May 26, 2013
Flying high without a pilot
The world today and the many challenges it faces
It is no doubt understandable that Brazilians, Russians, Indians and Chinese are keen on the idea that the future belongs to “the BRICS”, that before too many years have passed they will be top dogs. Rather less understandable is the willingness of so many North Americans and Europeans to agree with them and therefore to deny that, because they are still relatively powerful, it is up to them to stop the world spinning out of control.
It is not just a question of the chronically disgruntled mouthing their disapproval of the status quo, but also of people who, even though they have little to complain about, like to think that their particular corner of the world has had its day and the time has come to let others run things. Some attribute the malaise to the tireless efforts of people of an intellectual bent who, back in 1968, agreed with student rioters that the West was rotten to the core and, since then, have been marching through the institutions in Gramscian fashion and now occupy the commanding heights in academe, the media, and most political movements.
Perhaps they are right. It is widely assumed that European civilization came to dominate the world thanks largely to the penchant of some of its most influential representatives for “self-criticism”, by which is meant a willingness to denigrate the beliefs and preferences attributed, rightly or wrongly, to most of one’s compatriots, contrasting them with one’s own which, of course, are far superior.
In the West, most cultural heroes were rebels, people who are remembered because they dared to defy the prevailing orthodoxy, while conformists are generally despised. As a result, these days almost everybody likes to pose as a rebel willing to flout conventions. This paradoxical situation has been normal for decades. From time to time, groups of “young fogies” have tried to go one better by rebelling against rebellion, but, as they soon become aware, their commendable efforts are merely comical; in the West, the establishment citadels were stormed many years ago.
In other parts of the world, such as China and the many Muslim countries, rebels are given short shrift. Unless a Chinese dissident is famous enough to be adopted by the US State Department, he or she will in all likelihood spend long years in a “re-education” camp, while any Muslim who tries to emulate Westerners by mocking religious beliefs may literally lose his head. This difference has given rise to many misunderstandings. For years it was assumed that as China got richer its rulers would become more tolerant, more democratic, but as yet there are not many signs that this is happening. And when the so-called “Arab spring” broke out a year and a half ago, Western pundits lionized the computer-savvy youngsters who, they imagined, were about to take over and lead their compatriots into the sunlit democratic uplands. They were wrong. Here and there, something like democracy may have a chance of developing, but in most of the region the reactionaries have no intention of giving way, as did their Western counterparts when they were challenged.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, along with faith in Communism, it was tempting to assume, as for a time did Francis Fukuyama, that history in the Hegelian sense had come to an end because it was impossible to imagine a better political, social and economic system than the one combining democratic freedom, liberal capitalism and welfare provisions that had evolved in the West. Events have already proved that thesis to be overoptimistic. All the conceivable alternatives are evidently far worse, but that does not mean democratic capitalism will continue to spread until it covers the entire planet.
Its main enemies are not external but internal. If demographic trends are anything to go by, the Western model, tolerant, open-minded, chockfull of entitlements or rights but without many duties, is doomed to wither away as populations age and then decline because fewer people want to go to the trouble and expense of raising children, an activity few self-respecting rebels are willing to indulge in. By the end of the current century, Italians, Spaniards, Germans and Japanese, will in all likelihood be heading for extinction. Technological progress is also proving to be a double-edged sword; as well as boosting productivity, it makes ever greater demands on members of the work force, demands that most people will be unable to meet. The usual answer to this problem is to increase spending on education, but recent decades have seen standards plunge in most Western countries, where high-minded attempts to ensure that nobody gets left behind hold back the more gifted.
As for the BRICs, their outlook is not much brighter. Brazil has stalled, Russia depends too much on raw materials and, in any case, for its own reasons confronts a demographic panorama that is every bit as gloomy as that facing the developed countries to the West, India is better off in this respect but it is burdened by poverty, disease, and archaic social customs, while China seems certain to crash into the demographic brick wall the Communists built with their “one-child” policy. And as though all this were not more than enough, the future of every single country on the planet is threatened by the dangers posed by terrorism, nuclear proliferation, economic breakdown and the social upheavals that hard times seem certain the bring.