The late Tony Judt, born in 1948, once spoke of the “pretty crappy” generation he belonged to, which “grew up in the 1960s in Western Europe or in America, in a world of no hard choices, neither economic nor political.” In Judt’s view, too many of his intellectual peers moved from radical postures into the “all-consuming business of material accumulation and personal security” in the 1970s and 1980s as the postwar consensus in favor of the welfare state gave way to neoliberalism; they were especially quick to internalize the popular belief when the Berlin Wall fell that liberal democracy and capitalism had “won.”
A similar worldview prevails among a still younger generation than Judt’s. Its members, beneficiaries of an even more complacent era, the end of the cold war, are entrenched in senior positions in the periodicals, television channels, think tanks, and university departments of Anglo-America. Growing up during the triumphalist 1990s, they assumed that American-style democracy and capitalism had proven their superiority; “the class issue,” Francis Fukuyama wrote in 1989 while declaring the end of history, had been “successfully resolved” in the “fundamentally egalitarian” West—and it was only a matter of time before “authoritarian” China and Russia moved to duplicate such Western accomplishments, and “democratic” India became a stakeholder in the liberal international order.
It is imperative today to abandon not only these shattered fantasies of two Western generations but also the intellectual narcissism implicit in them. For only then will the deeper structural changes of a suddenly unfamiliar world come into view—the changes that flow from decolonization, the central event of the twentieth century.
It was clear, even during the cold war, that the shape of things to come would be decided by ideas and movements occurring in places geographically remote from the West, with their vast majority of the world’s population, rather than by Western cold warriors. The Chinese Revolution of 1949 always seemed to hold greater consequences for the wider world than the Russian Revolution, and Mao Zedong’s declaration that “the Chinese people have stood up” after a century of humiliation by Western countries was always more than just boosterish rhetoric, inaugurating as it did a feverish, calamity-prone, but ultimately successful pursuit of national wealth and power.
Today, it cannot be denied that the major developments within Anglo-America—from deunionization, in- creased corporate clout, and the outsourcing of jobs to extreme inequality and white supremacist upsurge—cannot be explained without reference to the rise of China as a manufacturing giant and aggressively nationalist world power. In other words, understanding the contemporary world requires a truly global perspective—and not just one that merely adds the history of “democratic” India and “authoritarian” China to preexisting narratives of Western eminence. It means forsaking the whole structure of preconceptions on which a parochial West-centric view has long been based. [Continue reading…]