The expectation of a fairly imminent Second Coming persists in certain quarters. In other quarters, it was replaced in the last century by almost equally millenarian notions about an imminent global triumph of secular liberal democracy, although the geopolitical turbulence of recent years has at least dampened such expectations. The Indian writer Pankaj Mishra suggests that this disillusionment was always more or less inevitable:
In the 21st century that old spell of universal progress through western ideologies – socialism and capitalism – has been decisively broken. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living – in the east and south as well as west and north – with vanities and illusions: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated; that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity. What these fantasies of inverted Hegelianism always disguised was a sobering fact: that the dynamics and specific features of western “progress” were not and could not be replicated or correctly sequenced in the non-west.
Mishra expounds his views in a Guardian essay which, although long, is very much worth reading. I certainly don’t agree with every word of it – the suggestion that the world is presently “in flames”, for one thing, seems like an obvious exaggeration. However, Mishra’s general argument about the limits of globalization is highly persuasive. Without even delving into the question of whether “western ideologies” might face cultural barriers to being adopted in other parts of the world, he notes that they emerged in a distinctive historical context. The extent of their ability to take hold in the absence of that context is at best questionable:
It should be no surprise that religion in the non-western world has failed to disappear under the juggernaut of industrial capitalism, or that liberal democracy finds its most dedicated saboteurs among the new middle classes. The political and economic institutions and ideologies of western Europe and the United States had been forged by specific events – revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest – that did not occur elsewhere. So formal religion – not only Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also such quietist religions as Buddhism – is actually now increasingly allied with rather than detached from state power. The middle classes, whether in India, Thailand, Turkey or Egypt, betray a greater liking for authoritarian leaders and even uniformed despots than for the rule of law and social justice.
I suppose the natural counterargument would be that particular historical conditions may have driven Western people to stumble on concepts that are valuable in a wide range of situations, perhaps even all situations. Written language, after all, appeared in the specific milieu of ancient Mesopotamia but now enjoys worldwide, cross-cultural popularity. Some ideas are very good ones, with broad applicability. However, my inner voice whispers that if liberal democracy fell into that exalted category it would be doing better in places like Thailand, Turkey and Egypt (nothing I’ve read suggests that India is flirting with authoritarianism in the same way, but perhaps I’ve missed something).
When I look back at the sweep of history, or around at the modern world, the dominant impression is one of heterogeneity – a variety of different political and economic arrangements proving suited to the needs of particular populations inhabiting particular times and places. Secular(ish) liberal democracy has served Canada pretty well since around the middle of the 20th century, but to suggest that it’s the ideal system for the entire world in perpetuity requires a degree of faith – and arrogance – that might as well be religious.