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What The Decline Of The West Could Mean For The World

30/05/2016 8:26 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Close up of the dome of United States Capitol, Washington D.C., USA.

Here's the bald but axiomatic truth. The West has shaped the modern world. Be it through colonialism or/and the marriage between capitalist modernity and colonialism, the West has left an indelible imprimatur on the modern world. It needs to be stated here that the precise boundary between the modern and the "old" worlds is rather blurred and the datum also remains obscure. But for the purposes of this essay, I will take the starting point as the West's Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Both imbued the West with energy, but more importantly these watershed moments or developments infused the West with what I would call a "curiosity-laden outward-looking orientation". This initially meant colonialism wedded to adventurism (in the positive sense of the word). Risk was central to both.

The West's gift to the world, even dating back to antiquity, is reason and rationality. Western rationality has defined the modern world.

Infused with curiosity and an imprint of an outward-looking ingress on the Western consciousness -- overlaid by the spirit of Renaissance-bred rationality -- the West soared. Now, though, this West is dying. Most significantly, the West is dying because the leader of the pack, the United States, is in decline -- of course, in relative terms. I will not go into the causes and reasons for this decline of the West but will attempt to tease out the implications on the world at large. I may also add that this "dirge" is neither an argument on the rise of the "non-West" nor is it a romanticization of colonialism. It is essentially in the nature of an assessment of the West's death.

The West's gift to the world, even dating back to antiquity, is reason and rationality. Western rationality, I repeat, has defined the modern world. (An academic quibble might be that rationality has not been a panacea and has had its dark side but this would be just that: a quibble). By prefixing rationality to the West, is not to demean the non-West in the idiom of an Orientalist trope but merely to suggest that the West's modern consciousness was shaped by rationality and through a process of isomorphism, other cultures and societies also adopted Western rationality. The isomorphism of the state form, for instance, may constitute a clear-cut example here.

Post decolonization, the decolonized, instead of becoming "authentic", sought to manage their affairs in the political, economic and social forms "discovered" in the West.

Rationality, besides entailing the scientific temper and empiricism, also meant curiosity about the world - nature, people, cultures. This, I would posit, bred confidence to the point of dominating the world. The West radiated within and without, and the West ruled the world -- more importantly in the realm of ideas and the consciousness these generated. Even the battles or struggles against colonialism were forged in the crucible and idioms of the West. Post decolonization, the decolonized, instead of becoming "authentic", sought to manage their affairs in the political, economic and social forms "discovered" in the West.

But as I mentioned, this West is dying.

While Western Europe -- the crucible and fountainhead of modernity, rationality and progress -- consumed itself in the violent orgies of the First and the Second Great Wars and has never really recovered from this trauma-induced regression. Despite the formation of the European Union, it was the United States that took the lead and became the modern avatar of the West. The United States, after discounting some of its ungainly and unsavoury experiences in its consolidation phase, was an experiment. The nature of this experiment was profoundly unsettling; it inverted older paradigms and sought to create a nation that was "primus inter pares", first among equals, in all aspects. While its foreign policy has not always been a picture perfect example of prudence and sobriety and after accounting for its major faultlines, the country has not historically deviated from its founding premises. The experiment moved on and the country seemed to be a perpetual work in progress in terms of improvements, improvisations and innovations of its institutional grid.

The United States is becoming insular, turning inward and becoming isolationist. These developments... could possibly portend the death of the West.

The spirit behind these, however, appears to be dying. The United States is becoming insular, turning inward and becoming isolationist. These developments are as ominous as can be and could possibly portend the death of the West. If the United States is in decline and this means the death of the West, what implications would flow for the world?

I would posit (admittedly speculatively) that the decline of the West would be traumatic for the world given that the idiom in which our world has been shaped and informed by has been Western. But within the detritus of this trauma could lie the emergence of a world defined by what some political scientists and sociologists have called "multiple modernities". That is, modernization and modernity that is not purely Western but a synthesis of many modernities, some of which could be non-Western. The reasons for the denouement of multiple modernities would perhaps emanate from the weaning off of the psychological and material dependence on the West and its modernity. This is not to demean the West and its modernity but rather to root for a modernity which, paradoxically speaking, is neither too rational nor too traditional. It is this synthesis that our world and its various cultures need.

It may... be "synthesis" that could lead to a more settled, peaceful and progressive world. In this sense, the decline of the conventional West may even be welcome...

Pure forms of modernity and modernization have bred resentment and conflict and from an aesthetic perspective imply and mean "cloning" or what V S Naipaul famously called "mimic men". The quest for the "authentic" -- whether it be "authentic Western modernity" or cultural authenticity" -- has historically and even contemporarily had deleterious consequences. It may, in the final analysis, be "synthesis" that could lead to a more settled, peaceful and progressive world. In this sense, the decline of the conventional West may even be welcome for it would lead to a situation where the sediments of the world's consciousness may be both structurally Western as well as non-Western but within this contradiction would be forged a bold and beautiful synthesis. And in this synthesis could potentially lie the seeds of a better world.

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