Does the Western Mind Need Decolonising?

“Justice is destroyed by the violent man who possesses power.”

– Aquinas

When Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin described Liberalism as a racist ideology, his Liberal interlocutors looked shocked. One of them, American Journalist and critic, Leon Wieseltier responded by describing Liberalism as the “Supreme achievement of the human spirit.” That comes with “a portrait of the human being in terms of dignity, nobility and rights.” But what has become increasingly obvious, watching Liberal democracies cheer on the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people, is that the much-vaunted ‘Liberal portrait’ is not of them.

How can these contradictory aspects of Western society be reconciled? Elevated words about human potential on the one hand and on the other, the most devastating assault on humanity the world has ever seen? Of course it is hypocrisy and a shameless demonstration of a colonial mind set. But more than that, it reveals a fundamental flaw in Western society that may not be amenable to repair. And that is because the supremacist mentality Dugin identified is a constitutive, though usually hidden, aspect of the Western Liberal project. And it remains hidden because the public intellectuals, academics and journalists whose role it is to challenge their society’s failure to uphold the moral standards it proclaims, have themselves been co-opted by the very ideology they are supposed to hold to account.

Despite the flowery ‘human rights’ rhetoric, Liberalism does view the world in hierarchical terms. And sees itself as having a messianic mission to transform all other cultures and civilisations to its likeness. By convincing people that its principles are universal, and consequently morally binding on everyone, Liberalism has succeeded in presenting itself as the final ideology for the entire globe. And, as a corollary to that, the West has set itself up as sole judge of the new world order: authorised not only to write the rules, but to change them or break them at will. Because, by assuming the position of supreme moral arbiter, the West has effectively secured itself against moral censure.

However, Liberalism has only been able to achieve cultural dominance by maintaining a perceptual divide between its imaginary humanist principles and the bloody reality of its imperial exploits, which have been considerable. Historically, public opinion didn’t need to be managed because all the atrocities, massacres, ethnic cleansings, genocides and other destructive practices carried out by European settlers took place in hidden places and were inflicted on people who didn’t count. After all, this was a time when the extermination of ‘lesser’ races was openly discussed; Charles Darwin thought it a ‘not very distant certainty’.

That is no longer the case; now opinion has to be controlled in every single aspect of public, and increasingly private, life. It is easy to think of media censorship, tighter laws controlling what people can say and see and belong to, and the threats of arrest, expulsion, being sacked, deported or imprisoned, not to mention the colossal financial costs that can go with ‘speaking out of line’ all of which have now been normalised. The mistake would be to see such measures as arbitrary add-ons and not recognise them as the very fabric of Western society itself. From the first gateways that deliver us over to public life, we are cajoled and entreated to become a certain sort of citizen. Whether consciously or not, it is easy to see where the rewards are, and the direction we need to go in if we want to get ahead or even just enjoy a carefree life. But this massive collusion has had a deleterious effect on every aspect of Liberal society: hollowing out the social sector, destroying the purpose of education, corrupting human relationships, and desensitising people to the suffering of others, particularly if they are not white. As it should, because it is not possible to corral people, infantilise them and attempt to divert them from realising and expressing their moral nature without suffering serious cultural consequences.

The primary way the West maintains control of the dominant Imperialist narrative is by keeping those who would challenge it locked out. This is easily achieved by the use of terms of erasure like terrorist, rebel, insurgent or criminal. Though ‘terrorist’ is the label most often used, ‘Islamist’ has become popular as a handy counter to criticism coming from the Muslim world; the obvious implication being that such critics are religious extremists and dangerous. And of course, ‘Hamas’ is now the link word for erasing anything Palestinian.

All of these terms are supremely useful because, having primed the masses to draw undesirable associations from them, a single utterance usually suffices to nullify any information mainstream doesn’t want acknowledged. Keeping the populace permanently primed against certain groups is also useful to deflect criticism from Western governments should they find a country they want to invade or bomb.

Presently, the term ‘antisemitism’ which is the name appropriately given to the odious, racist ideology deployed against the Jewish people by Christian Europe, is being misappropriated as a term of erasure against any criticism of Israel or Zionism. In this latter inappropriate context it is now being widely deployed against Palestinians or, indeed Muslims more widely. This is particularly insidious given the close relations enjoyed between Islam and Judaism during the many centuries of Christian persecution. As renowned scholar of Judaism, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, points out, rejecting Judaism was the very essence of Christianity and was unique to that successor religion; it is not something capable of being grafted on historically. And that is because unlike other faiths, e.g., Islam or Paganism, Christianity regards Judaism as an ontological anomaly: as something that should no longer exist now that Christianity has arrived. Which is why it is historically illiterate to describe Hamas’ attack on Israeli citizens as a pogrom, which is an attack on Jews qua Jews, or to suggest that Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation is somehow antisemitic, as Wieseltier, and numerous other doyens of the Liberal establishment recently have. That would seem to suggest that the Palestinians have the choice of one of two labels: subjugant or racist, which doesn’t sound very Liberal. But, of course, the purpose of such language is not to further political analysis but to block it and thereby effect erasure of the Palestinian cause.

In many ways the permanently-postponed righteousness of Liberal ideology resembles religion more than politics. Its believers preferring an imaginary distant utopia which can be pontificated on at length to political action demanding justice now. It is therefore not surprising that just as Christian missionaries were once deployed to assist the colonial project, (King Leopold II reminded his that whilst evangelising was fine, their priority was Belgian interests) Liberal pundits provide the same white-washing service today. It seems extraordinary, but practically all the intellectual resources of the West are now deployed in maintaining this illusion, with academics, think-tanks, and all manner of spokespeople congratulating and rewarding each other in a never-ending and entirely circular performance that is supposed to inspire and reassure the wider populace that they are part of the utopian vanguard.  The most troubling aspect of that delusion, however, is the toll it has taken on society’s moral conscience. As a heavily propagandised populace is constantly being reminded that Liberalism, in all its aspects, is the salvation of the planet and all they have to do is recycle and keep shopping. Anyone who rejects that propaganda and insists there are imperatives demanding truth and justice that need to be followed is lampooned as an obstacle to progress. Since, according to Liberalism, all moral rules have been subsumed into the Liberal promise. That means that Liberalism now actually serves as a bulwark against justice which is the greatest tragedy and the most serious sickness a society can suffer.

In essence Justice is about getting what one is due – simply that. It is about an entitlement that is owed and must be recognised. That is the obligatory nature of justice. And the key thing about the virtue of Justice [apart from it being about the only thing Derrida could not deconstruct] is that it is the only virtue that is not about us as separate individuals; it is relational. In philosopher, Josef Pieper’s work on Justice, in the second chapter, entitled, “Duty in Relation to The Other”, he quotes Aquinas as saying, “It is proper to justice, as compared with the other virtues, to direct man in his relations with others….”, ‘direct’ being the operative word here. “The other virtues,” he continues, “perfect man only in those matters which befit him in relation to himself.”

Already we can see a gaping lacuna at the heart of the Liberal project, focused as it is on hyper-individualism. Unlike Liberalism, Justice actually is a universal: we all know it. Even animals recognise injustice.  And as the ancients were aware, ignoring justice has ontological consequences: you cannot be unjust without destroying yourself as a human being. As Plato explained in the first treatise written on statecraft, a society cannot act unjustly without destroying its humanity, and individuals cannot ignore justice without losing their soul.

In the world of justice, it is the deed that speaks. As Aquinas makes clear in the Summa Theologica, “the point is not how the deed accords with the doer, but rather, how it affects ‘the other person.’” Justice directs us to act for them, for the other, not for ourselves. And every single solitary act, or failure to act by every single person counts, because as Pieper explains, “every external act belongs to the field of justice. Whatever external act a person performs, it is either just or unjust.” There is no sitting on the fence where justice is concerned. Self-justifying procrastination may be fine for Liberalism – par for the course in fact – but it is a dismal failure when seen through the eyes of justice.

The fate of the European soul was the focus of Conrad’s famous novella, ‘Heart of Darkness’, published in 1899 – four years after the Berlin Conference at which the European powers divvied up the continent of Africa. Conrad’s ‘inspiration’, if that is the right word, came from his time working for Belgian colonial interests in what was then known as the Belgian Congo, (It was King Leopold II’s own private fiefdom until the Belgian government took it over). Conrad went to the Congo a sailor but came back a writer, so horrified was he by the atrocities he had witnessed there. But the work is not simply a polemic against Western colonialism, Conrad looks deeper than that. His account is of the change that violent venture effected on the European mind.

And it is through the fate of Kurtz – the transplanted European: cultured, liberal-minded and gifted, who is transformed by the Imperial power he wields into a monstrous, soulless creature – that Conrad shows us the degeneration and deformation of the liberal world order. In Kurtz there is no duplicity, no pretence. He has not kept himself divided between the pretentions back home and the violent reality of his colonial quest; he has ‘stepped over the edge’. What is most remarkable about Kurtz, whom the sea-faring character Marlow (a stand in for Conrad) goes to find, and is of continuing significance today, is his eloquence. “The man presented himself as a voice,” is how Marlow describes him. Notwithstanding Kurtz’s hideous physical malformation, the atrocities he openly committed, and the obvious hollowness of his being, it is the man’s eloquence that Marlow notes and treasures. And for one troubling moment, when Marlow is overwhelmed by the magnificence of Kurtz’s words, we wonder, as does Marlow, which one is the real Kurtz? Will the luminous, utopian treatise he has produced be sufficient to wipe away the horror? The report Kurtz has written is for ‘The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs’ and as he reads it, Marlow is transported by its ‘august benevolence’ and its ‘burning noble words’. But what brings Marlow back to earth is Kurtz’s postscript, written in a different hand after his confrontation with the real world. Penned in the margin next to the final paragraph’s ‘moving appeal to every altruistic sentiment,” Kurtz had written, ‘Exterminate all the brutes.”

Susan Roberts is a lecturer in moral philosophy and animal rights.