Imagine a world shaped by two civilisations — a good civilisation (the Goodies) and a bad civilisation (the Baddies).
From their island home — an ancient nation of poets and heroes — the Goodies venture out into the world, spreading their values of tolerance and liberty wherever they go. With derring-do they found a mighty, but benign, empire. Eventually, it evolves into a family of free nations who, in times of trouble, still stand together to defend democracy and defeat tyranny. Huzzah!
The Baddies meanwhile are a desperate and devious lot — basically a bunch of pirates. Not even they can stand their wet, miserable homeland, so they sail off to grab territory in sunnier climes. They’re good at lying, cheating and murdering and so achieve global dominance. But apart from that, they’re rubbish — making a mess wherever they go. To this day, everything that goes wrong is their fault. Boo!
Okay, you don’t need to imagine such a world — because it’s this one, not some Tolkeinesque fantasy. Furthermore, we (by which I mean the “English-speaking peoples”) are the Goodies. However, we’re also the Baddies — because these two civilisations are in fact one and the same. Then again, neither exist, because the rival narratives — ‘Rule Britannia’ versus ‘Perfidious Albion’ — are equally absurd in their simplification of history.
Unfortunately, simplistic civilisational narratives are all the rage right now. It’s not enough to be a mere country or group of countries, these days you have to present yourself as a ‘civilisation-state’. Everyone’s at it — the Chinese, the Russians, the Indians, even the EU. As for us Brits, the Empire may be long gone, but we have the ‘Anglosphere’ instead — Britain, America and the other English-speaking nations.
The pro-Anglosphere narrative is a familiar one — built on a foundation of British Imperial propaganda plus notions of American exceptionalism. It’s been updated by historians such as Niall Ferguson and promoted by politicians such as Dan Hannan. It is of course contested — indeed detested — by many on the Left. The resulting counter-narrative — a feature of academic discourse and protest movements alike — is winning the culture wars right now.
One of the foremost scourges of Anglo self-satisfaction is the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra. In a rapturously-received 6,000 word essay for the London Review of Books he gives both John Bull and Uncle Sam a proper shoeing.
His jumping-off point is the Covid crisis, which he says has “blown the roof off the world, most brutally exposing Britain and the United States, these prime movers of modern civilisation”. As a result, we can now see the wider, deeper truth that’s been supposedly staring us in the face all along, which is that “the early winners of modern history now seem to be its biggest losers, with their delegitimised political systems, grotesquely distorted economies and shattered social contracts”.
The ungainly forms of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson feature heavily in Mishra’s account of current government ineptitude. However, to him, these men also personify a civilisational sickness that stretches back decades, if not centuries. Whereas happier lands have understood that “genuine public interest is different from the mere aggregation of private interests”, we’re a bunch of selfish individualists. We loudly proclaim the virtues of liberty, but “democracy does not always guarantee good government, even in its original heartlands”. Thus, in both Britain and America, the pandemic has shown up each country for what it really is — “a broken society, with a carefully dismantled state”.
There’s no denying that the comparative statistics look bad for us. Set against Germany, Japan and many other nations, “Anglo-America” (as Mishra calls it) has not had a good pandemic. And yet it’s a bit early to be drawing conclusions. We don’t know to what extent national variations in the spread of the virus — or the harm it’s done — are explained by public policy alone. All sorts of other factors are in the mix — like initial exposure to chains of global transmission, genetically-determined variations in susceptibility, differences in pre-existing immunities and plain old measurement issues. At this stage, we’re still guessing as to their relative contributions. Nor is this wretched plague over yet — some countries that had been doing relatively well have suffered recent setbacks. Given these multiple uncertainties, Covid is a fragile hook on which to hang a tale of civilisational decline.
Another key weakness is the very idea of “Anglo-America”. Obviously, the world contains a number of English-speaking nations that were once part of the British Empire. But these also include Australia and New Zealand, countries that that have been notably successful in their fight against the virus — despite the terrible handicap of their Anglo heritage.
An even bigger problem with the Anglo-America concept is that the differences between the UK and US are profound. Never mind “two nations divided by a common language”, what really divides them is what they don’t have in common. Their respective political systems, for instance, are about as unlike as any two democracies can be. The same goes for their healthcare systems, policing methods and gun laws.
In fact, among all the nations of the West, there are two fundamental categories — the USA and the rest. That’s for many reasons, but the most important is that America is alone among western countries in being a continental nation. Yes, Canada and Australia also occupy continent-spanning territories, but most of their space is uninhabited (and pretty much uninhabitable). Only in America does a population of hundreds of millions range across temperate lands from ocean to ocean. Such boundlessness is bound to effect the development of a nation, shaping a radically different set of habits, attitudes and ambitions. In good ways and bad, the US was always going to be the outlier.
By the way, this is also a major plot hole in the pro-Anglosphere narrative. America is sui generis.
Mishra sets Anglo-America against an even sketchier civilisational concept — a disparate group of nations which he bundles up into a kind of anti-Anglosphere.
He’s not the first to do so. For instance, Russia has a long history of ‘Eurasianism’ — an intellectual movement, often associated with the political extremes, that sets the liberal, mercantile values of Atlantic nations such as Britain and America against what they see as the virtuous authoritarian traditionalism of the Slavic world and neighbouring lands. Contemporary Eurasianists include Aleksandr Dugin — a significant influence on Vladimir Putin.
Then there are those who focus on the philosophical divide between the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions — the former being used to justify the top-down technocratic state, the latter a more laissez faire approach. By linking that up to the various differences between the British and Continental Enlightenments, and contrasts in religious, legal and political schools of thought, one can spin-up a tale of rival Anglo and non-Anglo cultures – but only, of course, if one ignores all the exceptions, inconsistencies and complications.
Pankaj Mishra’s own scheme of the world (which, I should say, is not Eurasianist) starts with Otto von Bismarck and the unification of Germany. As Chancellor, Bismarck pursued a policy of building up a highly capable “social state”, which, Mishra says, became a “model for all of the world.” In the late 19th and early 20th century, the rapidly modernising Japanese learned from Germany’s example. Japan, in turn, became a model for the post-war Asian tiger economies such as South Korea and Singapore — and, eventually, China. Having rejected the “Anglo-American ideologies of unfettered markets and minimal government”, the countries thus had the strong state capacity to prevail against the pandemic, while America and Britain did not.
The leap from Bismarck to Covid is a rather ambitious one, and it misses out some rather important things in between. For instance, the American influence on Japan, South Korea and Taiwan after the Second World War and the even longer British influence on Singapore and Hong Kong. Whether for good or ill, it strikes me that these connections might be more important to the way these places turned out than the rather distant link to Imperial Germany.
Then there’s the matter of Germany and its closest continental neighbours. If there is anywhere German influence might have made a difference — when it comes to how countries coped with Covid — it is surely in the European Union, in which the institutional connections are indisputable. And yet countries such as Italy, France, Belgium and Spain have suffered about as badly as the British. If anything, these nations are even less Anglo-Saxon in their attitudes than the Germans are, but that evidently hasn’t helped them much.
Back home in Blighty, there’s no doubt that mistakes have been made. We didn’t lockdown early enough and we’ve been incredibly slow in using face coverings. But why was that? An excess of Anglo-Saxon individualism? Er, no. The timing of the lockdown followed the independent advice of a highly eminent panel of scientists. Meanwhile the policy on masks followed the guidance of the World Health Organisation.
There have been other cock-ups. Countries such as Germany, South Korea and Taiwan have shown that tracing app technology can be used to good effect. Our attempt to replicate their success was not our finest hour. On the other hand, Britain is playing a leading role in the quest for a vaccine. Furthermore, after some false starts, the UK Government has made great strides in expanding the availability of tests. The speed with which the Nightingale hospitals were created was also impressive. Of course, this extra capacity hasn’t been needed so far — testament to the fact that despite the number of cases, National Health Service capacity has not been overwhelmed.
It’s worth reflecting on the incredible public support shown for the NHS, which isn’t just symbolic, but expressed in our willingness to comply with the strictures of lockdown. For a supposedly selfish society we’re remarkably inclined to acts of national and international solidarity. Just as mysteriously, our supposedly hollowed-out public sphere seems remarkably capable of creating and sustaining effective institutions.
Undoubtedly, there are things that, say, the Germans and Japanese do better than us. Germany’s superb technical education system, for instance; or the jaw-dropping punctuality of Japan’s trains. But narratives of non-Anglo hyper-efficiency leave out all the counter-examples. For instance, German mismanagement of infrastructure projects or the fact that the Japanese economy has been stagnant for a generation.
The idea that one can draw a line in the English Channel between the social states of Europe and East Asia on the one hand and turbo-capitalist bandit country on the other is ridiculous. The Brits maybe more market-orientated than the EU average and the tax burden a little lighter, but these are differences of degree not kind. Even America, which does have a significantly less statist society than the rest of the West, still has a vast public sector — including the armed forces that Europe is happy to rely on for its security.
If there’s one thing on which the Anglo and non-Anglo worlds do diverge, it’s their 20th century history. Say what you like about the Limeys and Yanks, at least we never went the full fash. Indeed, both countries became full democracies and stayed that way. Tragically, the same cannot be said for Germany and the other social states that Mishra is so impressed by. Most of them either embraced, or were conquered by, some form of totalitarian madness.
It’s all a bit awkward for the anti-Anglo narrative. But Mishra has an answer to that: “what made the first half of the 20th century so uniquely violent”, he says, was the “scramble for territory and resources, started by British slave-owners and colonialists”.
Without wanting to deny our involvement in the crimes of the era, I would point out that we we weren’t the pioneers of European empire-building or the slave trade. The Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch were in there before us, and the French were our great rivals. But let’s not mention all those Continentals, it’ll spoil the narrative!
Meanwhile Germany took even longer to acquire overseas colonies. However, various German states (not least Prussia) had a long record of ruthless military conquest within Europe — going all the way back to The Middle Ages and the Teutonic Knights. It seems likely this did rather more to inspire Hitler’s dreams of conquest. In fact, I’d venture that Nazis didn’t do Nazi things because of the British, but because they were Nazis.
None of this means that Britain and America don’t have a lot to be ashamed of. There’s our part in the Transatlantic slave trade; the slave economies of the southern states and the Caribbean; and what our colonists did to the Native Americans, and to lesser-known victims of imperialism like the Aboriginal Tasmanians. Furthermore, the bloodstained record of famines, massacres and racial segregation extends well into the 20th century.
All of that has to be reckoned with and none of it is erased by the British and American contribution to the defeat of fascism. But the idea that Anglo-America somehow stands at the root of 20th century violence is a distortion, one that ignores a history of inhumanity in which every nation and civilisation is mired.
It also ignores the history of those who have stood up to defend human dignity — a history in which the English-speaking peoples have also played a prominent role. It is a story of progress that goes hand-in-hand with political freedom. In the World Wars and the Cold War, Britain and America didn’t just stand against the tyrants, they stood for democracy, endeavouring to introduce or restore it to liberated nations around the world.
In his essay, Pankaj Mishra downplays the importance of democracy, claiming that “social and economic well-being depends less on how political representatives are chosen and more on how adroitly the state formulates and implements policy”. And yet in acknowledging the terrible things that the Chinese government is doing right now in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, he admits that “the modern state’s biopower can enable monstrous crimes”.
Democracy, however, disables it. As a country becomes more democratic, its government may or may not become more competent, but it will almost always become more humane. Injustices, whether of the present or the past, can be openly debated and contended with. Meanwhile, free speech, transparency, the rule of law and the verdict of the ballot box serve as impediments to tyranny. Yes, there have been times when tyrants have been freely voted into office, but, tellingly, they then dismantle the democratic system so that they can’t be voted out again. They know where their interests lie and it’s not with a powerful electorate.
Even if you think Boris Johnson and Donald Trump epitomise the decline of Anglo-America, the fact remains that both men can be voted out of office. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, not so much.
So for all our failings, flailings and hypocrisy, there are things in our history we can be proud of. We may not be the goodies, but we’re not all bad either.