London's Oxford Street: Western consumerism at its most extreme. Giulio Jiang under a Creative Commons Licence
In the wake of the multiple tragedies and horror stories arising from the flight of people seeking escape from war, persecution and poverty, European leaders now say they will work with representatives of African and Middle Eastern countries to ensure prosperity and well-being, which will make it unnecessary for people to leave their native lands.
While freely using dehumanizing terminology for home consumption, (‘invasion’. ‘marauders’, ‘influx’, ‘menace to law and order’, ‘swarms’), international pieties demand the promise to increase aid and ensure an acceleration of development in the sites of misery from which hundreds of thousands have this year sought refuge in Europe.
With the urgent rhetoric of developmentalism, the ruling classes of Europe implicitly acknowledge their own miscalculation, when they so clamorously welcomed and underwrote globalization and all its consequences. For their rhapsodies on ‘global integration’ were a victory celebration over the Western way of life; and, boastful and incontinent, they projected its supremacy everywhere with uninhibited energy. Too late, the British government is now anxious to spread the message that Britain is not ‘a land of milk and honey’, and that the streets of London are not paved with gold. This represents a dramatic reversal of imagery the West has successfully exported in recent years.
For it was not supposed to be like this. With the fall of the Soviet Union and the ‘unity’ of practically the whole world in commitment to a single global economic model, each country was expected to develop, much as the rich Western economies had done; provide growing wealth, opportunity and hope to the poor, to former victims of imperialism and more recently, to those oppressed by militarism, dictatorship and kleptocratic dynasties.
Economic growth would lead to the emergence of a vigorous and wealth-creating middle class, which would insist on the rule of law and establish a vibrant civil society to hold governments to account. The nations of the world would follow the pattern pioneered in the West, and would emerge – eventually – into the sunny uplands of peaceable plenty.
In order to reinforce the lesson that this model was as felicitous as it was inevitable, the West relentlessly poured into the eyes and ears of the world a gaudy, insistent iconography of what might be expected at the end of their arduous journey – a life of comfort and ease, images of wealth and luxury, all the most colourful products of its publicity and advertising industries which saturated the world with promises of an easy tomorrow. In the process, the West gave the impression that, in its own heartland, poverty had been abolished, want and scarcity overcome; even sorrow and loss had been ended and life expectancy indefinitely extended. Anyone who has even the most casual familiarity with poor people in the Global South must be aware of the overwhelming success of this fable: they simply do not believe that deprivation exists in the rich countries, and cannot understand why we are less than eager to share our good fortune with them.
In many of the countries in which ‘development’ was scheduled to take place, people saw only evictions, upheaval, violence and civil war, squalor and shortages and a growing gulf between rich and poor. The rewards proved elusive and slow to materialize – as people reached out for them, like the water which tormented Tantalus, these receded from their grasp. That it took 6 or 7 generations of industrial misery, as well as centuries of exploitation and spoliation of an imperial hinterland, for the people of the West to achieve their social and economic eminence, was elided in the window-dressing for export of Western consumerism.
Exuberant and self-confident after the eclipse of socialism, it seemed that triumphalism was justified towards a world in which the word ‘developing’ now meant only one thing – becoming like us, objects of emulation and envy. What could go wrong, when most countries on earth, with only one or two eccentric exceptions, were obediently embarked on a known journey towards the prosperity and self-fulfilment which existed, not in theory, not in an afterlife, but here and now on earth?
So confident had we become that we were the custodians of the only known pathway to a life of plenty, that we were unable to perceive how our understanding of the world, our easy elevation of our own values above those of all humanity, might cause anger, resentment, and even retaliatory violence, that it came as a great shock to learn that there were those who wished us ill, and did not see our colonizing endeavour as benign.
However unwarrantable and brutal the response of certain militants (not all of them Islamic) to this project, this seemed to justify the violence of our reaction: injured innocence readily lends to vengeance a sense of righteousness and to the use of overwhelming force aggrieved self-justification.
In spite of this, nothing impaired the conviction of the West that it alone was in possession of secular truths even more potent than any other-worldly revelation; and its resurrection of ‘liberal interventionism’ seemed an appropriate response; the toppling of dictators and preparation of the ground for democracy and the free market, even in such unlikely places as Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, later Libya. And if the success of these ventures was limited, or even counter-productive, we could still point – positively, until quite recently – to a world in movement, people ‘voting with their feet’, trudging against all odds to reach the shores of peace and plenty.
Too late we have realized that this vast scattering of humanity has run out of control. War, continuing poverty, repression and social violence at home are not exactly the precursors of tomorrow’s affluence and contentment. The clamour at the gates of privilege is no arbitrary assault on the citadels of civilization: it is, at least in part, a consequence of the relentless self-promotion of ‘our’ way of life, the use of all the one-way conduits of communication to broadcast to the world the ‘ultimate’ universality of our values, customs and attainments.
Europe, North America, Australia have been complicit in upheavals and uprootings for which they are, not for the first time, now anxious to repudiate responsibility.
Globalization, far from being a steady and predictable process, known through our own experience, has become a vast and socially seismic means of destabilization.
It is also irreversible; and it is clear what needs to be done, even though Western leaders are reluctant to articulate it, obsessed as they are with ‘national’ boundaries which must be porous to goods and money but impermeable to people. First of all, a rapid re-evaluation of our reaction to these developments: the best way to rescue the desperate from ‘people traffickers’ is to accommodate them according to the capacity and wealth of each country. Secondly, the pieties about overseas aid, growth and development where at present, poverty and oppression remain, require realization with greater conviction and justice than anything we have hitherto seen. This cannot mean retention of the existing model of global growth and the laborious slow-motion ascent of people out of poverty. A far more proactive and redistributive order is needed; and if this means a more modest and sedate development in the places of privilege, that will be a small price to pay in the long run, for it is the best we can hope to salvage from the arrogance and unmindfulness of our own self-celebration and desire to re-make a whole world in our image.