Uncomfortable thoughts and philosophy

It is a good thing I am not a journalist, since I often forget to write down the source of interesting comments I hear on, for instance, television. Come to think of it, this makes me a lousy blogger too. Anyway, recently my beloved Arte had an item on India as an emergent world power and a future engine of global economy.

One of the Indian interviewees, an economics professor if I am not mistaken, anticipated that Western, and notably European, power would decline and that Asia, notably India and China, would then take over control and impose their models on the world.

On Tuesday night, French economist Philippe Dessertine, invited to France 5 current events program C Dans L’Air, was particularly gloomy about the economic forecast, talking about an impending global shit storm. Actually, he simply said une tempête qui s’annonce, but his message was very clear. We are in for a rough ride. If you understand French you can watch part of the program here. Dessertine starts at 17.22.

Back to my Indian professor. Maybe it was my imagination, but this man seemed to take some pleasure in the fact that Asia, among others, is about to turn the tables on Western hegemony. Revenge of the formerly colonized or something like that. Fair enough, I suppose.

Naïve as I may be, I do realize that things are never that easy. But what if he is right? What would that mean for us Europeans/Westerners?

We have grown accustomed to exporting our own grand visions of the world. A few centuries ago it was Christianity and now it is democracy (the US) and human rights (Europe). And when the economic conditions within our own societies became intolerable, we simply exported ourselves to newly discovered places, far away from our own misery. In other words, we and our values spread around the world like an enlightened plague. This blessing in disguise was not always appreciated by the recipients but our own societies fared pretty well as a consequence, some minor glitches (the failing Spanish empire, for instance) notwithstanding.

Now, for my question. What if other civilizations, by the brutal force of economic power and demographics, would start to do the same to us in a not too distant future? How would we cope with that intellectually, morally and economically?

I know this is just a silly mind-game, but it would be interesting to put ourselves in the place of the formerly colonized, if only for a minute, and see if our cherished values can really live up to that kind of a challenge. Besides, I do believe that we will be confronted with these questions, to some degree, sooner or later. Think about the recent Mittal issue in France. If you feel really philosophical you can debate the following question: Are our values merely driven by circumstance? Or, is our “enlightenment” just a luxury product?

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About Guy La Roche

Dutch translator and subtitler living in Brittany with his three cats. Has also lived in the Flemish part of Belgium. Speaks English rather fluently and in a former life used to have a decent command of Spanish. Knows swear words in German and Russian. Not quite francophone yet, but slowly getting there. Vaguely centrist observer of the world around him, extremely naive and, sometimes, rather proud of it. Writes Venale Pecus.

24 thoughts on “Uncomfortable thoughts and philosophy

  1. Some years back, Claude Bebear, the ex-CEO of AXA, pointed out that China’s “One child per family” was going to land thatd country in the same situation as Japan’s present early greying. So, IMHO, unless the Chinese quickly change that policy, we can discount them as a long-lived dominant power.
    I lived for three years in Delhi in the early 1950’s and I wasn;t able to discern then great differences with our values. Maybe that has changed in the past half-century, especially with the BJP’s rule, but I haven’t seen it in my reading of the Indian press. Of course, there is still that Indian form of apartheid, the caste system but for the rest, they seem to have in a large measure assimilated our values

  2. Ate my comment – annoying.

    There are a number of problems with this piece.

    (1) There’s a weird thread of hysteria here. European influence has been declining rapidly since the end of World War II. This is not a new phenomenon, and you’re worried because you labor under the idea that the US and Soviet Union were somehow part of your European civilization and thus their domination of Europe didn’t count somehow.

    (2) The US doesn’t export “democracy”. In the Cold War, it largely exported free market ideology, access to US markets, and authoritarianism as a counterweight to communism. Most of its client states were or are flawed democracies or autocracies. (The contrast between Pakistan (a US client state) and India (largely neutral, sometimes tilting to the USSR) is instructive here and is replicated across the globe.) The big exception to this was Western Europe.

    (3) The EU doesn’t export “human rights” except to countries in Europe that wish to join it. In other regions, most notably Africa, it has tended to export militarism, economic dependence on Europe, and authoritarianism. (The French example here is the most glaring, up to the present day (see Chad), but Britain and Portugal had similar problems (see Zimbabwe/Nigeria and Angola).)

    (4) You’re writing a paean to imperialism. Let me paraphrase: “Sure it sucked to be colonized, but things were good for Europeans then. What if all the terrible things that we did to our colonies that we don’t like to talk about in our histories are done to us in the future? Golly Gee!”

    You’ve been strongly influenced by the US and to a lesser extent the USSR for the last fifty years or so. Didn’t you notice?

  3. john somer,

    You know that Europeans invented apartheid right? And that the behavior of many Europeans toward immigrants now could only be described as institutionalized racism?

  4. “You’ve been strongly influenced by the US and to a lesser extent the USSR for the last fifty years or so. Didn’t you notice?”

    Considering recent European history, how could I have not been? But still.

    1) Asian domination of Europe (real or imagined) would not be the same as US domination. Entirely different culture(s). Besides, US domination has not been too shabby considering our general well-being. The SU, of course, is an entirely different matter.

    2) The US, by way of George W. Bush, does pretend to export democracy. At least in discourse.

    3) The EU does, again in discourse and varying from country to country, want to export democracy. Sarkozy made it one of his election issues. And see the whole thing about Tibet.

    4) I am writing irony.

  5. To Hektor Bim
    Apartheid was invented by the Boers in the early 20th century. The caste system is at least three millenia old and was denounced by Mahatma Gandhi who, having lived as a “coloured” in South Africa, knew exactly what the similarities and differences were

  6. The U.S. economy is in process of imploding because of dependence on oil, much more than elsewhere and because of missteps in Fed.Govt policies, in particular the move to alcohol from corn and, obviously, Iraq. This may result in a full fledged depression in the U.S., the collapse of house prices and a major drop in consumer purchasing ability is occuring now while food prices are rising steeply, and this could cause very widespread unemployment. In short, the world ‘pecking order’ may indeed be changing now and Europe cannot fill an impending power vacuum the way it is presently organized. India and China are bound to be major players in the next decades. As a resident of the U.S. I am aprehensive to say the least.
    Ongoing in-migration to Europe and the U.S. is not easing and the U.S. culture is rapidly being Latino-ized. It is bound to change the culture and government policies. I cant imagine what the world is going to look like but ‘western’ ideas will certainly lose some of their present prominence.

  7. Make up your mind, Guy. Does the EU export “human rights” or “democracy”? I’d really like to see you defend the French record in Africa and Southeast Asia as exporting “human rights”. Give it a shot, really. If you are saying the entire post is irony, then fine. But I don’t think that is how you intend it to be taken, so I don’t know why you toss off ridiculous statements like that.

    It would be nice (if you are at all serious) to spell out exactly why “Asian” domination is so much worse than US or Soviet domination and why the “civilizations” involved are so different as to make it a completely different situation than the Cold War.

    john somer,

    I’ll spell it out for you. Apartheid was a “European” value – it just happens to be one you don’t like much. And echoes of it are very much alive in present day Europe.

  8. “If you are saying the entire post is irony, then fine. But I don’t think that is how you intend it to be taken, so I don’t know why you toss off ridiculous statements like that.”

    Read into it what you want, Hektor. Not that you need encouraging…

  9. I agree with the above commenter on China’s demographic problem being comparable to Europe and Japan. The other places that are becoming as well or better off than the West are either due to a temporary geological fluke (the Gulf States) or rather small (South/Southeast Asia). India’s ‘rise’ aside, it remains an extraordinarily poor, rural country, regardless of the punctual succesful sectors.

    Also, it is to be noted that America and Europe, to varying degrees, have accepted third worlders into their countries. It’s hardly a reverse colonization, the power dynamics and completely different and it’s still a case of the West imposing culture (multiculturalism aside), but it is an example of the the same sort great migration that was so important for Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    I think more broadly we can overemphasise the philosophical differences between the West and the Rest. If Asia rises, fine. Nonetheless, what is most striking, is how culturally integrated the intellectual world is. Upper class Indians with perfect posh English accents are perhaps the most flagrant sign of this, but it is deeper do. VH Naipur, Frantz Fanon, Aime Cesaire, Chinua Achebe, Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, all these intellectuals, who while not European have defined themselves either in opposition or, more accurately, as a REACTION to the Western culture and education that surrounds them.

    Thus, even if and when they attempt to create a counter-culture, we are at least part of the same conversation. Hence why Fanon, Achebe and Said are enormously read and studied in Western academia. There’s a basic understanding and kinship, a conversation.

    The same, I suppose, might not be said of those parts of the world which in many ways escaped the West: the “Deep” Arab World (Gulf States, Saudi) and much of the Far East. Those places perhaps would be a bit more alien, a more genuine example of a ‘reverse colonial complex’ if they were to rise to the extent of over-shadowing the Western world broadly defined, but I don’t think that’s terribly likely.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Craig.

    “Thus, even if and when they attempt to create a counter-culture, we are at least part of the same conversation. Hence why Fanon, Achebe and Said are enormously read and studied in Western academia. There’s a basic understanding and kinship, a conversation.”

    It would be interesting to see how this evolves and if there would be a “new dominant culture” that is not attached to any particular political power.

    I am also interested to see what, if anything, the interaction of India with China will bring. And what Brazil, or even Africa, will bring into the mix.

    And how all of this will influence perceptions of the world, particularly in Europe. Will Europe participate or turn into a fortress. Something like that.

  11. As to the importance (and memories) of Western colonialism, Sarkozy while visiting Tunisia said something like:

    “By turning our backs on the (African) Mediterranean countries, we did not turn our backs on the past. We turned our backs on the future.”

    So, our not so distant past is clearly, and rightfully so, still an issue.

    “all these intellectuals, who while not European have defined themselves either in opposition or, more accurately, as a REACTION to the Western culture and education that surrounds them.”

    Exactly. And not just because of the past, of course.

  12. Hektor Bim
    What exact;y is a “European” value ? Vsm’t be a European one since you put quotation marks
    As far as USSR domination, go and ask the Ukrainians what they think of it, especially Stalin’s “kulak elimination program” and its millions of dead by starvation that compares well with those of Mao’s cultural revolution

  13. john somer,

    What values are you talking about in your first post when you talk about “our” values, then? Are these European values, or only supersecret values that you and Guy share? I’m not making a point about the goodness or badness of USSR domination of Europe, merely that it has already happened and mixing it up a little bit with some Chinese, Indian, et al influence is unlikely to lead to the end of the world.


    I don’t understand what you are trying to say. To the extent that economically Europe is being overshadowed – this is not new, since the rise of the United States in the middle of the 20th century. The Wirtshaftswunder and associated booms helped conceal this, but European relative economic power has been declining for a long, long time, probably longer than you have been alive.

    I suggest you are strongly exaggerating the extent to which greater economic interaction with Asia will create radically new values and societal changes in Europe. Better food though, is likely, especially in Northern Europe.

  14. Colonialism is over for France in Africa, but French military garrisons that continue to support autocrats in power and subdue other claimants to power is a current and significant issue, and has very little to do with human rights.

  15. somer – I think part of Hektor’s points are legit if done in a slightly provocative way. I agree with him that the whole ‘reassessing self-image relative to superior foreigners’ was already done by Europe after WW2. We Europeans had the angst of being caught between two superpower empires, in the East they had Marxist-Leninist states imposed on them, in the West we had Mickey Mouse and ‘Coca-colonization’ (a French worry at the time).

    Obviously it’s slightly different when Americans and Russians, who are direct cultural and even ‘racial’ wings of European civilization, to when former colonial subjects (read: “subhumans, niggers, Muslims, and broadly the Wretched of the Earth”) begin overtaking us.

    I think what Hektor is attacking more broadly is this whole equation of ‘Europe’ and ‘European values’ with the very idea of lofty, univeralist, humanist, progressive, democratic (etc.) thought. Why? Because as soon as we talk about non-Westerners rising, it is implied that all these super-plus-good things that 18th century Europeans thought up will vanish. Europeans, in practice, are not dictated to by their philosophers. How can we say this when Europeans themselves have such a chequered history of implementing these lofty ideals?

    The history of France is a perfect example, the same Revolution which put universal reason, freedom and equality on everyone’s lips did not take long to reimpose slavery in the islands of the Carribean.. or I think of Brussels’s ugly history. We love to think of the EU as so progressive and peaceful, such a model, that we had redeemed our past sins (whether committed to other Europeans (WW1, WW2 etc.) or to others (slavery, colonialism). While Brussels was the capital of the EEC, the fledgling EU, it was from this same Brussels that an ugly neocolonialism aborted Congolese independence, fostering at different times separatism, war and dictatorship.

    The more I think of it, especially of European and American attitudes to immigration and non-White minorities (Elcox’s post above is a good example) makes me think how fraudulent our claims to universalism are.

    Anyway, to get to that elephant in the room which seems to lurk around these discussions of European Enlightenment values are seemingly threatened by ‘non-Europe’, suffice to say that Europeans DO NOT have and have never had a monopoly on reason (Hegel is tosh).

  16. “I suggest you are strongly exaggerating the extent to which greater economic interaction with Asia will create radically new values and societal changes in Europe.”

    Okay, I’ll give it one more try. It’s getting late, though. Nowhere do I say anything about “the creation of radically new values”. If anything, I am merely asking questions.

    I do believe that increased Western economic interaction with, among others, Asia will lead to a debate on Western values. Actually, this is already happening with regards to the Olympic Games and Tibet.

    To sum it up: Are we allowed to criticize China when we continue to do business with them and do not criticize other regimes with a bad human rights record like, for instance, Saudi-Arabia? Furthermore, are we still in a position to criticize at all? The latter question is often framed in the context of Western dependence on developing markets, in Asia and elsewhere, and is laid out in terms of a moral dilemma.

    What is the answer? Good old-fashioned realpolitik? Pretend that we care but do business anyway? We can also stop caring at all.

    Upthread you mentioned “institutionalized racism” in Europe. What do you think will happen in the public mind if more Mittals occur? What if the economy really tanks because of globalisation? What if more and more people, as seems to be the case in France, are worried about their future?

    I am not saying anything will change, but I do believe it worthwile to think a little about what the current shift in global power balance will mean. And not just in economic terms.

    And I also know this debate is a purely hypothetical one and that it situates itself mainly in public discourse. But that is what weblogs are all about.

    And the values I talk about are not “supersecret”. In several European countries there are already public debates about Western values. In The Netherlands they had this whole thing about preserving the judeo-christian values of Dutch society (versus Islam, in this case).

  17. Darn, a part of my reaction was eaten.

    Never mind, it was too long anyway. Better read Craig’s reaction directly above.

  18. I didn’t say that these values were reserved to Europeans. I found some of them amongst Punjabi peasants and Bolivian coca growers. I don’t see much difference between Polish dissidents of the “Po Prostu” magazine in the 60’s and the Chinese Internet dissidents of today. I think we call them “European values” because they first came to light in 18th century Europe, but it might be they also appeared somewhere else and we don’t know about it

  19. Having just watched half of the video I can see where this post came from! Only gloom and doom regarding the world economy and the fall of the West. I’m not an economist so I can’t really comment but I find it a little alarmist. Scary if it’s true.

    On European values: It’s a struggle but it has to be done, to avoid essentialism in discourse. When you mentioned the caste-system in India being the only thing off from ‘our values’ or when Guy writes about Islamic values changing ‘judeo-christian values’ in Holland, one gets to the heart of the problem.

    Nothing, I believe, is intrinsic to any continent or people. The fact is, the values of humanity’s various subdivisions change. The ‘Europe’ of 1942 had none of the values we today call European. So when, a Lee Kuan Yew or a British Muslim activist opposes ‘Western values’ and claims ‘Asian’ or ‘Islamic’ values are more appropriate for them… It’s a bunch of nonsense.

    What this means for this particular debate, I guess, is that even supposing a dramatic rebalancing of world power and influence towards Asia, I can’t see that causing much soul-searching on our part. India and Japan are both liberal democracies, China’s political system almost makes it a pariah at times. In the UK at least we already watch Bollywood and eat curry… I can imagine the sort of misplaced angst felt by some Europeans to the triumph of American pop culture or the worries in the West about ‘Japan inc.’ in the 80s.. but they seem pretty shallow.

  20. “I can’t see that causing much soul-searching on our part.”

    Thank you, Craig. And this is what worries me tremendously. Especially if it is combined with “angst”, be it misplaced or not. This also why I suggested our “enlightenment” may be a luxury product.

    But then again, I apparently did not make my point clearly enough in the post. And that doesn’t help the debate either 🙂

    I am signing off for today. Time to rest and dream of better posts.

  21. India and China are bound to be major players in the next decades. As a resident of the U.S. I am aprehensive to say the least.

    As you’re an American I imagine you would be!

    As an Australian I find the talk about ‘values’, European or otherwise, interesting. We have broadly European cultural values whilst situated in Asia, and we are nicely positioned as resource sandpit to both the emerging giants.

    It’s also interesting that ‘China and India’ are lumped together – we have radically different cultural relationships with both these countries, and the Commonwealth connection with India should not be discounted.

    Hell, we now have the new Indian cricket Premier League playing on prime time here – matches like the Rajastan Royals versus the Deccan Chargers (with Australian national players as highly paid hired guns). Bollywood films are on local suburban release here now – at least in the cities.

    In comarison, our relationship with China is much more problematic, but you might want to look at our new PM Rudd’s visit to Beijing recently to see how a middle power can successfully balance its cultural values against those of larger hegemonic neighbours, whilst defending realpolitickal interests. The fact he is fluent in Mandarin is most important in this regard!

    Come to think of it, is Rudd’s balancing act in Beijing any different to the way our relationship with the US has always been?

  22. Funny thing is that the blog author is speaking in an Indo-European tongue (English) while talking about “foreign”/”non-western” values when referring to India.

    The “Indo” in Indo-European “people, culture and languages” refers specifically to…wait for it…India. (the swastika is the holiest hindu religious symbol, 60% of india is aryan (the rest dravidian) and zeus/dyues-pita one of the main vedic/hindu gods in the entire pantheon)

    It’s christianity that is the non-European value, at least when looked from a historical perpsective (modern hindu/aryan religion is far closer to ancient greek/roman)

  23. Pingback: Comfortable thoughts: The Rise of the Rest | afoe | A Fistful of Euros | European Opinion

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