American Modernity

Americans believe their ideas are universal - the supremacy of the individual and free, unfettered expression. But they are not - never were.

[Lee Kuan Yew]

Any attempt to impose one’s own will or values upon others or to unify the world under a certain model of ‘civilisation’ will definitely fail … No one economic system is good for all countries. Each must follow its own path, as China has.

[Qiao She (Chinese Politician)]

The Enlightenment idea of a universal civilisation is nowhere stranger than in the United States, where it is identified with the universal acceptance of western - that is to say, American - values and institutions.

The idea that the United States is a universal model has long been a feature of American civilisation. During the eighties, the Right was able to co-opt this idea of a national mission in the service of free market ideology. Today the worldwide reach of American corporate power and the ideal of a universal civilisation have become indistinguishable in American public discourse.

Market utopianism has succeeded in appropriating the American faith that it is a unique country, the model for a universal civilisation which all societies are fated to emulate.

According to the ‘Washington consensus’ [the] manifold economic cultures and systems that the world has always contained will be redundant. They will be merged into a single universal free market […] The ultimate explanation of the power of the free market cannot be found in any economic theory. It is in the recurring utopianism of western civilisation […] A global free market is the Enlightenment project of a universal civilisation, sponsored by the world’s last great Enlightenment regime […] That is what explains its popularity - especially in the United States.

Most European countries have been partly shaped by Enlightenment thinking, but all are now post-Enlightenment cultures […] Only in the United States is the Enlightenment project of a global civilisation still a living political faith.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.2,100-1, 104, 216, 234

All of the world’s empires - such as the Roman, Chinese, Ottoman, Romanov, British and Hapsburg empires - encompassed a copious diversity of cultures.

Each had a dominant culture, and at times some had universalist goals; but none of them ever consistently attempted to convert their subjects to a single way of life or set of beliefs.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.127

The contemporary American faith that it is a universal nation implies that all humans are born American, and become anything else by accident - or error. According to this faith American values are, or will soon be, shared by all humankind.

Of course such messianic fancies are commonplace. In the nineteenth century the claim to be a universal nation was made by France, Russia and England. Now, even more than in the past, it is a perilous conceit.

[…] Singapore rejected the universality of western values. It spurned America’s intervention and the doctrines of human rights that the United States was propagating throughout East Asia. It affirmed its own values against the liberal model of human rights and the economic culture of market individualism that the United States sought to implant throughout the world.

It pointed to its achievements as a post-liberal city-state - stable, cohesive, highly educated and fast-growing - as proof that its model of modernisation and development was superior to anything ‘the West’ had to offer.

[…] Implicitly, and in more recent times explicitly, Japan’s policy-makers rejected the view that modernisation means convergence on the same western institutions and values […] they made clear their ‘rejection of the so-called convergence hypothesis, which states that there is a universal logic to industrialism and that the social relationships found in the First Nations to industrialise (individualism, a free labour market, and so on) must inevitably develop elsewhere.’

In their dealings with their employees and the rest of society Japanese market institutions rely on networks of trust rather than upon a culture of contract.

Each version of capitalism articulates the particular culture in which it remains embedded. This is true of the free market, which expresses local American values of individualism.

The deep differences between Asia’s capitalisms and those in western countries […] reflect differences not only in the family structures but also in the religious life of the cultures in which these diverse capitalisms are rooted. The greatest sociologist of capitalism, Max Weber, was right to link the development of capitalism in north-western Europe with Protestantism.

In our time, capitalism in post-communist countries whose religious traditions are Orthodox will be unlike that in any ‘western’, Protestant or Catholic, country: neither the institutions of secular civil society, nor the limited state of such western countries, has developed in any Orthdox culture.

Both the supporters and the critics of capitalism have fastened on individualism as one of its central features. But the connections between capitalism and individualism are neither necessary not universal: they are historical accidents.

The early theorists of capitalism - Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Karl Marx, Max Weber and John Stuart Mill - mistook them for universal laws because the evidence on which they based their theories was for the most part limited to a few western countries.

To accept that countries can achieve modernity without revering the folkways of individualism, bowing to the cult of human rights or sharing the Enlightenment superstition of progress towards a world civilisation, is to admit that America’s civil religion has been falsified.

For most Americans such a perception is intolerable. Instead, evidence of the superior economic growth, savings rates, educational standards and family stability of countries that have repudiated the American model will be repressed, denied and resisted indefatigably. To admit this evidence would be to confront the social costs of the American free market.

The discovery that America’s path is a singularity that in no sense plots the course of universal history in the modern world will be a catalyst for large cultural changes. Its effect must be to strip the United States of its self-image as the paradigm of modernity.

The United States has built the illusions and superstitions of the Enlightenment into its view of itself. In other times this might matter less. Today it threatens to render intractable the most difficult task of the age - that of contriving terms of peaceful and productive coexistence among peoples and regimes that will always be different.

By seeking to impose a single economic civilisation on all of humankind America’s support for the Washington consensus risks turning manageable differences between states into intractable conflicts.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.131-2, 127, 167, 169-70, 191-2, 205

[…] like many other late modern social movements [feminism and multiculturalism] are - in their most radical and sectarian manifestations - peculiarly American phenomena. If such radical social movements do not belong to ‘American civilisation,’ nothing does.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.127

The American intervention in Bosnia was prompted by the belief that intractable political and military conflict can be resolved by the imposition of a cleverly contrived constitution.

It expressed the Dayton illusion: that a short-lived American intervention can extend to other regimes and cultures American values and procedures - a legalist culture of rights and a model of negotiation between states and communities that derives from the practice of corporate law - whose authority is strictly local.

[John Gray]
False Dawn, p.128

Related posts: