“Twilight of the West?” The New Totalitarianism, Reflection and Free Thought

Recent remarks by President Emmanuel Macron at a meeting of French ambassadors included a statement about the end of the West’s dominance in international affairs, an idea quite in tune with the spirit of the times. Tectonic shifts in the world order and a transition to some new global model have been a fixture in public debates for a long time. The expectation of an upcoming change is stimulated by the growing antagonism between the United States and China and bitter rivalry between Russia and the West after 2014. Russia itself regards the West’s decline and the emergence of a multipolar world as axioms. These trends are the stuff of serious, long-standing discussions in the United States amid fears that the US leadership – along with the “liberal world order” – may soon come to an end. And yet one is tempted to look at the problem from a different angle, no matter how close the positions of politicians and experts may be on this score.

The West’s alleged decline has been discussed for at least one hundred years, which bespeaks a long intellectual tradition that reaches far beyond the current political situation. Moreover, the main sticking point is not only and not so much whether the West will remain the political hegemon. In the final analysis, domination was always determined by its overwhelming material superiority that, in turn, rested on a number of bedrock principles underlying the “Western civilization.” The key idea was rationality, as expressed in the belief that human reason was endowed with a boundless transformative power. In the economic field, it has found an expression in modern capitalism. In politics, it is the power of rules and the depersonalized bureaucracy. Even culture has become rational, turning into an industry that specializes in the production of images and content. The West has made rationality a mass-scale phenomenon characterized by mass consumption, organized industries, general elections, omnipresent bureaucracy, and all-out surveillance, including through the institutions of education and healthcare. There are good descriptions of this state of affairs in analytical written material.

But there was a downside to rationality. It was unclear until what point society, politics, or international relations were amenable to rational control and organization. Some people wondered if the rational model was likely to fail at some point, leading to unpredictable consequences, or to what extent human beings could remain what they are amid increasingly sophisticated surveillance. The rational West periodically gave birth to monsters that invariably revived strong doubts about its future. But each time, the West contrived to tame them and find more or less effective remedies against excesses it created.

The social costs of capitalism in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were so immense that a lot of people were convinced of its inevitable demise. A sign of this was the triumphal march of leftist ideas throughout the globe. Although socialism proved a utopia, its influence was truly great in that it helped to balance and stabilize the capitalist systems and suggested effective ways of reducing the social costs of capitalism.

Totalitarianism was yet another monster. It is a fad today to claim that the West is an embodiment of “liberal democracy,” an antithesis to non-Western “authoritarianism.” People would extol the democratic West and denounce authoritarian Russia, autocratic China, and so on. But totalitarianism (or authoritarianism as its milder form) has Western origins. The mass-scale, total, comprehensive and rationally organized suppression of society is the reverse side of efforts to rationalize politics. Non-Western despotic regimes were pleased to take over the practice. But the West itself had its fill of every conceivable variety of totalitarianism and managed to develop effective forms of containment of organized or uncontrolled violence.

Moving violence and massive wars to an industrial scale is yet another monster created by the West. Both world wars resulted from differences between Western powers. Their scale was such as to give people every reason to say that the West was on the threshold of suicide. But it managed to survive again. The West got consolidated and knocked its chief rival, the Soviet Union, out of the game. Interestingly, it is hard not to call the USSR anything other than a Western project. The political differences drew a demarcation line between the “West” and the “East.” But the division was flimsy in nature because Soviet socialism was based on the same old principles of rationality and had to deal with the Western dilemmas in its own way. But they acquired a specific twist in this country and the trouble-shooting effort was far less successful.

In other words, the last two or three centuries of Western rationality produced a huge amount of energy that enabled a giant leap in development. But the same energy came at a huge cost and caused multiple excesses that suggested the idea that the West was about to die, while encouraging rational reflection and subsequent stabilization.

Problems the world order is facing today lie deeper than the plane involved in the transition from a unipolar world to its multipolar version. Strictly speaking, this mantra explains nothing. Neither do other mantras, like democracy’s inevitable triumph over authoritarianism, to mention just this one. We are faced with dead intellectual constructs. Their wide popularity among politicians and experts is a sign testifying to their demise.

In all evidence, Western rationality is reaching a new level that implies a leap in development. But it is also giving birth to new monsters. Modern technologies make it possible to penetrate human psyche much deeper and to install new identity. The economy is being dehumanized, while labor control efficiency grows exponentially. Modern workers are under tight surveillance, with their time clocked in seconds. Many other parameters can be monitored as well, from eye-pupil movements to brain activity. This efficiency is being gladly adapted to politics. Modern technologies can help alienate human beings from their proper nature and identity to an extent never envisaged by Marx, Fromm, Adorno, Marcuse and the critics of repressive rationality. While earlier Foucault’s freak show was limited to the human body, today it is penetrating human psyche. The “system” may know about us much more than we do ourselves.

We are on the threshold of a fundamentally new type of alienation and a fundamentally new totalitarianism, which is certain to be hidden behind liberal democracy slogans in the West and justified by nationalism or some other ideologies elsewhere. There will also be a new type of warfare, potentially more dehumanized and much more efficient in reaching everyone (and not necessarily kinetically).

The new monsters are growing alongside the old good political differences. Macron and others are certainly right in this sense. The Euro-Atlantic community is not alone in seeking to take advantage of the fruits of rationality for political purposes. Russia, China and others, too, have every reason to do the same. After all, a monster can only be contained by another monster. The modern world is again in the grip of an age-old anarchy that cultivates monsters as the only way to survive.

However, the most worrisome symptom is, of course, something else. At the end of the day, anarchy and the wars it engenders is a relatively customary thing, although the West has lost the appetite for big wars. A much more serious problem is the lack of high-level reflection that characterized the 19th and 20th centuries. In its absence, it will be much more difficult, if possible at all, to balance problems. The West will be engulfed by twilight, when the new type of totalitarianism silences reflection, with humankind forging its future where there is room for free thought that sprouts through the pavestones of total surveillance.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.