Author: thewestresearchers

Occidentalism: The West since 1945 (proposals by 15 November)

Subject Fields: Area Studies, Immigration & Migration History / Studies, Geography, Diplomacy and International Relations, Popular Culture Studies

 

Occidentalism: The West since 1945

Slightly Revised Version

This conference will examine the notion of “Occidentalism”, which is defined by The Dictionary of Human Geography (5th edition, 2009) as “The systematic construction of ‘the West’ (‘the Occident) as a bounded and unified entity.” This construction exists among those who consider themselves as “Western” and those who do not. The term is obviously envisaged as the counterpart of “Orientalism” by Edward Said (1978). The idea of the “West”, in opposition to the “East”, is an ancient one, although this conference will focus on the period since the Second World War, using a perspective that is pluricultural and interdisciplinary.

A major objective of this conference is to analyze certain key terms and their continuing pertinence. To begin with, although the definition above speaks of the “West” as a “bounded” entity, the exact boundaries are far from clear. It is often understood as comprising Western Europe and countries where a majority of the population are of Western European origin (notably the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand). However, the position of Latin America is different. How do they see the “West” and how do they see themselves in relation to this “West”?

The ambiguity of Latin America’s place may relate to the link often made between being a “Western” nation and economic development. What, for example, is the situation of countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan which are economically similar and share democratic values? What are the characteristics that tie them to the “West”? What makes a society perceive itself as partially or majoritarily “Western”?”

A further consideration is how “unified” an entity is the “West”?  How do individual “Western” nations perceive themselves and other “Western” nations? What is the place of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition in this definition? What is the role of immigration and diasporas? How do “non-Westerners” living in the “West” see their identity and what is their sense of belonging?   What is their attitude to “Westernization” as a global phenomenon?

To what extent is the historical East/West split being transformed into a North/South one? Is the “West” likely to remain a relevant notion?

A particularly important part of this conference is to explore how people who identify themselves as being from other cultures view the “West”. Edward Said identified the frequency of stereotypes in how “Westerners” see the “Orient”. Is the reverse also true? On what do they base their image? How do these people define the “West” and what are their attitudes to the “Westernization” of their own country? To their colonial or former colonial power? Does the situation vary according to regions or nations? In many countries, the question of “Westernization” has political, social and cultural connotations. Some régimes are seen as “pro-Western” and others as “anti-Western”. Some people are qualified as “Westernized” because of their way of life or thought.

Finally, how can “narrations” be linked to popular representations? How do the media participate in the construction, deconstruction and reconstruction of these representations?

We would welcome submissions on all geographical regions on the following subjects, including (but not limited to):

– Occidentalism as a counter discourse to Orientalism, including Said’s critique of “Occidentalism”

– The imaginative geographies of non-Western cultures

  – The populist sense of Occidentalism that arose following 9/11 and 7/7 and the privileging of the West and global Modernity as subjects in such accounts

–  Analyses of the reflection on the West in particular genres

·   How the foreign policy elite views the West (both those who consider themselves Western and those who do not)

·   The presentation of Western elites and the lives of ordinary citizens

·    Political or social movements that span the West and the global South (for example the communist party or LGBTQ movements). How do the Western members view themselves and how do their non-Western allies see them?

·    Perceptions of race, gender, age, religion or social class

·    The reception of Western TV series, music, video games and movies in the global South, including those aimed at children

·     The impact of censorship, whether official or self-imposed

·     Commercials, public service announcements and documentaries

·     Changes in discourses and stereotypes about the West

Keynotes:

Manuel Burga Dìaz, Emeritus professeur of history and former rector of the Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos in Peru

Alastair Bonnett, Professor of social geography at the University of Newcastle and author of the book, The Idea of the West : Culture, Politics and History

The conference will take place from 10 to 12 June 2020 at the University of Paris 8. The language of the conference will be English and French. Because of the large amount of work that has already been done in literature, notably in post-colonial studies, the conference will focus on the social sciences. Contributions are invited by specialists in history, politics, geography, visual studies, sociology and anthropology. Please submit an abstract of 250 to 300 words and a short CV by 15 December 2019 to  https://easychair.org/conferences/?conf=occ2020

 

Contact Info:

Lori Maguire

Democracy Between the West and “the Rest”

Marie-Josée Lavallée, University of Montréal, Canada

Review of Albertus, Michael, and Menaldo, Victor, 2018. Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy, New York – Cambridge.

Those who believe that actual democracies are, and strive to be, as true as possible to the classical definition of democracy as an expression of the power of, by, and for the people, will be disillusioned from the very first pages of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. “Democracy is often an enterprise undertaken by elites and for elites,” write Michael Albertus and Victor Menaldo (p. 3). For scholars and interested readers, this book surveys the root causes of contemporary dissatisfaction with democracy.

Democracy has been plagued by corruption, polarization, ineffectiveness, and the privileging of elite interests rather than the people’s will. Moreover, democratic conditions like freedom, equality, and the protection of individual rights have suffered in recent years in many parts of the world in regimes claiming to be democratic. The strong popular support given to overtly populist and right-wing leaders and parties is another recent cause for concern. Disappointment with democracy, disaffection, and blatant rejection are far from new. Is democracy an inherently defective or corrupt regime, a conviction that was widespread during the darkest hours of the last century and was already voiced by some of the greatest minds of antiquity? In fact, democracy has no definite form and can take on different physiognomies, depending on the soil in which it takes root and the conditions in which it grows. When the latter are not favorable, democracy can be a mere label used to lend an aura of legitimacy to autocratic regimes. Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy identifies basic factors that have derailed democracy. The book combines empirical studies and theoretical discussion in order to identify the conditions in which transitions to democracy and democratizations occur and the main structural and circumstantial conditions and impediments that influence that process.

Transitions to democracy result either in an elite-biased or a popular democracy. The outcome depends on the type of regime that prevailed beforehand (referred to by the authors as either “consolidated dictatorship” or “volatile dictatorship”); structural factors like state capacity, the existence of a legislature under autocracy, and autocratic legacies like strong militaries, hegemonic parties, and preexisting political structures; and circumstantial factors. Constitutions are a key element. When the latter is drafted well before the transition, autocratic elites have plenty of room for defining its provisions and thus ensuring that their interests will continue to prevail in the new democratic regime, usually an “elite-biased” democracy. Conversely, a popular democracy will be a more likely outcome when a constitution is written at a time of transition or if the new regime inherits a democratic constitution, as in the cases of Czech Republic and Slovakia, which were parts of former Czechoslovakia. Countries previously subjected to colonial or imperial rule are a different case. Because there is no indigenous regime to overthrow after independence, there is no need of a transition process to create a democratic regime. Even if imperialist elites leave the country afterward, the former occupiers leave behind institutional legacies that plague the flourishing democracy. This is especially the case when independence was initiated by the former colonial power rather than through an indigenous revolution. Newly independent countries are thus likely “to have political legacies imposed on them by their colonial forebears that resemble authoritarian legacies” (p. 249).

The typology of democracy on which the authors rely suffices to show that transitions and the democratization process are often initiated and controlled from above rather than from below, even though this framework can be overly minimalist. There exist so many competing conceptions and experiences of democracy that one must be more specific. The authors’ distinction between elite-biased and popular democracy is based on the mode of selection of leaders and the distribution of suffrage. Popular democracy is said to be more representative, pluralistic, inclusive, and redistributive than its counterpart. However, the actual democratic climate of a given country depends on the prevalence of these criteria. The distinction between democracies “by name” and more popular ones also relies on a set of qualitative criteria, like freedom of speech, civil liberties, opportunities for political action, and popular influence on decisional processes. The authors have no interest in these barometers of democracy, nor in informal institutions like political cultures or ideas. They choose to focus on formal institutions, since the elites make their interests prevail through these channels.

That elite-biased democracy is the most common outcome of transitions and democratization, and that these processes are routine strategies for incumbent political and economic elites in dictatorships to secure their preexisting positions, are crucial observations often neglected by other studies. The chapter devoted to the analysis of these strategies is one of the richest in the book. Two-thirds of the transitions that occurred between 1800 and 2006 inherited a constitution from their autocratic predecessors. In the postwar era alone, this proportion reached 70 percent. This scenario applies to some of the oldest Western democracies, findings that are compatible with the conclusions of the most recent empirical studies.[1]

Acknowledging elites’ designs to make democracy subservient to their own interests greatly contributes to understanding why democracy so often suffers   from unhealthy development and collapse, and fails   to meet people’s expectations. However, this does not require reducing democracy to a mere battlefield for elites’ internecine struggles and intrigues. Most of the data and interpretations put forward in Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy converge toward this conclusion, even though the authors affirm that democracies “do not all disappoint” (p. 99). They go so far as to suggest that even in cases where popular democracies are crafted by “outsiders and economic elites and the masses,” incumbent elites maintain control of the democratization process. Some democracies built upon an autocratic constitution managed to alter it later on, but this was not due to popular pressure and action, according to the authors.

The refusal to recognize that people can play an autonomous and independent role in democratization, a point emphasized in many recent studies, is a weakness of the analysis.[2] Instances were elites’ plans were put in check by a popular vote or action are mentioned, but the logical conclusions do not follow. The masses are depicted as unable to unite, organize, and coordinate by themselves. They “suffer from a serious collective action problem” because they are divided by characteristics like race, ethnicity, and economic status. They also lack the ability to “coordinate on a single focal point or solution to translate their preferences into national political power” (p. 35). Thus, action depends on “mobilization from above” (p. 35), especially on the support of “outsider economic elites” (p. 36). For all these reasons, one cannot expect that the people have the necessary skills “to follow through and orchestrate long-lasting political change of their own” (p. 35). Another bold claim is that revolutions may be triggered or supported by outside groups and elites in a struggle against incumbent elites. Revolution is likely to result in popular democracy and economic redistribution, an outcome elites usually try to avoid.

Progress and popular democracy often rely on conjuncture and chance rather than popular action. An unexpected deterioration of conditions securing elites’ domination, a dictator’s death, an unexpected and large-scale protest action, an economic collapse, currency or debt crisis, or a natural disaster is sometimes the key factor. These types of circumstances serve as limited grounds for improvement, since they elicit initiatives and responses from above. According to the authors, real change is the outcome of institutional and constitutional measures. This was the case in Sweden, the topic of the sixth chapter. Although often celebrated as “the most egalitarian” country, its most admirable features resulted from medium- and long-term developments that were not present from the onset.

The use of different methodological approaches is one of the strongest features of Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. Its primary focus is democratic transitions that occurred during the second half the twentieth century, the period referred to as the “third wave of democratization” and to which many empirical studies have been devoted since the mid-1990s, although the authors also reference the history of democratization since 1800 in order to give more depth to their analysis. They draw on empirical data, which they present in charts and tables, from influential studies in the field, and they also use raw data on occasion. In the fourth chapter, the authors use empirical calculations to quantify each of the factors put forward in the book. These tests confirm their thesis that democratic regimes often bear the scars of a previous autocracy. They also use calculations in the fifth chapter, where they explore the evolution from a democracy with an autocratic constitution to one based on a popular sovereignty. They identify the factors that trigger constitutional changes, measure their occurrence, and evaluate their impact. The authors also test their hypotheses on the qualitative level, through case studies. Chapters devoted to Sweden and Chile are intended to verify scenarios and conclusions related to authoritarian legacies. Canada, the Philippines, and Ukraine are used to illustrate the “pathologies” inherited from colonial or imperial episodes in the last chapter of the book (p. 248).

The authors also revisit long-debated issues concerning democratization, as in the connections between economic well-being, economic development or “modernity,” and democracy. Democratic regimes do not automatically foster economic equality, hold the authors. Moreover, autocracies may implement generous public policies to attract popular support and limit their opponents. This strategy is common among rising economic elites in new democracies. Using indicators of democratization current in other studies such as per capita income and total natural resources income per capita, the authors contest the commonly held position that economic modernity fosters democracy. Steady economic growth can stabilize authoritarian regimes. Modernization, according to the authors, enables “incumbent political and economic elites to coordinate for a favorable transition from dictatorship and endow[s] them with the tools to realize it” (p. 56). In other words, economic modernity can help smooth the transition to an elite-biased democracy rather than for a popular democracy. In addition, the impact of imperial and colonial legacies may remain strong. Instead of considering cases from sub-Saharan Africa, where colonialism’s impact has been devastating, the authors focus on former British colonies that are often treated by other scholars as robust democracies and not included in studies of colonialism’s impact on democracy. The same is true for countries that had been occupied by the United States.

The overall impression from Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy is that democracy as a regime of, by, and for the people is a fantasy, despite the authors’ declared intent to avoid a pessimistic reading of events. The book is also an invitation to take full measure of how deeply democracy has been captured by elites, in the hope that this process can be reversed. Despite the overemphasis on elites’ manipulation of democracy and failure to fully appreciate people’s potential for organization and action, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy is an outstanding book. It brings to light crucial elements of why democracy so often fails to fulfill its promises. The variety of methodological approaches enhances the book. The authors address important and long-debated issues while suggesting new explanations and perspectives. This approach serves as an open invitation to other scholars to join the discussion.

Notes
[1]. See for instance Scott Mainwaring and Fernando Bizzarro, “The Fates of Third-Wave Democracies,” Journal of Democracy 30, no. 1 (2019): 99-113; 103-05, 107-08.
[2]. The decisive impact of social movements and popular parties is the common denominator of the essays gathered in the following volume, which explores democratization in most areas of the world: Nancy Bermeo and Deborah J. Yashar, eds., Parties, Movements, and Democracy in the Developing World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

This review was originally published on H-Net : Marie-Josée Lavallée. Review of Albertus, Michael; Menaldo, Victor, Authoritarianism and the Elite Origins of Democracy. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=52623.

Call for Papers for an edited volume – Extended deadline October 18, 2019

The West Network held in June 2019 its Second International Conference, «The End of Western Hegemonies?». A volume gathering chapters inspired from the papers presented at the conference is in preparation. The volume will also welcome other contributions.

The book will focus on political and cultural challenges to Western hegemonies. Contributions examining contestations from the perspective of the non-Western world are welcome. Chapters dealing with democracy in non-Western contexts are especially encouraged. Submitted papers must not have been previously published (including in another language).

*Potential authors must be Ph.D. holders and affiliated to a university.

Please note that submissions will be peer-reviewed and must be carefully prepared.

Submissions must contain (please send all documents in Word format) :

1) A short abstract of the planned chapter clearly stating the topic, hypothesis, main arguments, methodological approach and sources + a list of 5-6 keywords (1/2 page – ¾ page).

2) A detailed preview of the planned chapter (5-6 pages) including references and footnotes.

Please also include:

3) In a single file:
(page 1) Identification : Name, job title, affiliation, institutional address, work phone number, home address, home phone number, e-mail address
(page 2) Short biography mentioning professional information relevant to the publication (as previous publications, teaching/research experience)

4) A short cv (2-3 pages max.).

Please send all material by September 30 to the attention of Marie-Josée Lavallée at marie-josee.lavallee@umontreal.ca.
No submissions will be considered afterwards.

Potential authors will be notified after the peer-review process will be completed and once the selection of papers will have been made by the editor and the publisher (around 2-3 months). Authors will be allowed six months for the preparation of their chapter (8000 words).

Marie-Josée Lavallée
University of Montréal, Canada
Coordinating team, the West Network

Strategic Occidentalism and Mexican Fiction

C. J. Enloe 

Review of Sánchez-Prado, Ignacio M. Strategic Occidentalism: On Mexican Fiction, the Neoliberal Book Market, and the Question of World Literature. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 2018. 248 pp.

In this book’s three chapters, Ignacio Sánchez-Prado explores the works of several post-1968 Mexican fiction authors in order to elaborate a new, more comprehensive understanding of the concept of “world literature” and its relationship to literary production in Mexico. Sánchez-Prado seeks to problematize critical treatments of Mexican literature that are rooted in nationalism and cultural specificity, recasting the oeuvres of important Mexican authors in light of their interactions with literary influences from around the globe and with the neoliberal book market. He argues that
individual authors construct their own personal world literatures as a way of contending with a pair of problematic imperatives: first, to project an authentic vision of national identity through their work, and second, to compete for notoriety and commercial success within the publishing market. The book’s title, Strategic Occidentalism, references Sánchez-Prado’s preferred term to denominate these deliberate acts of authorial self-positioning.

Sánchez-Prado does not subscribe to a Damroschian notion of world literature that would include only literary works that circulate transnationally. Instead, he proposes that world literature is fundamentally defined by “the material networks and practices that construct its archives and repertoire” (15). Thus, even works that have not been translated or that have enjoyed only limited circulation abroad can still be considered part of world literature in the sense that they owe their existence to the unique agglomeration of national and international influences that shaped the author’s stylistic and thematic decisions. In accordance with this material focus, close textual readings are not the critic’s primary approach to analyzing the selection of works his book presents (though they are certainly present). Rather, he dedicates significant space to contextualizing the authors’ production within both the Mexican literary canon and a more global context, underscoring relevant elements of their biographies and emphasizing their shifting relationships with different types of publishers over the course of their careers.

Sánchez-Prado presents his seven case studies to the reader in roughly chronological order, underscoring the relationship between different authors in terms of both genealogical legacies and intergenerational shifts. The first chapter is the book’s most in-depth study of an individual author, focusing exclusively on “Mexican literature’s leading cosmopolitan” Sergio Pitol, whose extensive travels and encounters with other cultures and literatures shaped his literary trajectory (25). The critic argues that Pitol’s contributions to translation, literary criticism, autobiography, and fiction during the
1970s and 80s established a new, heterodox form of cosmopolitanism and worldly engagement that laid the groundwork for a shift in the understanding of Mexican literature within Mexico and internationally. He shows particular interest in Pitol’s translation of works from literary traditions such as the Eastern European avant-garde and Anglophone modernism, much of which he did while living abroad.

His selection of works to translate—including those of Witold Gombrowicz, Ivy ComptonBurnett, and many others—evidence the construction of an alternative world literature canon consisting of authors who resisted the imperative to write serious, national literature, instead employing unorthodox modernist aesthetics such as estrangement and the carnivalesque. SánchezPrado demonstrates how Pitol’s own fiction draws from the narrative techniques he admired in other national literatures, using these alternative, worldly genealogies as a tool to expand the realm of Mexican fiction beyond the 20th -century tradition of the totalizing political narrative. In both his 1979 short story “Nocturno de Bujara” and his 1984 novel El desfile del amor, Pitol deploys the disorienting intertwining of unreliable narrative threads as a strategy to reveal “the impossibility of using literature to construct memory or meaning” (64).

In the second chapter, Sánchez-Prado turns his attention to the Crack group, a loosely-organized collective of Mexican writers whose fiction, published starting in the mid-1990s, sought to challenge both the existing stereotypes surrounding Latin American literary production and the false dichotomy between high art and commercial literature. As is well known, faced with the challenge of gaining visibility for their work without conforming to the magical realist imperative, Pedro Ángel Palou, Eloy Urroz, Ignacio Padilla, Ricardo Chávez Castañeda, and Jorge Volpi published the “Crack Manifesto” in 1996, proclaiming their goal to combat what they perceived as the trivialization of literature as a result of market forces. However, the critic argues that, rather than shunning the commercial market, each of the chapter’s featured authors used his own individual set of strategies to insert comparatively dense literary works into this system of circulation.

In his 1999 novel En busca de Klingsor, Jorge Volpi combines a diverse series of elements, including detective fiction, mathematical notions of uncertainty, and a portrayal of Nazism as part of world (not just European) history to create a commercially successful work that is thematically and stylistically complex, and that firmly rejects the national-cosmopolitan dichotomy. Ignacio Padilla’s Amphitryon (2000) also takes up the theme of Nazism in a bid to question literature’s capacity to serve as historical allegory, while his later work La Gruta del Toscano (2006) performs a symbolic Orientalization of Europe, deflecting the exoticism to which Latin American authors and literature have so often been exposed. Finally, Pedro Ángel Palou’s Paraíso clausurado (2000) deploys melancholy and loss as tools to articulate the impossibility of creating a totalizing novel, demonstrating that new narrative possibilities open up when authors are freed from this unattainable imperative.

In the third and final chapter, Sánchez-Prado takes up the examples of three authors who employ distinct tactics to question and redefine what it means to be a “Mexican woman writer” in relation to the conditions of the neoliberal editorial market. He foregrounds his analysis by noting the implicitly gendered nature of the Crack group’s ideological self-positioning: their manifesto responded critically to a process of editorial neoliberalization that coincided with the so-called Boom femenino and enabled the commercial success of oft-maligned romance novelists such as Laura Esquivel. In this
context, the Mexican women writers that Sánchez-Prado presents use strategic  positioning to productively confront the compounded assumptions imposed on them based on their nationality and their gender. He highlights Carmen Boullosa’s history of “deftly navigat[ing] editorial landscapes” by publishing alternately with commercial publishers and more prestigious ones to show how Bourdieusian notions regarding the autonomy of symbolic capital breaks down in the case of women authors for whom commercial success can serve as an antidote to marginality (155).

For her part, Ana García Bergua’s decision to eschew autobiographical tendencies and locate her adventure novel El umbral (1993) outside of traditionally feminized spaces expands the range of narrative possibilities available to women authors, while her mobilization of her identity as the daughter of Spanish exiles disrupts essentializing stereotypes about the cultural specificity of Mexican literature. The final author studied in this chapter, Cristina Rivera Garza, engages with questions of materiality and circulation in various ways, using novels such as Nadie me verá llorar (1999) and La cresta de Ilión (2002) to reveal the gendered silences and omissions that exist within historical and literary archives, while also helping to redefine 21st-century literature’s relationship with new media through her long-running blog, No hay tal lugar.

This book ultimately succeeds in its self-proclaimed attempt to “reclaim the idea of ‘world literature,’” fundamentally reframing Mexico’s participation in global networks by analyzing the plethora of strategies that Mexican authors have implemented in order to challenge and negotiate the imperatives of the neoliberal market and construct their own world literatures in the process (191). While Sánchez-Prado’s work will of course be of interest to his fellow Latin Americanists, and to Mexicanists in particular, the theoretical perspectives he outlines make this book an essential reference for any literary scholars looking to contextualize the works they study within a framework that does not view literature through either a purely national lens or a totalizing global one, but rather embraces the potentiality and plurality of world literatures.

The author is a student of Romance Studies at Duke University. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in Spanish and Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Published originally in TRANSMODERNITY: Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production of
the Luso-Hispanic World 9 (1): 105-108. Permalink https://escholarship.org/uc/item/5245c67k. Licence CC BY 4.0. Modifications: title added, original cover page omitted, author name relocated before book title, author affiliation expanded relocated in the end of the text, extra paragraph breaks added.

Whiteness, Christianity and capitalism: Troubling the concept of Western values

By Pia Mikander

In his traditional New Year’s speech on January 1st, 2019, the Finnish president referred to democracy, equality and freedom as European values. These are often regarded not only as European values, but also as encompassing the larger, more ideological unit of ‘the West’. (See Mikander 2015 for further discussion on how Europe is also an ideological unit, not just a geographical one, but the idea of the West is primarily ideological.)

Exporting European values has changed into defending them on home ground. And are we seeing attempts to import values alien to us? We know what the opposites of democracy, equality and freedom are.  (Niinistö, 2019.)

The concept of Western values is used extensively in texts ranging from news reporting to politicians’ speeches. Finnish school textbooks, which form the object of my PhD thesis (2016a), also refer to the concept. Here, my suggestion is to discuss the idea of Western values and Western identity not from the perspective of democracy, equality and freedom but through some very different lenses: whiteness, Christianity and capitalism. I think that a way to approach the idea of the West is through the following questions: Who can claim a Western identity? Who is considered as encompassing Western values? I will propose an example:

Suppose that a penniless woman, Rohingya Muslim, who was flown from a refugee camp to Helsinki as part of the quota refugee system, would show up in Finnish language class and talk endlessly about how she believes in democracy, equality and freedom. Would she be considered to be representing Western values and a Western identity to a larger extent than her fellow Helsinkian businessman with a Lutheran background who voted for parties with anti-democratic agendas, debated against same-sex marriage and thought that the recent Danish suggestion to imprison migrants on a deserted island was a good idea? Or would he, despite opposing these examples of democracy, equality and freedom, be considered as more naturally connected to Westernness, complete with a Western identity and Western values?

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Whiteness is not Westernness – but it can help us understand it

The concept of Western values can benefit from theoretical tools departing from critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness scholars analyze the hegemonic power structures that work to benefit people who are racialized as white (Ahmed, 2011; Mattson, 2004). Alastair Bonnett (2004), however, reminds us that West is not simply a euphemism for white. First of all, there is an inclusivity connected to Westernness that is not part of whiteness. The Finnish president could be said to refer to this inclusivity when mentioning the “Exporting European values”. More people can thereby come to be part of this European/Western community of values.

Perhaps it is theoretically possible for anyone to be a part of Westernness, while not anyone could identify as white. As according to Bonnett, the concept of the West includes a set of values that could theoretically be open for anyone to embrace; at the same time, however, it seems that the inclusiveness is not genuine: the whole world cannot become “Western.” The idea of Western values requires a counterpart, and without it, there would be no need for it as an identity category. The concepts of whiteness links to corporeality and embodied experiences, such as being able to pass through security gates and seeing representations of oneself in positions of power, while Westernness is considered an ideological identity. Still, they bear a certain resemblance.

Westerness and whiteness are often used in different contexts but are at least to some extent both socially constructed categories that work to include and exclude people. The distinction between the two is not a simple one. There has been and still is plenty of ideological meaning given to the embodied concept of whiteness. Mattson (2004, p. 124), for instance, considers there to be a “globally embedded imagination” including the idea that white people are connected through their ideological sameness. Whiteness would then be considered connected to more than corporeality.

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This suggests that whiteness connects to an ideology of being Western. The woman in my above-mentioned example might thus have to prove her values and identity as a Westerner in ways that the man in the same example would not. People could frown upon hearing about his fascination with anti-democratic parties, but they might be less likely to question his Westernness. This, to me, is one example of how the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness between the concepts of Western and white works. Studying the concept of Western values from the perspective of whiteness helps examine the concept of the West in a less neutral light. As I argue in my PhD thesis (p. 28), concerning the socially constructed categories of whiteness and Westernness:

One major difference between the categories “white” and “Western” is the extent to which they are politicized. The concepts are perceived and used very differently. This includes mainstream media and to a lesser degree some of the academic debate, where “West,” “Westerners” and “Western values” are used extensively (Bonnett, 2004). Whether these concepts are defined, for instance, as including democracy and human rights, or simply left without definition, they mostly pass without much notice, not raising much concern. If, let’s say, democracy or human rights were referred to as “white values,” or if the news media reported about threats to the “white world” in the same ways as “Western values” or the “Western world” are mentioned today, most people would probably react with dismay. Yet there are rarely any such reactions towards the frequent references to Western values and Westernness.

The ease with which Western values are referred to, and the absolute unease the idea of white values would awake, suggests that the globally embedded imagination of the ideological sameness has not been completely dealt with. Few people would consider the concept of Western values problematic at all. My argument is that they perhaps should. One reason why whiteness as a concept is so much more uncomfortable than the concept of Westernness is, obviously, to be found in Europe’s long history of race theories and racism. The concept of whiteness brings this history to mind perhaps more easily than the concept of Westernness does.

Christianity as an ambiguous basis for Western values

Before European, let alone Western, was an identity, there was a notion of Christianity as an ideological unity. According to Bonnett (1998), modernity brought along the idea that there was a linkage between whiteness, Europeanness and Christianity. Christianity is an identity connected to values in a direct way, even if there is no absolute agreement over what these values stand for. Valuing democracy, equality and freedom has not always been the first priority of the church – still, politicians in Finland, like in the rest of Europe, might suggest that Finnish migrant policy should favor Christian refugees since they could easier integrate into Finnish society. This is to suggest that one key to being part of what is Western is to be a Christian.

Many have considered there to be a link between Christianity and Westernness as entities of value and identity. Others, however, would argue that Christianity is not at the heart of what is commonly understood as Western values. In fact, people who oppose furthering equality in concrete political measures, such as the freedom and rights for sexual minorities, often refer to Christianity for arguments. To this debate, it is worth considering that Bonnett (2004) sees the historical relationship between the concept of Western values and Christianity as shifting dramatically in the last century.

During the early 20th century, with rising socialist parties that denounced religion, atheism was discursively constructed as the height of Westernness. When the Soviet Union later became the antipode of the West, a Western identity went back to including religiosity in the name of Christianity. After the fall of the communist anti-West, when the religiously coded Arab or Islamic world came to be what a Western identity distanced itself mostly from, a skeptical attitude to religion became a more integral part of the discursive constructions of what it means to be Western and adhere to Western values.

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There are many potential ways of approaching the relationship between Christianity and a Western identity. One is to look at the differences between the countries considered as Western and the role Christianity plays in their societal contexts, such as on different sides of the North Atlantic. Europeans might consider US political references to God as confusing. However, within Europe, too, Christianity is displayed very differently in different countries and regions. Speaking of Christianity as a fountain of European values often ignores Europe’s violent history of war between different Christian denominations and how differently Catholic and Protestant cultures have been constructed.

The significance of Christianity in society varies greatly between countries considered Western. There are several examples of this, on a structural level as well as on a more discursive level. An example of structural differences is how differently religious education is taught in schools between and even within countries. From the French policy of laïcite to Irish schools with Christianity as an integral part of primary education, and Finland where students are taught their own religions within public schools – the only pattern to be found is that of a diversity of ways of connecting the teaching of religions values within nations. Germany, and the USA, serve as examples to show that there can be plenty of variations also within nations regarding how religion is taught in schools. On a structural level, it is hard to find consistent patterns of what Christianity means to Westernness.

On a discursive level, I would suggest that there are similar distinctions between how the concept of Western values connects to values regarded as Christian. Christianity is referred to in order to make value judgments of a wide range. Consider the differences between statements such as “Being a Christian, I oppose gay marriage” and “Being a Christian, I oppose deportations”. Christian activists in Europe and the USA might base their actions on their religion whether they target abortion clinics or help undocumented migrants hide from authorities. Although Christianity is often constructed as an integral part of Westernness, it is hard to single out what it means in concrete terms today.  

Capitalism, wealth and Western values

The connection between capitalism and the concept of the West is not self-evident. The Cold War is over, many countries far away from the “West” are based on market economy, and several countries considered Western have social democratic solutions that constrain capitalist economy. One reason why the woman in my initial example might not be seen as representing Westernness to the same degree as the businessman is not simply that she would not be considered white, or having a Christian background, but also because she is completely broke.

In my analyzed Finnish school textbooks I found descriptions of Western values and what is typical for the West. In addition to the often cited democracy, equality and freedom, there were some interesting views related to wealth. A geography book suggested that part of Western culture is that people have the right to a high standard of living. Another geography book suggested that a high standard of living is typical for the European continent. (see Mikander, 2015).

Above, “culture” and “typical” have important meaning. It is not simply to state that much of the wealth of the world today is gathered in pockets of people who represent countries considered Western (most of the richest 1%, who own half of the world’s wealth still live on either side of the North Atlantic, even though the percentage of Asians in the group is growing). No, the textbooks could be considered to reflect the idea that being wealthy and having a high standard of living is more than a coincidence, it is part of what is constructed as Westernness.

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Sometimes capitalism is used as an argument regarding conflicts of values. When I studied the textbook descriptions of 9/11 in New York and the following Afghanistan and Iraq wars (Mikander, 2012), I found a history textbook with the following description:

The attacks led to the death of 3,000 innocent people, people from many different countries belonging to several religions and language groups. But the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world. Within the economy, “business as usual” still rules. Even though the aerial industry suffered hard losses, stricter control made it safer to fly. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 267.)

In this history textbook for grade 8, it is suggested that the attacks might have caused the aerial industry hard losses, however, the attacks did not manage to crush the Western world, since the economy was not destroyed and business as usual could go on. Crushing the Western world would thereby first of all have meant to destroy the economy, not the idea of democracy, equality or freedom. This can be seen as a response to how the same book describes the connection between capitalism and Westernness at an earlier stage:

It was not with the help of weapons that the Western world became the winners of the Cold War. It was the Western economic system, capitalism, or the market economy, that turned out to be stronger than the communist planned economy system. (Historia 1900-talet, 2008, p. 161.)

When describing Westernness and capitalism or the accumulation of wealth, it is worth noting that social studies textbooks arbitrarily or even seldom make connections to colonialism and its ongoing legacy, even though colonialist ventures have had such a fundamental impact on the economies in Europe and the USA.

Where to look for Western values?

Nowadays, there is a simultaneous worry about population growth far away and fewer babies in many European countries, for instance. The idea often cited in nationalist discourse is that Western populations need to be stimulated by Western women having more children, not by increasing immigration. In this sense,  Western values and Westernness are seen as inherent, not acquirable. If the woman of my example above chooses to have babies in her new homeland, it is not necessarily considered a gain for Westernness, no matter how much she teaches them about freedom, equality and democracy.

Recently, I compiled a list of leaders and their political profiles in the world’s thirteen most populated countries. I realized that the majority of the leaders on the list were right-wing populist, and thereby not particularly famous for being spokespeople for freedom, democracy or equality – in the sense that all human beings are entitled to the same rights. The clearest exception on my list was the Ethiopian president who through his belief in religious dialogue had helped end the decade-long conflict with neighboring Eritrea.

And it struck me: during times when European and US border politics might not be characterized by democracy, freedom and equality – maybe we should lift our gaze and look for these values on a larger scale? Maybe we will keep looking for the values that the Finnish president refers to, and end up realizing they were never merely Western?

The author is a senior lecturer in history and social studies didactics at the University of Helsinki. Follow Pia on Twitter here.

References

  • Ahmed, S. (2011). Vithetens hegemoni. Hägersten: Tankekraft förlag.
  • Bonnett, A. (1998). Who was white? The disappearance of non-European white identities and the formation of European racial whiteness. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (6), 1029—1055.
  • Bonnett, A. (2004). The Idea of the West. Culture, Politics and History. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Mattson, K. (2004). Vit rasism. In K. Mattson & I. Lindberg (Eds.) Rasismer i Europa – kontinuitet och förändring. Rapport från forskarseminariet 5 november 2003. Stockholm: Agora, 108—141.
  • Mikander, P. (2012). Othering and the construction of West: The descriptions of two historical events in Finnish school textbooks. Critical Literacy: Theories and Practices 6(1), 31—45.
  • Mikander, P. (2015). Democracy and Human Rights: A Critical Look at the Concept of Western Values in Finnish School Textbooks. In K. Hahl, P-M. Niemi, R. Johnson Longfor & F. Dervin (Eds.). Diversities and interculturality in Textbooks. Finland as an Example. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, pp. 107—124.
  • Mikander, P., (2015) Colonialist ‘discoveries’ in Finnish school textbooks, Nordidactica – Journal of humanities and social science education, (4): 48–65.
  • Mikander, P., (2016a) Westerners and others in Finnish school textbooks, Thesis (PhD), University of Helsinki.
  • Mikander, P. (2016b). Globalization as Continuing Colonialism: Critical Global Citizenship Education in an Unequal World. Journal of Social Science Education 15(2), 70—79.
  • Niinistö, S. (2019). President of the Republic Sauli Niinistö’s New Year’s Speech on 1 January 2019.

My View of the West: the avant-garde for Russian and Ukrainian social movements

Olga Baysha

The West or, rather, the image of the West as constructed by Russian and Ukrainian social movements for democratization, occupies an important place in my research. The narrative of unidirectional progress, employed by all the social movements I have analyzed, presents the West as the avant-garde leading humanity toward the “normal” modern condition in which no cultural or historical differences matter, and where all societies ultimately look the same. Whether in Gorbachev’s USSR, Putin’s Russia, or Yanukovych’s Ukraine, the discourse of unidirectional progress always presumes an inexorable movement of humankind toward an advanced Western condition where the ultimate truth, hitherto obscured, can finally be unveiled.

In the presentation of many Ukrainian and Russian activists for social justice, whose discursive constructions I have analyzed, the West emerges as an undeniable moral force with the right to judge, pass verdicts and impose punishment. Aligning themselves with the “civilized” West, these activists present themselves as “educated people,” “people who stand for their dignity,” who are “very motivated,” “goal-seeking,” “smart,” and “responsible.” Often, they imagine their struggle for “democratization” as an attempt to jump out of the dark medieval ages – the premodern state of human development – to the era of the Enlightenment. This struggle is conceived as an attempt to breach the new iron curtain that separate Ukraine and Russia from the condition of the highest modernity as represented by the West. The social condition of the contemporary West is presented to be a norm against which those who are thought unfit could be judged.

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This grand simplification of social and political realities, which are always much more complicated than the simple duality of “good/progressive vs. evil/backward,” develops into a tendency among “democratically minded” activists to see all opponents – not only those in power – as “jackals,” “the bootlickers of the regime,” “traitors,” or just “weak and demoralized people.” Because of their “inadequacy,” or “abnormality,” to put it in Michel Foucault’s terms, the opponents of democratization equated to Westernization are seen not as human beings or citizens whose opinions deserved to be taken into account: They appear as “idiots,” “sovoks” (derogative term to denote the Soviet condition), or “serfs.” The latter, in the opinion of many activists for “democratization,” have a chance “to become Human Beings”– they just needed to take their “progressive” stance.

The problem with the modernizing mission of the social movements with a West-centric imaginary is that all of them end up undermining democracy rather than promoting it, as they diminish and marginalize their presumably underdeveloped compatriots, and colonize them by excluding their voices from deliberation on important issues of societal transformations within “progressive” public spheres. As I argue in my recent book Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Ukraine, this West-centered imaginary is internally antagonistic.

Establishing a solid, impermeable barrier between activists pushing forward the agenda of universal globalization and “others” who oppose it, the discourse of democratization equated to Westernization creates the conditions for a “maximum separation,” when “no element in the system of equivalences enters into relations other than those of opposition to the elements of the other system,” as Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe famously argued. It does not allow for a democratic exchange of opinions between the two antagonistic camps within a symbolically shared space.

The author (Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder) is an Assistant Professor at the National Research University “Higher School of Economics” (Moscow, the Russian Federation). Her research centers mainly on political and cultural aspects of globalization with an emphasis on new media and global social movements for justice and democratization. Dr. Baysha is especially interested in analyzing inherent anti-democratic tendencies of the discourses of Westernization employed by post-Soviet social movements. Dr. Baysha is the author of two books: The Mythologies of Capitalism and the End of the Soviet Project (Lexington, 2014) and Miscommunicating Social Change: Lessons from Russia and Urkaine (Lexington, 2018).

My View of the West is a series of short posts by members of The West Network about their research or perspectives of ‘the West’.

The Shadowy Boundaries of East and West: Russia in the British Enlightenment Geography

By Oili Pulkkinen

Displacing East and West

We are prone to think that Russia, throughout modern European history, stood as the gate between Europe and Asia, the West and the East. Russia has represented otherness, inferiority and underdevelopment, and probably provided Europeans with a first pattern of backwardness against which they could measure their own civilizational achievements.

However, “east” and “west” (and “western”) were merely spatial concepts in eighteenth-century geography, devoid of specific political or cultural connotations. Nonetheless, it was the case for the Europeans, for whom ”Europe” and ”European” were synonymous with cultural, economic, political, technological advance and superiority, and more broadly, with the whole process called modernity. The representations of the East, by contrast, were more blurred and ambiguous. On the one hand, the East was seen as cruel, uncivilised and underdeveloped. On the other hand, it looked attractive because of its aura of mystery, and its flow of luxury items. Moreover, one must not forget that the Biblical Eden was situated in the East.

Further, the shift from a three-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa) to a four-continent system (Europe, Asia, Africa, and America) after the discovery of America has been problematic for the Enlightenment geography which was based on a division of the globe in two continents (in modern terms “tectonic plates”): the Eastern and the Western continents, that is, Europe, Asia and Africa located on the former, and America on the latter. This division corresponded to the contrast between “The Old World” and “The New World”, which was an elementary part of the new Newtonian, scientific geography. Thus, Europe, Asia and Africa were situated in the geographical “east” rather than  the geographical “west”.

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The eighteenth-century globe was divided into the Eastern and Western Continents in William Guthrie A New Geographical, Historical and Commercial Grammar, 1799 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online ECCO, Gale).

The Russian Empire

Russia and the Russians were characterised and depicted through European standards. For example, the Orthodox religion was seen as the Catholic religion without the pope, while Russian workers were held to be as good as Scotsmen, strong and robust. Nonetheless, from the European perspective, Russia was not only perceived as inferior; it had rich natural sources, commercial connections with the East, and excellent water routes (rivers) for this purpose, as well as good development prospects.

Even though Russia and Europe were located on the same continent, Russia was culturally different from the other countries of the continent, especially France and Britain. One indication of this was the poor status of Russian women. The stereotypical depiction of Russians as binge vodka drinkers was a commonplace, and even the number of vodka shops were recorded in the entries on Russia in geography books of the time. Russia, and especially Russian environment and nature were described as more “Nordic” than “Eastern” part of the Continent, snowy and cold.

Compared with the other European empires (especially Britain, France and Spain), the Russian Empire was a massive landmass. Europeans subdivided it into large parts, European Russia and Asian Russia in Asia, and smaller units, like Moscovite Russia and Tartary. Before the emergence of ethnographic research in the late Enlightenment, a couple of Russian minorities were mentioned, but the distinctions between various minorities living in Russia and between these and the Russians were not explained. Usually minorities were simply named ”Tartars”.

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The map of the Russian Empire in Atlas to Guthrie’s System of Geography, 1800 (Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, ECCO, Gale). Russia was generally pictured in two separate maps of Russia in Europe and Russia in Asia, but in this map the vast empire is pictured in one map.

Russians had not always been “Russians”. Although geography and history were distinct areas of scientific knowledge in the eighteenth-century, historical details were recorded in the geography books. Since the origin and history of nations was a crucial element of nationhood (not yet nationalism), it was important to explain the origins of geographical terms and names. For instance, several different origins, each bearing a different connotation, were attributed to the name “Europe”. Similarly, it was assumed that ‘Russia’ originated either from russus, meaning a dispersant, and a wanderer, or from the ancient Croatian Prince Russus.

According to the Russians’ historical narrative, the conquered Russians had become the conquerors. The heart of real Russia had been Moscow, and it still was, despite the fact that Peter the Great founded a new capital, St Petersburg. By contrast, official modern historical narratives tell that (Orthodox) Russia originated from Kievian Russia, but according to the eighteenth-century geography, Kiev had been, and remained, the Russia of the Cossacks, rather than the cradle of Russia.

Russia, the largest empire in the world in spatial terms in the 18th century, if it not appeared entirely strange, certainly looked very different from (other parts of) Europe according to British Enlightenment geography, on the cultural level no less than in its geographical setting.

The author has a PhD in social sciences (political science) at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland. Her research interests include the Scottish Enlightenment, the eighteenth-century geography and the conceptual history of politics. She is currently preparing a research project on critique of democracy. This text is based on the author’s article ‘Russia and the Euro-Centric Geography During the British Enlightenment’ in the special issue on the Nordic Enlightenment  in Transcultural Studies (Brill) 2018(2), 150–170.