The Dual Political-Economic and Climatic Crises of Western Civilization Part 1

Published on 7th April 2009

Dangers and Opportunities

The Argument

Western civilization has been going through a deepening crisis over the last 120 years – to be precise since around mid-1880s when serious colonisation began on the African continent as a desperate attempt to get out of the crisis created by the limits to growth within Europe.  The present systemic crisis -- whose most recent manifestations are the global financial crisis and the ecological crisis --  is only its latest manifestation.  Western civilization’s crisis is deeper than most people realise or willing to acknowledge.

There are profound dangers inherent in the impending collapse of Western civilization. The ruling political and corporate elites in the West are losing control both in their own countries and over much of the South. Judging by the attempts made by them in recent months, it is evident that they have no clue about how to get out of the dual political-economic and ecological crises. They have serious problems of resource depletion and global warming which compound to create a situation not unlike what they experienced in the 1880s when they faced limits to growth in Europe.

The recolonisation option does not look promising for the future, because although they are presently attempting to neo-colonise the South, this will meet with stiff resistance not only from the South but also from progressive peoples in the North. By 2099 the white races will be swamped by the non-whites whether they like it or not, even in many of their own countries, including significantly the United States and Israel. (This is not supposed to be a racist statement, only a highly likely demographic prediction). Fear has become a major international relations factor in the behavior of Western nations. There are serious dangers of increasing militarism, fascism and racism in the West, possibly aggressive wars in the name of fighting “terrorism” or “failed states”, or “human rights violations”.  Such prospects bode ill for progressive efforts to create an all-inclusive alternative civilization.

So the question is: What do the peoples of the South and progressive peoples everywhere do in this impending collapse of Western civilization?

There are many possible answers -- depending on ones political and human perspectives. Some people in the South are likely to take an aggressive and combative view in a revengeful spirit. This would be utterly wrong. An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth spirit will destroy the entire civilization. I believe that there has to be a more sensible approach to this question. In the short to medium term the peoples of the South should resist being recolonised. They should demand justice and the right to determine their own destinies without interference from the North. They should demand a fair share of the world’s resources whilst working out a joint strategy with the North to save this planet – the only one we know -- and its natural resources and the environment.

However, in the long run, the peoples of the South should show understanding and compassion to the peoples of the North -- despite history. They will need to assure the North that there will never be unity of the South to cause serious concern to the North -- which is a good thing. Non-white populations living in the North (as immigrant citizens, short term workers, or as refugees) must fight for their rights within those countries, of course, but they must integrate or merge (depending on the circumstances of each country) within the communities of their host nations. Also, the peoples of the South must recognise that there are aspects of Western civilization that are positive and progressive in the evolution of world history; that there are common values which they share with the West – a common humanity.  The South should celebrate these positive virtues of Western civilization, and make their own contributions for a better, peaceful and just world. Above all, and in the immediate to medium term, the progressive peoples all over the world – South and North -- should reflect on alternatives to the impending collapse of the West-dominated present civilization. An alternative global civilization will take hundreds of years to evolve and mature, but the time to start is now.

The West (also referred to as the North, depending on the context) is currently in serious crisis which it may survive only if progressive civil society movements in the North take heed of the gravity of the situation facing them, and if they work closely with progressive peoples and movements in the South.

Western civilization in crisis

The crisis in the North began with the completion of the first phase of the industrialisation project by the end of the 1880s. Here we refer to the modern phase of the developments in the North, namely, the capitalist phase.  There were crises in earlier periods --both in the South as well as in the North, much worse indeed impacting civilizations in the South than in the North. By the end of the 16th century, however, the North had managed to get out of their “dark ages” and with the enlightenment and the reformation, a reinvigorated Western Europe was able to create nation-states out of warring tribes, and develop their productive forces – science and technology and the organisation of production and society -- at an astonishing pace and with a huge global impact.

The first major crisis modern Europe faced in the capitalist era was in the late 1880s. Having finished the early phase of industrialisation, the European ruling oligarchy faced dual crises. One was that Europe reached its limits of growth within its own geographical space, and the lack of adequate local resources for further development of its productive forces. The second was the upsurge in the class consciousness of the workers in the North that demanded a fair return to their labour which had spawned a burgeoning and hideously exploitative capitalist class.

The resolution of these problems was, however, not possible within Europe itself.  The only way out was imperial expansion in the South. When the British arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes said “the Empire is a bread and butter question”, he meant every word of it, adding, self-righteously, that to "save" England from "a bloody civil war" it was necessary to "acquire new lands to settle the surplus population". In further explanation, and speaking for all Europe, he said, "We are the first race in the world, and the more of the world we inherit the better it is for the human race."  The historical parody in our own times is that the British now make harsh judgment on present-day Zimbabwe, which was acquired by the British based on deceitful signing of a treaty with Chief Lo Bengula. The theft of land was more insidious than the theft of public money by the greedy officials of the American Insurance General (AIG) today. The land was named “Rhodesia” after Cecil Rhodes.

Why is it necessary to recount this story? Is it not best forgotten? Perhaps it is. However, because mainstream European historiography obfuscates history, it is important to tell the story also from the other side. Also, the present crisis in Western civilization makes it important to look at where we have come from, and to acknowledge the legacy of European exploitation of weaker or weakened civilizations in the South. It is important to remember history, even in its not very flattering details, in order to be able to go beyond it, to sublimate it, to pardon those who may have perpetrated acts of brutality in the course of what they regarded as their so-called “the white man’s burden”.

Excerpted from Yash Tandon's speech during Die Linke Im Bundestag and Rosa Luxemburg Foundation conference on “Left Ways Out of the Crisis” Berlin, March 20, 2009.The author is Former Executive Director of the South Centre, and Chairman of SEATINI


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