The prophets of prosperity

<strong>Suicide of the West</strong>

Richard Koch and Chris Smith <em>Continuum, 224pp, £14.99</em

Western civilisation, so this odiously superior little book argues, has outshone all other cultures over the centuries, and has done so largely through its devotion to the "success factors" of Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism and individualism. The vulgar entrepreneurialism of the phrase "success factor" is typical of the soundbite style of Suicide of the West. The authors describe the early Christian Church as "downmarket", as if Christ were an open-neck-shirted CEO. At another point they praise him as "a new and improved prototype", as though they were admen for Volvo. Richard Koch and Chris Smith have the minds less of visionaries than of chartered accountants: with all the solemn precision of mad Swiftian scientists, they con-trast the average western score for individualism (66.7 per cent) with the despicable non-western average of 25.7 per cent. These prophets are all about profits.

Today, it seems, all six of these flashily packaged "success factors" have been pitched into crisis. If the west is on the long slide towards suicide, it is not because it is greedily laying waste to the planet, stockpiling weapons of mass destruction or setting fire to Muslim children in the name of Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, liberalism and individualism. These unpalatable realities get scarcely a mention from Koch and Smith, and the pair are similarly coy about the slavery, genocide, imperial plunder and human exploitation that lie at the root of much of the west's prosperity. Imperialism is dismissed as a "mad aberration", which might have come as a surprise to Palmerston. The crisis, rather, is all in the head. It is because we have ceased to believe in these high-minded ideals, not because some of them (economic individualism, for instance) have played a part in famines and massacres, that we are in such a spiritual mess.

Canadians and Finns, a rather nasty paragraph informs us, think and act differently from Africans or Arabs. It's a consoling thought: perhaps the inhabitants of Fallujah don't feel the sort of grief over the loss of their loved ones as do the natives of Washington. All westerners, we are complacently told, share a common mentality. Even so, the book formally welcomes multiculturalism as a western value. Something known as "western identity" does not "pit one ethnic or national group against another", a claim which suggests either that Koch and Smith have a luminously Platonic notion of the west or that they have simply not been reading the newspapers.

Another morally grubby passage suggests that Vietnam deserters, black consciousness, Hispanic immigrants and bolshie intellectuals have damaged the integrity of American national identity. With shabby disingenuousness, however, Koch and Smith sidestep the charge of ethnocentrism by charitably including eastern Europe in the west. Wogs, it appears, begin somewhere around the Black Sea. Contrasting the virtuous west with the less virtuous east, so they piously avow, is not their game, even though they have just smugly announced that western civilisation values human life more than all the others. The westerner is "a person who is going somewhere, who believes in himself or herself and in their role in society" - as opposed, presumably, to all those self-doubting Bolivians and Malaysians milling aimlessly around. A surreally brief account of "The Idea of America" manages to overlook the slaughter of the Native Americans while magnanimously conceding in a single sentence that "the reality hasn't always matched up to the ideals". That should placate the Palestinians, then.

As theological semi-literates, Koch and Smith hold that, for most non-Christian religions, "there is no rational creator - the universe is inexplicable, capricious, unpredictable". So much for the God of Abraham and Muhammad. They also come up with a predictable travesty of Christianity. In their view, faith based on the New Testament is a personal, inward affair, which it isn't so much for the Old. This un wittingly revives a tradition of Christian anti-Semitism, already rife in the early Church, for which the Old Testament is only partly about the personal (as opposed to the legal and trivial), whereas the New Testament makes the definitive break to the interior and individual. Here, in coded form, is another opposition between benighted east and soft-hearted west. "God," the authors ignorantly observe, "suddenly acquired [in the New Testament] a new location - inside people, in the human self" - as though the ancient Hebrews located him instead just a few kilometres north-west of Tyre. In this view, Jesus becomes an archetypal liberal individualist, a kind of John Stuart Mill in sandals. No self- respecting biblical scholar would endorse such a bogus contrast between love and law, individuals and communities. The Mosaic law is the law of love, and as such is every bit as personal and interior as Jesus's teaching. Nor was Jesus a dry run for Paddy Ashdown; he was a thoroughly anti-individualist first-century Jew, steeped in the ritual and doctrine of his nation. Christianity for Koch and Smith means helping the underdog; for the Yahweh of the Old Testament, it means the poor coming to power.

If faith has foundered, so has optimism. The book fails to consider the glaring possibility that this is because there is much in the world to be gloomy about, not least former arts ministers who write supremacist nonsense. Instead, in its Boy Scout fashion, it sees such pessimism simply as a wimpish failure of nerve. There is a brief bluffer's guide to the history of science, which allots Islamic civilisation six out of ten for trying, and in an odd lapse of attention fails to notice that science is as likely to annihilate us as cure our woes. But the ideal of science, too, has been undermined - not by Nazi eugenicists or Los Alamos physicists, as it happens, but by "fashionable fancies" such as the theories of relativity and indeterminacy. For all their wide-eyed zest for postmodernity, Koch and Smith turn out to be nostalgic Newtonians.

But it is they, not Einstein or Heisenberg, who emerge as the true fantasists. In their slavering worship of economic growth, they have been afflicted with the delusion that a post-capitalist order is already upon us. "Though Microsoft looks like a capitalist corporation," they write in hallucinatory mode, "the greatest returns have been to its founders and employers, not to the providers of capital, who were and are totally unimportant." Capitalism is about large, regimented industrial units, whereas post- capitalism is about a "personalised" economy of groovy, innovative individuals, more like Bloomsbury than old-style Birmingham. This is rather like arguing that Old Trafford is not really a football stadium because all football stadiums have now been redefined as oblong, crimson-coloured and full of water.

There are, the book points out, many alternatives to liberal civilisation outside the west. It might have added that there have been a number of alternatives inside it as well, from slave econ omies and fascism to the spy-and-surveillance regimes that threaten our liberties today. Koch and Smith are bigoted and obtuse to believe that other civilisations have not produced values quite as precious as ours; but they are right that western culture has bred ideals of immense richness. The left, on the whole, has not denied the fact. It has not challenged the ideals of freedom, self-determination, justice, equality and the like with some fancy set of values of its own. Instead, it has posed one resounding, persistent, faux-naive question: how come these ideals so rarely work in practice? By what systematic mechanisms does freedom for some come to mean oppression for others? Why does formal equality tend to end up as actual inequality? Is this because in human affairs the shadow always falls between idea and execution, or for rather more tangible reasons peculiar to the system under which we live?

It is not, then, the political left that has subverted these visionary notions. The devastating irony is that it is the very system the authors celebrate that does so. It was capitalist secularisation that helped to see off religious faith, just as it was imperialist world war that dealt a death blow to optimism. The finest values of liberalism and individualism are constantly under threat from the faceless, corporate, exploitative form of life to which they give birth. Koch and Smith, who praise individualism on one page but mourn the decline of community on another, simply fail to grasp this logic.

Yet what else would one expect from men with a penchant for cracker-barrel philosophising and hastily packaged, two-paragraph caricatures of complex history? The very slickness and brittleness of the book's style are testimony to its two-dimensional view of life. Anyone who believes that nationalism began in the 15th century, that Thomas Aquinas was a monk, and that Immanuel Kant believed the self was relationally constituted, will find the erudition of this Faustian hymn to unlimited economic growth profoundly impressive.

Terry Eagleton's "How to Read a Poem" will be published by Blackwell this September

This article first appeared in the 10 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, The house of slaves