Recently, the terms "Western civilisation" or "Western values" have been used in opposition to regimes mainly in the Middle East. But how fruitful is this notion of "the West"? In his keynote speech at the conference Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology, David Graeber showed that this idea is a kind of Othering: It makes artificial gaps between people that have more in common than supposed.
His deconstruction of the West resembels earlier deconstructions of the National (what traditionally has been considered as "typical Norwegian" is rather the result of migration and influences from other countries).
In his paper that he presented on the conference, Graeber writes:
If you examine these terms more closely, however, it becomes obvious that all these “Western” objects are the products of endless entanglements. “Western science” was patched together out of discoveries made on many continents, and is now largely produced by non- Westerners. “Western consumer goods” were always drawn from materials taken from all over the world, many explicitly imitated Asian products, and nowadays, most are produced in China.
As European states expanded and the Atlantic system came to encompass the world, all sorts of global influences appear to have coalesced in European capitals, and to have been reabsorbed within the tradition that eventually came to be known as “Western”.
Can we say the same of “Western freedoms”? The reader can probably guess what my answer is likely to be.
The idea of a superior "Western civilisation" is a product of colonialism. But as he says:
Opposition to European expansion in much of the world, even quite early on, appears to have been carried out in the name of “Western values” that the Europeans in question did not yet even have.
Graeber mainly used the notion of democracy as a Western concept as an example:
Almost everyone who writes on the subject assumes “democracy” is a "Western" concept begins its history in ancient Athens, and that what 18th and 19th century politicians began reviving in Western Europe and North America was essentially the same thing.
Democratic practices-processes of egalitarian decision-making-however occur pretty much anywhere, and are not peculiar to any one given
"civilization", culture, or tradition.
We should according to Graeber treat the history of “democracy” as more than just the history of the word “democracy”:
If democracy is simply a matter of communities managing their own affairs through an open and relatively egalitarian process of public discussion, there is no reason why egalitarian forms of decision-making in rural communities in Africa or Brazil should not be at least as worthy of the name as the constitutional systems that govern most nation-states today-and in many cases, probably a good deal more so.
Rather than seeing Indian, or Malagasy, or Tswana, or Maya claims to being part of an inherently democratic tradition as an attempt to ape the West, it seems to me, we are looking at different aspects of the same planetary process: a crystallization of longstanding democratic practices in the formation of a global system, in which ideas were flying back and forth in all directions, and the gradual, usually grudging adoption of some by ruling elites.
Yet why have these procedures not been considered as "democratic." The main reason in Graebers view: In these assemblies, things never actually came to a vote! Rather, they preferred "the apparently much more difficult task" of coming to decisions "that no one finds so violently objectionable that they are not willing at least assent". It is this form of participatory democracy that social movements around the world are trying to revive!
Graeber also discusses the "coercive nature of the state" and the contradictions that democratic constitutions are founded on. He refers to Walter Benjamin (1978) who pointed out "that any legal order that claims a monopoly of the use of violence has to be founded by some power other than itself, which inevitably means, by acts that were illegal according to whatever system of law came before it".
And about Ancient Greece and democracy:
It is of obvious relevance that Ancient Greece was one of the most competitive societies known to history. It was a society that tended to make everything into a public contest, from athletics to philosophy or tragic drama or just about anything else. So it might not seem entirely surprising they made political decision-making into a public contest as well. Even more crucial though was the fact that decisions were made by a populace in arms.
UPDATE: The whole text is now available in The Anarchist Library: There Never Was a West Or, Democracy Emerges From the Spaces In Between
Amartya Sen: Democracy Isn't 'Western' this text was also debated on Savage Minds
Amartya Sen: Democracy as a Universal Value (pdf) (Journal of Democracy 10.3 (1999) 3-17)
David Graeber: Reinventing Democracy
Review of Graeber's book: Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology
Cosmopolitanism and Anthropology - What's the point of anthropology conferences?