The Jaipur A and B teams, who competed in the Prince of Wales Cup tournament in Delhi, India, 27 February 1939. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty


What is ‘the West’?

While the West belonged to a European geography, its name meant something. Now it is a vague invocation, laden with fear

by Faisal Devji + BIO

The Jaipur A and B teams, who competed in the Prince of Wales Cup tournament in Delhi, India, 27 February 1939. Photo by Fox Photos/Getty

When asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi apparently responded that he thought it would be a good idea. While this celebrated statement is taken to be an ironic dismissal, Gandhi had in fact given the matter of Western civilisation much thought. In his manifesto of 1909 called Hind Swaraj or ‘Indian Home Rule’, the future Mahatma had described imperial Britain’s desire to spread Western civilisation not as hypocritical so much as suicidal. For he thought that this civilisation was threatened by the very effort to replicate it using the means of industrial capitalism, in much the same way as European commodities were mass-produced for colonial markets. ‘It is a civilisation only in name. Under it the nations of Europe are becoming degraded and ruined day by day,’ he said. ‘Civilisation seeks to increase bodily comforts, and it fails miserably even in doing so.’

What Gandhi called the modern civilisation of industrial capitalism sought to multiply the manufacture, desire for and consumption of its commodities the world over:

They wish to convert the whole world into a vast market for their goods. That they cannot do so is true, but the blame will not be theirs. They will leave no stone unturned to reach the goal.

The purely mechanical expansion of this process, Gandhi argued, would destroy Western civilisation in the very effort to spread it. Why? Because capitalism belonged to no particular people or history, and could be owned by anyone. Modern civilisation, in other words, was a kind of parasite that would grow strong and spread via its European host. Europe would enable it to globalise and attack other parts of the world. Its driving logic was not European domination: that was just a means to an end.

Other Asian and African thinkers upheld the distinction between Europe’s particularity and the universal history of modernity. They claimed modern industrial capitalism as a human inheritance for which the West was merely a midwife. This allowed them to adopt it without any sense of civilisational risk or inferiority, and in Gandhi’s day such men often pointed to Japan as an example of the fit between an Asian culture and modern civilisation understood in a technical way. After Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, modernisation theory, now delinked from European civilisation, continued to promote capitalist development. More recently, the ferociously anti-Western Ayman al-Zawahiri, who led al-Qaeda after Osama bin Laden, made the same point in 2008 when justifying his use of modern technology.

The Mahatma, however, considered the apparent universality of modern civilisation to be its most dangerous form. He wrote that ‘there is no end to the victims destroyed in the fire of civilisation. Its deadly effect is that people come under its scorching flames believing it to be all good.’ Gandhi saw Japan as being in thrall to the very forces of violence he thought were undermining Western civilisation, claiming that it might as well be the British flag flying over Tokyo. His compatriot and contemporary, the philosopher and poet Muhammad Iqbal, sought to rescue the European ideals both men often associated with Christianity from the destructive grip of capitalism. For Iqbal, these included Christendom itself as an arena for the universal ethics of Jesus.

Gandhi suggested that colonised countries should not achieve their freedom copying or adopting the technological prowess and institutions of the West. Instead, they should repudiate the path of the United States and Japan in favour of the true idealism of a nonviolent struggle. If they did so, the freedom of the colonised world might even redeem the West by returning it, through the force of Asian and African example, to a better way of life. Therefore, rather than following the European or American example, as in modernisation theory, the nonviolent struggles of colonised peoples should inspire the West to recall its own lost ideals. In other words, the Mahatma was not arguing for the superiority of Asian as opposed to European civilisation, but thought that the former could liberate the latter into its own truth. Indeed, apart from the Japanese who imitated Europe’s modernity, the West has never faced any foe identifying itself as belonging to the East.

The problem with modern civilisation and its vision of universality was that it inevitably escaped the West’s own grasp, as the expansion of Japan’s economy and empire demonstrated in Gandhi’s own day. Europe’s imperial powers understood the risk posed by the universality of their claims, since they routinely denied their colonial subjects had achieved modernity by arguing that they were not yet ready for self-government by reason of their poverty and illiteracy as much as customs and mutual antipathies. This was the argument the British used to deny India self-government even within the empire from the end of the First World War until the close of the Second, when the decision was taken out of their hands. The colony, for Europe, thus became a school of civilisation to which non-Europeans must be enrolled in perpetuity.

Anti-imperialists recognised the hypocrisy of this reasoning but often sought independence only so as to complete the destruction of native society. Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, who went on to become India’s first prime minister after independence, argued that Britain was incapable of modernising India because it was too reliant upon the support of Indian aristocrats and other conservatives who had no interest in it. Only a democratic government, he claimed, would have both the determination and legitimacy to extend education, reduce poverty, abolish noxious customs and bring internecine conflicts to an end. In this way, he and other newly independent leaders proved Gandhi’s point about how anyone in the world could, in principle, fulfil modern civilisation’s universal promise.

If European imperialism represented the first effort to spread Western civilisation abroad, preceded though it sometimes was by Christian missionary activity, it also signalled the first crisis of the West as an idea. Imperialism made the West into a mobile figure for the first time, by expanding its geography well beyond Europe to include settler colonies in the Americas and Australasia.

The ‘ship of state’ was not merely a machine but mobile and replicable

Describing the way in which the British Empire became de-territorialised in its expansion, the German jurist Carl Schmitt quoted the Victorian prime minister Benjamin Disraeli’s recommendation in one of his novels that the Queen move to India should Britain be threatened. For, in doing so, she would only follow the precedent of the Portuguese crown, which moved to Brazil during the Napoleonic Wars. Schmitt saw such mobility as being made possible by the industrial technology that Gandhi had recognised as lying at the basis of modern civilisation.

In his book Land and Sea (1942), Schmitt reflected on the way in which the ship, as the most important technology of Britain’s maritime empire, represented modern civilisation in miniature. The ship, he pointed out, subordinated all its crew’s relations and activities to technical or instrumental ones. It could tolerate no principle but pure functionality, with all other ideals reduced to lower forms. The imperialist expansion of the West, therefore, entailed the diminution of its own historical and spiritual ideals in as suicidal a way. Like Gandhi, Schmitt had understood that the aptly named ‘ship of state’ was not merely a machine in which individuals were reduced to cogs, but that it was mobile and replicable, and so could never be the inalienable property of any one people or history. In this sense, the strength of national identity in such states represented nothing more than a desperate attempt to possess the country as a distinctive piece of collective property. But, like all capitalist property, its alienation was always possible in an economy defined by the universality of exchange.

As long as the West belonged to a European geography, its name possessed some meaning. But with its globalisation in empire, terms such as the ‘East’ and the ‘West’ had to be reinvented. Schmitt saw the implications of the West’s globalisation in his book The Nomos of the Earth (1950). European empires brought settler colonies in different parts of the world into the fold of the West, but it was the US that made the West into a properly political category. Empires like Britain’s, which were scattered across the world, had no geographical integrity, and so could not be politically divided into Eastern and Western domains.

Instead, with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, an American president split the globe in half to place one hemisphere under his country’s undisputed sway. Called the Western Hemisphere, this domain had the Americas at its centre and excluded Europe along with its Asian and African empires as part of the Eastern Hemisphere. For the first time, Europe was displaced from the West and separated from its former American colonies, in whose affairs it was no longer permitted to interfere.

First enunciated in President James Monroe’s 7th annual message to Congress on 2 December 1823, the doctrine distinguished a despotic and monarchical Europe forever engaged in internecine and colonial wars. The new home of freedom was in the Americas. Monroe claimed that ‘the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European powers.’ He described Europe in much the same way as its imperial powers did their Asian and African colonies, albeit with the promise not to interfere in their internal affairs. The US also took on an imperial role in South and Central America.

The rise of the US led directly to the West’s crisis, to its doubling and displacement both as a geographical location and a political or civilisational category. This crisis has since been integral to the idea of the West. It is always in crisis and flux, and often in motion.

The end of the Second World War and the decolonisation in Asia and Africa required changing the meaning and location of the West again. It now included both ends of the Northern Atlantic Ocean, to exclude the Soviet Union and its Asian allies as part of the East in a new, Cold War division of the globe into rival hemispheres. And so the West was now NATO-claimed sovereignty, while the East was the Warsaw Pact.

Politics would reappear in battles defined by culture and civilisation that were not controlled by states

Francis Fukuyama’s book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) signalled the latest crisis of the West with the end of the Cold War. The West had emerged victorious against communism. The grand conflict, and therefore the ideological as well as the civilisational narratives of historical rivalry, had come to an end. Henceforth, all politics would become a kind of internal mopping-up operation within a liberal world order no longer divided into East and West and so made safe for capitalism. Politics was to be subordinated to economics, and the global triumph of neoliberalism represented this vision of the world made safe for the market and its mechanisms. Eastern Europe’s colour revolutions notably made no calls for equality. It was as if Gandhi’s vision of the parasite taking over its host had been fulfilled.

There was something paradoxically Soviet about Fukuyama’s argument, which seemed to mimic Vladimir Lenin’s idea about the victory of communism leading to the replacement of politics by what, citing Friedrich Engels, he called the administration of things. This notion was part of Lenin’s theory about history ending with the withering away of the state as an instrument of capital to be replaced by popular self-governance. However, Fukuyama’s move from political history to neoliberal governance simply foregrounded the problem posed by the newly internal, rather than traditionally external, enemies of a new world order no longer divided into East and West.

In his bestseller The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Samuel Huntington argued against Fukuyama that this enmity, and so politics or history, was unlikely to vanish into the problems of governance. Rather, politics would reappear in battles defined by culture and civilisation that were not controlled by states. In this new iteration, the West, newly reattached to its religious roots in Judaism and Christianity, was engaged in a civilisational struggle with forces such as Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism. Here, states and even geographies would play a lesser role.

With the terrorist attacks on the US of 11 September 2001, Huntington’s focus on non-state actors and religion took on urgent meaning. The French historian Michel Foucault had written extensively about the devolution of power from the sovereign and top-down politics to everyday institutional procedures of discipline and regulation that normalise children, students, soldiers, prisoners or patients into good citizens. He showed how, in this genealogy, the enemies of society were not foreign countries but internal foes such as sexual deviants, criminals and, of course, religious fanatics and terrorists.

In our own day, it is terrorism and Islam that play the role of such an enemy, one that is threatening because, like the race or class enemy of old, it is both internal and external to Western societies. Attempts are made to deny the interconnections between the West and its new enemy by externalising the latter through wars in Afghanistan or Iraq, restrictions on immigration, the surveillance of mosques and the criminalisation of practices such as veiling or ritual slaughter. Yet Islam is internal to Western societies not through immigration or conversion but because the varied trajectories of non-state militancy disallow us from defining it geographically as belonging to the non-West. The terrorist’s familiarity with jihad in Syria can coexist with his ignorance of that country and its language, while being quite at home in Europe. There is no foreign power to which he can betray the West in which he belongs. Having been smashed with the closing of the Cold War, it is no longer possible to put the Humpty Dumpty of bipolar conflict between East and West back together again.

If Islam has appeared as a new kind of civilisational foe in the 21st century, that is also because it can no longer play the role of a geopolitical rival. Dispersed among groups and individuals all over the world, it takes as its target not countries, but a global arena defined by flows of finance, commodities and migration. This post-Cold War world can be understood as a marketplace that has turned politics into a set of competing efforts by states and other actors to regulate or deregulate it. The goods subjected to such competition range from natural resources such as oil and fish, manufactures such as weaponry and nuclear technology, and individual rights such as that to life, privacy, free speech and the liberty of movement.

Like their enemies if also against them, Muslim militants want to regulate some of these goods and deregulate others for a global marketplace. But rather than defining their activities in the economic terminology of self-interest, they seem willing to sacrifice both their bodies and societies in death and destruction to achieve their ends. Islamic terrorism poses no existential threat to any state; rather, what makes it important is its promise of civil strife as an internal threat. Even the ‘Islamic state’ founded by ISIS in Iraq did not serve to define its war geographically since militants continued to attack targets in different and disconnected parts of the world. Its militancy crucially includes the apparently nihilistic repudiation of self-interest as the economic rationality that governs human behaviour.

From Turkey and Russia to India and China, the war on terror is no longer a Western project

The sacrificial form taken by Islamic militancy has led not just to attempts at opposing it but also to surprising imitations of its ethic. Among these is the return of the West as a civilisational category now set explicitly against Islam. But rather than representing the universalisation and technical rationality of modern civilisation that Gandhi had criticised, the West, as Huntington had argued, has returned in a specifically cultural and even theological incarnation. Pioneered in the war on terror, this can now be seen in the populist or ultranationalist repudiation of a universal, ‘rules-based global order’ with its freedoms of movement and standardisation. Growing in strength all over Europe and the US, this view constitutes nothing less than a refusal of the West itself in its neoliberal incarnation as a free market for goods and labour.

Brexit illustrated this form of sacrifice or repudiation. Its votaries are willing to accept economic and other losses to regain what they see as their sovereignty from the European Union as if imitating the struggles of their own former colonies. While not explicitly rejecting the principle of self-interest, they have stepped away from a vision of the post-Cold War world as a neoliberal marketplace of goods and ideas in which it can flourish. This sudden if disavowed identification with colonial subjects from Britain’s own past has been repeated all over Western Europe, where Right-wing parties and governments claim to be fighting for their sovereignty and culture against the EU as much as the colonising potential of immigration, Islam and other forms of globalisation. Does this strange historical reversal represent a perverse fulfilment of Gandhi’s prediction that the civilisation of modern capitalism would be decoupled from the West?

Like the modern civilisation Gandhi had criticised, the West’s effort to achieve global hegemony in the war on terror has been overtaken by the universalisation of its procedures, which have legitimised authoritarian states all over the world. From Turkey and Russia to India and China, the war on terror is no longer a Western project but has been deployed to join market-friendly economics with political repression. And so, the last project to reconfigure the West has also escaped its reach. Concomitantly, we have seen a tearing apart of the West’s institutional forms, whether in Donald Trump’s departure from alliances and agreements, or with Brexit and the reimposition of border controls in parts of the EU. These fraying bonds, however, have been complemented by a veritable rediscovery of the West as a civilisational entity, as if by way of compensation. Or are we indeed seeing a return of the West as a spiritual, rather than political or economic, phenomenon?