Going beyond Western ideology and creating a more inclusive multilateral order is a Herculean task
Andrew Gamble examines some of the key doctrines that have come to define Western modernity. He writes that conservatives, socialists, libertarians, anarchists, and nationalists have sought to shape Western ideology, but the doctrine of ordered liberty, free economy, and strong state have retained their power. This resilience is again tested by new challenges, including the environmental crisis and the rise of new forms of authoritarian nationalism.
One influential way of thinking about politics in the modern era has described it as a battle of ideas and ideologies between liberalism, socialism and conservatism. But that’s a very western point of view. All of these ideologies are best understood within the framework of a Western ideology that has helped define the Western form of modernity and the politics of Western states for the past 300 years. Elements of this ideology have sometimes been exported to the rest of the world, sometimes imposed on it.
I explore this question in Western ideology and other essays by examining some of the key doctrines that have come to define Western modernity. It was not only a struggle of ideas but also a struggle of states to determine who had the right to define what the West was, what modernity was and who best represented it. This struggle spanned several centuries between states and within states. In important respects it is still going on, but at various points over the past two centuries intellectuals in favor of liberal modernity have declared that the battle is over and liberal modernity has won. The American and French revolutions of the late 18th century were considered by many contemporaries to be the triumph of reason over superstition and freedom over tyranny. Hegel’s enthusiasm for Napoleon knew no bounds. He was the embodiment of the spirit of the world. Its victorious armies swept across old Europe and ushered in the new age of freedom – equality before the law and national self-determination.
It became a firm belief of liberals in the nineteenth century that the principles of the Enlightenment which triumphed in the two great revolutions were the principles which were to order politics, economy and society. They admitted that there were many conflicts to come, but the fundamental form of the modern world had been settled and there were no superior institutional or ideological alternatives. If human beings wanted progress, happiness and freedom, they had to embrace and strive for the implementation and extension of liberal principles throughout the world.
Many questioned the liberal heavyweight and in particular the idea that the principles of modernity were established. The conservatives rejected the new Western ideology because they rejected the Enlightenment and its conception of modernity and fought to defend what they could of Europe. old rgime of hereditary rights, of feudal property and of established religion. The tide of change initiated by the spread of capitalism, science and democracy has steadily undermined these efforts and led to internal revolutions and reforms. A liberal international order with Britain as the champion gradually emerged and liberal regimes were established in an increasing number of states. But that was not the only battle the Liberals had to fight. The 19th century saw major struggles between liberalism and socialism and between liberalism and nationalism. Socialism and nationalism both claimed to embody a form of modernity superior to liberalism and to be the true interpreter of Western ideology. Internal class struggles and external struggles between states contributed in the first half of the twentieth century to two world wars and to communist revolutions in Russia and China.
From the perspective of the liberal West and its two main states, Britain and the United States, the challenges of nationalism and authoritarianism represented by Germany, Austria-Hungary and later the Japan were decisively defeated, and the threat of Soviet and Chinese communism was successfully contained. After World War II, the United States assumed leadership of the West and the “free world” at large. He organized a new liberal international order under his leadership and fought a long cold war with the Soviet Union. In the 1950s, some American intellectuals confidently proclaimed the end of ideology, at least as far as Western domestic politics were concerned, and some critics of the mainstream liberal version of Western ideology like Herbert Marcuse were agree with them. But then the turmoil of the next three decades intervened.
A much bigger turning point was reached in 1991 when Soviet communism collapsed, leaving the United States and its Western allies as clear winners. The proclamations of an “end of history” were this time even stronger, and for a short time, hopes for a new world order and a single world were largely entertained. But history has returned again, especially since the 2008 financial crash and the austerity and political turmoil that followed. This time, it is nationalism both the internal challenge of liberal and cosmopolitan elites and the rise of new great nationalist powers which are not eager to work within the rules of an international order that they do not have. not shaped. The liberal rules-based international order has also been weakened by attacks from within and the obvious decline during the Trump presidency in the ability and will of the United States to lead.
Western ideology has always been contested, and the order it created has often been criticized as tolerant and, in many cases, based on systematic inequalities and exclusions. It has also been extremely resilient, in part being associated with two hegemonic states, first Britain and then the United States. Economic liberalism has been a key part of Western ideology, and although it is by no means the only strand, it has at times been a dominant strand. Any discussion of contemporary political ideas and ideologies must recognize the central role it has played in Western ideology, but it is important not to treat Western ideology monolithically as if it were a unique doctrine. This ignores endless contests to define and interpret its core principles. No doctrine has ever fully captured it. Conservatives, socialists, libertarians, anarchists and nationalists have sought to shape it in different ways, sometimes offering it alternatives, but the doctrine of ordered liberty, free economy and strong state, has retained its power and resilience through change. and the upheavals of the modern era. This resilience is again tested by new challenges – among them the environmental crisis and the rise of new forms of authoritarian nationalism. Going beyond Western ideology and creating a more inclusive multilateral order to tackle these issues is a Herculean task.
Note: the above summarizes aspects of the author’s new book, Western ideology and other essays (Bristol University Press, 2021).
Andrew Gamble is Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield and Emeritus Professor of Politics at the University of Cambridge.