Updated: Dec 18, 2019
The west? The West? The WEST?
With the US government rudderless and Great Britain surrendering its preeminent position in international finance, there was bound to a resurgence of farcical hand wringing about "The West". Today its Bret Stephens in the New York Times worrying is "a moment of civilizational self-negation."
Western Civilization? The West?
The most charitable interpretation of these code words is that they telegraph allegiance to "liberal democracy" where even the will of the people can be checked (especially when that "will" is more willful than well-considered).
When circumstances justifiably prompt us to fret about the fate of liberal democracy, it’s too bad so few of us can resist injecting easy nonsense or deceptive toxins such as “free markets” into our discourse. “Free market” is another overused code word overladen with many more dubious associations than legitimate links to either “liberal democracy” or “Western Civilization".
To be sure markets "free" of government protected monoplies were an essential component of early liberalism which later became associated with its much ruder and older cousin "democracy". But it should be a matter of common knowledge that there is no such thing as as a "free market" because markets have virtually always been totally established, guaranteed, and maintained by all manner of sovereign laws and regulations - as well as by crucial social norms (which both mold and are, in turn, guided by rule of law).
It should be a matter of common knowledge that protections afforded by government to certain markets are only ONE important component of the project to advance “universal liberty and opportunity”; a project which is best labeled “liberal democracy”.
But “free market” is also a code word which is very useful for discrediting necessary protections for workers, consumers, communities, and the environment. This may be why the term is so often mindlessly and ritualistically invoked by so called “conservatives who really ought to know better. These same “conservatives”, too genteel for the dirty “street work” of social media politics, rely on the lumpen legions of “freedom celebratin’” anti-socialist true “Muricans to shout down polite protests against their lazy prevarications. “Don’t blame me,” they shrug. “Blame populism.” But by populism, they really mean “democracy” divorced from its essential protector: “liberalism”.
If someone really cares about “liberal democracy” and how it is threatened by authoritarian populism, why would they then bleat about illusory “free markets” unless their agenda is to continue denying American citizens access to decent healthcare and education? And why muddy thing more by murmuring mundane inanities about “Western Civilization”?
Western Civilization? The West?
Who the hell are they talking to?
Certainly not to non Europeans who understandably associate the term with crusading and colonizing marauders, slavers, strafers, napalm bombers, and spooky CIA inspired torturers, murderers, and rapists.
Non Europeans also probably associate “The West” with Hollywood, Coca Cola, the Beatles, and Hip Hop . . . with “free markets” probably only a tiny italicized footnote to a footnote of some forgotten item near the bottom of a very long list.
Of course the abstract obscurity of “protected and well regulated markets” and the mendacious awkwardness of the term “free market” is one reason why there is an ideological imperative to incessantly and brutally impregnate our tired minds with this limp lie.
We, who actually live in The West here and now, need to be talking about "the rule of law", "separation of powers", "checks and balances", "accountability", and "countervailing powers". That’s the liberal democracy which our forebears have painstakingly built into “our” institutions which are now being shaken and rattled by unprecedented concentrations of wealth and power (mostly in the hands of “Westerners” by the way) as well as by processes of automation, global economic integration, climate change, and migrations. All of these processes, by the way, are rife with opportunities for private "profit" by some paragons of "Western Civilization" who happen to be blessed with certain measures of boldness and fortuitious connections.
In this sense, the depredations of stumpy digit trimp, our ever more temporary president* may well be part of a larger process conducive to world wide liberal democracy. The US’s near monopolization of “superpower” has, overall, been a lamentable example of wasted opportunities and opportunistic malfeasance. Brexit is another example of a self inflicted injury that may well strengthen international financial markets extending well beyond Berlin.
People who wanted trimp or wanted Brexit wanted to "shake things up".
There's a WHOLE LOTTA shakin' going on . . .
But the US (never mind Western freaking civilization) does represent immense power with all its potential for good. Our failures on this score are certainly the result of the failures or our leaders who are only partially represented by elected officials. And our failures are certainly the result of the failures of those who, without democratic accountability, control vast accumulations of toxically managed wealth.
But our failures are mainly the result of our own collective failures (as US citizens) to take our responsibilities seriously so that we are equipped to engage with facts and arguments in a more organized way.
Can we ever stop conflating democracy with "free market" capitalism, and look (with help from people such as Senator Professor Elizabeth Warren) at how markets can be structured to play a more equitable role in promoting prosperity and efficacy in our society? And isn’t it possible to decouple the concept of "market" from "profit" if “profit” means an inordinate flow of benefits and power to a tiny irresponsible few? And, while we're at it, can we ever stop conflating "America" with "whiteness", "white supremacy", and military triumphalism"?
"Only from our cold dead hands!" say the gun-totin' "protectors" of "Western Civilization"
When discussing "the rule of law", "separation of powers", "checks and balances", "accountability", and "countervailing powers", it’s not totally wrong headed to consider our current challenges as having a "civilizational" level of vital significance. And yes, Classical Atherns, the Roman Republic, the French Revolution, and the American Constitution are products of "Western Civilation", but they are not "our" only legacies - nor do they belong exclusively to "us". If we want to claim (or reclaim) some justifiable association with “liberal democracy” we'd better start taking the idea seriously on its own merits and not cripple it with racist and oligarchic insinuations.
But we can't do this as long as we continue to awkwardly (or intentionally) muddle ourselves. We don't know the ultimate limits to our cognitive (or any other human) capacities, but we know we can do better. Whatever those limits are, they are inextriccabley linked with the limits of our capacity to maintain and build upon liberal democratic institutions. That's why we need a commitment to worthwhile, life long, educational opportunities for all - with schooling in classrooms only one aspect of this.
Every tired educator knows how challenging this is. How can they help younger minds or those with minds molded by variant experiences to organize and dissect terms and arguments with mutually verifiable facts and well reasonable counter arguments when these capacities are effectively despised and neglected by too many main streams in our culture?
A liberal democracy needs a liberal education as much or more than it needs markets protected and governed by accountable laws and institutions. And a liberal democracy needs every citizen to cultivate and nuture their own built in bullshit detector along with some means to provide effective countermeasures to the confusions and distractions of those who profit from purveying such waste material.