Robert W. Cox and the Decline of the West

Robert W. Cox, notable as an early leader of critical theory in international relations, gave a talk on the decline of the West, as summarized here.

Cox then turned to the history of ideas for a 500-year sweep of perspectives on the question of how civilizations and history can be understood. Drawing on the views of Vico, de Chardin, Shirokogorff and Spengler, he suggested that the human social world is knowable by human minds; that distinct civilizations exist with distinct ways of understanding and dealing with their particular worlds;

Why do distinct civilizations exist, why do they have distinct ways of thinking and living? But why have some been more successful than others in the civilizing process?

that people are able to understand other civilizations without inhabiting them;

Yes, but why was the early modern West so much more curious about other civilizations? China or Islam, not to mention further civilizations, did not much desire to understand foreign civilizations.

and that civilizations are organic phenomena that grow and decline in creative intensity.

Yet this avoids the crucial issue of why is it that some civilizations have been far more creative than others.

These perspectives cast a new light on the phenomenon of the East on the rise, and a shifting global balance of power. How, he asked, can adjustments to this new balance of power be made peacefully.

Talk of “adjusting to the new balance of power” sounds like the mindset Cox had denounced in the ’80s: accommodation and problem-solving, rather than rejection and critique. It looks like he welcomes the rise of the East and decline of the West.

Monotheism, Cox argued, led the West to a radical break between humanity and nature, and to a linear, progressive view of history. By contrast, the East (i.e. China) sees continuity rather than dualism between humans and nature,

Here we see (as is now common in some quarters) the West contrasted unfavorably with the East – but no hint of any ways the East contrasts badly to the West. The contrast itself is a bit far-fetched. Is the East really where humans and nature live in harmony? (By the way, Western science [Darwinism] does not claim there is a break between humans and nature: it affirms that humans are animals. But this Darwinian idea of continuity between humans and nature remains anathema to critical theory.)

and has a cyclical and dialectical view of history in which opposites continually struggle in search of balanced reconciliation.

There’s much value in cyclical views of history, but they certainly are not the sole property of the East.

Citing Vico’s view that understanding civilizations from within requires gaining a historical perspective on the choices facing peoples and governments today, Cox posed the question of whether future world peace will depend on a continued dominance of the U.S. outlook—or whether it can become a modus vivendi of different world powers and civilizations.

The idea that world peace is somehow in the balance is strangely old-fashioned. War has been on the decline for some time. Moreover, there already is a fair amount of modus vivendi in the world – derived from the West – found in the institutions of the international legal system of sovereignty, nonintervention, and diplomacy. We already have institutions for modus vivendi in a pluralistic world.

Future global economic arrangements, Cox concluded, could derive from different forms of civilizational self-consciousness. Ongoing dialogue among these civilizations is possible in virtue of ongoing conflict and change within each civilization itself.

It is probably true that the economic arrangement of individualistic and liberal capitalism largely derives from the West. Such forms of capitalism will probably have less influence if and when the West declines. But if other, non-individualistic, illiberal, forms of capitalism come to the fore, there is no reason to suppose they will be superior.

Achieving such dialogue will require rejecting a Ptolemaic view of the West as the centre of world order, instead seeing the West not as the end of history but as one civilization among others. At stake in achieving this shift in thought are not just economic and political stability, but the preservation of the global biosphere as well.

I do not think that giving more weight to non-Western civilizations necessarily helps the biosphere. Europe is the heartland of Green ideology today; I do not see a huge influence of green thinking in say China or the Middle East.


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