The term “civilisational state” has been bandied around a lot in recent years, and now even has the honour of its own Wikipedia page, not that it’s very helpful. As usual, the term has no agreed meaning, and is used by its defenders and detractors in rather different senses. Essentially, it’s an attempt to describe countries, especially those with long histories, using a different conceptual framework from that of the standard post-Westphalian post-1789 Liberal nation-state. Defenders of the concept argue that it is misguided to seek to apply allegedly “universal,” but actually modern western, concepts to countries such as China with its long and rich history, whereas opponents argue that this is just an excuse for such states not abiding by these same universal standards of human rights and other modern shibboleths.
I’m not here to referee this debate, and anyway not capable of doing so, but rather to try to explain what I think is going on, and why it is important in the evolution of international politics. It’s linked, obviously, with the slow decay of western intellectual and economic hegemony, and with challenges to it which are local and differentiated, as one would expect if they were culturally specific. So let’s start at the beginning. We can proceed through three questions. Now note that most of my examples are drawn from Europe and the EU, because that’s where I live, and I don’t feel competent to discuss the US, for example. But USians are welcome to consider parallel questions.
First, either there are ideal systems and forms of government, to which all states will eventually come, or there are not. Thus far, the argument has been that the technical forms of government adopted in the twentieth century in the West, and perfected over the last generation, or so, are the only correct and inevitable ones, and that all nations will find their way to such forms sooner or later. Tradition, culture, religion and history are not contributions to a political system, but irritations and obstacles that have to be brushed aside before the correct form of government is reached. This form is an elite type of indirect democracy, where groups of professional politicians compete for power by making various economic and social promises, and where the public’s role is limited to occasionally voting in elections. Whilst there may be considerable variation in detail (elected vs. non-elected Presidents, for example) the fundamental concept of a professional political class, to which access is limited, and upon which outside forces should theoretically have little influence, is now found everywhere. Other actors, including the judiciary, and parliament in certain types of systems, have a share of power, and their actors generally come from the same social and economic classes, and may even be related by family or education. Such political systems are in practice governed by oligarchic elites, albeit that the formal configuration may look slightly different in each case. So is this the political system the ideal one and is a state or a political party which doubts its universal validity automatically wrong?
Likewise, either there are universal visions of individual and societal relations, to which all states will eventually come, or there are not. Thus far, the argument has been that the basis for all such visions is the modern western concept of “human rights.” I have looked at the rather questionable history of this idea before: here, I just want to observe that the hegemony of this particular vague and contested idea is such that it is actually quite difficult to talk about it rationally. It’s hard to find an answer to the accusation “I suppose you think it’s OK to lock people up without trial then?” in the terms in which it’s posed. (Though it’s legitimate to say that many self-described “human rights advocates” themselves do believe in locking people up without trial if they have the wrong opinions.) Like Socrates defending himself against charges of impiety to the gods, or Giovanni Bruno defending himself against accusations of heresy, it’s impossible to defend yourself if you are forced to stay within the intellectual limitations of the question. What’s at issue here, in fact, is the radical Liberal concept of society, which has been gaining ground since the eighteenth century, and which sees that society not as an entity, but as a collection of utility-maximising individuals, struggling against each other for the maximum financial and personal advantage, and regulated only by such laws as are absolutely necessary. In such a “society” there is no society: social questions are either about ensuring a mathematically balanced optimal reconciliation of the various wants of individuals (as in Bentham) or a simple free-for-all in which those with the most money and power confiscate the most rights. The concept of collective interest is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, members of one society can pass to being members of another society with little formality, since there are no real “societies”, only temporary and contingent collections of people trading with each other, who could equally well be somewhere else. Moreover, there are no collective “rights,” but only the sum total of the rights of all the individuals in the same situation. Where the rights of some individuals clash with the rights of others (as is normal) then we invoke judges to decide who has more rights. The very existence of wider interests than just the maximisation of individual utility is simply not acknowledged. So is this the social and economic system universally valid, and is a state or a political party which doubts this universal validity automatically wrong?
And finally, either there are ideal post-cultural, post-historical, post-religious and post-nationalist ways of looking at politics and society, to which all states will eventually come, or there are not. Liberalism has always tended towards a kind of blank, managerial efficiency, bereft of any of the characteristics that make us human. It regards beliefs, loyalties, friendship, and social bonds of any kind as at best inefficient, preventing the smooth functioning of the market economy, and at worst as symbols of darkness and superstition, to be driven away by the pure light of reason. Its epitome is perhaps Comte’s nightmare vision of a perfectly rational society in which scientific dictators would ensure that each person lived an entirely rational utility-maximising life, without the inconvenient influence of feelings or emotions. Such a society is actually already present in outline in the assumptions of the European Union. Religion, history, culture, language and belief divide people against each other, and so (it is argued) cause conflicts and even wars. Consequently, every effort must be made to extinguish national differences by discouraging the teaching and invocation of separate histories and cultures, except for warnings against their negative aspects, whilst promoting a tasteless, grey Brussels soup, largely distinguished by the ingredients that are missing. History, insofar as its existence is acknowledged, has gone from being a national story to a field of vicious debate and struggle where groups seek to impose their interpretations of history on each other, like family members fighting each other in front of a judge over inheritance rights.
Brussels today is, effectively, Nowhere: no history, no culture, no common heritage, and an ideology constructed entirely out of clichés, where difficult subjects are just not discussed. (Religion is considered a purely cultural artefact, and any criticism of practitioners of non-European religions for any reason is considered racism). History, in the form of buildings and monuments, is acceptable only insofar as it encourages the tourism industry or represents a business opportunity. Even the official language is artificial: a kind of simplified English, with a large influence from French legal vocabulary, often called Globisch. Certainly, if you go into a restaurant in the rue Archimède, where the Commission often goes to lunch, you won’t hear Flemish spoken and you likely won’t even hear French. Even the menus are in Globisch, and people pay with Euro notes that are deliberately completely anonymous in design, as if afraid to say what continent they are from. Go to Strasbourg, home (or at least hotel) of the European Parliament and you see the same thing in the European area: modern, faceless, characterless buildings that seem to have been designed precisely to be ugly and un-memorable. Geographically, they are positioned exactly on the Franco-German border, as if frightened to be seen in either country. So is this belief system universal (or at least ideally so) and is a state or a political party which doubts its universal validity automatically wrong?
Well, you won’t be surprised to hear that I think the answer to all of these questions is “no.” But then what I think doesn’t really matter here. What’s much more important is that the kind of views I have outlined above actually represent a minority opinion in the West itself, sometimes quite a small minority. To that extent, the argument about the division between “modern” and “civilisational” states, still less the nonsense about the alleged distinction between “democratic” and “authoritarian” states, is a false antithesis. There is a global ruling class (and no, it’s not a conspiracy) which broadly holds these views and which has been more successful in imposing them on some countries than on others. In most of the West it has succeeded, in other parts of the world it has made progress, but in other parts of the world still it has been less successful, or has even downright failed. These countries (Russia, China, India) tend to be large states with long histories and strong cultures. But there are other states also which actively dispute western ideological hegemony, and yet are not criticised in the same way: the oil-producing states of the Gulf, for example. I am still waiting for someone to explain that to me.
If we look at the terms in which civilisational states are often castigated: “authoritarian,” “populist,” “dictatorial,” nationalist,” and so on, we may well be confused, since some of these terms seem to be the opposite of others. Surely you can’t have a populist dictator, can you? Well, if you hold to this diffuse, contradictory and poorly thought out ideology I have been describing, you can, or at least you can amalgamate all these criticisms into One Bad Thing. To understand that we need to glance at the history of Liberalism itself.
By its nature Liberalism is an elitist doctrine: it cannot be otherwise. The ideology of middle-class lawyers, businessmen and their intellectual apologists, it promotes individual success, personal rights and privileges and the rational organisation of society by the elites themselves. It deprecates tradition, community, religion, solidarity and any sense of commitment to anything outside our own egos. It worships books of rules, and its churches are law courts which, unlike traditional places of worship, are open only to those with money.
Now Liberalism arose at a particular place and time when mass democracy as we understand it had not yet taken root, and it was the political ideology for the rising middle class in its attempt to take power from the traditional forces of the Aristocracy, the Church and the Army. There is, of course, nothing wrong with a political class developing an ideology which supports its interests: indeed, it’s completely normal. The difficulty arose with the arrival of mass democracy, to which Liberalism has always been fundamentally antipathetic, and the consequent need to persuade very large numbers of ordinary people to vote against their own interests, and to vote instead in the interests of the middle classes and the employers.
To some degree, outside factors blurred these distinctions, and enabled Liberalism to pretend to be something it wasn’t. Whilst diehard Liberals were kept in secure containment facilities in think-tanks, mostly in the United States, influential Liberal thinkers on public view were often quite pleasant, inoffensive people (John Rawls, for example, gives the impression of someone who wound’t hurt a fly.) The electoral challenge of Socialist and Communist Parties until the last generation forced Liberalism to adopt at least some populist rhetoric, and to support initiatives that benefited ordinary people. The fear of revolution (which amounted to a Liberal neurosis for much of the twentieth century) obliged Liberals to swallow all sorts of policies and arrangements they would otherwise have disapproved of. Then there was the Cold War: whether or not you accept the argument that Soviet Communism came out of essentially the same mind-set as Liberalism, it’s true that marking the difference between the West and the Godless authoritarian Communist state required Liberals to at least pay lip-service to ideas of custom, tradition, religion etc. which their own ideology would have led them to dismiss. Some of the knots in which they tied themselves were really quite impressive.
The irony is that ordinary people, who by definition made up the mass of the electorate, tended to cling quite tightly to tradition and custom. This is not hard to understand: it was, after all, a kind of collective protection. The factory worker or the agricultural labourer was quite aware that they would be the first victims of a weakest-to-the-wall Liberal society, and that their only hope lay in collective structures and the preservation of social bonds and cultural norms. Even Churches (especially of the Nonconformist tendency) could be mechanisms of protection for believers and non-believers alike. Parties of the traditional Left often recognised this: the internationalism of the Left was one of collective solidarity against class enemies, not the nihilistic denial of the very existence of nations and ethnic and cultural differences which we find today. The Communist Manifesto may have said that “working men have no country” but this was just an allegation about the situation in 1848: the bourgeoisie owned the country, and after a socialist revolution, nations would remain but antipathy between them would cease. The mixture of radical political and economic ideas with English patriotism, which goes back at least to William Blake, and is perhaps best expressed in George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, is entirely in this tradition.
The same was true in much of Europe: Communist Parties were very active in the Resistance, but their motivations were often at least as much patriotic as narrowly political. (The great French poet and novelist Louis Aragon, committed Communist as he was, helped to found the intellectual Resistance to the Occupation, and wrote widely-distributed poems calling on all French people to take strength from the history and culture of the country.) Likewise, the programme of the French Communist Party in 1944 called, among other things, for the restoration of the “national glory” of France, and the preservation of her Empire. Such sentiments were unexceptionable a couple of generations ago, and very much in tune with what ordinary people instinctively felt.
In The Lion and the Unicorn Orwell suggested that a truly Socialist government, which he hoped to live to see in England, would abolish the House of Lords but keep the Monarchy. He was aware of the enormous symbolic importance and historical resonance of the office, and hoped it could be detached from the class system he so despised. Which brings us to the obligatory reference, I suppose, to the Coronation of Charles III, and the spitting, jeering, sneering attitude of much of the Liberal media and intelligentsia towards it, as well as their astonishment that so many people came out in the rain to watch. But in may ways this political contempt was just an unacknowledged way of laughing at ordinary people and calling them stupid, as Liberals have been doing since about the time of John Locke. Liberalism is fundamentally solipsistic after all: everything is about Me, My Rights, My Privileges, and all reality is essentially a projection of my own ego. The wish to identify with other people in a wider community, and to collectively identify with something beyond your own ego is impossible for Liberals to understand, because it requires the Hungry Ghost which is at the origin of Liberalism to shut up for a bit.
The Coronation (and I speak as a lifelong republican) was a giant act of collective resistance to Liberal ideology, and I think largely perceived as such, which is why the Liberal elite became so hysterical. For entire hours and days, nobody was trying to sell you anything. There was no sponsorship, no advertising, you couldn’t buy a place next to the King, no matter how much money you had. Ordinary people could watch without paying, and get closer to the King than the vast majority of them could ever hope get to some media personality, or even many elected Presidents. (Charles’s visit to France was cancelled, not out of concern for his own safety, but Macron’s). People of all classes, races and nations actually mixed together for once. It’s tempting to imagine some jet-lagged banker arriving in London, switching on the TV and asking, Where are the VIP tents for Silicon Valley executives? Why are all those common oiks allowed in without paying?
In fact, it is hard to see how you could ever construct a collective identity on the basis of the three points I set out above: which is fine, because Liberalism doesn’t believe in collective identities anyway. Thus, “Europe” in this sense, is not a cultural, historical or social construct, but a purely legal one. It lives not in architecture, in churches, in literature, painting, music and memory, but in books on shelves, and bits in computers. It is, in fact, impossible to describe what “Europe” the concept as opposed to Europe the place actually is. In many ways, it’s a virtual construction, or if you prefer, a fourth dimension at right angles to the continent we know.
I’ve been asked a number of times in Africa and the Middle East whether I think those regions can, or should, evolve in the same institutional direction as Europe has. My reply is always, Are you prepared to have our history as well? The actual European story, and it’s a great one, is of overcoming religious and political division, dynastic struggle, massacre war and atrocity, and finally creating a zone of relative peace, on top of an amazing cultural and intellectual heritage. Europe’s successes, mistakes and false starts are a rich source of lessons for the rest of the world.
But these lessons are never invoked. The only sense in which the past features in collective European thinking is negative. Culture, history, language and tradition are potential sources of division to be overcome, in part by simply ignoring them. In turn, Europe’s interaction with the rest of the world today is never in terms of its own history, its successes and failures, but in terms of abstract principles, deduced a priori. Indeed, like the radical Liberals who briefly introduced the ten-day week and the ten-hour day after the French Revolution, the whole point was to turn your back on the past, and start afresh. History had nothing to teach, only things to avoid. In this, of course, Europe is entirely typical of the international Liberal institutions which are influential across much of the planet. There’s no point in asking what experience and reflection the programmes of the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD or UNDP are based on: the answer is none. Indeed, such institutions dislike learning from experience, because it can involve unwelcome conclusions being drawn.
This accounts, perhaps, for the querulous, aggressive, intolerant and hectoring approach of so many institutions and donors today: do this, Because. Their programs essentially seek to inflict the consequences of a priori Liberal assumptions on others. Since such assumptions are universally valid, they are by definition superior to, and must replace, all traditions and culturally-specific practices whatever. This western interaction with other parts of the world is almost always negative in tone, because the West today has no positive contribution to make. There are programmes for anti-corruption, but not to strengthen society, programmes to control the police, but not to make people safer, and most of all programmes to replace trust, custom and social controls with legal codes translated from western languages. And of course for some people, this is just fine. In many countries now, there are westernised layers of society who see lots of attractions for themselves in Liberal ideas, who study abroad, speak foreign languages and a rewarded with jobs, and flattering profiles in western media. Yet whilst such individuals are sometimes able to take power in certain countries at certain times, the basis of this power is often fragile, and easy to lose. When that happens, or is threatened, the result in the West is panic, and the vocabulary of “populism”, “authoritarianism” and so forth, is snatched up and waved about like a bloody flag.
The irony of this is that the West does actually have a lot to contribute if it only puts its ego to one side, and stops saying, Because I Say So, or Because We Do It That Way. This is often difficult, because of the tight ideological restrictions under which donors and international organisations work, and the often flagrant ignorance of, and lack of interest in, circumstances on the ground. But it can be done: as I regularly used to say to certain audiences, We may not have all the answers, but we’ve had hundreds of years of making mistakes. Such sentiments are often appreciated.
Ultimately, Liberalism is highly insecure because even its most fervent believers are aware of the extent to which it is based on the a priori notions I described. This is why Liberalism handles conflict badly, and resorts to abuse and hectoring, unable to imagine that it might not be clearly in the right. Nobody, in the end, has ever really fought for Liberal principles, which, as I’ll show in a moment, Liberals don’t actually believe in anyway. They have fought for their own interests. No-one has ever gone out to die for the introduction of contract law, lower property taxes or unconventional marital arrangements, and no-one ever will. All Liberalism has, is opposition to tradition, culture, religion and society. Which brings us of course to Ukraine, and the violent hysteria which characterises the western position, and which I’ve discussed before. If you’ve read this far, the negativity should come as no surprise: Liberal ideology cannot tolerate living in the same world as a country where religion, patriotism, tradition, language and culture are still important: such a country is an abomination that must be destroyed. Moreover, any national leadership that espouses such views is, by definition, unrepresentative of its people, and should be overthrown.
And yet, and yet. If Liberals actually lived their lives according to these precepts (they would of course be very miserable) that would be one thing. But they don’t. Liberals, in my observation, have families, friends; social circles, join organisations and have emotional attachments, and are as capable of irrational and illogical behaviour as anyone else. Indeed, one of the major political problems in western societies is the amount of primitive and violent emotion concealed under a facade of Liberal rationality, but that will have to wait for next week.
Consider “free speech” for example (the quotation marks are now obligatory.) This used to be a Liberal principle, and in theory still is. Yet of course its origins lie in the struggle by Liberals to express themselves freely under absolutist or authoritarian regimes from the eighteenth century onward. Once they had achieved these freedoms, Liberals inevitably began to notice the inconveniences associated with free speech which they did not agree with. And because theirs was an ideology based essentially on a series of unsupported assertions about the world, free enquiry and rational questioning, ironically, were inimical to it. So it’s not surprising that support for freedom of expression has been falling sharply recently among people who identify as liberal and “left”, which these days amounts pretty much to the same thing. Or one could point to the distasteful spectacle of purported Liberals calling for the imprisonment without trial or even the assassination of politicians they dislike. But the point here is not to accuse Liberals of hypocrisy, of which they are certainly as guilty as the rest of us, but rather to note that an a priori assertion-based set of principles, divorced from history, culture, language, religion and tradition, cannot function effectively as a secure basis for making difficult judgements. That, no doubt, is why there is so much unappealing thrashing around going on in Liberal circles at the moment.
In the end, all states have to be “civilisational”” (ie based on something shared among the population) or they will not survive. It’s been noted that the credibility and political support of many western leaders today is often lower than the credibility of leaders of so-called “civilisational” states. This should surprise nobody, and it is likely to get worse, especially as the consequences of the Ukraine war continue to unwind. The final irony of course, and one which would scarcely have seemed possible even ten years ago, is that Liberals, many identified with the Notional Left and many who think of themselves as “moderates” have become shrieking propagandists for an extreme nationalist regime with neo-Nazi elements, and now swoon over videos of manly men with Waffen-SS tattoos, and blonde amazons carrying Kalashnikovs. In effect, Ukraine is not just a proxy war politically, it’s a proxy war ideologically. For once, all the nationalist, cultural, militarist, historical baggage which has been so successfully suppressed within Europe is allowed to burst out elsewhere, and we can applaud deliriously from the sidelines, because it’s not us doing it.
Which is another way of saying you can’t make something from nothing, you can’t create an effective political structure out of thin air. Europe has nothing to contribute to the current crisis but elite hatred, and when it’s over, I rather suspect that we are going to see a new, more “civilisational,” mode of politics in the West as well.
These essays are free and I intend to keep them so, although later in the year I’ll introduce a system where people can make small payments if they wish to. But there are other ways of showing your appreciation as well. Likes are flattering to have, but also help me judge which subjects people are most interested in. Shares are very useful in bringing in new readers, and it’s particularly helpful if you would flag posts that you think deserve it on other sites that you visit or contribute to, as this can also bring new readers. And thanks for all the very interesting comments: keep them coming!
You made a comment that liberal and "left" are pretty much the same thing now. Please don't conflate the liberals with the true Left (at least you put the word in quotes). See Thomas Frank's "Listen Liberal".
There are a few true Leftists still around, although I think most of them are old like me and don't have the energy to get out in the streets anymore. Maybe the apparent growing dissatisfaction of our youth with the authoritarian structure will create more Leftists.
Nevertheless, your analysis is fascinating. I hadn't thought of the dichotomy between tradition and culture and the Liberal devotion to the individual self, but it makes a lot of sense.
I have thought, since college (50 years ago), that the fact that while the history of the US only has few hundred years, the history of European countries (not "Europe") has a couple of millennia, and that makes a huge difference in the culture and traditions that unite a nation (or should).
Your post provides a framework for how this all works out. Thank you. Stay safe.
An impotant missing factor in this analysis is "technical prowess". Western liberal elites were able to leverage the power of advanced weapons to push their ideologies, even though the role "liberalism" played in the initiation of the technological revolution is questionable. The bidens, von dre leyens, macrons and their ilk are now learning, thanks to V. V. Putin and his team, that without arms their "liberalism" is not worth a plugged penny.