What’s Wrong with „European Universalism“?

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Even well-educated and culturally sensitive people often remain caught within a frame of mind which seems „self-evident“ to them. But epistemologies – popular or elitist – are shaped by particular, historical contexts. When particular, historical epistemologies are being proclaimed as „universal,“ problems are preprogrammed. That’s why „European universalism“ is a critically important issue in the multipolar world, which needs new cultural and civilizational syntheses. The writings of the American social scientist Immanual Wallerstein can help to clarify this matter.
By Michael Liebig


Being involved in the journalistic milieu for more than 30 years, reading journalistic products – printed or online – which claim to feature „news analysis“ has in most cases become quite dissatisfactory. But there are gratifying exceptions. For example, the bi-weekly comments of Immanuel Wallerstein. (http://fbc.binghamton.edu/cmpg.htm)

Admittedly, the bar is set really high here, because Wallerstein is no journalist, but a distinguished social scientist. The 79-year-old American is the conceptual founder of the World Systems Theory. Between 1974 and 1989 Wallerstein published his 3-volume opus magnum „The Modern World System“. Wallerstein is strongly influenced by the „Annales“ school of the French historian Fernand Braudel, which features the „longue duree“ approach. In economics, Wallerstein is strongly influenced by Marx’ economic theory, Joseph Schumpeter and Nikolai Kondratiev. Wallerstein began his scientific work with the research on colonial and post-colonial Africa.

I think that Wallerstein has made a very important contribution for understanding the current phase shift in international politics and the world economy. He does not only analyze the shifts within the world system, but the transformation of the world system as a whole.

Wallerstein’s profound but unexcited and well readable comments provide a good access to his overall work. In addition, I would recommend the small volume „European Universalism – The Rhetoric of Power,“ which was published in 2006. In 2007, a German translation was published under the title „The Barbarism of the Others – European Universalism“.

To avoid possible misunderstandings, I would want to stress the following:

  • „European universalism „, as criticised by Wallerstein, has nothing to do with Anglo-American „euro bashing“. Though the „eurocentric“ world view has originated geographically in Europe, „American exceptionalism“ is an integral part of European universalism – and its the most influential variation.
  • Wallerstein’s criticism of European universalism does not mean the negation of the great achievements in culture, science and technology generated in Europe and the USA. The problem with European universalism is not its European idea content, but its exclusionary claim to represent universality. And from this epistemological claim derives a corresponding claim in terms of political and economic power.

European Universalism & Colonialism

As said, Wallerstein has dealt early with the world beyond the euroatlantic space. He has looked at Europe and the USA through the eyes of Africans. Therefore, Wallerstein recognised early that European universalism and colonialism have formed a symbiosis.

In 1914 the European powers and the USA ruled over about 80% of the earth’s surface as colonial masters. The argument that colonialism now is a history, misses the fact that 500 years of world history do not simply „disappear“ without a trace. Mental and behavioural structures of colonialism have continued – irrespective of the formal termination of colonialism. And this applies to the societies of both the former colonial rulers and the former colonial „natives“.

However, Wallerstein’s criticism of European universalism does not limit itself to morally denouncing the human, spiritual and material „collateral damage“ of the colonialism, including its post-colonial variations. Rather, Wallerstein analyses the internal contradictions of European culture from which European universalism has arisen. He does so by refering to the discourse – among the Europeans – about the almost schizophrenic ambivalence of the European paradigm. The implication is that the selfconsciousness about its „dark side“ is also a constitutive element of European thinking.

Wallerstein’s analysis of European universalism starts with a debate of two Spanish theologians at the court of emperor Charles V in 1550 – in the earliest phase of European colonialism. The opponents in the debate were Bartolome de Las Casas and Juan Gines de Sepulveda. The latter maintained, that the natives of „newly discovered“ America were in every respect barbarians – a lower species compared to „civilised“, Christian Europeans. Therefore, Sepulveda concluded, Spain has the right to be at war with the natives, to subjugate them and exploit them economically. Las Casas, who had lived as a priest in Mexico, categorically rejected Sepulveda’s presumption that the American natives were inferior beings and that Europeans would be entitled to wage war on them, suppress and exploit them. We cannot detail here the arguments of Las Casas and Sepulveda, for that, one should read Wallerstein’s book.

Relevant here is the fact that already at the very beginning of the modern age, there was a profound debate whether European civilisation was axiomatically superior to all other cultures or not? Sepulveda’s position, that non-European cultures were intrinsically inferior, prevailed at the Spanish court, after Charles V had remained undecided for a while. The Las Casas-Sepulveda debate marked a historical branching point. For the next 500 years, the „Sepulveda doctrine“ remained a central feature of Europe’s conception of the non-European world. The Las Casas-Sepulveda debate can be understood as birth place of European universalism.

Over time, the predicates of the „Sepulveda doctrine“ have changed, but not its essence. The most modern variations of the „Sepulveda doctrine“ do not argue any more with religious dogmas or racist postulates. Instead, as Wallerstein elaborates, the central argument now are the „values“ of the freedom, democracy and capitalism. It is proclaimed that this system of values is both „universal“ and „without any alternative.“ And from this postulate of universality derives the supposed right or even the duty to „intervene“ – including by force – against those who oppose this system of values.

The last two decades have shown how fast the western paternalism of „universal values“ can revert to an ideologically loaded rhetoric of a „Clash of Civilizations“ – and bloody wars. The assumption that with the departure of George W. Bush or Tony Blair the issue would be resolved, is unfortunately mistaken. The Las Casas-Sepulveda debate remains topical.

Before digging a bit deeper into the question of European universalism, let’s once more sort out possible misconceptions: Freedom, democracy and market economy are achievements of the Enlightenment. Just as the idea of the human rights, which however was substantially shaped by Christian natural law. These values form, together with the great achievements in culture, science and technology, the basis of the European „modernity“. To stress it once again: Neither these values as such nor the many other achievements in the European modernity are the problem.

The real problem is the binary instrumentalisation of these values and achievements. By declaring these values „universal,“ they become necessarily means of exclusion and degradation of „the others“. European achievements get axiomatically coupled with the inferiority and failure of „the others“. Europe’s progress is not perceived as self-sufficient, but becomes interconnected with an a-priori backwardness of „the others“. Consequently, European universalism is an „organic world view“, based on a „us“ vs. „them“ setting. It is an epistemology based on binary opposition: There is only 1 and 0, black and white.

Edward Said’s Analysis of „Orientalism“

Wallerstein emphasizes rightly the overriding importance of Edward Said’s 1979 study „Orientalism“. Said analyses elaborates the perception of the cultures of India, China, Iran, Turkey and the Muslim world generally in European thinking: All these varied cultures were packed together, „essentialized“ as the „orient“. As if this was not reductionist enough, these cultures were designated as being principally incapable to develop out of their own spiritual and material resources. The „orient“ was supposedly „frozen“ in its backwardness.

Said has demonstrated that the perception of the „orient“ by the European „orientalists“ was primarily an intellectual projection. That does not mean that valuable scientific work wasn’t done in „oriental“ studies. But the axioms and conclusions of „oriental“ studies meant that the non-European world was made into something. The „orient“ became a mental construction of the European mind. The foundation of this construct was the seemingly self-evident superiority of European civilisation. And the conclusion of „oriental“ studies, no matter how valuable as such, was the intrinsic inferiority of „oriental“ cultures. One does not have to be an admirer of Michel Foucault to realize that the „oriental“ discourse corresponded to the economic and political interests of the powers in euroatlantic space.

Supposedly incapable to develop by its internal intellectual and material resources, the „orient“ needed the „iron hand“ of western powers to get rid of its own cultural dead weight. Only by colonial intervention from the outside, would the „orient“ be forced to gradually copy the west. Herein lies the core of the paternalistic colonialism. But at the same time, the culturally castrated „orient“ had to remain a copy. While the „orient“ should gradually adapt to the western „original,“ it must never become quite the same – neither culturally nor materially. And herein lies the core of the post-colonial world system.

Said has stressed that the essentialization and the stereotyping of the non-European world must not be answered with a reverse essentialization and the stereotyping of European modernity. Wallerstein has the same position. „Anti-eurocentrism“, the mechanic negation of European universalism would only be the substitution of one particulate world view by another.

Towards New Cultural-Civilizational „Syntheses“

„The others“ beyond the euroatlantic space have understood this. They have adopted increasingly – albeit often selectively – the achievements of European modernity. They have shown that they can „catch up“ with the west – not only economically. But they did so without surrendering their own cultural-civilisational substance and identity. This is the most visible in China and India, but also in Brazil. Russia takes a special position.

Presently, the post-colonial world system is in midst a complicated transitional phase. Not only the colonialism and its post-colonial modifications – as seen in the Iraq war – have failed historically. European universalism, forming the Weltanschauung basis of colonialism and the post-colonial era, has failed too. At last, European universalism has collided with world-political reality. In the euroatlantic world, one must realize that „the others“ are no carbon copies of European culture. One must learn that there is something to learn from „the others“ outside euroatlantic space.

In this respect, Wallerstein writes that Europeans and Americans must learn to accept „a constant tension, namely between the disposition to generalise our perceptions, analyses and values, and the desire to defend their particulate roots“ on the one side, and „the particulate perceptions, analyses and values“ coming from outside euroatlantic space, which also proclaim universality. Of course, the same is true vice versa. He adds, for all involved, „this is no easy matter.“

Wallerstein is obviously right, when he writes that in a multipolar world all actors have to engage „in a constant dialectic exchange which allows to us to find new syntheses, which of course, then need to be questioned again.“

A dialectic exchange to find „new syntheses“ means a new kind of the give and take between the euroatlantic space and other cultural-civilizational spaces – and between these other cultural-civilizational spaces. All cultural-civilizational configurations are particulate, none is eo ipso universal. But that is not the end of the affair. Wallerstein is bold enough to state that the dialectic exchange to find new cultural-civilizational „syntheses“ can and should eventually lead to an „universal universalism“, which „rejects essentialist characterisations of reality, which historicizes the universal like the particular, which unites the epistemologies of natural science and geisteswissenschaft, and allows to us in a clinical and sceptical manner to assess at all those justifications put up for the interventionism of the powerful against the weak.“.

The pathway towards a „universal universalism“ will obviously be quite difficult, but this objective is no pipe dream. The chance for creating a multiple, globally intertwined modernity does exist.

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