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.