No other event has set the tone for the 21st century than the election of Barack Hussein Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America. Regardless of political persuasion or affiliation the world was gripped to an event where a member of a minority group, historically maligned and marginalised in one of the world’s largest and most powerful democracies, came to hold its highest office – the Presidency.
For centuries history has been Eurocentric in nature, centred on the inclinations and prejudices of the European, or more broadly the ‘Westerner’. It has been a simple story of winners and losers, masters and slaves, oppressor and the oppressed. However, the 21st Century has begged the question, how long could it last?
The narrative of the post-modern world has centred on the question of whether the United States and the ‘West’ could maintain its complete dominance over the rest of the world. Over the last century there has been an equalizing between the West and the ‘Rest’, economically and even politically. China, being the largest country (in terms of population) on the planet and a former bastion of communism, could barely be described as the typical communist state. Its economic sector has evolved to the extent that free enterprise and individual initiative is encouraged; albeit with some levels of government incentives and regulation, but such a reality is a far cry from the heavy state controls of communism. Politically, the Communist Party reigns supreme, however the 100 million Chinese tourist travelling outside of China have for the most part freely returned back to their homeland. Why?
The underlying explanation to such a phenomenon is that economic freedom could never be extricated from civil liberties. By encouraging economic freedom and thus fuelling economic growth, China’s leaders have gradually opened the proverbial door to allow the most basic freedoms usually concomitant with free and democratic societies to flourish. Chinese citizens now generally have freedom of choice when it comes to the goods they wish to consume, the careers they wish to pursue and quite frankly the lives they wish to lead.
It was not too long ago that the label of Africa as the ‘Dark Continent’ wasn’t too far from the truth, as it related to the woes and problems of the so called ‘cradle of civilization’. Almost three decades ago, a Jan. 16. 1986 TIME magazine cover had stamped across it, ‘Africa’s woes’, almost a decade later September 7. 1992, another TIME magazine cover blasted: ‘The Agony of Africa’. The consensus was that Africa was a continent of instability and backwardness. Since the end of colonialism in the 1960s and 70s, the continent of Africa has been at pains to move from the traditional and quite frankly backward means of conflict resolution and socio-economic organisation. Coups, conflict and corruption has historically been the order of the day. However, to the surprise of many observers, there has been a gradual change – for the better. In 2012, the same TIME magazine trumpeted on its December 3. 2012 cover: ‘Africa Rising’. The Economist followed in 2013 with ‘Aspiring Africa’.
Over the past decade sub-Saharan African economies have grown by an average of 5 percent yearly and have been projected to double by 2030, according to Brookings Institute Amadou Sy and Fred Dews. The poverty rate in Africa has been estimated to drop from the 56.9 percent in 1990 to 42.3 percent in 2015.
The obvious reality is however that change would not come overnight, and to assume that the standard of living on the African continent would overtake that of Europe and North America within the next one or two decades is wishful thinking. There is a long road ahead for development to deeply take root in Africa, with provision being made for regress, even the ‘civilised’ nations of the West were forced to live through the experiences of World War One and Two. Nevertheless the future is bright. Africa has adopted the model of development initiated centuries prior by the ‘West’ and has adapted it to their own socio-economic circumstance and political realities. This is the template of the future – taking what was done before and replicating it without the missteps and problems. It is what The Peoples Republic of China has done, and it is what the African continent has begun to do.
The West’s problems
Since the Renaissance, Europe has stood as a bastion and a ‘carrier of the torch’ for many of the philosophies of the present day that are easily taken for granted. Although it must be noted that the teachings of Confucius, Aristotle, Plato and many other historically renowned philosophers have been essential to the enlightened understanding of the world which is present today, it could hardly be argued that the Renaissance and the events that soon followed ushered in not only their practical application but greater coherency. The Renaissance moved Western philosophy from just a wide- range of varying theories to almost a concrete doctrine, a way of life. It brought to a reality the separation of Church and State, questioned the legitimacy of the aristocracy and initiated the beginnings of an economic revolution.
The American War of independence of 1776 (noting many have argued that the meeting of the First Continental Congress in 1774 signalled its beginning), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), the French Revolution of 1789 and the eventual Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen changed drastically the way in which life was carried out in the Europe. More specifically, Western Europe had begun charting a course that would eventually spread to almost every corner of the world in some form or fashion. A core group of developed countries would eventually emerge based on relatively loose geographical, socio- economic and political criteria. The West, given that it has for centuries stood at the helm, has therefore been faced with unique problems that have appeared foreign to other parts of the world, although its effects have been felt.
Economic crises, terrorism, questions of moral responsibility and general stagnation have been at the forefront of these challenges. Is there room for growth by the West? Or is there a shelf life to the western profit-driven capitalist philosophy of growth as the only measure of success? Is there more to life than just economic and financial security? Can anything be learnt from others who are less economically prosperous but more spiritually in tune? With birth rates declining and life expectancy rates increasing in developed countries in general, the following question has become more pertinent: What is the purpose of life?
On a more immediate note however, the 2008 ‘Great Recession’ has also cast doubts as to whether the capitalist model of ‘boom and bust’ is beneficial in the long term. Does the state have to intervene to cushion the blow if need be? Or does unbridled capitalism and the power of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ enough to determine the market’s just winners and losers? When it comes to the West there seem to be more questions than answers. Regardless, history has shown that when answers cannot be found within, they can be found through corporation, reason and will.
The rise of the ‘Rest’ and what some have called the decline of the West, is setting up this century to be one in which the world takes new shape. History has shown that with economic and political advancement comes ‘cultural sway’ and a potential increase in ‘soft power’ (to use Joseph Nye’s term). There could come a time in which the cultural trends of the world may no longer be determined by the present cultural outposts of a Los Angeles, New York, London or Paris but rather Shanghai, Accra or Abu Dhabi.
This is not something that should necessarily be resisted. History has shown that the transfer of power from empire to empire has sometimes been gradual and almost seamless. Two centuries ago Britain held an empire that measured one third of the planet. The last century saw America’s rise as the dominant force in the world, reaching heights unparalleled in human history. The reality is however, that this is not necessarily a direct shift of power but rather a diffusion of power from the West to the Rest, resulting in a more proportional balance of power and a more multi-polar as opposed to uni-polar world.
From the Renaissance onward Europe has led the way of a new era in earth’s history, exporting its philosophies and doctrines firstly to places where its peoples migrated (noting North America and Australia) and then being used as an example by other peoples. Some renowned political scientist and theorists have posited a potential ‘Clash of Civilizations’, and in no way is an attempt being made to invalidate any such theory, however, more so the reality is a transferring of knowledge from civilisation to civilisation and by default a meshing of civilisations. Especially given how closely knit the world now is by technology and communication, it could be predicted that change would surely take place at an immensely rapid pace. The rise of the oppressed does not mean the subjugation of any other, it simply means: The rise of the oppressed. It’s surely an exciting time to be alive.
Travel Guide China. “China Outbound Tourism 2014”. Last Accessed 30. November http://www.travelchinaguide.com/tourism/2014statistics/outbound.htm : Google 2015
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 “Brookings Data Now: Statistics on Africa”. Last Accessed 30. November http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/brookings-now/posts/2014/07/statistics-on-africa-brookings-data-now : Google 2015
Author: Mikhail E.D. Byng