First published at On Line Opinion
… western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.
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The pseudo-left wants to stop a multi-million-dollar donation by the conservative Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation to the Australian National University for a new course on Western civilisation. According to the heads of the staff and student unions at the university it is racist to prioritize western history or culture. It mustn’t be “privileged”.
I guess we are supposed to look back lovingly at all those civilisations that crumbled in the face of the western onslaught, for example, Czarist Russia, Qing China, Mughal India, Ottoman MENA and Aztec Mesoamerica. And then of course there were the remnants of hunter-gathering society that lived in harmony with nature, and from whom we can learn so much, so we are told.
Of course, western civilisation is no longer western. It is global and a far better term is modernity. By the end of this century we can expect it to have totally supplanted all pre-existing conditions, even in the most backward regions. This will be a jolly good thing too.
Western history should indeed be prioritized over other history because that is where modernity began. The history of other regions is still important, but mainly in order to understand how their traditional cultures are an obstacle to modernity.
By studying western history, we get to understand how the connection between the economic, social and political transform the way be live.
The collapse of the Roman Empire is a good place to start. That’s when things slowly began to get interesting. Under the dead hand of Rome, innovation had been forbidden or a matter of indifference. But with the “Dark Ages” came something of a technological revolution in comparison. For the first time we saw the harnessing of horse-power with the adoption of the saddle, stirrups, horse shoes, bridle, horse collar and tandem harness. Water and wind mills sprang up everywhere. The cranks and gears used in mills would become the basis of modern machinery. Lock gates in rivers and streams appeared for the first time. There were ships that could sail into the wind. And in the meantime, the church was doing a good job preserving literacy for a later time when it could be put to good use.
We gradually saw the spread of the market. This was assisted by the political fragmentation of Europe where the local thugs (sorry, lords) did not have their own raw materials for weapons and finery, and also of course by the development of ocean going sailing ships.
However, the feudal conditions became a fetter that could only be broken by the development of capitalist property relations. Small scale production could not meet the demand of the growing markets. Production carried out with the cooperation of large numbers of workers using machinery replaced small scale individual production. Steam power for machines and locomotion replaced wind and water.
This new economic system was compatible with, indeed required, more freedom of thought and action by the individual. A totally new society sprung up.
Studying the emergence of the modern world also gives an appreciation of how progress can be a messy thing.
When Martin Luther undermined a pillar of the feudal order, the Catholic Church, the achievement did not come cheaply. Notably, the subsequent religious wars killed off a quarter or more of the population of central Europe and half the male population of Germany. About the same time, we had The English Civil War. This was critical to the creation of modern Britain but was a protracted bloodbath and lead to the death of 40 percent of the population of Ireland. Then it took a century of mucking about for the French Revolution to replace the old feudal regime with a respectable bourgeois one.
And nearer to the present we have seen the rocky road out of feudalism achieved in the former Czarist empire, China and eastern Europe. In the 1940s, we had to resist fascism’s attempt to roll back history, and that struggle cost millions of lives. So, if you think change seems pretty messy in the Middle East at the moment just look back at modern history.
The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation will of course want modernity to stop at capitalism. They are aptly called conservative. In their view, not only are capitalist property relations superior to older forms but attempts to move beyond them are bound to be a tragic folly. Exhibit one is the failed attempts in the 20th century to create post-capitalist societies on the back of totally unsuitable pre-capitalist conditions. Exhibit two is the doubtful results of “socialist” tinkering under capitalism. That sort of evidence would not get past a committal hearing but it has wide acceptance.
We then have the revolutionary wing of western civilisation that I belong to. Modernity in its preliminary capitalist form is a vast advance on everything else past or present and lays the conditions for the next stage. We should welcome its global spread.
In a letter to Engels of October 8 1858 Marx wrote: “The proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market. Since the world is round, the colonisation of California and Australia and the opening up of China and Japan would seem to have completed this process.” He was being rather optimistic but his point of view is clear. And notice the reference to Australia. No black armband there. (You may like to check out more Marx at the Marx Engels Archive.)
While capitalism is an advance it is still the exploitation of the many by the few. But as luck would have it capitalism is an incubator of the next stage, a classless society based on social ownership of the means of production. Capitalism turns most people into workers with no vested interest in capitalism; it unshackles our brains from pre-capitalist, traditional junk; and it creates a level of economic development that makes it possible to imagine equality because it would no longer be a case of sharing want and toil.
We can expect a messy transition. To start with those who want change will be confused about what they want and how to get there while those opposed to change will have a very clear idea on both counts and years of practice. But let’s hope the transition is not as tortuous as the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
However, that is for the future. At the moment there is no revolutionary movement nor any support for revolution. For now, fully entrenching and advancing the present capitalist stage of modernity is the priority. There are still large regions of the world where backwardness and tyranny reign supreme. MENA is a priority area from the point of view of lifting tyranny from people’s backs. Then in the long hall we have Sub-Saharan Africa. It is the most backward region and has a huge and growing population. Possibly a third of people will live there by century’s end.
Unfortunately, there seems to be an alignment of toxic trends hampering this process. In the US and Europe, “both sides of politics” are heavily infected by isolationism and protectionism. Europe has its disgraceful agricultural policy that adds to Africa’s misery and a limited ability to project military power. Then we had Obama’s appalling failure to stay the course in Iraq and to intervene in a timely fashion in Syria.
And now nobody is denouncing Trump’s failure to do the right thing and occupy Syria while arranging regime change. Doing nothing is a policy fully endorsed by both the pseudo-left and the alt-right. The former all supported Saddam and now some even support Assad.
The pseudos have also built a whole movement over the last 20 years or so opposing the global spread of capitalism. And even more insidiously, they oppose economic development because it is “unsustainable”. They want the darkies to live in noble simplicity.
To get down to brass tacks, a genuine left would align itself with the neo-cons and support their re-emergence. They stand for an activist foreign policy of regime change, nation building and economic development. There needs to be military support for change where it has a chance of success. (It is worth noting here that the recent Iraqi elections have been surprisingly open notwithstanding the violent efforts of Baathists and Islamo-fascists.) Diplomacy should be heavily focused on giving kleptocrats and tyrants a hard time.
Australia could play a special role given the failure of the Americans and Europeans. We can pressure them to act and take a much more activist military policy. Being a pipsqueak power, our contribution is limited. However, we can be good at training and deploying special forces.
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David McMullen lives in Melbourne and he can be found at The Communist Manifesto Project.
A very good and timely article about which I’ll make two brief points.
The first relates to your tongue in cheek comment about our ancestors harmonious relationship with nature. The harmony that existed was imposed not chosen and Nature held the whip hand. It was about survival and wresting degrees of control from nature was hard won, occurring over millennia. There were certainly lessons passed down although enjoying the ‘benefits’ of a frozen, dictatorial harmony wasn’t one of them. Romanticizing what they had to put up with dismisses their efforts – over countless generations – to turn the tables and make survival easier. This strikes me as succeeding to simultaneously insult the effort and intent of these past generations and their present successors.
The other point is about the Roman Empire and I have The Life of Brian in mind. Dead it became but it wasn’t always so. Remember the classic line: “What ‘ave the Romans ever done for us?” The answer was quite a bit, but not as the moribund entity it became. It is this process of becoming moribund, a drag, from something alive and pushing things forward that links that Rome to now. But I liked your corrective on the Dark Ages (the Dimly Lit Ages perhaps?): it taught me something I hadn’t known.
Hi Tom, why not also send this comment to OLO?
For once Dave I completely agree with you particularly that bit about Obama not staying the course. George W Bush signed the US- Iraq Status of Forces Agreement which stated that “all United States forces shall withdraw from all Iraqi territory.” and a deadline was set for 31st December 2011.
Now that weak Obama withdrew the last troops on 18th December 2011 a full 13 days early, clearly he did not stay the course by a full 13 days and is clearly the person to blame for all that followed.
Dave as Arthur said “Noticing when a correction is made will make you significantly less irritating and more likely to successfully engage discussion.” In arguing that “Then we had Obama’s appalling failure to stay the course in Iraq….” you are just recycling right wing garbage propaganda.
Just for the record I already had this argument some years ago with Anita at Strange Times to her credit within a day she corrected her mistake “I take on board your correction re; my assertion that it was Obama who signed off on the troops I now remember that it was of course GW Bush who did this…”
Dave you silence is a puzzle. Only a week ago I made a mistake and Arthur started to count the hours before I would correct it so come on Dave.
Something was wrong here. Too many weasel words and phrases (“a jolly good thing” puke) or good words used in weasel fashion (“modernity”) and those in between perhaps weasel, perhaps not (when in doubt call it “pseudo” it saves time from doing real analysis).
I went back to Berman, “All that is solid melts into air”. From the very start he makes it clear that modernity is double edged, that it embodies both longing and terror. Don’t use it to signify capitalism stripped of its problems. “The sinister glamour of modernity”, that maybe reactionary at times but it is also at other times accurate, to cite an essay by Ross Gibson about how the combination of repeating rifle, horses and remote tribes were used to exterminate
Berman and Marx were poets of the human condition, which is far more than being a sardonic structuralist.
Sardonic structuralist? If by sardonic you mean cynical, I see nothing cynical in the post. I will leave the ‘structuralist’ in your court for you to do more than simply assert. The rupture that capitalism/modernity wrought (is still wreaking in the less developed world) tearing our forebears away from feudal or pre-feudal norms and practices is “a jolly good thing”. This does not mean the process was/is without real pain and, as Berman reminds us, tragedy. He used the expression ‘the tragedy of development’, if my memory serves me and he certainly wasn’t weaseling the word when he did so.
Posts on websites like On Line Opinion and replies almost anywhere (certainly here) have ‘structural’ constraints, as did the leaflets we penned in the old days, but I failed to detect the one sided analysis you seem to be accusing Dave of employing, but am more than happy to be convinced otherwise.
David this starts well, totally concur with the message. Modernity is what makes us who we are, where we are, and we have to keep moving onwards and upwards. But when the article gets to Syria, and Iraq, it rapidly deteriorates.
Syria is an immense humanitarian crisis. As i’ve said to you before it’s a pseudo-struggle. Where is the emancipatory struggle? We can chose a proxy to support: American, Russian, Iranian, Saudi, or the blatant Islamo-fascism of the jihadists. Sad situation , but i can’t see any progressive political options out there.
It’s like Iraq, where the result of the American sponsored invasion has primarily been the spread of the Jihadists: how much more anti-modern can people be ? Maybe in a few centuries it will be seen to have been a great advancement but it’s not looking that way. They once asked Chou En-Lai his view of the French Revolution; he said it was too early to tell .Could be the same.
Supporting armed foreign military intervention. What’s that saying, logic taken to its extreme becomes ridiculous. Looking at all contradictions, conflicts my focus is primarily on the internal forces. Yes external forces can play a role but to me they’re not the primary players. The struggle has to come from within.
Dear Tom, David, Barry and co.
IMV sardonic tone masks prettified content (modernity as unproblematic good) where vital issues are kept invisible. This has become a new normal for discussion of Australia’s path to modernity. Even when the invisible has become unmasked it still retains it’s invisible character for those who refuse to look and see.
eg. Rudd weeps over the stolen generation but ignores the killings which preceded that. To give him credit the only PM who acknowledged the killings was Keating in his Redfern speech, written by Don Watson.
I would like to understand more the way writer’s here use the word modernity, how they distinguish it from capitalism. I can see a problem here of praise for modernity being a slippery slide to the right as we formalistically reject the “pseudo left”.
I think it’s ridiculous that David doesn’t enter into critical dialogue whether it’s through private mail sent yonks ago or to the comment in OLO or the comments here. That someone who is peddling snake oil which my supposed comrades can’t see through. Comrades Barry republishes the snake oil and TomG says “good”, although refuting part of it but praising another part which btw was devoid of any documented evidence (the Dark Ages were good?). Doesn’t proper history work document such assertions?
TomG, you made a good point in a far more positive way than me about hard won lessons learnt by indigenous Australians over time. But I’d also like to see this taken further.
If we are into modernity, which we all are, and also see modernity as cosmopolitan, which cannibalises, transforms and discards ruthlessly / traumatically all cultures, including it’s own, then what is the impact of that process on both our Australian / international modernity as well as the developing modernity of indigenous Australians. Does our modern cosmopolitanism include positive elements from indigenous Australian culture? If so, what are they? In what way then is it still “western”? Doesn’t it become a mongrel hybrid. How does David’s article address this loop? How will the Ramsay Centre course in Western Civilisation address it? My guess would be more weasel words.
Some very good writers of Australian history have addressed this loop. Read Martin Nakata’s “Discipline the Savages, Savage the Disciplines”. I had to think more about this issue after reading that and also, to my surprise, discovering that Australia’s only PhD in maths, Chris Matthews, had along with Queensland University of Technology invented a new and IMV profoundly innovative way of teacher maths. Google YuMi Deadly. Will this become part of the new Ramsay Centre course? Ethno-maths, anyone?
David wrote: “No black armband there”. Shouldn’t this capitulation to right wing thinking of Howard and Windshuttle raise a few alarm bells in your mind. I would take Henry Reynold’s “Forgotten War” (2013) as doing real history here, nothing “jolly good” about it.
My parody of “jolly good” is to draw attention to the fact that British colonialism turned a blind eye to killing for over a hundred years in Australia (whilst wringing their hands back in London) and that maybe the comrades who opposed the killing of the Vietnamese by US Imperialism ought to also be critical of this. Not ignore it under the banner of modernity, let it slide away into invisibility. As British colonialism became more modern and rejected slavery at the same time they indulged in a little side show down south where they allowed the settlers here to perceive other humans as less than human, inferior savages, who it was ok to kill because the land was British and never belonged to anyone else (terra nullius doctrine). “The sinister glamour of modernity” seems to fit the bill.
British colonialism broke all the rules established by the imperial powers of the day in their conquest and shameful war against indigenous Australians. If I had more time I could write a summary of this. But given David’s ongoing refusal to engage in dialogue there doesn’t seem to be a lot of point doing it here. Perhaps it will suffice that I draw attention to well documented alternative views, the above books.
I should add: I agree there is such a thing as the “aboriginal industry” even though this admission will get me kicked out of the room. What I find to do is very often distinguish that fuzzy line between modernity, that undoubted good and the aboriginal industry, that undoubted bad. But then I descend into the sardonic, can you see it now TomG? My bad.
Interesting piece further to my comment in the article about the Iraqi elections.
Success of Trans-Sectarian ‘Sairoun’ Alliance in Recent Iraqi Elections
Here is a further piece on Iraqi politics. It is hard to imagine that just 15 years ago Iraq suffered the most vile fascist tyranny on the planet. Now its politics is just average awful.
Years of Civil Society Protest Bring Change to Iraq
Another good article of the sinister glamour of modernity genre: The brutal truth by Tony Roberts (2009) –> how the colonial politicians, including Downer, were complicit in the aboriginal massacres in the Gulf country. Tony Roberts has written a book long version too, “Frontier Justice” (2005)
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