding essay by Bruno Macaes, Portugal’s former secretary of state, attributes this rise to the inherently conflicting perceptions of the concept of western civilisation by nations world over and their reaction to that. The rise of globalisation integrating nations economically implicitly brought about cultural and societal integration – A world society seemed to be advancing. But then the civilization-state struck back”. Macaes articulates why the west’s rather implicit imposition of the paradigm of ‘universal society’ on the rest of the world in particular Asia and Africa, has threatened to diminish the role of tradition and culture in societies with roots in ancient civilisation. This, Macaes says, is bringing about the confrontation between the concept of nation-state vs civilisation-state, as seen with the developments in China and India in recent years.

“’Always remember that China is a civilization rather than a nation-state’…. The myth that China is destined to be assimilated to a Western model of political society is over. From now on, the Chinese would be treading their own “Sonderweg” — special path. Progress with Chinese characteristics.

As a civilization-state, China is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition.

…The importance of this concept became more obvious to me in India during a conversation with Ram Madhav, the general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. After a conference in Delhi, he explained: “From now on, Asia will rule the world, and that changes everything because in Asia, we have civilizations rather than nations.”

…There was a time when that [western] liberal philosophy was taken seriously almost everywhere. Many of the independence movements in what used to be called the “third world” fully subscribed to it and used the language of human rights and the rule of law against the European colonizer.

…The world of the civilization-state is the natural political world. Think of how states are built and how they expand. If a state has developed a successful formula to organize social relations and collective power, it will tend to absorb its neighbors. As it expands and concentrates new forms of wealth, social life will become increasingly complex. Myths will be created, the arts and sciences will prosper… A way of life — a way to see the world and interpret the human condition — will develop. Outside the realm, other states will offer alternatives, but because these alternatives are in turn different ways to think and to live, states are coextensive with civilizations and subordinate to the civilizational form.

The modern West broke with this mold. From the perspective of what had come before, Western political societies had oddly misplaced scientific ambitions. They wanted their political values to be accepted universally, much like a scientific theory enjoys universal validity. In order to achieve this — we shall have occasion to doubt whether it was ever achieved — a monumental effort of abstraction and simplification was needed.

The problem with Western universalism was twofold. First, Western values seemed to many people living in Asia or Africa as just one alternative among many. The promise that traditional ways of life could be preserved in a liberal society was a fatal conceit. Were Turkey or China or Russia to import the whole set of Western values and rules, their societies would soon become replicas of the West and lose their cultural independence. While this process was seen as the necessary price of becoming modern, cultural assimilation kept its prestige. But lately, doubts have been growing about whether it is really necessary to imitate Western nations in order to acquire all the benefits of modern society. There was a second difficulty: Western values and norms still needed to be interpreted and enforced, and the most powerful nations in the West had always arrogated that task to themselves.

The Three longs and three shorts is guilty of featuring a disproportionate share of articles from the western media houses such as the NYT, FT and the Economist all of which, the author notes, are exhibits to his point about the west’s attempt to impose its beliefs on the rest of the world.

“It is remarkable, when one thinks about it, that every controversial issue being decided in a successful democracy such as India should be subject to a final determination of its legitimacy by Western political and intellectual authorities. No one seems to take seriously the possibility that an editorial in The Hindu could settle the issue, but the leading newspapers in New York, Washington or London gladly take up the task. Cultural assimilation meant political dependence.”

If, to all appearances, we have returned to a world of civilization-states, the root cause is the collapse of the concept of a world civilization. American political scientist Samuel Huntington started from this realization, arguing in one of the starkest passages of his book “The Clash of Civilizations” that “the concept of a universal civilization helps justify Western cultural dominance of other societies and the need for those societies to ape Western practices and institutions.” Universalism is the ideology of the West for confronting other cultures. Naturally, everyone outside the West, Huntington argued, should see the idea of one world as a threat.

I believe Huntington was right, but only half right. It is true that people in Russia, China, India and many other countries increasingly see the concept of Western civilization through a different prism, as one civilization among many, with no particular claim to universality. That in itself is a mere intellectual determination. What follows is more consequential: If the West feels entitled to pursue its particular vision with all the tools of state power — in many cases, even military power — why should others refrain from doing the same? Why should they refrain from building a state around their own conception of the good life, a state with a whole civilization behind it? Their ambitions were more modest in any event — they were meant to be one alternative among many.

The return of the civilization-state poses a delicate problem for the West. Remember that to a great extent, Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project. One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies. Their values tell us what we can do but are silent on what we should do. And then there is this question, particularly acute in Europe: Now that we have sacrificed our own cultural traditions to create a universal framework for the whole planet, are we now supposed to be the only ones to adopt it?”