My View of the West: The Story of a Never-Ending End

By Riccardo Bavaj

I have a background in 20th-century German intellectual history, and ‘the West’ has played an important part in the history of modern Germany. For many decades, Germans had a rather troubled relationship with ‘the West’. Obviously, German anti-Westernism soared in the First World War: ‘Western civilization’ was perceived as shallow, artificial, corrupt, and decadent, whereas ‘German culture’ was seen as innately meaningful, deep, authentic, and true to life. The outcome of the First World War did not change much in this regard. Some Germans now thought more than ever that Germany’s future should take a path very different from that of ‘the West’, and that it was good to be special – until it was not.

After 1945, the thesis of a German special path was turned on its head – the central question now was: ‘How did this happen?’ How did the Nazis come to power, and what were the causes that led to the Holocaust? People now came up with various theories about when German history had taken a wrong turn, i.e. when it had started to deviate from what was assumed to be the ‘Western’ path of normality (for instance, with supposedly ‘failed’ or ‘half-hearted’ revolutions in 1848-49 or 1918-19). The key reference point of this German soul-searching was ‘the West’, which as an idea was hardly ever really explained and instead worked like a cipher for a liberal-democratic, pluralist future – a progressive, modern society. The emerging hegemonic narrative in the Federal Republic of Germany was that in order to prevent something like this from happening again Germany had to ‘Westernize’; it had to return to the ‘Western path of normality’ that it once had left.

And so it came. Increasingly, German intellectuals would praise the ‘opening up of the Federal Republic to the political culture of the West’ (Jürgen Habermas) – ‘1968’ was taken to play a key part in this – and while access to the ‘Western haven’ was still closed to Germans east of the border, after reunification the whole of Germany was said to have ‘arrived in the West’ eventually (Heinrich August Winkler). After centuries of fateful deviation from the Western norm, climaxing in Nazism’s ‘revolt against the West’, Germans were to be congratulated that they had finally arrived in the Western haven.

The great irony was that Germany seemed to have ‘arrived in the West’ at a time when – at least in academic circles – the concept of ‘the West’ was losing intellectual purchase; it was losing much of its intellectual plausibility. There was a growing uncertainty about its political contours, cultural identity, and epistemological status (is there actually such a thing as ‘the West’?), and people started to wonder whether this longed-for point of perspective – this beacon of promise that ‘the West’ had once been – was in fact a mirage.

There are various reasons behind the waning appeal of formerly unquestioned assumptions about what ‘the West’ stands for, but the end of the Cold War certainly looms large. Seemingly, the end of the Cold War had brought victory to ‘the West’, but it did much to destabilize und undermine it semantically, not least because the key antonym, Soviet Communism, was now gone. Had Germany’s vanishing point vanished? Where actually was Germany located (politically, culturally, intellectually) if it had ‘arrived in the West’? To some it seemed that, ironically, Germans had arrived in ‘the West’ only as its ‘twilight’ fell.

My own perspective on the subject of the West is very much informed by the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte), which looks at the shifting meanings of concepts over time, both as a mirror and driver of social change. While in academia the status of the West as an ‘intelligible unit of historical study’ (Arnold Toynbee) has become increasingly contested, ‘the West’ is still a prominent point of reference in current political debate and the wider public sphere. It is most commonly used in situations of international conflicts, crises, and wars, and there has been no shortage of those in recent years. Current debates demonstrate, in fact, that the concept of ‘the West’ proves useful even, and perhaps especially, when commentators lament its ‘crisis’, ‘decline’, ‘twilight’, or ‘end’. Indeed, one could argue that the greatest threat to ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept is the lack of any threat – it does tend to be in fashion when confronted with ‘internal’ or ‘external’ threats that are considered anti-‘Western’.

I would argue that the alleged ‘twilight of the West’ (both politically and epistemologically) goes hand-in-hand with a remarkable resilience of ‘the West’ as a socio-political concept: firstly, ‘the West’ continues to be a highly popular and effective framing device, and secondly, there is a perseverance of notions of ‘the West’ that have a long tradition and reach far back in time, at least until the early nineteenth century. ‘Western hegemonies’ may have ended in various areas of life, but ‘the West’ as a rhetorical pattern is very much alive. After all, the history of ‘the West’ has always also been the story of a never-ending end.

bavaj picRiccardo Bavaj is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History. His research focuses primarily on the twentieth century and is situated at the intersection of intellectual, conceptual and spatial history. It is particularly concerned with the history of radicalism, liberalism, modernity, academia, and the idea of the West.

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’.

My view of the West: The West as a Standard of Civilization

By Henna-Riikka Pennanen

In 2014, I was finalizing my PhD in History (which you can read here), when in a brainstorming session Jukka Jouhki suggested that we should turn our gaze to “the West.” My thesis was about conceptions – and the key concept – of civilization in the writings of nineteenth-century U.S. experts on China and Japan. Unavoidably, it was also about Orientalism. But Jukka’s proposition that we should delve more deeply into Occidentalism made sense: in relation to the concept of civilization, I was already focusing inasmuch on U.S. views on “the East” as on U.S. views of “the West.” Since then, we have co-edited together a journal theme issue and a Finnish-language book on the topic. The latest addition is the edited volume with Jukka and Marko Lehti, Contestations of Liberal Order: The West in Crisis?

My research interests include representations, threat perceptions and images; conceptual and intellectual history; history of U.S.–East Asia relations; and contemporary International Relations and U.S. foreign policy. While these interests are wide and varied, there is one running theme: the West as a “standard of civilization.” Although, it should be pointed out at the outset that the notion of a standard of civilization is not the sole intellectual property of those who hail from western Europe or northern America.

In conjunction with the idea of the West, this standard can refer to the material, mental, and moral gauges with which the nineteenth-century intellectuals measured the level of civilization a given nation had attained, and then ordered those nations hierarchically. Overlapping with these hierarchies was an idea called the “family of civilized nations.” This idea – and a bundle of practices associated with it – encapsulated the nineteenth-century European international order, which was built on hegemony and asymmetrical relations. As Andrew Hurrell characterizes, it was a “world of differentiated sovereignties.” Arguably, more recent manifestations of a standard of civilization, regulating and underlying a hierarchical relationship between “the West” and everyone else, have been the (more informal) standards of liberal internationalism and liberal peace.

The West is claimed as something particular on one hand: a unique civilization, if you will. And on the other, it is claimed as something universal, an epitome of a universal, progressing civilization. It is this curious tension between these claims, that continues to pique my interest.


The author is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Turku Institute for Advanced Studies (TIAS). Her TIAS research project “Rising Dragon, Rising Sun: A Century of Threat Perceptions of China and Japan in the United States” analyzes U.S. elite threat perceptions of China and Japan from the turn of the 20th century to the present. The project draws from international relations studies, and contributes to U.S. diplomatic, intellectual, and cultural history.

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’.

My View of the ‘West’: Re-conceptualizing ‘Growth,’ ‘Progress,’ and ‘Development’ from a Sustainability Perspective.  

Dr. Mohamed El-Kamel Bakari

As a researcher in sustainability, globalization, environmentalism, and American studies, the ‘West’ as a geo-political and cultural construct lies at the heart of my research area. As I dig deep into the different areas of sustainability and environmental studies, the image of the ‘West’ stands out not only as the source of the Industrial Revolution, which led to an unrelenting exponential economic growth, but also as a home to multiple post-materialist social movements   and think tanks that critique and condemn the ecological harms brought about by the current socio-economic paradigm of growth. This image is, therefore, often contestable in my research mainly because  the ‘West” is both where the current unsustainable capitalist model of growth was initiated, developed, and propagated and where this growth model is constantly analyzed, criticized, and denounced by environmentalists, social activists, and thinkers. 

Though it was generally associated with positive concepts such as “modernization,” “development,” and “progress” for decades according to most post-WWII theories of development, the image of the ‘West’ is now subject to different kinds of criticism in the sustainability discourse; all the more so because new indices of post-materialist development cast a pall over this decaying image. More to the point, the image of the ‘West’ that was sold to the rest of the world as a leading pioneer in civilization, modernity, and progress has significantly been debunked by new gauges of human development such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW), the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), and the Happy Planet Index (HPI) that rank many Western countries down the list of human development and well-being. What is more, it accentuated in many of my writings that the positive image of the “West” that is based, for the most part, on the Goss Domestic Product (GDP) rates and other gauges of material wealth no longer captures the multi-dimensionality of post-industrial human development.

Above all, the image of the ‘West’ is tarnished by the spread and domination of materialistic values anchored in the ‘laissez-faire’ economics which gradually culminated in neo-liberal capitalism, unbridled open market economies, and an unstoppable process of (economic) globalization. To study and critique this domination, post-materialist as well as post-modernist approaches are often adopted in my research endeavours.  With this end in view, a great part of my academic investigation focused on what came to be known as ‘New Social Movements’ (NSMs), which have struggled to keep the torch of non-materialism, spirituality, individualism, and diversity alive in the face of homogenizing waves of economic and cultural/intellectual globalization/Westernization. When it comes to delineating an objective image of the ‘West,” my research has so far been a real struggle to find an academically sound approach in the minefield of contradictory concepts and conflicting phenomena such as globalization Vs. localization; materialism Vs. spirituality; development Vs. underdevelopment; modernization Vs. backwardness; homogeneity Vs. identity/individualism; colonialism Vs. independence; and ultimately sustainability Vs. ‘unsustainability.’ 

  A great deal of my research also touches upon the flickering image of the “West” in global politics, especially with regard to other relevant sub-issues such as global environmental politics, United Nations’ Sustainable Development Studies Goals (SDGs), Global Governance System, North-South Divide, among others. More often than not, this image changes dramatically as we cross the line from one research realm to another, depending on the political, economic, social, and cultural outlook adopted in these discussions. From a Global South’s perspective, for instance, the image of the “West” seems to be tainted with lingering thorny issues such as Northern conditional aid policies, imposed economic and political policies on the developing countries, unjust global trade measures, and the global financial institutions’ manipulation of market policies and capital flow in favour of the developed countries. Accordingly, this image is often caught in the crossfire area of the North-South divide and the changing power relations therein.

Not only is the image of the “West” a matter of debate in the North-South divide, but it is also recurrently echoed in the Man-Nature divide discussions within the Western countries that I examined in my writings. Scholarly reflections on how Man dominates, uses, and abuses Nature are essentially anchored in the different studies of the processes of industrialization and urbanization in the “West” and the consequent yawning gap between humans and their natural environment in post-industrial societies. Feeding in this Man-Nature divide that smeared the image of the “West” are other emerging issues such as the current unsustainable modes of living, the unjust distribution of environmental harms in Western societies, and the imminent global ecological dangers. Another crack in the image of the ‘West’ that is captured in my research is, therefore, brought about by the contemporary ‘environmental apartheid,’ which places disadvantages segments of society in the most polluted areas in big Western cities while the affluent people enjoy cleaner environment in other areas. My investigation of the inception, evolution, and ramifications of “environmental justice movement” sheds more light on all these issues and more.

In a nutshell, the image of the ‘West’ in my research is no longer the harbinger of modernization, progress, and development, for it also connotes other negative and environment-unfriendly concepts such as consumerism, corporatism, the abuse of indigenous culture, and the Northern hegemony over the Global South. Having said that, this image still bespeaks a faint hope in the few promising initiatives fostered by think-tanks, the United Nations, and some Western NGOs to implement sustainable development and live within the carrying capacity of the planet’s natural eco-systems. Hope also comes from the intellectual and cultural rising global awareness of the vital necessity of achieving sustainability that is spreading steadily across the “West” and gradually infiltrating into the bastion of neo-liberal capitalism. 

my photo

Dr. Mohamed El-Kamel Bakari holds a PhD in American culture studies from the University of Manouba in Tunis, Tunisia, and he is now a senior lecturer at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, KSA. He is a published author and a prolific researcher in American environmentalism, sustainability, globalization, New Social Movements (NSMs), and global environmental/Green politics. Among his numerous writings, his most recent publications are a book about the Dilemma of Sustainability in the Age of Globalization and several scholarly articles about the inception and evolution of the American Environmental Justice Movement (EJM) and its interaction with other social and political movements.

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’.

My View of The West: Exploring the Causes and Consequences of Civilizational Politics

By Gregorio Bettiza

One of the major lines of my research has been motivated by a paradox. Why, despite the nearly universal critique of Samuel Huntington’s clash of civilizations thesis, his Foreign Affairs article and book remain among the most widely cited and read pieces of scholarly – or, better, ideological – work within the social sciences (see here for an effort at providing an explanation). Along the way, I’ve been fascinated by how Huntington’s thesis, and more broadly the view that we are in a world of multiple civilizations whose relations drive global peace and security, have not just been confined to academic books and university classrooms. But have also increasingly animated public debates and shaped international practices and institutions in novel and dramatic ways since the end of the Cold War. These developments constitute, in my view, the emergence of a particular type of politics, which I have come to define as civilizational politics.

Like most in this network, analytically I do not approach civilizations – whether it is ‘the West’ or any other civilizational entity – as objective, clearly identifiable, realities. Rather I view them as socially constructed identities. Importantly, these are not just discourses that are instrumentally deployed, but meaningful imagined communities and social imaginaries that many around the world – whether in Europe, the United States, the Middle East, Africa, or across South and East Asia – collectively hold and draw upon to interpret and define their realities. An important part of my research has been dedicated to investigating the causes and consequences of civilizational politics in our contemporary globalized international system. Over the years I’ve explored how US foreign policy has contributed to reifying – under both the Bush and Obama presidencies – the ‘Muslim world’ in international relations (here), how the Islamic State (ISIS) has represented ‘the West’ in its propaganda (here), how ideas of civilizational dialogues have reshaped international institutions (here and here), or why rising authoritarian powers like Russia and China are increasingly reconstructing their identities along civilizational lines in an effort to contest the liberal international order (here). 

Recently I’ve been intrigued by the growing contestation, emerging in the context of rising populism and far-right groups across Europe and the United States, around what constitutes the essence and boundary of ‘the West’. Namely, whether the West should be principally defined in racial terms (whiteness being its key attribute), linguistic-ethnic terms (a fragmented West of Anglophone, Germanic, Latin and possibly Slavic peoples), in cultural and religious terms (the Judeo-Christian West) or along secular ideological lines (the Liberal West). Which understanding prevails in the coming decades will have important repercussions on a host of issues, including: the transatlantic relation and membership in NATO, the future of the European Union, relations with Russia, the War on Terror, immigration policies, and many other aspects of international politics. These debates, and the scholarship unpacking them, are all finding their way in the reading list of my MA course The West, Civilizations and World Order.

My publication with David Lewis on rising powers and normative contestation is now out!

Dr Gregorio Bettiza

Photo source.

Dr Gregorio Bettiza is Senior Lecturer in International Relations. His research interests are in IR theory and in the role of ideas, norms and identities in international relations. I focus in particular on the complex interactions between liberal and non-liberal ideas, actors and practices in world politics.

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’.



My View of the West: Sex and Gender

Frank G. Karioris (University of Pittsburgh)

In broad terms, my research relates to the interrelated categories of gender and sexualities, looking specifically at masculinities and heteronormativity within each of those. My first monograph, published in early 2019 and in paperback in May 2020, is An Education in Sexuality & Sociality: Heteronormativity on Campus. Building off extensive ethnography in an all-male residence hall at a university in the Midwestern part of the United States, the book looks at the complicated ways that the university as institution dictates and seeks to determine the social and sexual relations happening on campus. Building on this work, Dr Sertaç Sehlikoglu and I have just co-edited The Everyday Makings of Heteronormativity: Cross-Cultural Explorations of Sex, Gender, and Sexuality. This books continues many of the conversations from both our books (including Dr Sehlikoglu’s wonderful forthcoming book Working Out Desire: Women, Sport, and Self-Making in Istanbul) as well as the previous co-edited book I was involved in, with Drs Nancy Lindisfarne and Andrea Cornwall, Masculinities Under Neoliberalism.  

Over the past two years, my research has broadened itself beyond the scope of just academic publishing to incorporate poetry and poetic practice. I have published pieces addressing structural and police violence, a remembrance for Ernesto Cardenal, and the importance (and particularity) of friendship

Each of these components further expands and (un)defines the research that I have been undertaking in the past two years, and which situates my current trajectory. This is particularly important as research (often with a capital R) is too often seen as the purview of the tenured, of the academic journals proper, and too often removed from our lives and the width and breadth of what truly undergirds all research-based endeavors. 

As the West more broadly, my recent research is both ethereal and starkly material – in both its blinding existences and that which it refuses to acknowledge. In opposition to the West (as construction and practice and lived reality), my research  seeks to tear down boundary and border walls that keep out not only new epistemologies and ontological ways of being, in the form of Disciplinary Ideologies; but aims to disinter the economic, social, and political powers that are rooted in – and root through – these Disciplines. In these ways, we must expand our view of the pur(e)view of the West to recognize, research, and re-align our scope in the face of an ever expanding globalization in a frighteningly smaller globe
Frank G. Karioris

Frank. G. Karioris  is visiting lecturer of gender, sexuality, and women’s Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. He is a broadly trained sociologist, whose research and teaching interests include: Higher Education, Theories of Sociality/Sexuality, Critical Sociology, Critical Pedagogy, Bodies, and Critical Studies of Men & Masculinities. 

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’.

My View of the West: An Imagined Community Par Excellence

Jukka Jouhki

I got interested in the concept of the West while conducting anthropological fieldwork on the relationship between expatriate Europeans and local Tamil villagers in South India almost two deades ago. First, I was interested in Orientalism in the European views of India, but at some point I noticed how exotic ‘the West’ was to the local Tamil people (read my dissertation here), so I got interested in Occidentalism as well.

After my doctoral dissertation (2006), I have conducted anthropological research in several countries such as China, India, South Korea, Spain, The Gambia, and Finland, and while talking to people I have come across various kinds of conceptualizations of Western society – even if it hadn’t always been the purpose of my research. When I realized that social scientists had rarely concentrated on and problematized the concept of Western culture or Western society, I thought that the rare scholars who had, should organize. Hence, The West Network was founded by me and my colleague Dr. Henna-Riikka Pennanen who had similar interests.


Theoretically, I am nowadays interested in what I call banal Occidentalism (see e.g. this article), a combination – or extension – of Michael Billig’s banal nationalism and Edward Said’s Orientalism. I am particularly interested in how ‘the West,’ ‘Western society,’ ‘Western people’ etc. are utilized to connote a unified Western whole, and the kind of instances where ‘the West’ is evoked as a rhetorical tool. In addition to banal nationalism, I am interested in the Occidentalisms of people who do not identify as Western.

The author is a Senior Lecturer of Anthropology and Docent of Ethnology in University of Jyväskylä, Finland. In addition to the West, his research interests include Finnish expats (in Spain and India), child marriage in The Gambia, and social robots – to name a few ongoing projects. Dr. Jouhki is also the Editor-in-Chief of Human Technology journal.

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’.

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


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


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.

[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:

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
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 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.