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Rediff.com  » News » The end of civilisation as we know it? Not really

The end of civilisation as we know it? Not really

March 23, 2016 14:04 IST

Ever pragmatic, the Americans are convinced that the future is in the Indo-Pacific.
There is a new Indo-Pacific century, and India has to decide whether it has its eyes on the prize, says Rajeev Srinivasan.

US Defence Secretary Dr Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar at the Pentagon.

IMAGE: US Defence Secretary Dr Ashton Carter and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar at a media interaction at the Pentagon.

The headlines were dramatic and the prognoses gloomy. In separate stories in two of the few Western journals that I read consistently, the Financial Times and The Economist, there was a palpable sense of fin-de-siecle (end of the century) pessimism, as though an era were coming to a close.

Parallels were made with the 1930s which, according to their lights, was the worst of times, because of the rise of the Nazis and the Fascists, the most abominable villains ever in the history of the world.

The fact is that for an impartial observer, it is not obvious that they, villainous as though they undoubtedly were, are the worst of the worst. For that dubious honour, there are many claimants. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who wiped out roughly a seventh of their fellow citizens. The Communists who have killed, all told, a hundred million people. I am sure you can think of others.

A fair case can be made that the very worst rulers in history were the British Empire, who, in their heyday casually exterminated at least 30 million people (see the riveting account in Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the making of the Third World) and caused the permanent impoverishment of a billion people through loot and de-industrialisation.

By my rough calculations, they looted $10 trillion from India alone.

You can debate if the British were the very worst, but there is a correlation between colonisation and prosperity. Britain went from being a small economic power, with about two per cent of global GDP in the 1750s, to a superpower, with about 18 per cent by 1900. Some will point out other colonising powers such as Spain and Portugal (despite the vast riches of Latin America that they looted) did not do so well, and will point to the Industrial Revolution as a reason.

But there is a plausible argument that it was the loot from Bengal that formed the venture capital that led to the Industrial Revolution. William Digby (Prosperous British India: A Revelation from Official Records) quoting Brooks Adams suggested that the Industrial Revolution (circa 1760) could not have happened in Britain had it not been for the loot that came in from India.

It is indeed a curious coincidence: The Battle of Plassey (1757); the flying shuttle (1760); the spinning jenny (1764); the power-loom (1765); the steam engine (1768).

The fact is that, today, the momentum from that colonial loot has come to an end, and Britain is finding it increasingly difficult to justify having a place at the top table. This is leading to neurotic behaviour: For example the threat of 'Brexit', that is, of Britain leaving the European Union.

To an outsider, this sounds like madness, because the European Union (despite its many problems), as a unified single market, is far more viable as a single economic unit than individual European nations.

Britain, to put it unkindly, has no future. Even America, which has always had a 'special relationship' with Britain, is no longer quite so keen. Ever pragmatic, the Americans (except for Atlanticist holdouts) are convinced that the future is in the Indo-Pacific.

The very logic of Barack Obama's 'pivot to Asia' -- even though it was half-hearted -- was an implicit acknowledgement of this fact.

I suspect that the angst exhibited by the British journalists is based on this realisation of increasing irrelevance. Especially if Scotland decides to secede, 'Great' Britain will be 'Little' Britain, and the days of living off old glory will come to an end.

As it is, Britain has no sustainable competitive advantage or core competence: There is nothing they produce that anybody else really wants, except for their banking, journalism, the odd Burberry or two, and Scotch whiskey (which, of course, is in jeopardy if the Scots take off).

On the other hand, there is the realisation that long-held myths propagated by the West that they are the very culmination of history, may well be off base. There was The End of History by Francis Fukuyama which many took to mean that the Anglo-American model, in the post-Cold-War era, had finally won against all alternatives. Fukuyama himself claims that he was misunderstood, but that hubris remains.

The irony is that the Communists also had similar millennial views about history and how their worldview was the ultimate in the evolution of societies; we know what happened when the Soviet empire disintegrated. It did appear that the Anglo-Americans had won a final solution.

The Anglo-American worldview was all-conquering at that time, having seen off its only competition. Their mythology was partly that of a 'shining city on a hill,' partly the political ideal of a representative democracy; partly the economic ideas of the Washington Consensus; partly seductive ideas about 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,' and partly cultural memes about blue jeans, the open road, Coca-Cola, Hollywood, rock music, and Silicon Valley.

These ideas were marketed to the rest of us, to the extent that there are many who believe this ideal, dream-like society is the norm that everyone should aspire to. (I did too, in my youth, before I spent decades there and acquired a more nuanced, balanced perspective.) Indeed, there is the Good Life in the West for many, but not all people. The fact that much of it is unsustainable based on environmental impact is a detail.

There is also the sad fact that there is a #DeepState that controls those in the West. Dwight Eisenhower called it the military-industrial complex, but we now know that is the military-industrial-media-church complex. Noam Chomsky wrote of how it 'manufactures consent.' Recently, Pat Buchanan echoed the sentiment (external link) when he said:

'We talk about the 'deep State' in Turkey and Egypt, the unseen regimes that exist beneath the public regime and rule the nation no matter the president or prime minister? What about the 'deep State' that rules us, of which we caught a glimpse at Sea Island?

Whatever you think of Donald Trump, Buchanan was suggesting, the Deep State is going to ensure he will not win.

This Deep State is the one that is in jeopardy now. Its mythology is that there is democracy; in fact, the people are deceived into thinking they have a voice. People think they are free; in fact, the US in particular is a highly regulated country.

The Economist had an interesting story (external link) about why it and all the other media were wrong about Trump: They depended on a 2008 book, The Party Decides, which suggested that party insiders think elections are too important to be left to the people, and therefore they are 'using their influence over the media, fundraising... to guide voters towards preferred candidate.'<?p>

In other words, Big Brother is watching you. What did you dream? It's alright, we told you what to dream. That could be Pink Floyd or the dystopian Blade Runner.

Thus, the enormous schadenfreude from the Chinese and the Russians at this display of dysfunctional politics in the West: Trump and Hillary Clinton, both not exactly the most desirable candidates in the US, and an extreme leftist named Corbyn leading the Labour Party in the UK. Add to this the chaos in Europe, and you can pretty much hear the sound of the old order crumbling.

That is painful for the Deep State and its acolytes, including many in India. But it is hardly the end of the world. It just shows that we are far from the end of history. European domination of the world, although it looked pretty much like Manifest Destiny, is only a blip in the relentless march of time. The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on.

Like Ozymandias's vanities, the ancien regime of the West is collapsing, that's about it. There is a new, Indo-Pacific century, and India has to decide whether it has its eyes on the prize. It is there for India to lose.

Rajeev Srinivasan