Perhaps the defining feature of political discourse in the 21st century is the spectre of the decline and possible pending fall of Western civilisation. Whether it be the purported threat of Islamisation by a million migrants, the stirring of the red dragon, the supposed erosion of Judeo-Christian values, the proliferation of nihilistic consumerism, or the electoral collapse of economic and social liberalism, the consensus is that Western culture, or at least its global dominance, has seen its heyday.
That is, though, roughly all that these narratives have in common. There’s little consensus about exactly what Western civilisation is, let alone whether its end is something to be celebrated or mourned. Does it refer specifically to post-Enlightenment liberal democracies, market economies, and faith in reason and technology? Or does it mean all societies with a Judeo-Christian heritage? Or does it refer only to the cultures of Western Europe, North America, and Australia? Or is it merely the cultural superstructure of Pax Americana? Or does it encompass the entire history of Europe, or at least include Hellenism? Is it, then, ultimately a racialised concept?
Given the essential ephemerality and wooliness of cultural studies and sociology, a definitive answer would be inherently arbitrary. This is, of course, why attempts to pin down ‘British values’ leads to dead-ends, deadlocked disputes, or empty slogans and mush. Nevertheless, two trends can be drawn out: (i) a values-based assessment (Western civilisation means some sort of distinctive set of beliefs); and (ii) a holisitc or historical view (Western civilisation means however people in ‘the West’, however defined, have lived in general).
Focusing on values is much more interesting. A broad definition of Western civilisation removes any reasonable normativity from the discussion. Treating the institutions of the American republic as having a distinctive identity that is shared by Sparta, the 14th century Papacy, and 6th century Saxony is either entirely arbitrary (and renders the category uninteresting) or else chauvinistic (with a racial tinge).
So which values are distinctively ‘Western’? Certainly, liberalism, secularism, and markets have defined at least a significant period of ‘Western’ culture. However, by their design, these beliefs are (supposed to be) universal and have precedents and influences from outside a ‘Western’ context. And they are certainly not valuable in virtue of being Western. Equally, Judeo-Christian values, and the abuses and horrors reaped in their name, have played an undeniable role in shaping the Western world. Likewise, the origins of fascism and Bolshevism only make sense in the context of late 19th and early 20th century Europe, and the evils they spawned may have had roots in rationalist excess and certainly played a defining role in shaping the modern ‘West’.
Contemporarily, illiberalism is in the ascendancy. The barbarians are not only at the gates; they’re already in the White House. And, importantly, the inward looking, confrontational, authoritarian vision of the likes of Steve Bannon and Marine le Penn are not (in spite of the neo-tsarist influence) imported and are not derived from anywhere other than Western culture itself.
Still, illiberal nativism could be characterised as fundamentally at odds with a ‘Western civilisation’ defined narrowly as a set of peculiar post-Enlightenment views. This does little to assuage the irony that many populist-nativist right-wingers explicitly fashion themselves as defenders of Western civilisation, especially as against Islam. Indeed, the likes of Geert Wilders use a quasi-liberal rhetoric to portray themselves as champions of freedom and secularism, helped, it should be added, in no small part by the incompetency of regressives who have jettisoned any pretence of being in favour of freedom of speech.
It should go without saying that intolerance, protectionism, isolationism, identitarianism, and attacking the independence of the judiciary do nothing to promote liberalism. Allowing ‘Western values’ to mean asserting an exclusivist and parochial Western identity that is in unavoidable conflict with other cultures who cannot be reasoned with means abandoning anything that is worth celebrating and defending about Western culture.
This would be a real loss. The political ideas of the individual’s supremacy over the collective, tolerance, the rule of law, equality before the law, pluralism, and skepticism of authority and centralised power remain the only valid foundations for a legitimate government and flourishing society. If the defence of Western values means promoting such ideals, it is a noble cause, in spite of the caveat that such universalist values should not be essentialised as belonging to, or only being applicable to, a specific region or group.
If, however, such beliefs are trampled in the rush towards a Holy War by neo-crusaders against a fictionalised monolithic Islam, or as a means towards achieving ‘security’, ‘stability’, or ‘cohesion’, then there is very little that is worth salvaging. Attempts to preserve purported Western exceptionalism will only result in removing even the veneer or approximation of any special moral and cultural worth that Western civilisation could claim. There’s little point in opposing Islamo-fascism if you end up promoting plain-old-fascism along the way.
Indeed, this may well be more a reversion to type than it is a revolutionary change. European history, in particular, is replete with failures to live up to promised ideals, with colonialism standing out as a jewel of brutal hypocrisy. Regardless, such regression should be resisted and should not lead to passively giving way to securocrats, paternalists, mercantilists, religionists, nativists, and populists.
So, is Western civilisation worth saving? Only if it still exists.
Blogger, activist and former philosophy student at The University of Edinburgh