Our quest doesn’t end with the West


Our quest doesn’t end with the West

Even ‘The Economist' says the post-war international economic order is on the verge of collapse, which leaves the world looking at a new era of knowldege production and progress, writes ISMAIL LAGARDIEN.


A FEW months ago, someone in this kampung expressed surprise at the way, as he put it, I changed gears between topics covered in my columns and essays across the media. I did not enter a discussion but remembered a typical afternoon in London a few decades ago. I sat in a university seminar on global finance where I was expected to make a contribution. At the end of the seminar I left campus, took a long walk through Covent Garden, popped in and out of the Springbok Bar, where I had a brief and difficult exchange with someone about the meaninglessness of symbols of national pride, then boarded the Tube.

At home in Golders Green, I had a brief discussion about South African politics and the north London derby (we were Gooners) with the son of a former exile. Then I had a vegetarian meal (hummus and falafel) on the high street of a suburb that was home to one of London’s largest Jewish communities. A week earlier, probably, I had a similar meal down Edgware Road, where most shops and restaurants were owned or run by people from across the Arab world, with pockets of South Indian shopkeepers up and down this famous thoroughfare. I had become a familiar face and occasionally broke into pretentious greetings in Hebrew, Arabic or Urdu. I think I was a source of amusement and mild and playful mockery, but that was okay. I was, after all, the short, bald, bespectacled washed-up journalist hiding in libraries and verging on political despair — which would blossom, as it were, within a few years to where I am now: thoroughly pessimistic. Anyway, in each of these spaces, from open books in seminar to little dishes in Jewish, Arab and Pakistani cafes, I had to say something or respond to questions. That was when I became aware of what someone referred to as “changing gears” between topics.

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East, west, home’s best – maybe, almost…

There is an old Zen saying, “to go one kilometre east is to get one kilometre closer to the west”. I spent a long time trying to figure out the logic in that sentence until it dawned that we go searching, as I have and will continue to do, for ways beyond what we know or that we are familiar with, for new ways of seeing, knowing, explaining and understanding — and end up no further than where we are. All of this may have become apparent in this column over the past few months as I have wondered whether I could successfully rip my thinking from its European-intellectual moorings, and whether belonging is a place somewhere.

In another essay I wrote about “elsewhere” as a place that requires as much consideration as a place called home, or “here”, and that we need better, more complete sources of information. This goes back to my understanding of the old Zen saying; the more we look elsewhere, we find ourselves where we are physically.

To pull all of the above together, I think we may have reached two or three probable points of reflection in history. (I try to avoid the idea of “turning points” because it seems predictive and invariably associated with crises.) The first is that our most widely accepted source of knowledge, information and bases for political economic, social and cultural organisation, Eurocentrism, or “Western beliefs and values”, needs to be evaluated against ideas from “elsewhere” — notionally, “the East”. Second, and closely related, is that the idea of the West — it is an idea more than a place — is reaching a point of exhaustion and has to be reconsidered.

Third, the relative decline of the West, of Eurocentrism, and especially of “the American model” — the post-war liberal international economic order — has been a topic of discussion for a few decades. In recent months and years, the usual suspects have been predictable in their hysteria about us (leftists, easterners, non-Europeans; I’m never sure who the culprits are), about the desire to “destroy the West” and, of course, the panic about “South Africa losing the West”.

While the rise and decline of the West has been part of my intellectual inquiries for decades, this column was partially inspired by a reference in last week’s Vrye Weekblad which cited a former professor, Koos Malan, as speaking about a “zeal to destroy the West”. This hysteria and fearmongering was repeated, in different tones, by the billionaire hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who urged Harvard University in the US to “embrace Western values” — somehow neglecting to reflect on the fact that the university has probably been one of the main purveyors of Western values for as long as it has existed.

This mild panic about something, anything that threatens the dominance of Western beliefs and values is reflected in the great awakening among conservatives and right-wingers who have been pouring more concrete where they have planted their feet. They finally get it. It is not just us, leftists, who have been trying to understand and explain this.

Consider the views of a conservative-right axis. Last week, The Economist, purveyor-supreme of Western liberal, “classical liberal” and free market fundamentalism, ran a front page which echoed what so many of us “others” have been noting for many years. It said the post-war liberal international economic order established in the late 1940s by the US and its North Atlantic Allies, and dominated by them over the next six or seven decades, is approaching collapse.

In the words of The Economist’s editors, “we fear that it is flirting with collapse. A worrying number of triggers could set off a descent into anarchy, where might is right and war is once again the resort of great powers. Even if it never comes to conflict, the degradation of the economy could be fast and brutal.”

Along came the decidedly right-wing Viktor Orbán of Hungary with the statement that “we are living in a multipolar world order and one of the pillars of this new world order is the People’s Republic of China. The country that is now setting the course of the world economy and world politics…" Europe, he said, was “on the side of war”.

I should be clear. I raise these sources only to point out that everyone except the classical liberals and western liberals along the Washington, Wall Street and Whitehall axis continues to believe that they are right, that they have always been right and always will be right. Here we get to what I think is a seriously flawed position, and part of what Justin Rosenberg so eloquently described in The Empire of Civil Society: A Critique of the Realist Theory of International Relations (Rosenberg and his book featured in one or more of those seminar discussions I referred to above) as “the luxury, rationale and fatal delusion of materially and politically privileged groups”.

In other words they think that way because it has served them well, financially, professionally and culturally, and they cannot conceive of a different world in which their own ideas have been set adrift in oceans of turbulence and uncertainty. To be clear, I wish I had more money but I really do not wish to trade my principles for the sake of pecuniary gain — specifically what Thorstein Veblen described as “pecuniary emulation”. Put more colloquially, all we have to do is emulate the rich and famous so we, too, can become rich and famous.

A long-run historical view of the world reveals that ideas rise and fall with empires or periods of dominance (we refer to them as hegemonic orders, but anti-leftist correctness is put off by the word). Anyone who thinks that the ideas, beliefs and values that prevailed across most of the European world, and in places that the Europeans conquered, are the best we can do, or that we are the end point of human development, knowledge production and “progress”, is desperately narrow-minded. Already waist-deep in concrete, they now stand face up against a brick wall, unable to move and unable to see beyond the tip of their flattened noses. The Zen saying may, after all, be true, metaphorically, in the sense that we need to keep moving.


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