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Essay: Kevin Bloom – But wait… what if this isn’t the End of the West?

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The race between West and East has inspired a new genre of best-selling non-fiction, and is making celebrity names out of a growing number of writers and academics. From the perspective of both sides, the race is as real as it is hard-run, but the “winner” is not as obvious as most seem to think. What are the latest stats that shed light on the matter? Where does Africa feature?

It’s a generalisation, granted, but on the balance of evidence it can probably be made anyway: the publishing industry, unlike Hollywood, gets some decent mileage out of products that have an unhappy ending. In the last few years, if one new species of non-fiction book has arisen in the Anglo-American market to prove this claim, it’s the sub-genre that prognosticates and explains the rise of the East and demise of the West. Of course, these books only end unhappily for readers in America and Europe who’ve been brought up to believe in their own cultural and economic superiority (translated into Mandarin, they sell as comedies), but the fact that each of the major international houses throws huge resources at their packaging and marketing seems to suggest that the thinking is kind of similar to newsprint – if it bleeds, it leads.

While by “bleeding” we may be talking metaphorically, there’s no doubt about the “leading” part. Starting with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who’s won three Pulitzers and whose books have been known to dwell for years atop his newspaper’s best-seller lists, China-loving (and its requisite corollary, America-bashing) appears to be the new cash cow. In 2009, he upset a lot of people with an article that praised China’s autocratic leadership as “reasonably enlightened” for “boosting gasoline prices” and “overtaking [America] in electric cars, solar power, energy efficiency, batteries, nuclear power and wind power.” That line has since been parlayed into the book That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, which is garnering the usual rave reviews from the usual sources (has Friedman ever gotten a bad review in the New York Times?), and which is sitting comfortably at or near the top of a slew of Amazon best-seller categories.

Needless to say, the above title, released late last year, isn’t the first time China has received big play in a Friedman book. His 2005 smash-hit The World Is Flat, currently at 2-million copies sold and counting, included many ominous observations about China’s  “offshoring” capabilities in a globalised labour market, and urged the American workforce to become more adaptable. Mercifully, the obviousness of Friedman’s thesis in that book was pounced upon by the redoubtable Matt Taibbi, who wrote at the time of publication: “On an ideological level, Friedman’s new book is the worst, most boring kind of middlebrow horseshit. If its literary peculiarities could somehow be removed from the equation, The World Is Flat would appear as no more than an unusually long pamphlet replete with the kind of plug-filled, free-trader leg-humping that passes for thought in this country.”

Niall Ferguson, who doesn’t have near as many haters – clearly, he just isn’t as proficient at attracting epithets like “The Imperial Messenger” or “Schmuck of the Year” – has also been adding to his considerable royalty statements by mining the topic. In his book Civilisation: The West and the Rest, published in 2011, the British celebrity academic argues that there are six “killer applications” that enabled the West to get the lead on the Rest, namely – competition, the scientific revolution, the rule of law and representative government, modern medicine, the consumer society, and the work ethic. The East has been rapidly catching up in these six areas since the 1950s, he argues, and what we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance.

So far Ferguson’s sales have been way more positive than his reviews, with some pointing out that the book is nothing more than a cynical accompaniment to a shallow TV show, and that his real strength is – and ought to remain – economic history. Writing in the London Review of Books, Pankaj Mishra, whose latest book is an extended reflection on modern Asian thinkers, noted: “To explain the contingent, short-lived factors that gave a few countries in Western Europe their advantage over the rest of the world requires a sustained and complex analysis, not one hell-bent on establishing that the West was, and is, best. At the very least, it needs the question to be correctly put. To ask, as Ferguson does, why the West broke through to capitalist modernity and became the originator of globalisation is to assume that this was inevitable, and that it resulted basically from the wonderfulness of the West, not to mention the hopelessness of the East.”

Notably, it was Ian Morris who put the above question a little better. Following loosely in the footsteps of Jared Diamond, Morris, in his book Why the West Rules – For Now, starts with the dawn of man in murky prehistory and methodically pulls together the latest theories from disciplines as diverse as archaeology and neuroscience to explain why East and West have each been dominant (in developmental terms) at different periods. For the British-born Stanford professor, it is geography above all else that determines a civilisation’s fate – East and West to him are not value judgments, but geographical labels. “Geography,” he writes at one point, “explains why it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards and Chinese settlers, just as intrepid as Britons, but it was Christopher Columbus rather than the great Chinese admiral Zheng who discovered the Americas – simply because Columbus only had to go half as far.”

Still, for all its merits, implicit in the title of Morris’s book is the marketing friendly unhappy ending. He reluctantly acknowledges that Western “rule” will cease in the early 21st century, and then quickly goes on to his true conclusion (of which more shall be said below). But whether we’re talking Morris or Ferguson or Friedman – or any other big-selling English-language writer on the topic of hemispherical competition – there’s a point that the American and UK publishing industries seem loathe to advertise right now: the final day of Western dominance may not be as close as we think.

For instance, in the winter 2012 edition of City Journal, a quarterly published by the Manhattan Institute, writers Joel Klotkin and Shashi Parulekar draw together data from, amongst others, the International Monetary Fund and the US Bureau of Economic Analysis to argue that “the decline of the English-speaking world has been greatly exaggerated.” They contend that although citizens of the Anglosphere – defined to encompass the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand – have been pushed by the financial crisis into a widespread belief that the West has already lost the race, the numbers don’t align with the despondency.

The article starts with some top-line economic stats: “Like Germany in the 1930s or Japan in the 1970s, China has found that centrally directed economic systems can achieve rapid, short-term economic growth – and China’s has indeed been impressive. But over time, the growth record and economic power achieved by the free-market-oriented English-speaking nations remain peerless. A little-noted fact these days is that the Anglosphere is still far and away the world’s largest economic bloc. Overall, it accounts for more than one-quarter of the world’s GDP – more than $18-trillion. In contrast, what we can refer to as the Sinosphere – China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau – accounts for only 15.1% of global GDP, while India generates 5.4%.”

Of course, these stats need to take into account annual growth rates, and most forecasts place the US’s at under 2% for 2012, against China’s 7.5%. That is certainly a significant difference, but not only is the latter the lowest forecast to come out of the People’s Republic in eight years, it’s also very persuasive evidence that the Chinese economy has come to a crossroads—the country either makes a successful transition from a manufacturing economy to a consumer-based one, or the growth keeps on slowing.

And a critical question is: does China have enough “rich” people of the right age to keep this new consumer economy going, even if the immediate transition is a success? As highlighted by the City Journal piece: “[China] now has a fertility rate of 1.6, even lower than that of Western Europe. Over the next two decades, its ratio of workers to retirees is projected to rise from 11 to 23. Other countries, such as Brazil and Iran, face similar scenarios. These countries, without social safety nets of the kinds developed in Europe or Japan, may get old before they can get rich.”

The article then continues: “These figures will have an impact on the growth of the global workforce. Between 2000 and 2050, for example, the US workforce is projected to grow by 37%, while China’s shrinks by 10%, the EU’s decreases by 21%, and, most strikingly, Japan’s falls by as much as 40%.”

Immigration is obviously the key factor in this somewhat surprising set of stats, with the United States, even in the “border-paranoiac” Bush years, consistently leading the pack: in 2005, as Klotkin and Parulekar observed, the country swore in more new citizens than the next nine countries combined. Not coincidentally, in 2012 it was the second-largest power in the Anglosphere, the United Kingdom, that recorded the highest immigration numbers in its history.

What these figures mean to issues of “nationalism” and “identity” is a different subject, and one that Ferguson and Friedman have been known to sensationalise to their peril (in critical terms, anyway). For the purposes of the current argument, all that needs be stated is this: the race between West and East – a race that both are running flat-out, no matter whose cultural sensitivities are offended in the process – is far from decided.

But there are smaller races within the great sweeping race that have clear-cut leaders, and here Morris’s contention that West and East are geographical judgments before they are value judgments would appear to apply. One example: after 9/11, when the West turned its attention to the Middle East, China’s eyes became more focused on Africa. And in 2009, as we’re all aware, China surpassed the United States as Africa’s largest trading partner.

Who’ll ultimately “win” on the continent? The answer is not nearly as important as the implications of the contest for humankind. Africa, as the last continent on Earth with an abundance of untapped resources and the potential for sustained and real development, is in many ways the stage where our species’ destiny will play out. As Morris wrote in the final pages of Why the West Rules – For Now: “Rising social development has always changed the meaning of geography, and in the twenty-first century, development will rise so high that geography will cease to mean anything at all. The only thing that will count is the race between a Singularity and a Nightfall.”

Is a South-African author/journalist. He is currently working on his second book, on how Chinese are changing the African continent. Together with Richard Poplak he started a project called Africa 3.0, which is how they would describe the continent’s latest iteration, where Africa 1.0 was the era of European colonialism and Africa 2.0 the years of post-independence.