The Drift Away From the Western World

By Saliem Fakir · 12 Jun 2008

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Even in the purview of John Stuart Mill’s political economy, the insight was not lost on him that opportunities for cultural and intellectual exchange lay so pregnant with potential and concurrent with the growth of commerce between trading countries.

Mill wrote:

“..commerce is the purpose of the far greater part of communication which takes place between civilized nations. Such communication has always been, and is peculiarly in the present age, one of the primary sources of progress. To human beings, who, as hitherto educated, can scarcely cultivate even a good quality without running it into a fault, it is indispensable to be perpetually comparing their own notions and customs with the experience and example of persons in different circumstances from themselves: and there is no nation which does not need to borrow from others, not merely particular arts or practices, but essential points of character in which its own type is inferior”.

Of, course Mill was not having in mind the non-western world. His thesis was entirely focused on the great powers of his time: France, Britain, Germany and Italy, which were at their zenith. Mill’s insights were a useful elaboration and illumination of Smith’s early cosmopolitan views expressed in his  ‘The Wealth of Nations’. Mill took upon himself to carry the mantle of promoting Adam Smith’s free-trade principles within a utilitarian and liberal framework.

The world is fast becoming multi-polar; a new dynamic of relations is being constructed right within the bosom of the western tradition. A new array of forces and power – that is being fostered along a South-South economic and political axis -  for the first time in the 500 or so years of western cultural hegemony will bring about profound intellectual and cultural ramifications.

It is true that a vast intellectual tradition and legacy has been built and patronized by national governments and philanthropist in the western world – the production of ideas and knowledge is admirable and unprecedented in human history.

It is a body of learning and reasoning that must be seen in the end as a heritage belonging to the entirety of humanity – despite the recurrent nationalistic hubris such gathering of knowledge and expertise often occasions as the hallmark of supremacy and exceptionalism amongst some powerful western countries.

While there is diversity within the western tradition, there is though a deep rootedness and uniformity in the way experience and knowledge is framed and governs the production of the sciences and technology within western institutions. It is this culture of science - which is an off-shoot of the enlightenment – that finds its inspiration from both the Cartesian and Baconian philosophical tendencies: the one being the privileging of reason, and the other empiricism.

It too radiates this scientific spirit throughout the fabric of economic and political thinking - as it is embedded in individualism and the free market. Allowing as a result a more active embrace of humanism and secularism at the core of its social and political life, but has not managed to bring the fruits of it into full life - to the rest of the world - because the western outlook has recurrently come up against its own weaknesses: failing as it were to resolve the racial, religious, cultural question and prejudice when it involved others.

Its humanism, as a result, has always found itself caught in its own culture of preference – the preference of its own race.  The vituperations of this disease seems to be gaining strength today as the signs of crises within the western tradition sinks in slowly – no longer shall we expect in these desperate times a generous flourish of the kind of humanistic tendency that was settled on as the prime idea of the enlightenment. If, anything, fear resurrects the demons of bigotry in the most savage of ways. Wherever one goes, that penetrating gaze follows, and pierces you.

Clearly, there have been some enormous benefits from the rational and scientific philosophical outlook, and which can be further built on and expanded in the non-western world. Many of our students, scholars, and scientist have studied, spent time or received financial and other patronage from western institutions and government.

Even where it occasioned itself, those of our scientist, scholars, and artist who found themselves within the western world because of upheavals or other crises in their own countries and regions were always poised to work on western specific problems and issues. In essence, this would naturally be the case if one did not come from the dominant culture – you had to fit in, and you had to solve problems that mattered to that tradition.

Under-girding its entire framework of reasoning there has always been the view that the western interest would be well served if non-western societies assimilated their learnings and cultural outlook  - in this way hoping to strengthen the potential for an alignment and proximity to their political and economic systems. A certain benign benevolence graced the engagement; the patronage and the aid that is thrown as a lifeline across swathe of countries whose circumstances are desperate and dire. It was benevolence not without its own intent. Mill too had this view in his remarks on political economy that: “Commercial adventurers from more advanced countries have generally been the first civilizers of barbarians”.

Or as Joseph Conrad wrote in the ‘Heart of Darkness’, in a more stark manner, in relation to the question of imperial power and colonialism: ‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it; not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea – something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer a sacrifice to…”.

It was with the frivolity of reason, and violence after-all, and all the trappings of modernization, that a new God found itself making recurrent excursions, and insertions into the old worlds that fell to conquest. A total emasculation of living heritages was the resultant victims of conquest. Ironically, only to be appropriated by roving men of great expedition and adventures as they hunted ancient treasures, geographies, traditions, knowledge and brought home artifacts of expired civilizations under Royal patronage – there was, in an odd manner, a good thing in this, but also emblematic of the tragedy that comes with conquest.

There is a certain decadence in the idea that one should peer at the great ideas and creations of conquered civilizations and peoples as an aesthetic in its own right, but only in so far as they are symbols of the beauty of one’s own civilization: they are as it were the salvaging of trophies from the feats of conquest which are glorifications of conquest.

Here an odd thing happens: in the midst of all this cultural appropriations and a studious immersion in the civilizations of the conquered, the conqueror manages to convince us of the civility of the whole enterprise.

An encounter of the western civilization with the non-western world was never punctuated by the sobriety of peace or a means of reaching some accord with those who were conquered. Conrad puts it well, when he writes:  ‘They were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others’.

Through Conrad, in a strange twist of irony, one learns that one must never see the present only in the eyes of today – the present’s unfolding was determined by the very manner in which different civilizations – when they first encountered each other – clashed. It is here that the sentimentality of how they saw each other, imprinted itself on every subsequent generation. Leading to that crescendo of heightened cultural and political tension that in some parts of the world has reached the end of its tether and affects all of us in the most explosive of ways.

An active aspect of economic ties involved the education and training of students from the non-western world – transferring as it were through this massification of education the cultural and intellectual templates of the western tradition in the non-western world. This idea has been and is pursued with different temperaments in different parts of the western world: some subtly and others with great aggression and evangelical zeal very much like the idea of democracy is being pursued in the Middle East today. Inherent in this –without thinking it peculiar – that this represented advancement and a common good as if it were amputated from ideology and other interest.

The idea had its own momentum and logic. In essence being that the functionality of the western system, by default of necessity, will have the effect of shifting long-standing non-western traditions to the background, and even making them extinct – which in the most marginal of marginal societies is already the case. The ultimate goal is to breed the possibilities of likeness of attitude and thinking within a global system of common symbols, language and interpretations all hinged around the values and ethos of the dominant culture. The entire rationale of the colonial system of education contained as its kernel this very idea – civilizing the ‘native’ by the provision of ‘good’ education, and hence making him/her a model citizen. Today, more pervasive forms of communication provide an efficient means for a very old idea.

None, of this though has materialized to the extent that was envisaged by the active pursuit that was the intent with promoting cultural and intellectual mimicry within the world cultural systems where the less dominant systems would fall sway to most dominant and hegemonic systems and where the subservient cultures should map their own sense of being according to the dominant culture. Always, as it were, judging their own sense of being and value of their life’s experience not with their own eyes, but the eyes of those they emulate.

Humans happily are not robotic. The world has proven itself to be more complex and resistant to this form of cultural cannibalism. The McDonaldisation of culture seems to be on the retreat. Despite enjoying the good things about the western world humans by nature are fiercely independent and protective of their traditions. Despite one’s immersion and dissolving of one’s self in that world, you always feel you are not really part of it – you always have at the back of your mind that you belong elsewhere. You take from it, and simultaneously you want to leave it; to create something new. You are always agonizing over the loss of yourself in a world in which you really do not belong in or to. You even feel you’re a minority when your numbers are larger.

The consequences of material benefits from economic exchange that is South-South in character will inevitably involve the movement of people, their ideas, cultural values and interest. In past South-South foreign direct investment (FDI) was insignificant. South-South FDI has grown from the paltry sum of $15 billion in 1995 to $46 billion in 2003. This is still small compared to the global direct investment of  $650 billion, but the International Finance Corporation points to the fact that South-South capital transfers are growing five times faster than North-South capital flows. (Newsweek, December 26, 2005/January 2, 2006) For such investments to have grounding, naturally there is the flow of people and exchange too.

In other words, when economies shift polarity, so does the polarity of intellectual conversation and exchange. This presents an exciting opening; a moment for a new genre of intellectual tradition and synthesis that is seeded in the western tradition, but altogether is more likely to be transformed by the growing insertion of the non-western outlook. Very much like the Economists Amartya Sen (India Economist), Kwame Anthony Appiah (Nigerian Philosopher), and Sir Arthur Lewis (Caribbean Economist) achieved in their works.

In the area of education, in particular the massification of higher education, there is a slow shift away from the North American, and European world. Universities and colleges in Asia for instance are becoming preferred options for the training of a new generation of scientist, engineers, economist and so on in this part of the world. South Africa is already attracting many African graduates who would once have gone to England or America to earn their degrees.

Their presence inevitably creates the space for exposure to alternative cultural and intellectual views – a melting pot of diversity is a result; that is trans-national in nature, and fertilizes the potential for new sources of creativity and innovation that are of mutual benefit to all parties concerned.  But, the genesis of this new synthesis that comes from a healthy engagement of traditions without nationalistic bias, racial or other prejudices is the glue that makes a transnational humanism possible. Or, at least is the beginning of a new cosmopolitan outlook that is in search of its own ethos and identity.

Clearly, the benefits of a South-South specific agenda is likely to percolate in the areas of economic development as the synthesis by necessity will involve the question of the poor, the need to be independent in scientific knowledge, technology and hold a different view of the State then that prevails in the western world and the capitalistic tradition. Possibilities too remain untapped in the realm of culture, religion, music, and other forms of expression that describes cultural and intellectual life. Economic confidence usually leads to confidence of self, and propels the search for self-identity.

How to construct a firmer bridge and raise the game of extracting the potential for a non-western cultural, intellectual mix and milieu remains the most challenging task in the future. South Africa through its more than 30 bilateral commissions has planted in each commission more than the desire for the exchange of economic goods, but also the transfer of scientific, and cultural interests between its partner countries. The potential within the India, Brazil and South Africa forum still needs to blossom, but is a step in the right direction.

The fertility for a non-western cultural and intellectual platform on the back of South-South economic and political alliances can gain further ground. There is always though the danger of the hubris of nationalism. Franz Fanon once warned of the pitfalls of nationalism in his Wretched of the Earth; it almost always threatens the achievement of a broader social consciousness that ties the upper echelons of a society with the lower echelon. Especially, a sort of nationalism led by a self-seeking bourgeoisie that Fanon castigates as being merely satisfied with being an ‘intermediary’, are rapacious and wilful managers of the ‘Western Enterprise’; which preserve the old ties most uncritically ‘by its laziness and will to imitation’. It is a negative type of cosmopolitanism and entirely churlish, and is designed to protect specific class interests more than the interests of all who fall by chance or choice within the sphere of the nation.

Even friendly nations are competitive and there is always that issue of the tendency to grab onto the idea of hegemony first, and then from this vantage point engage the proj

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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