What is the West?

By Philippe Nemo, 2004

What is the distinctive characteristic of Western civilization?  According to Philippe Nemo, the West is defined by liberalism, by which he means classical liberalism:  democracy, freedom of speech, capitalism, etc.  The bulk of the book is a description of five historical “episodes” that contributed decisively to the West’s character:  ancient Greece (which gave us science and citizenship), ancient Rome (which gave us the rule of law), ancient Israel (which gave us our moral code), the papal revolution (what most people call the “Investiture controversy”, which produced the first synthesis of Greek and Jewish culture and began the desacralization of the state), and the liberal revolutions proper of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

This equation of Western civilization with classical liberalism raises several questions.  Are the five episodes events in the life of one civilization?  Is this the story of an essentially liberal society articulating its essence more and more fully?  Or did western society only come into existence with universal suffrage and the free market?  The latter would appear to be Nemo’s opinion, since he claims that Russia, Israel, and Latin America do not belong to the West because they are insufficiently liberal.  But couldn’t other civilizations adopt liberalism?  If so, would they lose their own identities and become Western?  Nemo does address this issue.  He believes western liberalism has universal value.  However, it only functions in a society with certain ethical beliefs.  In the West, these were originally provided by the Jewish and Christian religions; in other societies, something else may play this role.  Nemo also acknowledges that other civilizations have strongly communal ethical systems, and that these communal elements have value.  He hopes for a dialog of civilizations leading to a synthesis containing the best of each.  In this dialog, however, the West only offers individualism.  Nemo doesn’t mention that Christendom had its own communitarian tradition before it was murdered by liberalism.

I’d say the highlight of this book is chapter five, Nemo’s discussion of liberal democracy.  He gives an intriguing account of the difference between classical liberalism and its rivals:  conservatism and socialism.  Liberalism, in Nemo’s view, is based on spontaneous order which emerges from the free actions of a multitude of individuals:  the free market of goods and ideas being quintessential examples.  Conservatives want to organize society according to natural orders, like the family.  Socialists believe in artificial order, a society directed by central planning toward ideologically fixed goals.  Nemo thinks that spontaneous order is both more efficient than and morally superior to its rivals.  The former may be true, but I question the latter.  There is a reason those on the “right” and the “left” are disgusted by a society organized on pluralistic, free market principles.  Natural and artificial orders address man as a rational and moral being by illuminating his duties; the market treats man like a walking stomach and addresses him only through his private desires.

2 Responses

  1. There is a subtle difference between “capitalism” and “free market”. Capitalism is a market that is dominated by capital. We currently have a not-so-free market that is highly capitalistic. Things like limited-liability are government granted privileges to promote capital over other forces. But one can imagine a free market that isn’t capitalistic and is more communitarian. This would be a system that favors labor over capital by promoting worker cooperatives instead of promoting corporations. David Ellerman describes such a system here:


    This article shows a free market system that is not based on classical liberalism. It is important to understand that communitarianism and the free market do not necessarily conflict. The real problem is liberalism, not the free market.

  2. Hello fschmidt,

    Thanks for the link. I will read it when I get the chance. My understanding of capitalism is that it’s pretty firmly tied to classical liberalism. As for “free markets”, this must always mean “free within the confines of a stipulated social/legal context”, which you and Ellerman seem to acknowledge by speaking of “a” free market system being communitarian, rather than “the” free market system. Perhaps we should have a special word for this more attractive free market system.

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