The west has lost the power to shape the world in its own image – as recent events, from Ukraine to Iraq, make all too clear. So why does it still preach the pernicious myth that every society must evolve along western lines?

“So far, the 21st century has been a rotten one for the western model,” according to a new book, The Fourth Revolution, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge. This seems an extraordinary admission from two editors of the Economist, the flag-bearer of English liberalism, which has long insisted that the non-west could only achieve prosperity and stability through western prescriptions. It almost obscures the fact that the 20th century was blighted by the same pathologies that today make the western model seem unworkable, and render its fervent advocates a bit lost. The most violent century in human history, it was hardly the best advertisement for the “bland fanatics of western civilisation”, as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr called them at the height of the cold war, “who regard the highly contingent achievements of our culture as the final form and norm of human existence”.

Niebuhr was critiquing a fundamentalist creed that has coloured our view of the world for more than a century: that western institutions of the nation-state and liberal democracy will be gradually generalised around the world, and that the aspiring middle classes created by industrial capitalism will bring about accountable, representative and stable governments – that every society, in short, is destined to evolve just as the west did. Critics of this teleological view, which defines “progress” exclusively as development along western lines, have long perceived its absolutist nature. Secular liberalism, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen cautioned as early as 1862, “is the final religion, though its church is not of the other world but of this”. But it has had many presumptive popes and encyclicals: from the 19th-century dream of a westernised world long championed by the Economist, in which capital, goods, jobs and people freely circulate, to Henry Luce’s proclamation of an “American century” of free trade, and “modernisation theory” – the attempt by American cold warriors to seduce the postcolonial world away from communist-style revolution and into the gradualist alternative of consumer capitalism and democracy.


The collapse of communist regimes in 1989 further emboldened Niebuhr’s bland fanatics. The old Marxist teleology was retrofitted rather than discarded in Francis Fukuyama’s influential end-of-history thesis, and cruder theories about the inevitable march to worldwide prosperity and stability were vended by such Panglosses of globalisation as Thomas Friedman. Arguing that people privileged enough to consume McDonald’s burgers don’t go to war with each other, the New York Times columnist was not alone in mixing old-fangled Eurocentrism with American can-doism, a doctrine that grew from America’s uninterrupted good fortune and unchallenged power in the century before September 2001.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 briefly disrupted celebrations of a world globalised by capital and consumption. But the shock to naive minds only further entrenched in them the intellectual habits of the cold war – thinking through binary oppositions of “free” and “unfree” worlds – and redoubled an old delusion: liberal democracy, conceived by modernisation theorists as the inevitable preference of the beneficiaries of capitalism, could now be implanted by force in recalcitrant societies. Invocations of a new “long struggle” against “Islamofascism” aroused many superannuated cold warriors who missed the ideological certainties of battling communism. Intellectual narcissism survived, and was often deepened by, the realisation that economic power had begun to shift from the west. The Chinese, who had “got capitalism”, were, after all, now “downloading western apps”, according to Niall Ferguson. As late as 2008, Fareed Zakaria declared in his much-cited book, The Post-American World, that “the rise of the rest is a consequence of American ideas and actions” and that “the world is going America’s way”, with countries “becoming more open, market-friendly and democratic”.

A world in flames
One event after another in recent months has cruelly exposed such facile narratives. China, though market-friendly, looks further from democracy than before. The experiment with free-market capitalism in Russia has entrenched a kleptocratic regime with a messianic belief in Russian supremacism. Authoritarian leaders, anti-democratic backlashes and rightwing extremism define the politics of even such ostensibly democratic countries as India, Israel, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Turkey.

The atrocities of this summer in particular have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment and some truly desperate cliches. The extraordinary hegemonic power of their ideas had helped them escape radical examination when the world could still be presented as going America’s way. But their preferred image of the west – the idealised one in which they sought to remake the rest of the world – has been consistently challenged by many critics, left or right, in the west as well as the east.

Herzen was already warning in the 19th century that “our classic ignorance of the western European will be productive of a great deal of harm; racial hatred and bloody collisions will develop from it.” Herzen was sceptical of those liberal “westernisers” who believed that Russia could progress only by diligently emulating western institutions and ideologies. Intimate experience and knowledge of Europe during his long exile there had convinced him that European dominance, arrived at after much fratricidal violence and underpinned by much intellectual deception and self-deception, did not amount to “progress”. Herzen, a believer in cultural pluralism, asked a question that rarely occurs to today’s westernisers: “Why should a nation that has developed in its own way, under completely different conditions from those of the west European states, with different elements in its life, live through the European past, and that, too, when it knows perfectly well what that past leads to?”

An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil.An empty billboard site in São Paolo, Brazil. Billboard advertising has been banned there since 2007. Photograph: Tony de Marco
The brutality that Herzen saw as underpinning Europe’s progress turned out, in the next century, to be a mere prelude to the biggest bloodbath in history: two world wars, and ferocious ethnic cleansing that claimed tens of millions of victims. The imperative to emulate Europe’s progress was nevertheless embraced by the ruling elites of dozens of new nation-states that emerged from the ruins of European empires in the mid-20th century, and embarked on a fantastic quest for western-style wealth and power. Today, racial hatred and bloody collisions ravage the world where liberal democracy and capitalism were expected to jointly reign.

This moment demands a fresh interrogation of what Neibuhr euphemistically called “the highly contingent achievements of the west”, and closer attention to the varied histories of the non-west. Instead, the most common response to the present crisis has been despair over western “weakness” – and much acrimony over what Barack Obama, president of the “sole superpower” and the “indispensable nation” should have done to fix it. “Will the West Win?” Prospect asks on the cover of its latest issue, underlining the forlornness of the question with a picture of Henry Kissinger, whose complicity in various murderous fiascos from Vietnam to Iraq has not prevented his re-incarnation among the perplexed as a sage of hardheaded realism.

Robert Kagan, writing in the Wall Street Journal at the start of September, articulated a defiant neoconservative faith that America is condemned to use “hard power” against the enemies of liberal modernity who understand no other language, such as Japan and Germany in the early 20th century, and Putin’s Russia today. Kagan doesn’t say which manifestation of hard power – firebombing Germany, nuking Japan, napalming Vietnam – the United States should aim against Russia, or if the shock-and-awe campaign that he cheerled in Iraq is a better template. Roger Cohen of the New York Times provides a milder variation on the clash of civilisations discourse when he laments that “European nations with populations from former colonies often seem unable to celebrate their values of freedom, democracy and the rule of law”.

Such diehard believers in the west’s capacity to shape global events and congratulate itself eternally were afflicted with an obsolete assumption even in 1989: that the 20th century was defined by the battles between liberal democracy and totalitarian ideologies, such as fascism and communism. Their obsession with a largely intra-western dispute obscured the fact that the most significant event of the 20th century was decolonisation, and the emergence of new nation-states across Asia and Africa. They barely registered the fact that liberal democracies were experienced as ruthlessly imperialist by their colonial subjects.

For people luxuriating at a high level of abstraction, and accustomed to dealing during the cold war with nation-states organised simply into blocs and superblocs, it was always too inconvenient to examine whether the freshly imagined communities of Asia and Africa were innately strong and cohesive enough to withhold the strains and divisions of state-building and economic growth. If they had indeed risked engaging with complexity and contradiction, they would have found that the urge to be a wealthy and powerful nation-state along western lines initially ordered and then disordered first Russia, Germany and Japan, and then, in our own time, plunged a vast swath of the postcolonial world into bloody conflict.

History’s long-term losers
The temptation to imitate the evidently triumphant western model, as Herzen feared, was always greater than the urge to reject it. For many in the old and sophisticated societies of Asia and Africa, chafing under the domination of western Europe’s very small countries, it seemed clear that human beings could muster up an unprecedented collective power through new European forms of organisation like the nation-state and the industrialised economy. Much of Europe had first learned this harsh lesson in political and military innovation from Napoleon’s all-conquering army. In the century after the Napoleonic wars, European societies gradually learned how to deploy effectively a modern military, technology, railways, roads, judicial and educational systems and create a feeling of belonging and solidarity, most often by identifying dangerous enemies within and without.

As Eugen Weber showed in his classic book Peasants into Frenchmen (1976), this was a uniformly brutal process in France itself. Much of Europe then went on to suffer widespread dispossession, the destruction of regional languages and cultures, and the institutionalisation of hoary prejudices like antisemitism. The 19th century’s most sensitive minds, from Kierkegaard to Ruskin, recoiled from such modernisation, though they did not always know the darker side of it: rapacious European colonialism in Asia and Africa. By the 1940s, competitive nationalisms in Europe stood implicated in the most vicious wars and crimes against religious and ethnic minorities witnessed in human history. After the second world war, European countries – under American auspices and the pressures of the cold war – were forced to imagine less antagonistic political and economic relations, which eventually resulted in the European Union.

A lorry with no logo in São Paulo, Brazil.
A lorry with no logo in São Paulo, Brazil. Photograph: Tony de Marco
But the new nation-states in Asia and Africa had already started on their own fraught journey to modernity, riding roughshod over ethnic and religious diversity and older ways of life. Asians and Africans educated in western-style institutions despaired of their traditionalist elites as much as they resented European dominance over their societies. They sought true power and sovereignty in a world of powerful nation-states – what alone seemed to guarantee them and their peoples a fair chance at strength, equality and dignity in the white man’s world. In this quest China’s Mao Zedong and Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk as much as Iran’s democratically-elected prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh followed the western model of mass-mobilisation and state-building.

By then European and American dominance over “the world’s economies and peoples” had, as the Cambridge historian Christopher Bayly writes in The Birth of the Modern World, turned a large part of humanity “into long-term losers in the scramble for resources and dignity”. Nevertheless, the explicitly defined aim of Asia and Africa’s first nationalist icons, who tended to be socialist and secular (Atatürk, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Mao, and Sukarno), was “catch-up” with the west. Recent ruling classes of the non-west have looked to McKinsey rather than Marx to help define their socioeconomic future; but they have not dared to alter the founding basis of their legitimacy as “modernisers” leading their countries to convergence with the west and attainment of European and American living standards. As it turns out, the latecomers to modernity, dumping protectionist socialism for global capitalism, have got their timing wrong again.

In the 21st century that old spell of universal progress through western ideologies – socialism and capitalism – has been decisively broken. If we are appalled and dumbfounded by a world in flames it is because we have been living – in the east and south as well as west and north – with vanities and illusions: that Asian and African societies would become, like Europe, more secular and instrumentally rational as economic growth accelerated; that with socialism dead and buried, free markets would guarantee rapid economic growth and worldwide prosperity. What these fantasies of inverted Hegelianism always disguised was a sobering fact: that the dynamics and specific features of western “progress” were not and could not be replicated or correctly sequenced in the non-west.

The enabling conditions of Europe’s 19th-century success – small, relatively homogenous populations, or the ability to send surplus populations abroad as soldiers, merchants and missionaries – were missing in the large and populous countries of Asia and Africa. Furthermore, imperialism had deprived them, as Basil Davidson argued in The Black Man’s Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State, of the resources to pursue western-style economic development; it had also imposed ruinous ideologies and institutions upon societies that had developed, over centuries, their own viable political units and social structures.

Recklessly exported worldwide even today, the west’s successful formulas have continued to cause much invisible suffering. What may have been the right fit for 19th-century colonialists in countries with endless resources cannot secure a stable future for India, China, and other late arrivals to the modern world, which can only colonise their own territories and uproot their own indigenous peoples in the search for valuable commodities and resources.

São PauloSão Paulo. Photograph: Tony de Marco
The result is endless insurgencies and counter-insurgencies, wars and massacres, the rise of such bizarre anachronisms and novelties as Maoist guerrillas in India and self-immolating monks in Tibet, the increased attraction of unemployed and unemployable youth to extremist organisations, and the endless misery that provokes thousands of desperate Asians and Africans to make the risky journey to what they see as the centre of successful modernity.

It should be no surprise that religion in the non-western world has failed to disappear under the juggernaut of industrial capitalism, or that liberal democracy finds its most dedicated saboteurs among the new middle classes. The political and economic institutions and ideologies of western Europe and the United States had been forged by specific events – revolts against clerical authority, industrial innovations, capitalist consolidation through colonial conquest – that did not occur elsewhere. So formal religion – not only Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and the Russian Orthodox Church, but also such quietist religions as Buddhism – is actually now increasingly allied with rather than detached from state power. The middle classes, whether in India, Thailand, Turkey or Egypt, betray a greater liking for authoritarian leaders and even uniformed despots than for the rule of law and social justice.

The atrocities of this summer have plunged political and media elites in the west into stunned bewilderment
But then western ideologues during the cold war absurdly prettified the rise of the “democratic” west. The long struggle against communism, which claimed superior moral virtue, required many expedient feints. And so the centuries of civil war, imperial conquest, brutal exploitation, and genocide were suppressed in accounts that showed how westerners made the modern world, and became with their liberal democracies the superior people everyone else ought to catch up with. “All of the western nations,” James Baldwin warned during the cold war in 1963, are “caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and the west has no moral authority.” The deception that an African-American easily divined has continued, nevertheless, to enjoy political support and intellectual respectability long after the end of the cold war.

Thus the editors of the Economist elide in The Fourth Revolution the history of mass slaughter in the west itself that led to the modern nation-state: the religious wars of the 17th century, the terror of French revolutions, the Napoleonic wars, the Franco-Prussian war and the wars of Italian unification, among others. Mainstream Anglo-American writers who vend popular explanations of how the west made the modern world veer between intellectual equivocation and insouciance about the west’s comparative advantage of colonialism, slavery and indentured labour. “We cannot pretend,” Ferguson avers, that the “mobilisation of cheap and probably underemployed Asian labour to grow rubber and dig gold had no economic value.” A recent review in the Economist of a history explaining the compact between capitalism and slavery protests that “almost all the blacks” in the book are “victims”, and “almost all the whites villains”.

Understandably, history has to be “balanced” for Davos Men, who cannot bear too much reality in their effervescent prognoses of “convergence” between the west and the rest. But obscuring the monstrous costs of the west’s own “progress” destroys any possibility of explaining the proliferation of large-scale violence in the world today, let along finding a way to contain it. Evasions, suppressions and downright falsehoods have resulted, over time, in a massive store of defective knowledge – an ignorance that Herzen correctly feared to be pernicious – about the west and the non-west alike. Simple-minded and misleading ideas and assumptions, drawn from this blinkered history, today shape the speeches of western statesmen, thinktank reports and newspaper editorials, while supplying fuel to countless log-rolling columnists, TV pundits and terrorism experts.

The price of progress
A faith in the west’s superiority has not always been an obstacle to understanding the tormented process of modernisation in the rest of the world, as the French anti-communist Raymond Aron demonstrated in books like Progress and Disillusion (1968) and The Opium of the Intellectuals (1955). Aron believed the west made the modern world with its political and economic innovations and material goals, but did not flinch from examining what this fact really augured about the modern world. As he saw it, the conflicts and contradictions thrown up by the pursuit of modernity had been hard enough to manage for western societies for much of the last century. Industrial societies alone had seemed able to improve material conditions, and bring about a measure of social and economic equality; but the promise of equality, which staved off social unrest, was increasingly difficult to fulfill because specialisation kept producing fresh hierarchies.

Some parts of the west had achieved some reduction in material inequalities, due to a market economy which produced both desirable goods and the means to acquire them; organised labour, which made it possible for workers to demand higher wages; and political liberty, which made the rulers accountable to the ruled. And some western countries had also, however brutally, got the sequencing broadly right: they had managed to build resilient states before trying to turn peasants into citizens. (“We have made Italy; now we must make the Italians,” the Italian nationalist Massimo d’Azeglio famously proclaimed in 1860.) The most successful European states had also accomplished a measure of economic growth before gradually extending democratic rights to a majority of the population. “No European country,” Aron pointed out, “ever went through the phase of economic development which India and China are now experiencing, under a regime that was representative and democratic.” Nowhere in Europe, he wrote in The Opium of Intellectuals, “during the long years when industrial populations were growing rapidly, factory chimneys looming up over the suburbs and railways and bridges being constructed, were personal liberties, universal suffrage and the parliamentary system combined”.

São PauloSão Paulo Photograph: Tony de Marco
Countries outside the west, however, faced simultaneously the arduous tasks of establishing strong nation-states and viable economies, and satisfying the demands for dignity and equality of freshly politicised peoples. This made the importation of western measures and techniques of success in places that “have not yet emerged from feudal poverty” an unprecedented and perilous experiment. Travelling through Asia and Africa in the 1950s, Aron discerned the potential for authoritarianism as well as dark chaos.

There were not many political choices before societies that had lost their old traditional sources of authority while embarking on the adventure of building new nation-states and industrial economies in a secular and materialist ethos. These rationalised societies, constituted by “individuals and their desires”, had to either build a social and political consensus themselves or have it imposed on them by a strongman. Failure would plunge them into violent anarchy.

Aron was no vulgar can-doist. American individualism, the product of a short history of unrepeatable national success, in his view, “spreads unlimited optimism, denigrates the past, and encourages the adoption of institutions which are in themselves destructive of the collective unity”. Nor was he a partisan of the blood-splattered French revolutionary tradition, which requires “people to submit to the strictest discipline in the name of the ultimate freedom” – whose latest incarnation is Isis and its attempt to construct an utopian “Islamic State” through a reign of terror.

The state under siege
Applied to the many nation-states that emerged in the mid-20th century, Aron’s sombre analysis can only embarrass those who have been daydreaming since 1989 about a worldwide upsurge of liberal democracy in tandem with capitalism. Indeed, long before the rise of European totalitarianisms, urgent state-building and the search for rapid and high economic growth had doomed individual liberties to a precarious existence in Japan. Singapore, Taiwan, Malaysia and South Korea went on to show, after 1945, that a flourishing capitalist economy always was compatible with the denial of democratic rights.

China has more recently achieved a form of capitalist modernity without embracing liberal democracy. Turkey now enjoys economic growth as well as regular elections; but these have not made the country break with long decades of authoritarian rule. The arrival of Anatolian masses in politics has actually enabled a demagogue like Erdoğan to imagine himself as a second Atatürk.

Turkey, however, may have been relatively fortunate in being able to build a modern state out of the ruins of the Ottoman empire. Disorder was the fate of many new nations that had been insufficiently or too fervidly imagined, such as Myanmar and Pakistan; their weak state structures and fragmented civil society have condemned them to oscillate perennially between civilian and military despots while warding off challenges from disaffected minorities and religious fanatics. Until the Arab spring, ruthless despots kept a lid on sectarian animosities in the nation-states carved out of the Ottoman empire. Today, as the shattering of Iraq, Libya and Syria reveals, despotism, far from being a bulwark against militant disaffection, is an effective furnace for it.

Countries that managed to rebuild commanding state structures after popular nationalist revolutions – such as China, Vietnam, and Iran – look stable and cohesive when compared with a traditional monarchy such as Thailand or wholly artificial nation-states like Iraq and Syria. The bloody regimes inaugurated by Khomeini and Mao survived some terrible internal and external conflicts – the Korean and Iran-Iraq wars, the Cultural Revolution and much fratricidal bloodletting – partly because their core nationalist ideologies secured consent from many of their subjects.

Since 1989, however, this strenuously achieved national consensus in many countries has been under siege from a fresh quarter: an ideology of endless economic expansion and private wealth-creation that had been tamed in the mid-20th century. After its most severe global crisis in the 1930s, capitalism had suffered a decline in legitimacy, and in much of the non-western world, planned and protected economic growth had become the chosen means to such ends as social justice and gender equality. In our own age, feral forms of capitalism, which after the Depression were defanged by social-welfarism in the west and protectionist economies elsewhere, have turned into an elemental force. Thus, nation-states already struggling against secessionist movements by ethnic and religious minorities have seen their internal unity further undermined by capitalism’s dominant ethic of primitive accumulation and individual gratification.

All of the western nations are caught in the lie of their pretended humanism; this means the west has no moral authority
China, once the world’s most egalitarian society, is now even more unequal than the United States – 1% of its population owns one-third of the national wealth – and prone to defuse its increasing social contradictions through a hardline nationalism directed at its neighbours, particularly Japan. Many formally democratic nation-states, such as India, Indonesia, and South Africa, have struggled to maintain their national consensus in the face of the imperative to privatise basic services such as water, health and education (and also, for many countries, to de-industrialise, and surrender their sovereignty to markets). Mobile and transnational capital, which de-territorialises wealth and poverty, has made state-building and its original goals of broad social and economic uplift nearly impossible to achieve within national boundaries.

The elites primarily benefitting from global capitalism have had to devise new ideologies to make their dominance seem natural. Thus, India and Israel, which started out as nation-states committed to social justice, have seen their foundational ideals radically reconfigured by a nexus of neoliberal politicians and majoritarian nationalists, who now try to bludgeon their disaffected subjects into loyalty to a “Jewish state” and a “Hindu nation”. Demagogues in Thailand, Myanmar, and Pakistan have emerged at the head of populations angry and fearful about being deprived of the endlessly postponed fruits of modernity.

Identified with elite or sectarian interests, the unrepresentative central state in many countries struggles to compete with offers of stability and order from non-state actors. Not surprisingly, even the vicious Isis claims to offer better governance to Sunnis angry with the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. So do Maoist insurgents who control large territories in Central India, and even drug-traffickers in Myanmar and Mexico.

A shattered mirror
Fukuyama, asserting that the “power of the democratic ideal” remains immense, claimed earlier this year that “we should have no doubt as to what kind of society lies at the end of History”. But the time for grand Hegelian theories about the rational spirit of history incarnated in the nation-state, socialism, capitalism, or liberal democracy is now over. Looking at our own complex disorder we can no longer accept that it manifests an a priori moral and rational order, visible only to an elite thus far, that will ultimately be revealed to all.

How then do we interpret it? Reflecting on the world’s “pervasive raggedness” in the last essay he wrote before his death in 2006, the American anthropologist Clifford Geertz spoke of how “the shattering of larger coherences … has made relating local realities with overarching ones … extremely difficult.” “If the general is to be grasped at all,” Geertz wrote, “and new unities uncovered, it must, it seems, be grasped not directly, all at once, but via instances, differences, variations, particulars – piecemeal, case by case. In a splintered world, we must address the splinters.”

São PauloSão Paulo Photograph: Tony de Marco
Such an approach would necessarily demand greater attention to historical specificity and detail, the presence of contingency, and the ever-deepening contradictions of nation-states amid the crises of capitalism. It would require asking why nation-building in Afghanistan and Iraq failed catastrophically while decentralisation helped stabilise Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, after a long spell of despotic rule supported by the middle class. It would require an admission that Iraq can achieve a modicum of stability not by reviving the doomed project of nation-state but through a return to Ottoman-style confederal institutions that devolve power and guarantee minority rights. Addressing the splinters leaves no scope for vacuous moralising against “Islamic extremism”: in their puritanical and utopian zeal, the Islamic revolutionaries brutally advancing across Syria and Iraq resemble the fanatically secular Khmer Rouge more than anything in the long history of Islam.

A fresh grasp of the general also necessitates understanding the precise ways in which western ideologues, and their non-western epigones, continue to “make” the modern world. “Shock-therapy” administered to a hapless Russian population in the 1990s and the horrific suffering afterwards set the stage for Putin’s messianic Eurasianism. But, following Geertz’s insistence on differences and variations, the ressentiment of the west articulated by nationalists in Russia, China, and India cannot be conflated with the resistance to a predatory form of modernisation – ruthless dispossession by a profit-driven nexus of the state and business – mounted by indigenous peoples in Tibet, India, Peru and Bolivia.

In any case, the doubters of western-style progress today include more than just marginal communities and some angry environmental activists. Last month the Economist said that, on the basis of IMF data, emerging economies – or the “large part of humanity” that Bayly called the “long-term losers” of history – might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the west. In the Economist’s assessment, which pitilessly annuls the upbeat projections beloved of consultants and investors, the last decade of rapid growth was an “aberration” and “billions of people will be poorer for a lot longer than they might have expected just a few years ago”.

The implications are sobering: the non-west not only finds itself replicating the west’s violence and trauma on an infinitely larger scale. While helping inflict the profoundest damage yet on the environment – manifest today in rising sea levels, erratic rainfall, drought, declining harvests, and devastating floods – the non-west also has no real prospect of catching up with the west.

How do we chart our way out of this impasse? His own discovery of the tragically insuperable contradictions of westernisation led Aron into the odd company of the many thinkers in the east and the west who questioned the exalting of economic growth as an end in itself. Of course, other ways of conceiving of the good life have existed long before a crudely utilitarian calculus – which institutionalises greed, credits slavery with economic value and confuses individual freedom with consumer choice – replaced thinking in our most prominent minds.

Such re-examinations of liberal capitalist ideas of “development”, and exploration of suppressed intellectual traditions, are not nearly as rousing or self-flattering as the rhetorical binaries that make laptop bombers pound the keyboard with the caps lock glowing green. Barack Obama, who struggled to adhere to a wise policy of not doing stupid stuff, has launched another open-ended war after he was assailed for being weak by assorted can-doists. Plainly, Anglo-American elites who are handsomely compensated to live forever in the early 20th century, when the liberal-democratic west crushed its most vicious enemies, will never cease to find more brutes to exterminate. The rest of us, however, have to live in the 21st century, and prevent it from turning into yet another rotten one for the western model.

• This article was amended on 17 October 2014. An earlier version stated that “No less than the World Bank admitted last month that emerging economies … might have to wait for three centuries in order to catch up with the west”. In fact it was the Economist, analysing IMF data, which said that last month.

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