‘Western civilization would be a good idea,’ joked Mahatma Gandhi, one of its most successful pupils. We are accustomed to hearing what is wrong with Western civilization: racism, sexism, colonialism and (gasp) capitalism. The world would be a kind of utopia, we are told, if only we could purge these sins from our societies. But if Western civilization is evil, what is the alternative? Four other -isms vie for our attention.
The first is socialism. Its proponents include some old-fashioned Marxists, faithful to the old egalitarian nostrums, but most are pseudo- or neo-Marxists. The ‘woke’ activists fundamentally oppose capitalism and are aggressively committed to intersectionality, but they are vague on the alternatives. We can assume that they will not end in utopia.
Next is Islamism. The Iranian regime has implemented it since 1979. Isis implemented it. Boko Haram is seeking to implement it in parts of Nigeria. Afghanistan may soon see its return — though in some areas it never really went away. In none of these cases have the results benefited human development, particularly for women and religious and sexual minorities.
Next, authoritarianism. China offers the most impressive example. While the Chinese Communist party has allowed a degree of market forces (which have lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty), the central government’s grip remains tight and has recently been growing tighter. Notions of individual human rights are foreign to the Chinese regime. The usual useful idiots come back from trips to Shanghai and Beijing proclaiming that they ‘have seen the future and it works’. In reality, an authoritarian system of this kind cannot offer a remotely palatable alternative to the achievements of Western civilization.
The Chinese government is now implementing a social credit system that will monitor every citizen’s every decision, purchase and physical move. Citizens can lose points for ‘bad behavior’, with real consequences including being banned from flights, being excluded from higher education or good jobs and even losing a pet dog. This sounds like living in the glass-enclosed apartment blocks of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We.
The abuses committed against China’s Uighur Muslim minority, including forced labor and forced sterilization measures, show the CCP’s willingness to use brutal measures. Further proofs of Beijing’s resurgent authortarianism are visible in Hong Kong, and forgetting Tibet, though few in the West these days pay attention to its colonization.
The attempts to cover up the true origins of COVID-19 are a reminder that, in authoritarian systems, problems resulting from restricted information flows can be extremely damaging. As Charles Moore recently observed: ‘The scientists most closely involved have disappeared, as has anyone who spoke up to denounce what happened.’ If that doesn’t rid you of the idea that authoritarianism is a desirable path, consider Russia, where bullying your neighbors, poisoning your citizens and jailing political opponents are commonplace.
Finally, there is old-fashioned tribalism, involving a rejection of all modern institutions and the reassertion of kith and kin. Tribalism devoured my home country, Somalia, which broke into civil war and disarray almost three decades ago. Look how far it has subsequently come under this merciless, zero-sum system.
To me, all these models are unattractive, inhumane, destructive, close-minded and cancerous. Human dignity is sacrificed in each of them, in exchange for a type of brutality. If you do prefer any of these systems, you are free to go live under them. Venture to Venezuela or North Korea to experience varieties of socialism, explore Islamism in Iran or Saudi Arabia, live under authoritarianism in China or Russia, or sample Somali life under tribalism.
You don’t like any of those -isms? Well, maybe Western civilization is not so bad after all. It’s not perfect, but it is clearly the system that provides maximal peace, prosperity and freedom. The classical liberal system based on Enlightenment values has done more good for the world than any other system or civilization. Western civilization’s medical and scientific leaps eradicated smallpox, came close to doing so to polio and measles, and brought a host of other infectious diseases under control — most recently COVID-19. Is it a coincidence that the most efficacious vaccines were devised in the US, Germany and Britain, rather than China or Russia?
You may have missed, amid a global pandemic, the creation of the R21 malaria vaccine at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute. An early trial has found its effectiveness rate to be 77 percent. This is wonderful news for Africa, which in 2019 accounted for 94 percent of global malaria deaths (around 385,000 lives cut short).
The CCP’s favorite boast is that it has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty. But Western civilization’s ‘capitalist’ system, whether social-democratic, as in western Europe, or individualist as in the US, has lifted an even larger share of humanity out of poverty, for a lot longer, and almost certainly on a more sustainable basis.
Thanks to Western civilization, I received a good education in Kenya, through the legacy of the British school system. The same can be said of India and countless other former colonies where, like me, millions have benefited from the enduring educational legacies of Western expansion.
Vitally, Western civilization has created systems where governments face a degree of accountability. This is not just about elections and representative institutions. Crucially, a commitment to the rule of law, habeas corpus and due process protects not just citizens as individuals but social institutions more broadly. That fosters confidence that working hard today is not foolish because the fruits of that labor will not be subject to arbitrary confiscation or destruction.
I escaped from tribalism, I left Islamism and I have avoided authoritarianism and wokeism — so far! Western civilization may not be perfect, we haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else in human history. Before we heap on more opprobrium on it, I would suggest weighing the alternatives carefully. As Churchill said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.’
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2021 World edition.