‘A great deal of demagoguery and downright ignorance is involved in presuming to speak for a whole religion or civilisation’.
Edward W Said, The Clash of Ignorance
‘And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.’
CP Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians
(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
During the spring and summer of 2016, the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate on England’s North Sea coast hosted a new work by Yinka Shonibare MBE. Born in London but raised in Nigeria, the artist now uses the royal honour – which lends a ritual afterlife to a defunct imperial system – as part of his professional title. Pride, or parody? As with many of the attitudes struck by the Young (or at least younger) British Artists, it can be hard to tell. In any case, Shonibare’s installation for the Turner gave visitors a firmer steer towards his core ideas. Commissioned as part of the 14-18 NOW programme of public art to mark the centenary of the First World War, ‘End of Empire’ takes the form of two figures who sit on either end of a seesaw. It swings slowly up and down as sea breezes waft into the gallery. Those rising and falling figures wear the European formal dress of the early 1900s; their clothes, however, are woven from the kaleidoscopic batik fabrics of West Africa in which Shonibare often drapes his work. Instead of a head, each rival bigwig sports a globe.
As one ‘statesman’ with a head stuffed with world-devouring ambition ascends, so the other sinks. Both, meanwhile, betray through their flamboyant threads the distant origin of their comfort and luxuries. As a mobile visual image for the European power-plays that culminated in the Great War, ‘End of Empire’ packs a lot of meat into an entrance-hall attraction for a gallery in a faded Kentish resort engaged in its own battle for renewal. The swollen-headed imperial centres vie for supremacy in a zero-sum game of advantage and setback. However, each depends for its grandeur on the exploited hinterland made visible in Shonibare’s rainbow batiks.
Such, you might say, was the world that consumed itself in the fires of 1914–1918. In 1913, on the eve of the deluge, eleven Western powers occupied more than half the world’s land mass, and ruled 57 per cent of its people. Their domains, according to the historian Niall Ferguson, ‘accounted for close to four-fifths of global economic output’. But the Great War ended with the once-stable seesaw of Great Power rivalry shattered beyond repair. Four imperial monoliths fell from it into utter oblivion: the German, Russia, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Two more, the victorious British and French, received a life-extending shot of territory and influence in the peace settlement of 1919, only to expire from their wounds within half a century.
A hundred years later, other actors perch on that seesaw. As the ‘American Century’ fades into memory, and Russia seeks to punch its way back into the fearsome authority of the Soviet decades, a new – or, rather, revived – counterweight takes its place on the other end. The problem is that no one knows quite what to call this ascending force, or even whether it can fit into the seat vacated by the vanished hegemons of the twentieth century. A shelf of books with titles such as When China Rules the World (Martin Jacques) or, alternatively, The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World (Ho-fung Hung) confidently identify the new boss and speculate on its prospects and performance. Other players in the ancient game of rise-and-fall maintain that the globalised economy will mean that any future seesaw looks more like a switchback or a roundabout. In 2006, Ferguson himself and Moritz Schularick identified the double-headed dragon of ‘Chimerica’: a hybrid monster that united ‘parsimonious China and profligate America’ in unstable economic co-dependency.
For some analysts, a generalised ‘East’ stands to profit from the retreat of an equally nebulous ‘West’. To archaeologist-historian Ian Morris, ‘The shift in power and wealth from West to East in the twenty-first century is probably as inevitable as the shift from East to West that happened in the nineteenth century.’ A monolithic ‘Asia’ sometimes takes a bow as history’s latest protagonist, unified beyond the wildest dreams of a Song emperor or Mongol warlord. Now powered by microchips or carried on container ships, this renewed model of pan-Asian supremacy updates for a hi-tech age the dream of past challengers to Western arrogance such as the Japanese nationalist writer Kakuzo Okakura. In 1903, he proclaimed that ‘Asia is one’, and that ‘Arab chivalry, Persian poetry, Chinese ethics and Indian thought all speak of a single Asiatic peace… nowhere capable of a hard and fast dividing line’.
Other long-term trend-detectors exult in the crackle of economic growth that (despite spells of crisis and paralysis) sparks from the so-called BRIC states of Brazil, Russia, India and China. Some forecasters sprinkle their recipes for a rebalanced globe with a sprig of MINT (Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria, Turkey). This alphabet soup revives, within a neoliberal economic order, the hopes (or fears) for a revolutionary ‘Third World’ that accompanied the binary face-offs of the Cold War era.
Pundits, economists, forecasters and historians differ in the names they give the new guys on the seesaw. Few seem to doubt the presiding metaphors of rise and fall, ascent and decline, that govern our explanations of far-reaching and deep-rooted historical change. Today, a re-emergent ‘East’ may hog the limelight: a belated recompense, its cheerleaders would say, for two or three centuries of plunder and humiliation. History’s wheel has spun out its payback. In the words of the cultural historian Pankaj Mishra, in his study of the Asian intellectuals who plotted the comeback of their cultures, ‘the dominance of the West already appears just another, surprisingly short-lived phase in the long history of empires and civilisations’. For Mishra, ‘The rise of Asia, and the assertiveness of Asian peoples, consummates their revolt against the West… it is in many ways the revenge of the East.’
But whose ‘West’, and whose ‘East’? Wholesale labels applied to peoples and cultures have caused so much mischief and mayhem that the wise observer might prefer to shun them altogether. Beneath the clumsy rubrics of East and West, Europe and Asia, Muslim and Christian, millions of individuals pursue and enjoy hybrid, plural and mingled lives, just as they always have. When Edward Said condemned Samuel Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilizations’ theorem after the attacks of 11 September 2001, it was this confinement of human complexity in a simplistic straitjacket that outraged him. Huntington, wrote Said in ‘The Clash of Ignorance’, is an ideologist ‘who wants to make ‘civilisations’ and ‘identities’ into what they are not: shut-down, sealed-off entities that have been purged of the myriad currents and countercurrents that animate human history’. That history contains not only ‘wars of religion and imperial conquest’ but also ‘exchange, cross-fertilisation and sharing’. For Said, ‘unedifying labels like Islam and the West… mislead and confuse the mind, which is trying to make sense of a disorderly reality which won’t be pigeonholed’.
The Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore, one of the most searching critics not only of Western imperialism but Asian responses that flattered it by mimicry, took care to distinguish between ‘the spirit of the West’ and ‘the nation of the West’. His ‘West’ contained its own otherness, its internal forces of resistance and dissent. A binary politics that raised a monolithic and spectral ‘Eastern’ or ‘Asian’ nationalism against it would merely echo the faults of its enemy. Yet even a mind as fervently anti-chauvinistic as Tagore’s was prepared to use such seemingly metaphysical categories in order to further dialogue and enable progress. He argued that ‘the West is necessary to the East. We are complementary to each other because of our different outlooks upon life which have given us different aspects of truth.’
We can agree that all such overarching terms deserve to appear within mental, if not actual, scare-quotes. Still, for all their ghostly and even delusional qualities, they have served to quicken the pace of intellectual and political change. When Sayyid Qutb, the literary godfather of jihadi radicalism, railed against Western degeneration in his testament Milestones, his targets may have been composed of straw and wind. That did not prevent Qutb from succeeding in his task of inspiration or incitement.
Along with the giant shadow-puppets of continents, creeds or just compass-points that populate the rhetoric of cultural clash and rivalry comes the master-metaphor of growth and decay. Borrowed from the lifespan of human and other natural organisms, the patterns of rise and fall, youth and age, ripeness and rot, vigour and senility, have all tried to make historical sense of societies that lived alongside each other in harmony or (more often) tension. In those circumstances, the life of a culture or a dynasty might plausibly look like the grand amplification of the life of a man.
Around 750 BCE, Homer’s Iliad – a Greek epic poem about a semi-mythical battle in Asia Minor – gave voice to this perception in a figure of speech that poets have re-animated ever since. In the early eighteenth century, Alexander Pope’s translation – one of dozens – turned the archaic Greek of Homer into neo-classical English: ‘Like Leaves on Trees the Race of Man is found,/ Now green in Youth, now withering on the Ground./ Another Race the following Spring supplies,/ They fall successive, and successive rise./ So generations in their course decay,/ So flourish these, when those are past away.’ Whether you think of your society as a healthy green shoot or dry, yellowing waste, organic metaphors may stimulate and energise, comfort and console. They may excite the ‘risers’ of any age, and solace the ‘fallers’.
The perennial lure of these comparisons pays no heed to borders of nation, period or faith. In the late fourteenth century, the historian, sociologist and philosopher Ibn Khaldun gave this cluster of ideas its canonical expression in Islamic historiography. Writing in present-day Algeria, but the proud descendant of an Andalusian family which left Spain during the Christian re-conquest of the south, he scoffs at the idea that human action alone can halt the decline of a great house. ‘If, then, senility is something natural to the life of a dynasty, it must come about in the same way natural things come about… Senility is a chronic disease which cannot be cured or made to disappear because it is something natural, and natural things do not change.’
With its sociological analysis of the transition from nomadic to civic life (‘badawah’ and ‘hadarah’), and its cyclical model of growth and disintegration, Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah created a template that scores of later rise-and-fall narrators would adopt. After specifying the decadent delights that presage social downfall – apparently, they include cultivation of the red and white oleanders still grown across the Mediterranean lands – he insists that ‘the goal of civilisation is sedentary culture and luxury’. However, ‘When civilisation reaches that goal, it turns towards corruption and starts being senile, as happens in the natural life of living beings.’
Ibn Khaldun sees civilisation as perennially prone to collapse under the burden of its own achievements. Later wide-screen historians, from Giambattista Vico and Edward Gibbon to Khaldun’s disciple Arnold J Toynbee, play endless variations on this theme. Toynbee, whose ten-volume A Study of History updated the Muqaddimah for the bewildered readers of the mid-20th century, called his forerunner’s treatise ‘the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place’. Later panoramic narratives of the cycle of civilisation often read like footnotes to Ibn Khaldun. ‘Prosperity ripened the principle of decay,’ wrote Gibbon about the fall of Rome, until ‘the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight’. For Vico, surveying human history from his Neapolitan backwater in the 1720s, ‘Men first feel necessity, then look for utility, next attend to comfort, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.’
By the 1370s, Ibn Khaldun’s arc of growth and decay was already a time-honoured trope in historiography. His cross-cultural comparisons, his curves of grandeur and decline, had emerged with the dawn of history-writing itself. Our urge to contrast societies and civilisations, and to devise rules for their life and death, may embarrass thinkers who refuse to treat the past as a glorified soap-opera or game-show. Yet that drive lies as deep as the need to make sense of human history.
In 2010, Ian Morris’s book Why the West Rules – for Now staged another, vaultingly ambitious, bid to ‘look at the whole sweep of human history as a single story’, from the close of the last Ice Age to the third millennium. Morris presents an overarching epic drama in which the Eastern and Western ‘cores’ – roughly, China and its adjoining territories on one side, Europe and the Near East on the other – match each other in social development almost step-by-step for much of the last 10,000 years. After the fall of Rome, the Chinese world strides confidently in front, between 550 and the 1770s (Morris knows how daft some of his exact dates sound).
Then the West and its North American offspring (literally) steam ahead, thanks to the double lucky-strike of a revolution in fossil-fuel use and safe, easy Atlantic commerce. Morris dismisses both discredited racial and still-active cultural theories of Western supremacy over the past 300 years or so. He rejects both ‘long-term lock-in’ and ‘short-term accident’ explanations of the West’s advantages. And he usefully widens his lens so that (say) classical Islamic cultures fall within, rather than outside, the fold that covers the Western end of the Eurasian landmass. The Arab conquerors ‘came not to bury the West but to perfect it’, and by 700, ‘the Islamic world more or less was the Western core’. Still, Morris does maintain that the modern West lucked out in its resources and its location: ‘The West rules because of geography’.
Would Morris’s new determinism of coal, wind and water satisfy sceptics for whom every effort to portray history as a slugfest between heavyweights, in Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ mode, must be a disreputable exercise? At the time of publication, it prompted me to ask some historians about the validity of such a broad-brush narrative. Some historians answered that tales of West-against-the-Rest have outlived whatever usefulness they had. However, Paul Cartledge – the eminent classicist who is now emeritus professor of Greek culture at Cambridge University – gave a robust defence of such super-sized comparative story-telling. For Cartledge, the dialogue or dispute between systems helped to kick-start history itself. As he argued, ‘The founding father of (critical, explanatory, objective) history… Herodotus, was also the founder of the West-East cultural dialectic.’
Writing in the Greek world of the mid-fifth century BCE, Herodotus (who came from what is now Bodrum in Turkey) not only studied and compared the various cultures that he knew across the Mediterranean and Middle East. He asked why the vast and sophisticated forces of imperial Persia had failed to prevail against the tiny city-states of Greece in the wars that ended with the victory of a Greek coalition against the armies of Xerxes I at the Battle of Plataea in 479 BCE. If he concluded that civic democracy and the rule of law did give Greeks the edge over Oriental despotism – a heroic fable endlessly recycled in the modern West – then Herodotus also offered a fair and just account of Persian values and virtues. He also warned that no social system, however righteous, would withstand the ravages of time: ‘Human life is like a revolving wheel and never allows the same people to continue long in prosperity.’
Those immemorial spins of the wheel have also given succour to the victims when ruling cultures take a triumphalist or imperialist turn. In 1908, just prior to the Great War, the great Indian Muslim poet Muhammad Iqbal castigated the ‘dwellers in the cities of the West’. ‘Your civilisation will commit suicide,’ he warned, ‘with its own sword.’ Iqbal’s prophecy proved double-edged, in that the looming conflict wrecked or enfeebled Europe’s empires only for another bastion of universalising modernity – the United States – to impose its will on much of the world.
Besides, even ardent imperialists could relish the rhetoric of predestined decline. In 1897, as the British Empire that repulsed Iqbal reached its zenith, Rudyard Kipling (in ‘Recessional’) foresaw that its ‘dominion over palm and pine’ would come to an end as surely as the might of ‘Nineveh and Tyre’. Elite servants of that empire were schooled in the Greek and Latin literature that, from Theocritus to Virgil, laments the passing of a Golden Age. Awareness of decay has never done much to dampen the zeal of the conqueror. In the second century CE, a Roman aristocrat with a Stoical cast of mind reminded himself that ‘in a little while you will be no one and nowhere, even as Hadrian and Augustus are no more’. ‘Life is brief’, counselled this enemy of pomp and pride, and ‘there is one harvest of earthly existence, a holy disposition and neighbourly acts’. Yet such modest concern for the body’s mortality and the limits of power did not stop Marcus Aurelius from doing his efficient, and sometimes, ruthless duty as one of the most successful of all emperors of Rome (from 161–180 CE).
The humility of emperors – and their administrators – hardly curbed imperial hubris. Europe lived contentedly with the language of decadence and disintegration even as its rivalrous Great Powers extended their footprint over the globe. In 1817, PB Shelley wrote his poem ‘Ozymandias’ after a discussion with friends about Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt, with its harvest of new (European) knowledge about ancient dynasties and their epoch-making cycles of ascent and decline. The broken statue of Ozymandias, ‘King of Kings’ – Shelley’s literary alias for the Pharaoh Ramses II – gazes across the desert where once the monuments of his empire stood. ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ True, Shelley wrote in the immediate aftermath of one imperial collapse: Napoleon’s. But his poems would soon travel to the ends of the colonised earth in the trunks of the British officials who served the power that profited most from Bonaparte’s defeat. The fate of Ozymandias lay in store for them as well – but not quite yet. In the meantime, a doom-laden vision of imperial sunset might quicken the pleasures of blazing high noon. A conviction that barbarians stood always just outside the gate might add relish to the ease and mastery enjoyed by the rulers. In ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, by the Alexandrian Greek poet CP Cavafy, an ancient citadel of culture panics when it learns that ‘there are no barbarians any longer’. After all, ‘They were, those people, a kind of solution.’
Between 1776 and 1789, Edward Gibbon published six volumes of the work that defined for the English-speaking world the model of the past as a sweeping parabola of ascent and descent. Or rather, his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire takes Rome’s bright morning for granted. It fixes its gaze only on the post-noon slump into inertia, dissolution and collapse. Although he began it in the 1760s, Gibbon published the Decline and Fall as his nation, Great Britain, first began to lose a large chunk of one empire as its American colonies revolted, then faced the ordeal of a protracted, ruinous conflict with revolutionary France. Yet the rolling thunder of Gibbon’s prose bears witness to serenity rather than alarm. Whether peopled by domestic rebels or barbarian invaders, his vistas of decline unroll under the sunny sky of progressive Enlightenment. Faith, and fanaticism, under whatever banner would and must yield to the remorseless advance of reason. Hence his famous teasing fantasy about the extension into northern Europe of the Arab conquests of the 700s.
If Charles Martel had not stemmed the tide of Islam at the Battle of Poitiers in 732, ‘Perhaps the interpretation of the Koran would now be taught in the Schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet.’ Yes, the anti-ecclesiastical historian loved to spook the clergy. But he could look with equanimity on the rise and fall of dynasties and denominations because of his belief in an empire of reason. For Gibbon, at the terminus of his long Roman road, ‘We may therefore acquiesce in the pleasing conclusion that every age of the world has increased and still increases the real wealth, the happiness, the knowledge, and perhaps the virtue, of the human race.’
Empires may decline, and civilisations perish, but the arrow of human history points ever upwards. This durable ‘Whig interpretation’ of the past could live happily with the autumnal language of decline-and-fall so long as the motor of progress hummed away at some point on the globe. For Gibbon and his heirs, that blessed hub could only be ‘the system of arts and laws and manners which so advantageously distinguish… the Europeans and their colonies’. The prospect of eventual decay, and the cyclical succession of empires, might furnish Europe and the ‘West’ with a salutary memento mori. It did not much diminish the appetite for growth and rule.
So the zenith of Western global power coincided with a hearty indulgence in tales of decline-and-fall. ‘Lest we forget,’ as Kipling intones in ‘Recessional’: ‘Lest we forget’. The prophets of doom said their piece; the Dreadnoughts of empire sailed on. For that reason alone, partisans of a coming Asian century should take care about the rhetoric they deploy. Yet more broadsides about Western putrefaction may just bounce off the ironclad hull of a culture long steeped in elegy, irony and nostalgia.
A backlash against perceptions of decadence may also adopt some ugly forms. In 1918, just as the German empire fell part, Oswald Spengler published the first part of his multi-volume Decline of the West. With parallel narratives of eight civilisations, from Babylonian and Egyptian through Indian and Chinese to Arabian and Western, Spengler’s cultural anthropology treated each system on its own terms. He made few assumptions about innate ‘Western’ superiority. But the drift of his scheme, as the money-governed democracy of the modern urban world led to stagnation and corruption, pointed towards regeneration in the shape of a revived ‘Caesarism’.
In Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as smaller states, autocratic men of destiny stood ready to intervene and give Spengler’s cycle of history a violent push. Historians can hardly be blamed for the ideas and acts of every reader and acolyte. Still, the Spenglerian dynamic of weak-minded decay and hard-bodied renewal underpinned the claims of mid-century dictators to a starring role in national revival. Today, history repeats itself as farce when (in July 2016) Republican candidate Donald Trump promises to ‘make America great again’. A mendacious ‘Leave’ campaign dupes a narrow majority of UK voters into quitting the European Union with meaningless exhortations to ‘Take back control’. In Turkey, a shambolic coup attempt leaves President Erdogan free to expand his neo-Ottoman grand designs. If, in the past, imperial elites could live contentedly with narratives of decline, those stories now seem to push mass-media democracies towards desperate measures.
Further east, accounts of the rise or (more often) the recovery of Asia have partnered movements of national self-assertion at least since the Japanese navy vanquished its Imperial Russian foe at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. That victory resonated around the world, from Turkey and India to China and Philippines. Returning to Harrow School, the future first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, found that the news from the Pacific put him in ‘high good humour’. Yet Japan’s new military-industrial muscle also set off a fierce debate about the benefits and drawbacks of emulating the West. It continues to this day. In 1902, reports Pankaj Mishra, Rabindranath Tagore had warned an awakening continent against mimicry of the powers that had plundered it. ‘Asia today’, he wrote, ‘has understood, know thyself – that is the road to freedom. In imitating others is destruction.’
Later, in an essay on ‘Nationalism in Japan’, Tagore noted that ‘There is always the natural temptation in us of wishing to pay back Europe in her own coin, and return contempt for contempt and evil for evil.’ Prior to that country’s forced march into modernisation, he reflects, Japan ‘had all her wealth of humanity, her harmony of heroism and beauty’. And yet ‘the Western nations felt no respect for her until till she proved that the bloodhounds of Satan are not only bred in the kennels of Europe but can also be domesticated in Japan and fed with man’s miseries’. Asked in 1935 to endorse Japan’s own war of conquest in Manchuria, Tagore replied that its militaristic blueprint for Asian regeneration would be ‘raised on a tower of skulls’. In a different key to Tagore’s, Gandhi also insisted – at every level from his dhoti to his doctrines – that the recovery of Asia could not simply replicate the industrial and colonial excesses of the West. His 1909 manifesto Hind Swaraj rejects any model of an emancipated India that merely amounts to ‘English rule without the Englishman’.
Partisans of a twenty-first-century Triumph of Asia, or ‘the East’, should notice the company they keep. The antique geometry of rising and falling power, of the succession of empires and the cycles of culture, may still appeal to thinkers who now locate their own cultures on the downside of history. In his book and television series Civilization, Niall Ferguson delighted Western supremacists and provoked their critics by enumerating the ‘killer apps’ – from inter-state competition and property rights to scientific innovation – that had allegedly lent the West its dynamism and command. However, even Ferguson calmly accepts that ‘What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance. This time the Eastern challenger is for real, both economically and geopolitically.’ Non-European cultures have enthusiastically ‘downloaded’ all those apps – as Tagore feared – and so can outpace their former overlords. In other words, Ferguson and those who share his outlook read the ‘rise’ of an Asian or other non-Western bloc as the ultimate tribute to Western modernity. ‘The West’ may rule from Beijing, or from Bangalore.
In this perspective, the West loses but still wins. Might it, though, be possible to step off that rise-and-fall seesaw entirely and view cultural interaction from a different angle? In his book Guns, Germs and Steel, the anthropologist and biologist Jared Diamond vastly widened the frame of reference. Forget those parochial quarrels of East and West. From the point of view of hunter-gatherer communities in Borneo or pre-Columbian America, the entire Eurasian landmass and its islands – from Japan to Portugal – may resemble a single bloc of smart, selfish and aggressive cultivators and city-builders. ‘Biogeography’ and the ecological good fortune that stems from it account for this common West-Eastern success. To Diamond, ‘the availability of domestic plants and animals ultimately explains why empires, literacy and steel weapons developed earliest in Eurasia and later, or not at all, on other continents’.
Agricultural peoples, taking their cue from farming pioneers in the ‘Fertile Crescent’ of west Asia and the Nile, ‘tend to breath out nastier germs, to own better weapons and armour’ and ‘to live under centralised governments with literate elites better able to wage wars of conquest’. In this longest of views, passing spats between China and America, Islam and Christendom, Europe and Asia, look like Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’ played out as a geopolitical game. Meanwhile, ‘Prospects for world domination of Sub-Saharan Africans, Aboriginal Australians or Native Americans remain dim. The hand of history’s course at 8000BC lies heavily on us.’
Driven by his scientific dismay at racial and ethnic explanations of cultural rise (and fall), Diamond’s scheme instead brands us all as prisoners of the deep biological past. At least, though, we share the same cell. Another recent challenge to the seesaw, or cycle, model of global power arises from the common risk of environmental doom. In the epoch of globalisation, joint emergencies demand deeper solidarity. This is hardly a novel notion: in the wake of the First World War, as the fledgling League of Nations took its faltering baby steps towards international decision-making, champions of ‘world government’ such as HG Wells saw humankind poised between co-operation and catastrophe. Almost a century on, Ian Morris raises the spectre of a planetary ‘Nightfall’ provoked by mad-made climate change and/or nuclear conflict: ‘After Nightfall, no one will rule.’ To sidestep this apocalypse, pooled resources and joint deliberations on a global scale could and must make regional showdowns redundant: ‘East and West will be revealed as merely a phase we went through.’
Raised in Stoke-on-Trent in the UK, Morris teaches in California: that mythical heartland of the post-European West. Readers elsewhere might heed his pleas for a suspension of the East-West dialectic, but still question its motives. In the universal language of football (or soccer), they might even conclude that, just as the prospect of an Eastern match-winner nears, the ref has moved the goalposts.
Morris does allow that a definitive East Asian takeover of the West – perhaps in the 2030s – will precede the sort of emergency coalition required to stave off nuclear or climatic catastrophe. So the old Great Power seesaw may have a few dips and surges left in it. Still, this long-term vision of enforced togetherness looks beyond both zero-sum rivalries and the more chaotic, ‘multi-polar’ model of swings and roundabouts. Instead, a single crowded car hurtles on a roller-coaster ride towards oblivion. Only the concerted effort of all passengers can avert the crash. Those centuries of high talk about clashes and cycles, blooms and busts, dawns and twilights, resolve into the less romantic but more urgent task of collective salvation.
Even a writer as sympathetic to the idea of Eastern, or Asian, vindication and retribution as Pankaj Mishra acknowledges that the entire re-balanced world cannot hope to consume on the level of a Californian professor. That would be ‘as absurd and dangerous a fantasy as anything dreamt up by Al-Qaeda. It condemns the global environment to early destruction, and looks set to create reservoirs of nihilistic rage and disappointment among hundreds of millions of have-nots’.
Through this global lens, the ‘barbarism’ that so troubled the dominant cultures of the past no longer lurks in the central European forests, on the Asian steppes, or in the jungles of Africa. It breeds within the out-of-control productive, and destructive, capacities of an interdependent global economy. However widely you draw its frontiers, civilisation threatens to consume itself. This is what Toynbee, following the lead of Ibn Khaldun, identified as the paradox of development. Now, however, the unit to which the paradox applies is not a people but a planet. Unlike the useful phantasms of Cavafy’s poem, those barbarians do exist. Look in the mirror to see one.