The same painful process has begun in the Arab world. The Arab Spring represented a series of societies insisting on a voice, the rule of law, representative government, freedom from arbitrary imprisonment and freedom of expression. Yes, the first beneficiaries have been religious fundamentalists and Islamist zealots, but that is only to be expected in the first phase of the process. Fundamentalism is a response to being under siege; it is because Western Enlightenment values are so attractive that Arab societies, concerned to preserve their identity, reaffirm their “Arabness” via religion. The attraction of the Muslim Brotherhood is much more complicated than mere religious fundamentalism — they also have a partial Enlightenment commitment to justice.
Nor is China immune. Last week saw the Sina Weibo microblogging site full of anonymous mockery of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s (習近平) monarchial, unopposed anointment to lead. Censorship is breaking down. The regime dares imprison fewer and fewer overt political prisoners. Meanwhile, the Communist party’s upper echelons anxiously debate how legitimacy is to be won in a one-party state, but even more anxiously question how China’s growth rate is to be maintained now it can no longer just copy Western technology, but must develop some of its own. Science, freedom of inquiry, peer review, openness to new ideas and honest statistics turn out not to be bourgeois Western ideas, but fundamental to innovation. They cannot be promoted in a one-party state.
Nor is it clear that the US is to be written off quite so quickly. The anti-Enlightenment US right has become locked in an anti-scientific, anti-sexual revolution and anti-justice ideology — and has lost the popular vote in five out of the last six presidential elections. US President Barack Obama’s electoral victory last year could be read as the great republic reasserting its commitment to Enlightenment values. Part of the rapidly escalating US economic recovery is about cheap shale gas, but part is about the rediscovery of an Enlightenment commitment to research and development, now reaching record levels, and the innovation that goes with it. As the Tea Party right’s progress stalls, there is an emerging confidence that the US has not lost its way after all.
In Britain, a similar drama is playing itself out. British Prime Minister David Cameron’s modernization project was an attempt to make his party come to terms with Enlightenment truths — on climate change, the environment, same-sex marriage, open innovation and even social justice — but he has been beaten back into the same dark laager inhabited by US conservatives. A small state and a balanced budget are everything in this theology. Along with individualism, they are considered to be all that is needed for capitalist success and social harmony.
These are propositions that never did work. Successful capitalism is co-created by private and public initiative, a marriage between the market and the Enlightenment — its values and its publicly created institutions. Hence Britain and the US in their different historical contexts; thus South Korea today. It is this alchemy that drove the rise of the West and is now driving the dynamism in the rest of the world. We in the West should remember what drove our success. Rather than mourn our relative decline, let’s celebrate others getting as good, if not better, at what we used to practice and have allowed to atrophy. Then we must find ways to rediscover the alchemy ourselves.