Trump and the confusion over ‘western civilization’…there is no such thing as ‘western civilization’
Trump’s entry into foreign policy discussions here seems unpromising to say the least. But he makes a mistake that is not his alone and which pervades discourse, especially on the right. It is the fallacy of Western civilization.
I have to recommend the perspective of the ‘macro effect’ from WHEE which sets aside the category of ‘civilizations (for a more abstract and useful idea of ‘transitions’ or ‘differential time-slices’ of civilizations). Civilizations are amorphous blobs that don’t analyze.
The idea of a ‘western civilization’ is a confused Eurocentric fallacy at best and a complete misunderstanding of European history in any case. It arises because the Hellennic take off in the Axial Age placed the center of gravity of core Middle Eastern (Sumero-Egypt) civilizational complex slightly to the West with respect to the original center of gravity. This, and the related Roman civilization, created a strong diffusion field for elements of several diffusion fields, e.g. the Hellenic/Roman, and the Israelite/Persian (the latter’s effects are visible in Old Testament). But the Axial Age did the same to the east, and we see similar post-Axial take offs in India and China. (The question of Africa had already been dealt with in the earlier Egyptian era). Thus the Sumero-Egyptian complex (we should say the original proto-Sumerian civilization) is the first visible stepping stone in the master sequence. It way of producing lateral synchronous effects is confusing, but doesn’t change this perception of a unified process.
But we see that in broad strokes THERE IS ONLY ONE CIVILIZATIONAL SEQUENCE made of different pieces in world history and this has a beginning probably in the Neolithic, but with a first visible stepping in the source of third millennium Sumer. The model in WHEE has however a formal hedge in its ‘stream and sequence’ argument: the streams are multiple as cultural legacies inherited from the Paleolithic while the master sequence of the macro effect is a linear/synchronous-lateral direction production overlaid on the streams.
So we could posit then that there is a a rough overall master sequence visible in world history. This balances unity and diversity over time, a long time.
The rise of Europe is therefore similar to the rise of the other previous transition zones, save that its action has confused everyone with Eurocentric delusions because we don’t see the same lateral effect. But the modern transition is a clear successor to the Axial Age take off, and its temporary uniqueness is due to an obvious reason: the Axial Age was the last period in which separate synchronous cultural zones could expand without destructive collisions. In fact, that’s not quite true: the Roman and Greek cases began to collide with Israel, but the latter had a funny trick: it created a transcultural religion which overtook its own conquest by Rome.
Whatever the case, we see roughly parallel independent zones in proximate antiquity after the Axial Age and they are able to develop with relative isolation, although the ground of interaction was ‘shrinking’ rapidly.
We can see why the macro effect jumps to an extreme exterior point relative to core Eurasia, and rapidly generates a new form of cultural modernity that is designed to be transcultural from the start: science, philosophy, economics, even linguistic art in the English universalization of a global language, are all aspects of a new global oikoumene. And whatever the protests over Eurocentrism the reality remains that this form of modernity has been a tremendous success and has spread to virtually every country on the planet.
It is thus false to say that there is anything like a Western civilization: there is a frontier effect leading to the restart zone in the sixteenth century in a small subset of Europe (and this does not include the Americas, or Russia, or even Sweden, etc… despite their readiness as instant diffusion zones) and this rapidly generates a true first: a global oikoumene, still under formation. The local areas in this process in our stream and sequence concept maintain many of their local culture in its stream aspect but the core civilization is rapidly becoming the global standard, which is no longer ‘western’ as such. The core of the modern transition is clear from the frontier effect: the exact contour of the frontier zones of the Roman Empire in Europe: Germany, Holland, England, France and Spain. It is not accident the modern transition takes off in these zones, especially in Germany, the one case that was on the frontier but never inside its boundary. Amazing, and a bit puzzling. But this system is the generator of one common global civilization, still in process. This has nothing to do with ‘Europe’.
We see therefore that ‘cultures’ are manifold, but ‘civilizations’ are really those same ‘cultures’ in the context of entering the One Global Civilization originating in the Neolithic, and whose first core visible locality is southern Sumer after 3000 BCE or so. The true beginning is not so clear (we see the Natufian in the Canaan zone and Anatolia), but the basic point is clear, that all ‘civilizations’ are blended ‘cultures’ with this macro mainline with its confusing sidewinders and synchronous action. Thwre is one basic master sequence, Civilization, with many built in diversities.
It is thus not helpful to speak of ‘european civilization’ (which doesn’t include the US!), or ‘western civilization’, west of what?
To focus on the US is therefore completely misguided. The US is a secondary diffusion zone, like Rome’s relation to Axial Age Greece, and is at best a sidewinder. The US is a bungled job from the start in the way it inflicted genocide on the Indians (such things are frequent in history but not in the master sequence as such, but which cannot always control all its effects). But the US has its pluses, we are being harsh at the point where its inherent limitations are generating its slow destruction. Another discussion.
Trump is thus not the only one to get confused here. One problem is that modernity seems to exploit a regression: nationalism. The great religions like Christianity and Islam attempted much earlier to transcend such constructs, but they failed to really resolve the issues, which are trending once again toward transnational universalization.
We should ditch the term ‘Global civilization’ because of its suggestion of uniformity. Our account shows rather a truly ingenious way to create a form of ‘unity with deliberately garlanded diversity’. The uniformity of economic, legal, etc…forms of the early modern are real but do not and should not preclude variety. The text of WHEE always speaks of oikoumenes, not Civilization or civilizations. Oikoumenes are de facto unities of diverse horse-trading diffusion zones made of cultural unities/diversities, a better term. The beauty of this method is that the global system is getting a degree of unity in diversity, and that diversity itself begins to diffuse into the oikoumene. Over-homogenization could indeed become a problem. Note the flood of great literary art that emerges in the English early modern: this spooky system exploits a unique case, a sea faring island with a nice pidgin, and it rapidly becomes a koine, not for so long, we suspect, given the example of the Roman empire. This resource rich linguistic substrate has an obvious value to a global system.