All cultures are not equal
by Kenan Malik
'I denounce European colonialism', wrote CLR James. 'But I respect the
learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.' (1)
James was one of the great radicals of the twentieth century, an anti-
imperialist, a superb historian of black struggles, a Marxist who
remained one even when it was no longer fashionable to be so. But
today, James' defence of 'Western civilisation' would probably be
dismissed as Eurocentric, even racist.
To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is
'Western' - by which most mean modernism and the ideas of the
Enlightenment - in the name of 'diversity' and 'difference'. The
modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the
natural and social world - a project that James unashamedly
championed - is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as
'Subjugation', according to the philosopher David Goldberg, 'defines the
order of the Enlightenment: subjugation of nature by human intellect,
colonial control through physical and cultural domination, and economic
superiority through mastery of the laws of the market' (2). The mastery
of nature and the rational organisation of society, which were once seen
as the basis of human emancipation, have now become the sources of
Enlightenment universalism, such critics argue, is racist because it
seeks to impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on
other peoples. 'The universalising discourses of modern Europe and
the United States', argues Edward Said, 'assume the silence, willing or
otherwise, of the non-European world.' (3)
Not just for radicals, but for many mainstream liberals too, the road that
began in the Enlightenment ends in savagery, even genocide. As the
sociologist Zygmunt Bauman argues: 'Every ingredient of the
Holocaust... was normal... in the sense of being fully in keeping with
everything we know about our civilisation, its guiding spirits, its
priorities, its immanent vision of the world - and of the proper ways to
pursue human happiness together with a perfect society.' (4)
The aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Western ideas, but to
reclaim them for all of humanity
This belief that modernism lies at the root of all evil is so pervasive that
only right-wing reactionaries, like Italian prime minister Silvio
Berlusconi, former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher or the late
Dutch politician Pim Fortuyn, it sometimes seems, are willing
unreservedly to defend James' belief in the superiority of 'the learning
and profound discoveries of Western civilisation'.
So the real question to ask in the wake of 11 September 11 is not, as
many have suggested, 'Why do they hate us?', but rather 'Why do we
seem to hate ourselves?'. Why is it that Western liberals and radicals
have become so disenchanted with modern civilisation that some even
welcomed the attack on the Twin Towers as an anti-imperialist act?
CLR James, like most anti-imperialists in the past, recognised that all
progressive politics were rooted in the 'Western tradition', and in
particular in the ideas of reason, progress, humanism and universalism
that emerged out of the Enlightenment. The scientific method,
democratic politics, the concept of universal values - these are palpably
better concepts than those that existed previously, or those that exist
now in other political and cultural traditions. Not because Europeans
are a superior people, but because out of the Renaissance, the
Enlightenment and the scientific revolution flowed superior ideas.
The Western tradition is not Western in any essential sense, but only
through an accident of geography and history. Indeed, Islamic learning
provided an important resource for both the Renaissance and the
development of science. The ideas we call 'Western' are in fact
universal, laying the basis for greater human flourishing. That is why for
much of the past century radicals, especially third world radicals,
recognised that the problem of imperialism was not that it was a
Western ideology, but that it was an obstacle to the pursuit of the
progressive ideals that arose out of the Enlightenment.
As Frantz Fanon, the Martinique-born Algerian nationalist, put it: 'All the
elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at
different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not
carried out in practice the mission that fell to them.' (5) For thinkers like
Fanon and James, the aim of anti-imperialism was not to reject Western
ideas but to reclaim them for all of humanity.
Indeed, Western liberals were often shocked by the extent to which
anti-colonial movements adopted what they considered to be tainted
notions. The Enlightenment concepts of universalism and social
progress, the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed,
found 'unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than
to share in the benefits of industrialisation; peoples who prefer to look
upon themselves as temporarily backward rather than permanently
different'. Elsewhere he noted that the doctrine of cultural relativism
'was challenged by the very people for whose moral benefit the
anthropologists had established it in the first place' (6).
Making judgements about beliefs and cultures is viewed as politically
How things have changed. 'Permanently different' is exactly how we
tend to see different, groups, societies and cultures today. Why?
Largely because contemporary society has lost faith in social
transformation, in the possibility of progress, in the beliefs that
animated anti-imperialists like James and Fanon.
To regard people as 'temporarily backward' rather than 'permanently
different' is to accept that while people are potentially equal, cultures
definitely are not; it is to accept the idea of social and moral progress;
that it would be far better if everybody had the chance to live in the type
of society or culture that best promoted human advancement.
But it's just these ideas - and the very act of making judgements about
beliefs, values, lifestyles, and cultures - that are now viewed as
politically uncouth. In place of the progressive universalism of James
and Fanon, contemporary Western societies have embraced a form of
nihilistic multiculturalism. We've come to see the world as divided into
cultures and groups defined largely by their difference with each other.
And every group has come to see itself as composed not of active
agents attempting to overcome disadvantages by striving for equality
and progress, but of passive victims with irresolvable grievances. For if
differences are permanent, how can grievances ever be resolved?
The corollary of turning the whole world into a network of victims is to
transform the West, and in particular the USA, into an all-powerful
malign force - the Great Satan - against which all must rage. In Salman
Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, one of the central characters, Saladin,
finds himself incarcerated in a detention centre for illegal immigrants.
Saladin discovers that his fellow inmates have been transformed into
beasts - water buffaloes, snakes, manticores. He himself has become a
How do they do it, Saladin asks a fellow prisoner? 'They describe us',
comes the reply, 'that's all. They have the power of description and we
succumb to the pictures they construct'. There is a similar sense of
fatalism in the way that many contemporary radicals view the USA. The
Great Satan describes the world, and the world succumbs to those
In this fatalism lies a common thread that binds contemporary Western
radicalism and fundamentalist Islam. On the surface the two seem poles
apart: fundamentalists loathe Western decadence, Western radicals
fear Islamic presumptions of certainty. But what unites the two is that
both are rooted in contemporary nihilistic multiculturalism; both express,
at best, ambivalence about, at worst outright rejection of, the ideas of
modernity, universality, and progress. And both see no real alternative
to Western power.
If differences are permanent, how can grievances ever be resolved?
Most importantly, both conflate the gains of modernism and the
iniquities of capitalism. In this way the positive aspects of capitalist
society - its invocation of reason, its technological advancements, its
ideological commitment to equality and universalism - are denigrated,
while its negative aspects - the inability to overcome social divisions,
the contrast between technological advance and moral turpitude, the
tendencies towards barbarism - are seen as inevitable or natural.
According to this worldview, all one can hope for, in the words of
Edward Said, is 'the possibility of a more generous and pluralistic vision
of the world, in which imperialism courses on, as it were, belatedly, in
different forms (the North-South polarity of our time is one), and the
relationship of domination continues, but the opportunities for liberation
are open.' (7) But what can liberation mean if nothing is to change and
'imperialism courses on'? Is it not more likely that such a view will give
rise, not to a 'generous and pluralistic vision of the world', but to a
darkly dystopian and misanthropic one, where all that is left is nihilistic
rage - the kind of rage that led to the events of 11 September?
The fury that drove the planes into Twin Towers was nurtured as much
by the nihilism and fatalism that now grips much of Western society as
by the struggle in Palestine or anywhere else in the third world. There
was nothing remotely anti-imperialist or progressive about the attack;
nor is there about the visceral anti-Americanism that today animates
Islamic fundamentalists and Western radicals alike. There is much to
deplore about American society and American foreign policy. But little
of it is embodied in the anti-Americanism either of Islamic
fundamentalism or of contemporary Western radicalism. Rather, they
are both the products of the failure of anti-imperialism, and of a
disaffection with the modern world. The irony of such estrangement
from modernism is that it is as rooted in the 'Western tradition' as
modernism itself - but only in its more reactionary and backward-looking
'Today, we are present at the stasis of Europe', Frantz Fanon wrote.
Europe 'has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running
headlong into the abyss; we would do well to avoid it with all speed.' (8)
Forty years ago, Fanon was issuing a clarion call against imperialism.
Today he could be equally well warning us about the consequences of
what passes for anti-imperialism.
Kenan Malik spoke at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear
and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate
Institute in London. See here for full details. Kenan Malik is also author
of The Meaning of Race (buy this from Amazon UK), Man, Beast and
Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature
(buy this from Amazon UK), and the Institute of Ideas publication 'What
is it to be human? What science can and cannot tell us'
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