Historical imagination

At spiked's conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, Francis Fukuyama and Frank Furedi debated the question: 'Has history started again?'

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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At spiked‘s conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West on 26 May 2002, Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man and Frank Furedi, author of The Culture of Fear, debated the question: ‘Has history started again?’

Francis Fukuyama:

‘If I was to put my view in a nutshell, it is that modernisation is a coherent process that is largely invariant across different cultures.

‘Technological and scientific progress creates economic modernisation, which then invites the growth of political institutions – liberal democracy and market-oriented capitalism.

‘Samuel Huntington, on the other hand, who was a teacher of mine back at Harvard and is a long-time friend, argues that we are seeing a clash of civilisations. He argues that although we may have modernisation in a narrow, economic, technical sphere, there is no “Westernisation” – in the sense of a convergence of values.’

Fukuyama recognised that the events of 11 September posed a challenge to his thesis. He said: ‘That morning I could see – from my office window in downtown Washington – the smoke rising from the Pentagon. It was very hard to think about anything other than these dramatic events – events that represent a rejection of American foreign policy, but also, much more, a fundamental rejection of key elements of Western civilisation.’

But Fukuyama pointed out that, despite this, ‘Western civilisation is universally appealing to people who live in pre-modern societies’.

‘I still believe that I’m right’, he said. ‘But I do want to point out that I actually agree with Huntington on a lot of issues – such as the importance of considering cultural difference in order to understand how the world works. It would be foolish to argue that the values and institutions of the West do not have specific cultural origins. In fact, they have a very deep origin in Western Christianity. This is something that Huntington argued very strongly and he is right.’

‘But the question is not whether Western values and institutions have particular historical and cultural origins. The question is: is that all there is to it?’

Fukuyama explained that ‘there is this modernisation process – history with a capital H, in the classic Marxist-Hegelian sense – because of the accumulation of scientific knowledge, knowledge that cannot be undone.

‘You cannot uninvent the steam engine or the transistor or nuclear weapons. Science and technology produce economic production possibilities that drive the process of economic modernisation. This process is broadly invariant across different cultures. There are Japanese and European and American versions of capitalism, but the basic elements of a modern economy do not vary that much.

‘When it comes to politics there is more variation. But there is a very clear correlation between economic modernisation and the institutions of liberal democracies. There are very few wealthy countries that are not also stable liberal democracies.

‘This process of economic modernisation promoting liberal democracy is seen most clearly in countries like Korea, Taiwan, Japan and, over time, the People’s Republic of China.

‘In parts of the world people have rejected key elements of this modernising package. But the question is: how deep is this rejection? If you look across the Muslim world today, there’s a great deal of anger towards the West and the USA in particular. But the Muslim world is a very diverse place and there are important modernising influences.

‘In the long run the same forces are going to operate in the Muslim world as operated in other parts of the world – including the simple desire to live in a modern consumer society.’

‘Take Iran’, said Fukuyama. ‘Seventy percent of the population is under the age of 30, and within that age cohort, as far as I can tell, there’s virtually no one that’s particularly eager to continue living in a strict bureaucracy. Again in Afghanistan – after the fall of the Taliban regime – you saw people digging up their TV sets and VCRs so that they could watch cheesy Indian movies. This indicates to me the universalism of that kind of desire to live in a modern society.’

Frank Furedi:

Frank Furedi argued that, post-11 September, it is important to take ‘a reality check on what’s going on’, and recognise that there is no ‘clash of civilisations’.

He argued that ‘you cannot pluralise civilisation. The whole concept of “Western civilisation” is an illogical construct. What we have is a “human civilisation” – which has borrowed important aspects of creativity, innovation and intellectual breakthroughs from all over the world.’

‘The reaction to 11 September shows that we find it very difficult to talk about “civilisations” or even about “modernisation’”, said Furedi. ‘One of the most interesting things about discussions after 11 September is the extent to which people question the very meaning of the West.

‘If there’s a clash of civilisations, it is very unclear where that clash is coming from. Certainly in the West there are very few crusaders or warriors who are prepared to go forward into battle and argue for some kind of “Western way of life”.

‘The discussion that took place in the USA and Europe after 11 September, many raised questions about the West’s achievements. It has been argued that technology makes us more vulnerable – creating many more potential risks, and that the more prosperous the West is, the more it constitutes an invitation to those people who are resentful of us. What many were really saying is that they do not like our way of life. They find it distasteful, somehow disturbing, and therefore “maybe we had it coming”.

‘This response indicates that there really is no robust basis for a clash of civilisations. In Europe, this was brought home to me by the defensiveness of Western leaders towards Islam. I was shocked when, following the shooting of right-wing Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn in May, it was suggested that he had it coming to him because he described Islam as backwards.

‘Call me naïve, but since the Enlightenment it was not particularly controversial to call Islam backward. But in the twenty-first century you cannot say in good company that mysticism and superstition are far from ideal. This reluctance to say anything affirmative about our way of life means that, rather than there being a clash of civilisations, there are fundamental clashes taking place within the West itself.’

According to Furedi: ‘The debates are really between the anti-modernisers and those who hesitantly embrace modernity.’

‘Many know modernity is a good thing: they like their car, they like to watch TV, they like individual rights. But they lack the intellectual capital to affirm modernity. So, on one hand, there is this kind of hesitant modernising sentiment – and on the other, there are those who are self-consciously anti-modernity. This anti-modernity is most coherently expressed by people within the West.

‘This has become much clearer since 11 September. Almost every single critique that has been waged against the West is parasitical on the doubts that the West has about itself. Anti-modernisers feed off these profound doubts, of the inability of Western leaders to show that they believe in anything. That inability fuels the cynical nihilistic reaction against the West.’

‘What 11 September signifies is the lack of affirmation of our society.’

‘We have lost sight of the idea that human beings can manage, and perhaps direct the course, of change’, said Furedi. ‘There seems to be a growing consensus that any orientation toward the future is somehow out of place. That seems to be the main message that comes out of 11 September.

‘But as human beings, even in today’s pessimistic times, we have a certain sense of individual rights. We have a certain sense of moral autonomy, albeit in a very hesitant form. Because of that, it is not really possible to avoid thinking about the future.

‘It is something that is bound to happen. We can make it happen sooner if we begin to believe in our tradition a little more strongly – by which I mean the tradition of the Enlightenment. Or we can get into fairly silly debates about having this coming to us, or feel guilty about the fact that we are more prosperous than our grandparents were. Either way, history is going to continue.’

Buy The End of History and the Last Man, by Francis Fukuyama, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

Read on:

Buy Culture of Fear: Risk-Taking and the Morality of Low Expectation, by Frank Furedi, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA). Buy Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age, by Frank Furedi, from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA).

Read on:

History has not yet begun, by Frank Furedi

‘I have not jumped off the modernity boat’, by Helene Guldberg

spiked-conference: After 11 September – Fear and Loathing in the West

spiked-issue: After 11 September

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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