Wednesday , June 19 2024

Anglos Awash in the Age of Civilizations

A few weeks ago the gifted historian Andrew Roberts published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making the case for CANZUK, a proposed loose union between Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand built around free trade, free movement, and defence coordination. The article generated a bit of stir, and it’s worth a discussion.

CANZUK gets framed, at least in the UK, as a sort of post-Brexit rediscovery of the Anglosphere, but it gets done so in terms and framing that are now inadequate and obsolete, a framing that would have made sense ironically in a pre-Brexit world, but not in the emerging multipolar age of civilizations. CANZUK can make sense in civilizational terms, in a changing world in which civilization looks to be the defining driver of global politics going forward. But it requires a reimagining of what CANZUK is ultimately built around, and about.

How Brexit Changed Me 

If there’s anyone that CANZUK should appeal to, it’s me. I was born in the UK, have lived roughly half my life in both Canada and the UK, and I’m a dual citizen. I’m a Westminster apologist, a monarchist, and a Tory, so you can see why it seems tailor made for me. But Brexit has changed my thinking on this somewhat.

I’ve always been a eurosceptic, and was pro-Leave. But in 2016 my euroscepticism was that of the (classical) liberal leaver, seeing the EU as a distant regulatory monstrosity undermining British liberty. At the time this sort of classical liberal language was the only respectable framing I had to conceptualize my euroscepticism, but what happened in the years after the referendum changed this.

I was born in Stockport, a town now in Greater Manchester, and come from a working class family, but I mostly grew up in a beautiful English cathedral town called Lichfield. That Brexit was ultimately won in the “left behind” parts of England, not just in the English Tory shires, is now common knowledge. But we forget now that it wasn’t at the time.

While I grew up fairly comfortable, most of my family still live in Stockport, and speaking to family and friends, I got an anecdotal sense that for many this wasn’t about trade relations with the rest of the world or Europe, it was about both national and class identity.

I didn’t fully understand it at the time, and even though I could see these class dynamics playing into it, I didn’t have the language or framing to actually grasp what was going on. While my euroscepticism had always been implicitly rooted somewhat in a national identity framed in the liberal-leave rhetoric, the attempted thwarting of Brexit in the years following 2016 awakened in me a sense of betrayal, disillusionment, and disconnect that motivated so many leave voters, a sort of latent class identity I’ve always had but had never been fully activated. By January 2020 Brexit meant something very different to me, and was much more important, than it was in June 2016.

A Tory Elite Project 

I bring this up simply because I think this change I underwent during Brexit made me sceptical of the (classical) liberal-leave worldview. Part of the reason the process was so messy wasn’t just because parliament, tasked with delivering Brexit, was largely composed of remainers, it’s that the minority of MPs who were leavers were generally classical liberal Tory elite types, the Daniel Hannan’s of the world, that look very different from most leave voters.

The worldview that birthed CANZUK is very much this Tory elite classical liberal worldview. It’s not that I think free trade, free movement, and defence cooperation are bad ideas, but I think as my worldview was altered by Brexit I have begun to see this worldview as an obsolete one, and if it’s a response to a changing world, which it is and should be, it needs to be one framed and understood in response to how the world is actually changing. If it’s just understood as a classical liberal project of free trade and free movement it doesn’t reflect these changes.

Multipolarity and Civilizations 

Roberts begins the WSJ piece by asking “How will Great Britain survive Brexit and prosper in a world solidifying into the three empire blocs of the U.S., China and the European Union?” The answer is “to realize the concept of the “Canzuk Union,” a vital first step on the way to a fully functioning Anglosphere.” Roberts is half right. The world is indeed solidifying into blocs, but it’s wrong to see them as imperial blocs, and more accurate to understand them as civilizational blocs.

This distinction matters because of what a civilization is. Civilization is ultimately a manifestation of the particular, a distinctive and not-universal expression of human culture. While you’ll often hear the last few years described as being about the resurgence of nationalism and populism, I think on global terms it’s much better to understand it as the return of particularism, contra liberal universalism. Nationalism is just one manifestation of this. This matters, because the defining force behind a world of civilizations versus a world of imperial blocs becomes culture.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in what the late Charles Krauthammer, in a famous Foreign Affairs essay, called the “unipolar moment” in which the United States became the unquestioned global hegemon, with no true political, economic, or ideological rivals left. Krauthammer’s use of “moment” is deliberate, he readily admitted that unipolarity was temporary, and that “no doubt, multipolarity will come in time.” We live now in the post-unipolar world.

The return of multipolarity is not just the return of great power politics, it increasingly looks like a multipolar era defined by what Aris Roussinos and others describe as “civilization states” as opposed to nation states. Trying to lump Putin’s Russia, Ergodan’s Turkey, Modi’s India, the EU, the Visegrad Group, and even Xi’s China under a nationalism versus globalism mantra doesn’t make much sense.

The resurgence of civilization is in direct reaction to the way global power has worked for the past few centuries. Civilizations are arguably the defining force in human history, and while civilizations and empires often have hegemonic ambitions, civilizational forces that manifest in particular cultural terms are never truly universal. Ideologies that aspire to universalism ultimately have to reject particularism.

Age of Civilizations 2020

I dislike the term “Western civilization” and I’m not really sure there is such a thing as “the west” but for now I’ll use it. The west ended up, by accident in some ways, projecting itself across the world as a sort of world civilization with universal aspirations. The values and ways of organizing society and human life that the west imposed on the rest of the world became seen under a liberal guise as universal values, developed in but not particular to the west. In The Clash of Civilizations Samuel Huntington suggests that:

“the concept of a universal civilization helps justify Western cultural dominance of other societies and the need for those societies to ape Western practices and institutions. Universalism is the ideology of the West for confrontations with non-Western cultures”

I’d recommend this brilliant essay by Bruno Macaes that elaborates on this point in more detail. What is going across the world, in the multipolar era is a reestablishment of civilizational particularities contra the universal ambitions of Western liberalism across the world, which is exposed as not being universal but the imposition of Western particularism.

One area where this becomes obvious is in the role of the nation state in a world of civilizations, and the difference between civilizations and nations. Macaes makes this point twice. First, referring to a conversation he had with a Chinese official who told him ““Always remember that China is a civilization rather than a nation-state.” Macaes goes on to say:

“As a civilization-state, China is organized around culture rather than politics. Linked to a civilization, the state has the paramount task of protecting a specific cultural tradition.


“The importance of this concept became more obvious to me in India during a conversation with Ram Madhav, the general secretary of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. After a conference in Delhi, he explained: “From now on, Asia will rule the world, and that changes everything because in Asia, we have civilizations rather than nations.”

A world of imperial blocs and nations is not the same as a world dominated by civilization states. The nation state is, if anything, a product of and construct of Western liberalism and modernity, and civilization states may actually be rivals or alternatives to nation states. “Nation-states are a Western invention, naturally vulnerable to Western influence. Civilizations are an alternative to the West.”

So too is secularism, a concept of conceived in the west that has been imposed on the world in often uncomfortable ways. The idea of separate religious and political spheres are ones that emerged in the context of Christendom, and liberal modernity. They make less sense outside of these contexts, but centuries of Western domination and an adoption of these secular attitudes by non-Western elites has helped them endure. As Western hegemony recedes, so too will these attitudes and approaches.

This has viscerally been made clear in the last few weeks, with two highly symbolic acts; the reconsecration of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul as a mosque, and the beginning of the construction of a Hindu temple on a highly contentious site in Ayodhya in India. Both of these events were attended by President Erdogan and Prime Minister Modi respectively, and the coincidental synchronicity of the two highly symbolic moments is a potent symbol of this new era.

Anglo Particularism 

There are other examples to point to as evidence of this, but it is in this new world of cultural and civilizational poles that anglo nations like Britain and Canada find themselves in. For the Anglosphere, and something like CANZUK to make sense, it has to do so, I think, in this context. So what does that mean? Well, unsurprisingly, it requires thinking in civilizational terms.

What that specifically means is rediscovering our own particularism. This is one of the many reasons I dislike “Western civilization” as a distinct category, because the west as a concept does end up now presupposing a universalist liberalism. This is from the Roussinos piece:

“Western societies have sacrificed their specific cultures for the sake of a universal project,” Macaes notes. “One can no longer find the old tapestry of traditions and customs or a vision of the good life in these societies.” Our naive faith that liberalism, derived from the political and cultural traditions of Northern Europe, would conquer the world has now been shattered for good.

CANZUK countries are all implicated in this, centuries of global, especially anglo hegemony, has led us to delude ourselves into thinking that things that are actually particular to us are somehow universal. It’s not just a shared language, and it’s definitely not about race and whiteness, it’s about a shared culture and history.

Thinking about ourselves in these terms can help us recover that particularism, and the Anglosphere makes sense “organized around culture rather than politics.” Things like the nation state and our political orders that we’ve tried exporting globally, are particular and distinct aspects of our civilization. We can simultaneously save and preserve these things by abandoning any notions of universality, and understanding them as parts of our own cultural and historical particularity. This is what it would mean to understand the Anglosphere primarily in terms of culture instead of politics.

Building a confederal agreement of free trade, movement, and defence cooperation on top of a shared history is insufficient if it’s thought of primarily and only in political terms. The history and culture has to come first. The Anglosphere is not just a collection of anglo nations, the bonds that unite us are ultimately civilizational.

America and Anglo Civilization 

If it makes sense for arrangements to consolidate the angloshpere on these terms, then the elephant in the room here is why is it just CANZUK and not USCANZUK? Such cooperation already exists in an intelligence alliance known as the Five Eyes. The answer to this is fairly straightforward. Most obviously, America is simply so much larger than any other anglo nation that it would dominate any formal arrangement. CANZUK could actually play an important role within the Anglosphere by allowing other anglo countries, especially Canada, to emerge as unified bloc that could work alongside America on more equal footing. This would be less about America and its anglo vassals, and more about America and its anglo partner.

But why should this matter if we are thinking in civilizational terms? The other reason, I think, is that you cannot understand the reemergence of civilization states separate from the end of American (and Western) hegemony. It’s not just that other powers are emerging, it’s that American power is receding, and America is increasingly ambivalent about its role as the global hegemon.

For this project to actually be about the future, it needs to be about more than just slowing down American decline. Reducing the dependency of other anglo nations, especially Canada, on America is an important part of recovering Anglo particularism, which is not the same as Americanism. Something like CANZUK could allow the rest of us to begin rethinking of ourselves in particularist terms and finding a place in the new world, and not just as part of a atrophying American hegemony.

What CANZUK Should Look Like 

Embracing this particularism is why I think CANZUK would work much better as a series of bilateral arrangements between nations under a broader informal umbrella, ones that keep power firmly in the hands of our parliaments (negotiated by the Crown of course). In this sense it truly would be a loose confederal arrangement and not some technocratic project. Our shared parliamentary history needs to be understood in cultural terms, and doing it this way recognizes our distinct parliamentary heritage by placing power in the hands of sovereign parliaments.

But most importantly, Anglosphere civilization cannot simply mean “Britain,” it has to be a truly equal and reciprocal arrangement between different anglo countries and peoples. You would need cultural and exchange programs and efforts, an anglo Erasmus program as an example, to not just make the Canadians, Australians, and New Zealanders think of themselves as a bit more British, but for Brits to think of themselves as part of a shared culture that doesn’t just originate from them now. This would also mean, given that “anglo” encompasses lots of peoples and nations that aren’t just English, forging a reimagined understanding of what it means to be “anglo” that isn’t just purely English and British. In a lot of ways, imagining and rediscovering a new kind of anglo heritage actually requires moving beyond the ways we’ve come to understand (or forgotten) ourselves to be.

This is an admittedly speculative piece. That the future is one of civilization states seems clear. That anglo civilization makes sense I’m less sure of. But if cooperation or closer relations between anglo nations is about responding to the world before 2016, it’s doomed to fail or be inconsequential. If the new age of civilizations is upon us, it’s vital we abandon obsolete preconceptions and adapt to this changing reality. The Anglosphere as a civilizational project makes much more sense in this new world.

This piece was originally published as part of the author’s weekly newsletter:

About Ben Woodfinden

Ben Woodfinden is a doctoral student and political theorist at McGill University in Montreal. He has also been published in The American Interest, The National Interest, The American Conservative, The National Post, and many more. You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly newsletter “The Dominion” at the links to his account and newsletter below.

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