The world of today is filled with talk of “dialogue of civilisations”, “clash of civilisations” and similar vague and conceptually absurd ideas. So, what world are we talking about? Why is it that the world of some people seems to be worlds away from that of others? Why do some feel threatened by other people and others see themselves misjudged?
Recently, the leader of a particularly strong Western country made a speech in which he presented himself as the “protector of civilisation” and promised to defend it against its enemies. To the sensitive ear, this statement sounded like he was referring to his own civilisation as Civilisation with capital C, mind you, and the only one that should be defended.
We people of the East, whenever confronted with the issue of Western civilisation, never fail to mention the precedence of our own civilisation. Statements like “when our ancestors had an empire, their ancestors were hanging from a tree”, even as a joke, are a sign of how we think deep down.
We keep on wondering how “they” (Westerners) don't understand that we come from a civilised world like them, and at the same time, blame ourselves for not having a civilisation like them. The result of the latter is either a collective depression, or a vigorous attempt to copy all elements of Western civilisation, a recipe that has so far been unsuccessful.
Here, I will try to explain the Western view of history and its related ideas, ones that form the particular view of the West to the rest of world. The basic problems we tend to assign to the Western civilisation – racism, imperialism, and cultural bias – have much to do with how the West — Western Europe and its socio-political extension, the US — sees itself and how it views the West's relations with the rest of the world. Among the issues that determine this self-portrait are culture, politics, and most especially, economics.
Up to the mid-sixteenth century, Europe was only a small player in the commerce of the world, a figurative and literal “backwater” as some call it. The particular position of Western Europe, located at the far end of the Eurasian continent, and its economic condition (high population density, general economic underdevelopment), had for long prevented it from being economically very active.
At the time, an established world economic system, centred in the Indian Ocean basin, was the determining force in world economics. This economy was not dominated by any particular power or nation state, but was rather equally divided between some principal players and a few smaller actors.
Ming/Qing China, Mughal India, Safavid Iran, Ottoman Empire, and to a lesser extent, Abyssinia, were the major producers in this economy, with China being the most industrialised among the group. The wealth that was exchanged in this world system was so significant that contemporary European used mythical symbolism to describe it.
In this world system, Europe with its low capital and very insignificant production, was an outsider and certainly a pure consumer, with very inconsequential influence. European accounts of the time continuously talk about the wealth of the East and urge their governments to find a way to tap into this Asian world system and access the goods that are available in its markets.
It is against this background that the first voyages of discovery take place, initially for discovering ways to avoid the middle men (Ottomans and Iran in particular) and access the producers directly. In addition to finding new routes from Europe to the market centre of the world system, Strait of Malaka, the voyages of discovery manage to find the “New World.” This was the discovery that provided Europe with capital, the much needed ticket to enter the Asian world system. The capital in concern was discovered in the extremely rich silver mines of South America.
Silver was the currency of choice in China at the time, and the preferred currency throughout the Asian world system. Having acquired vast amounts of silver, European merchants, with the backing of their governments, entered the royal courts of China, India, Iran, and Turkey, and asked for permissions to trade. As it was the custom of the time, the permission was granted, expecting the newcomers to respect the regulations of the system and to play as a fair actor.
Details of how Europeans manipulated and changed the balance of the game, establishing hegemony in a system with no previous experiences of dominance, is beyond the capacity of this paper. However, the end result, being the abrupt flourishing of the European economy, rise of the suddenly rich middle class, industrial revolution, and related socio-political changes, is known to anyone curious enough to read this article up to this point!
This unexpected wave of success naturally motivated the European mind to find reasons of why so much good fortune had so unexpectedly come to their side? Why at the same time, the formerly great Asian powers had ceased to be so great? It certainly must have had something to do with how the European society, its politics, economic behaviour, and social setting, is arranged.
The answer was simple, or so it seemed. Europeans must have something special, something that they always do right, Europeans are exceptional; hence the rise of a collection of ideas dubbed as “European Exceptionalism.” Rationality, humanism, free trade, “democracy”, and such ideas were called “European ideas”, ones that the rest of the world was unaware of.
Finding the roots of this exceptionalism became the primary task of almost all European intellectuals of the time, from Voltaire to Heidegger. Due to various embedded ideas (religion not being the least of them) these roots were sought in the geographical confines of Europe itself.
The concept of influences from outside and their effect in development of European ideas was unthinkable. So, the attention was turned towards those cultures that were historically located in Europe, Rome and Greece in particular (e.g. the Renaissance and its revitalisation of “Greek” humanism). Consequently, a view of history developed that many call “Tunnel Vision” of History.
In this Tunnel Vision, history is like an Orient Express moving from east to west, starting its journey from Ancient Mesopotamian and quickly arriving in Greece, continuing to Rome, then to Western Europe, and you could say across the Atlantic to the United States. Places outside Europe, other than very Ancient Mesopotamia (and Ancient Egypt as its extension) that “contributed” to the Greek culture, are only mentioned when they come into contact with Europe.
Africa comes to the view only when European colonialists start “discovering” it. West Asia (the supposed Middle East), is forgotten more or less until we hear of it in the early Twentieth century. China, India, and all other parts of the world are mentioned when Europeans enter them.
As one sarcastic historian has put it, “Europeans invented history, and then they put it into good use,” using it to justify their treatment of other people, who are naturally “out there,” stagnant and doing nothing productive, waiting for some particularly creative and exceptionally rational people to come and teach them how to manage their lives.
This is how the European intellectuals tended to see the rest of the world, in all of its actions. Marx based his whole theory on the European experience, and when he was faced with a quite different situation in the East, he put a label, “Oriental Despotism” on their politics, and another one, “Tributary Mode of Production,” on their economic behaviour, and dismissed them as irrational and unpredictable.
Max Weber, the other intellectual whose ideas have been very determinant in forming the European mindset, said that Asians (and certainly Africans, and even southern Europeans), are stagnant, unproductive, irrational, and guided by emotions, while Europeans are creative, productive, rational, and guided by their Protestant Work Ethic.
During the past forty years, there have been major arguments against the ideas that form the basis of all social science in Europe, and have been even adopted by those “stagnant” countries and are treated as facts and true explanations of history. A well articulate intellectual wave, although greatly outnumbered by the mainstream, has been trying to change the face of social studies and to present an alternative, non-Eurocentric, and truly “Global” history that can change the way we see our world.
As one of these intellectuals writes: “We could all benefit from a world perspective that illuminates not only the subjective immorality but also objective absurdity of 'ethnic cleansing' and 'clash of civilisations' which once again have become popular in some circles today.” In short, in a new view of history, we see the existence of only one world system and one civilisation, without a capital c, that belongs to every one of us, and should be protected by us all, not a leader from any particular area of the world. It is our world anyway!
Some of the books that were used to write this article, and they make a good read for those interested in knowing more.