A Lost Peace, a Lost War and a Lost Narrative: How Should We Reimagine the West? | Abris P. Bendek
Right now, when I am about to begin writing this piece, it is precisely eighty-three years ago that Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich, carrying with him an agreement – signed by Hitler – that Britain and Germany would maintain peace. In less than one year, the latter invaded its Eastern neighbour, Poland, launching the brutal massacre that we call the ’Second World War.’ In two days, with Chamberlain’s famous radio address on air, Britain entered the conflict, engaging in a costly but heroic fight with totalitarianism.
For the political aristocracy who had socialised in the liberal ideal of the 19th century, so sensitively portrayed by Stefan Zweig in his The World of Yesterday, the failure of ’appeasement’ came as a ’bitter blow’. In power, they were not able to comprehend what was underway – that grand treaties and rational diplomacy-making will not at all appease a totalitarian giant. To them, modernity was all about ’gentlemanly capitalism’ and a predictable international order. When a new face of modernity came to manifest in the rise of fascism, they were just too rigid, too old-fashioned and too naive to adapt.
The subsequent sorrows and disasters, of course, had the impact of shattering the faith in the liberal idea of Western civilisation. How are we, after all, to make sense of the horror that happened on our watch, within the narrative frames of such a West and such a modernity?
Indeed, twentieth century totalitarianism was not at all an illogical turn to happen. It appears illogical only in the context of a ’liberal West’, an idea that largely ignores some of the essential aspects of Western modernity. Revolution, mass democracy, economic volatility and fluctuation, technological transformation, the notions of race and class, the negation of transcendent meaning, and, most of all, the modern state, infrastructure and bureaucracy. These, the historical ingredients for totalitarianism, structural and ideological, are the very highlights of Western modernity. Totalitarianism was not some illogical intrusion into the grand course of ’progress’. It was nurtured by it.
However, the fable of the ’liberal West’ faded away only to revive later. In the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, democracy, human rights and capitalism (a liberal globalisation) ruled the imagination of a class of intellectuals and politicians who were -and plenty of them still are- in power. Now, of course, this very same class is forced to condemn rising nativist and populist sentiments as ’irrational’ and ’anti-European’. Again, it seems they do not have the mindset to readapt their thinking.
The truth is that there is nothing irrational or anti-European about populism. It is not without precedent in European history, moreover, it is a completely natural response to financial instability, rapid cultural and ethnic influx, and the decades-long behaviour of uneffective bureaucracies. The populist wave might be used and catalysed by autocrats for their purposes, but this does not render populism irrational, even less anti-European.
Something appears irrational as long as it opposes our preset paradigms of thought. The liberal idea of the West is exactly such a paradigm – a narrative frame that depicts anything outside as irrational and unlikely to ever happen. To the political aristocracy who mismanaged the interwar period, trusting their old liberal instincts, it cost a lost peace. To the elites envisioning a liberal, Western-ruled geopolitics connected to a liberal Western-ruled globalisation, the lost war in, and the lost retreat from, Afghanistan might give an opportunity to, once again, try and reconfigure their own thinking. There is nothing to be taken as granted about a Western world. Moreover, there is nothing to be taken as granted about a liberal West.
The much popular alternative to the liberal story, of course, is even less appealing. With protestors assaulting statues on both sides of the Atlantic, a new myth has come to influence, perhaps already dominate, the discourse about our civilisational character. In the eyes of these protestors – and much of academia – the West does not represent any inherent value. Its central theme is not freedom, but oppression on the grounds of identity. Accordingly, its expansion towards the rest of the world is not appreciated as benign but condemned as ’imperialistic’.
This political brand, while much of it should be motivated by good intentions, has arguably done more harm to our political culture than anything in the post-war period. It racialised, emotionalised and physicalised politics to such an extent that today, civilised dialogue is by any measure hardly achievable. Tolerance means radical and inconsiderate acceptance, and, by many, tearing down the statues of national heroes such as Thomas Jefferson (with the emphasis on ’tearing down’), is viewed as a legitimate democratic act.
In light of such an alternative, it seems only reasonable to not, in itself, dismiss the liberal story of the West, but to reformulate our ideas along the lines of shared responsibilities and action. This is rendered ever more urgent in the age of a perceived ’Western descent’. We need a new understanding of the West, that aims for historical accuracy while also encouraging positive action: good leadership, good citizenship and a vibrant political culture in which these meet.
For what, after all, is the West? It is not a quest for freedom. Certainly, it is not a machinery for subjugation either. The core problem with these two narratives is that they are ideological in nature. They aspire to set up a premise with universal validity over the past. If we are to encourage good and considerate action rather than misconduct out of historical ignorance, any new understanding should be historical, rather than ideological. And, historically speaking, the West represents the launching pad of modernity, triggering in our world constant change, dynamism and innovation.
Now, it is dependent on nothing but us, how we direct this change; if we decide to harness the creative energies of modernity, or choose to exploit its destructive capacities. It is our responsibility to grow and exercise commitment to our institutions, instead of becoming detached, causing further decay. For we do have a couple of institutions that can be good, strong and adaptable if filled with civic energy and human responsibility. Without these institutions working and the pluralism and transparency they ensure, without them dispersing knowledge and power throughout society, we are at any rate vulnerable to totalitarian minds, and less competitive at the social level. The rule of law matters. Good and honest leadership, instead of an ignorant and corrupt bureaucracy, matters. Competitive democracy matters. Capitalism matters. Associations matter. In short: institutions matter.Our ’West’ should be filled with these institutions so the past may never return. We may be largely unaware of what horrid forms of social organisation big transformations enable, and how feeble we are against these without committing to pluralism and exercising it through institutions. Only history tells how feeble we really are. Growing a sense of civilizational responsibility, connecting past and future, may offer some strength.