What is Western Fundamentalism?
Gordon Menzies is Associate Professor in Economics at UTS, Sydney, and recently launched his book Western Fundamentalism. He outlines what the term means and its effects has spread much further than economics.
How would you answer if someone asked ‘Are you a fundamentalist?’
I would feel uncomfortable. After all, have you ever seen the word ‘fundamentalist’ on a resume, or has someone come up to you at a party and said: ‘Hi I’m a fundamentalist?’ The person asking the question might be asking if I am a violent extremist, or if I am anti-intellectual, so my answer, and I presume yours, would be ‘no’.
But would you answer differently if they went back to the original use of the word? When it was first used, the meaning of ‘fundamentalist’ was about the role played by ‘fundamental’ beliefs.
Christians in the early 20th century who were called fundamentalists stated their fundamental beliefs. They acknowledged that these beliefs were not 100 per cent provable scientifically and connected their detailed opinions to their fundamental beliefs. So, if someone asks me if I am a person like that, my answer would be ‘Yes I’d like that kind of humility, integrity and insight’.
Actually, philosophers assure us that none of us are in the position of being able to prove our fundamental beliefs 100 % scientifically, so if a fundamentalist is someone who has fundamental beliefs that are not provable, then we are all fundamentalists.
What About the Average Western Person?
So, what kind of fundamentalists are secular Western people?
When I was a graduate student at Oxford University, I decided I would try my hand at the university debating society, called the Oxford Union. I went along and I was deeply impressed by how brilliant the students were. But despite this, the debates were often superficial. So, I went and shared my unease with one of the leaders.
I described how debates were sometimes won by appealing to laws passed in the UK, rather than logical arguments. He then said to me:
“Gordon, you must understand that everybody who comes to this university uncritically believes in three things: free markets, democracy and sexual freedom.”
When I heard this, I decided to call someone who uncritically celebrates markets, democracy and sexual freedom a ‘Western Fundamentalist’.
Some Bad Outcomes of Western Fundamentalism
There are many things that I love about Western culture and much to celebrate over our history. Still, Western fundamentalism can sometimes lead to selfish chaos.
To state the obvious, democracy is powerless in the face of mass delusion. If people believe something wrong, they’ll elect people to pursue those wrong beliefs. For example, ancient Greek democracies had the erotic mentoring of teenagers and Hitler rose to power using largely democratic means with a big popular following.
It’s harder to see this closer to our own times but if you believe that the mid-20th century democracies were marred by systemic and individual racism, then you have to also agree that democracy is powerless in the face of widespread mistaken public opinion.
Are there other things democracy is powerless to correct because public opinion is mistaken? There has been widespread democratic support for the sexual revolution over several decades, and many laws passed to support it. But as I observed in Oxford, laws passed are not the same thing as reasoned arguments.
I think the sexual revolution is a poorly understood phenomenon. It is a dangerous half-truth to say that it is entirely a Left-wing movement to pursue social justice. Unfortunately, it is also true that it’s a Right-wing triumph of neo-liberalism.
Western fundamentalism is naive about evil. We tear down statues and rail against other times and places, but condemn ourselves as we do, because we’re not perfect and one day our statues will be torn down.
Neoliberalism tries to explain and run society using market thinking. This is fine for apples in a supermarket, but there is always the danger of market thinking seeping into inappropriate areas – like family interactions.
To see why this might be a bad thing let’s think for a moment about markets. When we buy and sell things in ordinary markets, like on e-bay, we look to do mutually advantageous trades of commodities.
What is a commodity?
It is a thing.
It has no feelings.
It has no claim on my loyalty or my relational proximity – it doesn’t matter if I part from it.
For example, my computer is a commodity and I can sell it to you. At the end of the day keeping my computer or not is subject to a cost-benefit analysis. The moment the pros don’t exceed the cons I get rid of it, it goes, and nobody sheds a tear.
Nobody in the West today would say that my children are a commodity and so I can’t sell them to you.
They are not things.
They do have feelings.
They have a right to my loyalty and my relational proximity.
So my children are out of reach of neoliberalism, at least for now.
But this is no longer true of sexual partners in the West. The sexual revolution has taken sexual partners from the category of ‘people’ and turn them into ‘things’. Despite the good things that the sexual revolution has accomplished, this is the shameful side of its legacy.
Some people in the West (but not all) are embarrassed about legalized prostitution and widespread pornography but they see it as a bit of untidiness in an otherwise enlightened sexual society.
This is to underplay their significance. Porn and prostitution are the tip of an iceberg, which is the commodification of sexual partners – turning them from people into things. Gone is the Christian idea that if you have sex with someone you become close to them; you are in a way joined to them and there are moral obligations that arise from that. Sex, apparently, can be enjoyed without relational proximity.
It’s all about Freedom
The unifying idea of Western fundamentalism is freedom:
Democracy frees us from dictators and markets free us from restrictive trade practices.
The sexual revolution frees us to have sex with anyone regardless of any pre-existing commitments we might have, providing it is consensual.
Western fundamentalism is ‘freedom from’; freedom from anything that stops us from doing what we want. There’s no goal in Western fundamentalism no ‘freedom for’. Instead, we are to courageously sail out into what the atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche called the ‘open sea’. Interestingly, in his conception of the open sea the powerful and beautiful crush the weak and unattractive, and this is sometimes what happens in the outcomes of free markets and sexual freedom.
Not all views of life are like Western fundamentalism, with only a ‘freedom from’ and no ‘freedom for’. In Christianity, the greatest cause of unfreedom is sin – bad character which leads us to harm other people and grieve God. In Christianity Jesus comes ultimately to secure freedom from sin – that’s the ‘freedom from’ bit, but it doesn’t stop there. Freedom from sin allows us to enter into a relationship with God which the bible describes as an adoptive relationship. We become sons and daughters of God and that has many, many implications. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1).
Is there Anything Deeply Wrong with Western Fundamentalism?
It’s very significant that there’s no ‘freedom for’ in Western fundamentalism. It reveals a naive view of human nature. If we are simply free to do whatever we want, we inevitably do good.
Western fundamentalism is naive about evil. We tear down statues and rail against other times and places, but condemn ourselves as we do because we’re not perfect and one day our statues will be torn down.
Until Western fundamentalism has a convincing notion of ‘freedom for’ and it deals with the question of how we get to that ‘freedom for’ when evil stands in our way, it is only half true or half useful.
* This article is an abbreviation of the speech at New College, UNSW, for Western Fundamentalism Book Launch, on 3 May 2021 – CASE. The speeches at the launch are here:
Western Fundamentalism: Democracy, Sex and the Liberation of Mankind
Available at Koorong