In 1989, as the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War snapped to a close, the American historian Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history. His argument was essentially that the end of the soviet option and of the viability of socialism signified an end to the ideological battle, or dialectic tension, which had generated history. For Fukuyama, history was over because Western liberal democracy was the only viable option left for mankind.
Many historians seemed to buy into this idea, implicitly or explicitly, to a greater or lesser extent. The end of the 1980s and start of the 1990s witnessed the rise of a new type of history: global history. Global history was often narrated as the history of globalisation, which often presented itself as a thinly concealed ‘spread of the west’ narrative. Yet, despite the ways in which the phenomena associated with globalisation inscribed power asymmetries across the global landscape, globalisation was often packaged as something positive. Globalisation was the process of becoming more and more connected. Globalisation was the process of becoming. And this becoming was happening on a greater scale and with a greater speed every day.
This process of becoming had another guise, that of modernisation. Modernisation narratives have taken many forms but are best known for their appearance as progress. The sophistication of the increased connectivity, from telephone pylons to fibre optic cables and satellites, was a sure indicator of progress. What was flowing through these voracious networks of connectivity? You might look up at the comfortingly familiar face of Ronald McDonald in Bangor, Bangkok, or Beijing, or eat your Korean bibimbap in Berlin, and shrug your shoulders, resigned to your lack of agency in this age of super-human networks. You might look down and melt into your smart phone, that little chip of connectivity that ensures you are plugged into the world and not left out of the flows surging ever onwards to the rapidly approaching future – a future so hybridised with the present we can practically be it already.
Yet, increasingly (to use a loaded word), the world is waking up to the ambivalence of globalisation. A glance at any of the headlines in Europe and America this week would reveal the awakening to the acute awareness that connectivity may equal vulnerability. Despite globalisation narratives depicting the ‘great convergence’, or the increase in the homogeneity of the world due to the spread of capitalism and Western models of consumerism, the Western world has realised it does not control global flows. In fact, it is not Western liberal democracy that is spreading around the world but, more likely, Ebola. And modern medicine and modern technologies have not got the instant antidote to hand.
And ‘Western Liberal Democracy’ does not have a monopoly on the ideology flowing through the networks of progressive interconnectedness either. As ISIS extends its territory in the Middle East, it also conducts a successful advertising campaign on social media to extend its number of recruits amongst disaffected youths in the Western world.
The recent conjunction of fear factors reported in frantic flashes on the news apps on our smart phones and desktop have a message for Europeans: globalisation might be bad. Not in the way that Westerners always knew but seldom acknowledge – its contribution to global inequality, modern forms of slavery, and loss of local cultures – but bad in an ideological way. It tricked Westerners into thinking that they were at the centre, creating and controlling the networks, and sedated Westerners into believing that they did not need to think or act as they had already bought a ticket aboard the train of progress.
So, as the intelligent (if historically problematic) article by Pankaj Mishra reported this week, ‘the Western model is broken’. Yet here is a little secret: the Western model never worked. The discipline of history grew up in Europe and was permeated by egoisms of European centrality and the mythology that the spread of European cultures, ideas, and political solutions, equalled progress. Although notions of the superiority of Europe and its role as the leader on the path to progress were dented by events on the 1940s, by the end of the century ideas of progress had found new currency and been repackaged and re-sold in narratives of globalisation.
The current crises are threatening the way in which globalisation can plausibly be presented as progress and any notion of the power or centrality of the Western world in the global system, which, Mishra observes, still appears in contemporary histories. Recent events must prick the historical consciousness, puncture the mythology of progress, and cast doubt on notions of the centrality or agency of the Western world, both now and in the past. We may not be experiencing the end of history, but hopefully we will see the end of narrations of progress and Western arrogance which have often hidden in discourses of modernisation and histories of globalization, and which have generated global problems.
Julia McClure completed her PhD at the University of Sheffield and is a Max Weber Fellow at the EUI. You can follow her on Twitter: @DrJuliaMcClure
Cover image: Map of Ebola’s possible spread, from http://www.mobs-lab.org/ebola.html
It sounds as Julia welcomes the spread of ISIS fascism and Ebola. She sounds rather like the ‘treasonous’clerks’in the first age of globalization like HG wELLS who were all for Communism and Eugenics…
@ David Wilson – please shut up. Obviously not what she is saying at all. So tired of idiots like you dragging down the quality of discussion everywhere…
David Wilson’s response might be simplistic, but so is Julia McClure’s article. It really isn’t much more than a “bash the West” fest. Which is actually easy for us in the West to do because, unlike most of the world’s cultural other models, Western culture allows reflexivity and criticism of itself. It actually believes in discussing and deconstructing the sins of the past. This is why a westerner such as Julia McClure can write about a western cultural practice, the writing of scholarly history, and present it as being permeated with badness. I wonder if Chinese or Indians or Russians or Africans or Arabs can stand up in their own societies and say “our cultural values are terrible and arrogant and show us to be deluded, stupid people”.
Starting off with Fukuyama is picking an easy straw man, while it’s telling that the only alternative ideology to “liberal democracy” McClure can offer is ISIS – if that’s the only competition, perhaps liberal democracy isn’t so bad. Also crushing liberal democracy and its accompanying globalisation in the popularity stakes is Ebola, which is ridiculously presented as though it’s about to run rampage over the globe.
How about pointing to the protestors in Hong Kong, prepared to take on even the mighty Chinese Communist Party so that they can have some of this silly “liberal democracy” stuff? Or the people of Ukraine and the Euromaidan protests, saying to Russia “enough is enough, we decide on our future, not Moscow”? Or the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the African and Middle Eastern countries around Europe, where life is full of strife, to come to what they see as the relative security and prosperity of the West? The same goes for the Latin Americans trying to enter the US.
The other straw man is the rather outdated notion that westerners only see history in terms of “progress”, a bizarre 19th-century idea that the cataclysmic wars Europe endured in the 20th century certainly put an end to. The horrors of the Holocaust and the destruction wrought by believing in a deranged, war-mongering charismatic leader are more what inform Europeans’ sense of history these days, I’d suggest.
Really, it’s hard to understand just what this article is trying to say.
Thank you Another Reader for taking the time to engage with this debate, and apologies for my delayed response. It is indeed difficult to deal with the paradox of using the freedom of the position of the West to criticise the West. There are a number of books that consider this – Walter Mignolo’s ‘The Darker Side of Modernity’ being one example. The blog did not simply look to ‘bash the West’ but to question the meta-narratives and ideologies that often have a hidden role in shaping the West’s response to certain issues. A similar debate was raised in an article in Aljazeera (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/11/death-international-developmen-2014111991426652285.html) which looked at the ideas and perceptions that have shaped the West’s interpretations and responses to poverty. Issues such as this were discussed at a recent workshop on poverty research at the EUI, which you can read about here http://blogs.eui.eu/maxweberprogramme/2014/12/09/spotlights-on-poverty/. Many thanks for the debate.