October 5, 2011
The Decline of the West
These worries are further fuelled by the ongoing global financial crisis and political paralysis that’s slowly undermining both the European Union and the United States.
HISTORY is written by the victors. Losers rarely get much coverage let alone a mention.In Malaysia, unlike in Indonesia, the forces of political conservatism ultimately won power from our former colonial masters.
As such, the “left” – as PAS deputy president Mat Sabu discovered – has been forgotten, if not vilified outright.However, interpretations of history change from decade to decade. Indeed, there is no one “history”.
Instead, there are many and generally, it’s the powerful that get to determine whose version of events should dominate.What happens though when a once all-powerful nation begins to falter? How does it write or rewrite its history?
Such a shift can be seen in the recent explosion of writing on the supposed decline of Western – particularly American – power. Historian Niall Ferguson (right) has charted the process in Civilisation: The West and the Rest. Ferguson argues that the “West” (particularly Britain and America) was able to surpass others (such as the Chinese and Ottoman Empires) due to six “killer applications”: competition, science, property rights, medicine, the consumer society and work ethic.
Ferguson argues that the West perfected all six simultaneously, whereas “the Rest” developed only a handful or else let their comparative advantages in these fields stagnate. His main thrust, however, is that the West’s current weakness stems from a loss of faith in its own civilisational values.
In short, the West has failed to renew its commitment to its “killer apps”.The West, therefore, ought to “recognise the superiority” of its own civilisation because it offers societies “the best available set of economic, social and political institutions”.
One may of course disagree with Ferguson’s thesis but his arguments are compelling. His contention that the Islamic world declined because it closed its minds and borders is certainly persuasive, if unoriginal.
At the same time, Ferguson’s tome is a clear sign that there’s a growing trend amongst writers discussing (if not agonising) over the West’s “decline”. These worries are further fueled by the ongoing global financial crisis and political paralysis that’s slowly undermining both the European Union and the United States.
Indeed, the latest issue of the literary journal New Yorker includes a superb essay by Adam Gopnick (left), which claims that “declinism” has now morphed into a veritable literary genre – a pet topic for academics and pundits alike.
But is this really something new? “Cassandras” (named after the Trojan princess who foresaw her own city’s destruction at the hands of the Greeks) – the harbingers of doom and decline – have long been with us, even in times of great prosperity.
Indeed, according to Gopnick, the phrase “decline of the West” was used as early as 1918 by the German historian Oswald Spengler.Nor were such fears of decay exclusively Western: writers and historians such as Ibn Khaldun, Tun Sri Lanang and Sima Qian have dwelt on similar themes as they charted the rise and fall of civilisations.
Moreover, the mere fact that these books are available across the globe suggests the depth and breadth of such concerns. At the same time they also reveal a passionate commitment to the idea of renewal and reform. Ferguson is clearly a believer in the West’s capacity to re-invent and re-energise itself.
For us in Malaysia, these books – and there are countless others in airport bookshops – reinforce the sense of a world shifting on its axis, of a power alignment that prioritises China and India over Europe and the United States.
We are faced with the challenge of adapting to these newly (re-)emerging powers whilst not forgetting the strengths (or “killer apps”) that made the Western nations great such as the emancipation of women, democracy and religious tolerance.
And it is in this realm that we need writers and historians such as Ferguson and Gopnik – figures who’ll both commend and condemn with equal weight, stepping aside from mere politics.
The new geo-political landscape will demand prodigious powers of concentration and leadership. Mere rhetoric will be useless. Malay ultras and/or an obsession with bangsawan politics won’t help us in coping with either China and/or India.
History requires candour and honesty. It also demands a degree of openness.We need to be willing to accept the idea that there are many versions of the truth.Our narrow-minded views on history hamper us as we chart our way forward.You need to know yourself in order to plan for the future. Self-knowledge is critical.
I would argue that it’s only when we as Malaysians can start to engage about our collective history with the same vigour and honesty as our counterparts in the West then we’ll be ready to deal with the challenges outlined by these writers.
History – our many histories, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Dayak and so forth – requires objectivity and honesty. If we can’t deal with the past, how can we face the future?