The Golden Meme of Anglo-American Progress

by Roger Alford

Part Four of Gold and Gold builds upon the previous sections to discuss what Mead calls the golden meme of Anglo-American history and politics. The English-speaking world has adopted a dominant paradigm representing a deeply rooted vision of how the world works. The idea that the world is built (or guided by God) in such a way that unrestricted free play creates an ordered and higher form of society is found in virtually all fields and at virtually all levels of the Anglo-Saxon world. It makes people individualistic and optimistic, and it climaxes in what many have called the “whig narrative”—a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant force not only in Anglo-American history but in the wider world as well. (p. 15).

Anglo-American politicians and intellectuals have frequently put forward the idea that the purpose of the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy is to usher in a peaceful, liberal, and prosperous world order. Yet if the history of the last hundred years teaches one lesson, it is that Anglo-Americans consistently underestimate the difficulty of establishing the global democratic and capitalist peace that they want. The ever-recurring belief that the world is about to become a much better place is deeply rooted in Anglo-American culture. (pp. 271-72).

We live in an age of competing grand narratives. The oldest of these narratives is the Abrahamic story. (p. 274). The call of Abraham became a grand narrative in which the people of Abraham would prosper and multiply and thereby bless the nations of the earth. The human story is one of progress with a purpose. Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all believe that human beings can grasp the nature of the universe and that the normal course of natural events is subject to laws which can be understood and predicted by human beings. History is not simply the passage of time, it is accomplishment of a task. History is the process by which what is wrong is set right, what is broken is mended. (pp. 280-81).

Even secular modernism is part of the Abrahamic tradition, for it too sees history as a process of moral and political struggle through which truth is gradually discovered and proclaimed. Modernists acknowledge a higher power based on natural law or human nature that shapes history, even as they reject many features of traditional theism. (pp. 282-84).

The attempted transformation of the human condition has not only been fueled by hope but also by fear. Because war is woven so deeply into the fabric of history, the abolition of war requires a thoroughgoing social and political revolution. If the human race reaches a point of development at which organized mass violence is no longer the supreme arbiter of human affairs, then we have clearly solved the fundamental problem of human society. (p. 294).

The younger of the two narratives is the rise of capitalism. The social system of capitalist globalization has transformed cultures and social relations on every continent to generate a cascade of social, technological, economic, cultural, and political revolutions in every dimension of life on every part of our planet. (p. 274). The optimism rooted in Anglo-American culture unites with the biblical roots of Anglo-American religion to create a distinct grand narrative that ties the Abrahamic story of Israel and Christ together with the intuition that capitalist modernity represents a new call from God. (p. 298).

Today the cult of the invisible hand may be the chief difference between the English-speaking world and the rest of the world. It is the principal reason for the Anglo-Saxon rise to world power and a leading influence in how Anglo-Saxons have understood and interpreted their rise and their role. (p. 298). Today, the Anglo-American mind approaches virtually any social, political, scientific, or economic question with the belief that, somehow, some kind of invisible hand is the answer. Believers in the invisible hand are confident that the historical process is carrying forward some great if unknown purpose. We do not fight it; we believe that we must let capitalism and its revolutionary potential loose upon the world. (pp. 304-05).

The “whig narrative” refers today to a distinctly Anglo-American concept of history told as the story of slow, sure, and irresistible capitalist progress under the guidance of the invisible hand. (p. 305). The whig narrative is a powerful and all-embracing synthesis of the Abrahamic narrative and the story of capitalism. It links capitalist development with the unfolding will of God. (p. 310).

While this whig narrative has helped Anglo-Saxons dominate modern history, it has not helped them understand it. Anglo-Americans fail to understand why so many foreigners despise, reject, and resist the blessings of free markets and democratic government. They also underestimate the difficulties and obstacles other societies must overcome before they can play the game of free politics and free markets. (p. 316). Far from satisfying the deepest desires of human beings, the present world system and world order frustrate and enrage many people. Americans will not understand their role in the world until they have fully grasped the paradoxical relationship between the success of American society at home (and even internationally) and the level of global unhappiness with the American project and the American way. Success builds American confidence in the whig narrative; it creates resistance to it as well. (p. 339).

http://opiniojuris.org/2008/02/06/the-golden-meme-of-anglo-american-progress/

2 Responses

  1. Today the cult of the invisible hand may be the chief difference between the English-speaking world and the rest of the world. It is the principal reason for the Anglo-Saxon rise to world power and a leading influence in how Anglo-Saxons have understood and interpreted their rise and their role. (p. 298). Today, the Anglo-American mind approaches virtually any social, political, scientific, or economic question with the belief that, somehow, some kind of invisible hand is the answer. Believers in the invisible hand are confident that the historical process is carrying forward some great if unknown purpose. We do not fight it; we believe that we must let capitalism and its revolutionary potential loose upon the world. (pp. 304-05).

    Allow me to express skepticism that this in an accurate summary of the majority of white Americans, much less all Americans.

    Rather, I would think that almost all Americans see Command Economies as an abject failure. The solution to any given problem may manifest itself in varying degrees of Capitalism, but certainly never that, in their (our?) eyes.

  2. “It makes people individualistic and optimistic, and it climaxes in what many have called the “whig narrative”—a theory of history that sees the slow and gradual march of progress in a free society as the dominant force not only in Anglo-American history but in the wider world as well.”

    As Martti Koskennemi pointed out, the Lauterpacht-inspired narrative of international law is no different in its adoption of the whi narrative. For Lauterpacht, WWII was a mere blip on the great path to a global order under international law.

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