Inter-civilisation moment: Post-westernisation rumbles

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: October 08, 2018 21:45:39 | Updated: October 08, 2018 22:20:54

A representational image

Inter-civilisation means to Desmond Fennell, who has used the term the most, a long-drawn-out phase of 'socio-political, moral and intellectual chaos," often triggered by some cataclysmic event in other arenas, typically politically, militarily, or economically. In an interview with Joe Humphreys of The Irish Times (October 02, 2018), Irish writer, cultural philosopher and linguist Fennell pointed to the August 1945 US atomic bombing as being one of those cataclysmic events, a descent, he claimed, into the opposite of civilisation, 'barbarism'. This fate twice haunted 'western civilisation' before, he argued: the 1917 Russian Revolution; and the 1789 French Revolution. His last inter-civilisation episode was the fall of the Roman Empire almost two millennia ago, fostering, at least in some western interpretations, a 'dark' Middle Ages in western society.

The Middle Ages, leading up to the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th centuries, was not so 'dark', after all, not with some renowned philosophical, artistic, sculpturing, and painting outputs. Yet, the point should not be missed at a time when liberal values face some very deep-rooted populist challenges: western countries seem to be on the short-end of global economic growth; and though many of them remain at the citadels of economic wealth and power, the so-called 'non-western' pressure is mounting. Further relative growth of these new forces would strengthen the post-westernisation argument.

That is not the message Humphrey's article and Fennell's argumentation are sending, but the outcome both have surveyed cannot be easily dismissed. A simultaneous HSBC Global Research report also points out how, by 2030, today's economic kingpins will be witnessing other potential kingpins overtaking them. Much has been written about this report in several newspapers, given how Bangladesh will, by then, make the grandest climb of them all, from the 42nd largest economy today to the 26th. We never hear much about the flip-side or the constraints, but changes afoot do need a closer look, minus the civilisation reference.

In that HSBC report, the only countries declining in rank of gross domestic product or GDP (among the Top 1-16) are from the 'western civilisation' zone, with Japan and Russia the only other countries declining outside that zone: Japan's from the 3rd to 4th slot, Russia's from the 11th to 13th. These dips mirror the fall of the United States from the top to second, Germany from 4th to 5th, the United Kingdom from 5th to 6th, France from 6th to 7th, Italy from 8th to 9th, Canada from 10th to 12th, and Spain from 13th to 16th.

Replacing them will almost exclusively be non-western counterparts, climbing at a faster rate (at least in terms of 'slots'): China from 2nd to the top-spot, India from 7th to 3rd, Brazil from 9th to 8th, Korea from 12th to 10th, Mexico from 15th to 11th, and Indonesia from 16th to 15th. Only Australia remains at the same spot, 14th.

A quick appraisal automatically tells us 'western' cannot be replaced by the 'eastern' since these climbing five 'non-western' countries are so different in their own histories, cultures, diplomacy, power-potential, and intentions that their getting together would be equivalent of the world finally coming together.

Secondly, China is the only contender for the top-spot, with rapidly rising India a possibility today that could become probable later. None of the others have that intention, let alone the capabilities. Thirdly, although populism may be a tangible factor common to all declining 'western civilisation' countries, thus feeding into the Fennell inter-civilisation thesis, it is also manifesting itself in varied forms across the 'non-western' climbing countries: India faces a formidable fundamentalist shift, the leading contender in Brazil's election this week is a populist, and Mexico handsomely elected a left-firebrand populist into office. That the growth will continue in these countries until 2030 appears a very questionable proposition even before the fait is accomplished. With populism comes social division, economic standstill, and plenty of political costs. These have to be paid sometime down the road, therefore, though 2030 is barely 11 years away, that is a long, long time in the secular growth-rate cycle.

Behind all those reasons lie the most formidable of them all why 'western civilisation' may still remain behind the global growth-rate steering-wheel: the very Christian-based cultural backdrop of 'western civilisation' from the time the Roman Empire fell has bred so many commonalities that they can, collectively, still out-balance any non-western coalition. Such a coalition would have to accent Chinese civilisation, still the world's largest unbroken one, and Indian, also showing similar credentials; but combining them will be a lot harder than in forming a political outfit, such as the BRICS bandwagon of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. True four of those five BRICS members are in the Top-16 listed, but to expect them to 'gang-up' against the 'west' may be a call too distant for practical purposes.

Besides, many of them have markets in the 'west', a relationship that could face unfavourable sine qua non bargaining if they 'gang-up' against the 'west': their growth, too, depends on those exports to the 'west', minus which it will be an arduous task to sustain current growth-rates when the underbelly of growth, that is, the population being bypassed, is proportionately far larger than their 'western civilisation' counterparts. Without elevating the bottom-tier domestically, climbing towards the global top-tier remains fragile, even dangerous. That bottom-tier within China and India alone constitute a larger population than all the western markets they are serving concurrently. Welfare has not trickled down in these non-western societies as they did, over many centuries, in the 'western'.

Bangladesh portrays all of these ills. By 2030 it is expected to climb higher up the global middle-climb ladder, by which time its ready-made garment (RMG) sector cannot bring in the bread as it does now, if not by competition, then by definition (of low-waged production and a middle-income' society). It must rapidly build up alternate industries, stave off climate-change pressures, absorb 1.2 million Rohingyas, brace for 2-odd million Bangalees being evicted from Assam, compensate for diminishing Ganges water-flows, and lift more than 30 million of its own people from the floor. That is as tall a task as any country has faced in so short a time-span. It might still rise to the 26th rank in economic growth-rate size, but it will still stay far higher in any list of problems, and the costs these entail for elimination.

Cooperation alongside competition may far outweigh any country's future than conflict girding competition. No better a terrain to begin that, or learn from it, than the domestic context. That alone could make non-western civilisations different from the western, the capacity to preempt any French or Russian revolutions.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.

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