Can there be a path to modernization that doesn’t include all of the features we in the United States — and the West in general — associate with modernization, such as basic civil rights? In other words, can you have a modern, technologically advanced society that does not include personal liberty?
It seems fairly clear that the answer to the above question is most likely no. This issue is particularly relevant as the new Trump administration takes power in the United States, since this new administration’s views about progress and civil rights might differ from its predecessor’s.
As reported by CNN, Trump’s nomination of Alabama’s Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is particularly troubling for many civil rights advocates, since he is seen by many politicians, civil rights organizations and private individuals as strongly opposed to civil rights legislation and enforcement.
But are those who are opposed to strong civil rights laws — and the enforcement of such laws — correct in apparently assuming that economic prosperity and civil rights are somehow at odds with one another? All of the evidence seems to point to the contrary.
Civil Rights And Saudi Arabia
Certainly, many countries like India and Saudi Arabia have attempted to achieve modernization and economic development without the introduction of real political and civil rights reforms. But these attempts to modernize without the kind of civil liberties Westerner’s enjoy have had only moderate success. There are probably several reasons for this outcome.
Looking at Saudi Arabia, it’s clear that just having an inflow of large sums of money does not necessarily lead to modernization in any area, either civil or economic. Essentially, Saudi Arabia has survived on oil for decades and has done very little to construct an industrial infrastructure inside its country for manufacturing goods for its own people or for export. Of course, the strong limitations it places on personal liberty are very far away from the Western ideal.
For instance, Saudi Arabia still has what amounts to slavery in everything but name, frequently executing “guest workers” who antagonize their employers. And despite claims in recent years that the legal situation for women in Saudi Arabia is changing, the simple truth is that women in that country have only those rights that men choose to acknowledge.
While it could be argued by some that it’s possible to have a modern, technological society in such an environment, how effective can their society really be in modernizing when it essentially ignores the intellectual and productive capacities of half its population?
Other Modernization Examples
On the other hand, Japan is an example of a country that somehow managed to hang on to many of its cultural norms – as well as its religious beliefs – while also modernizing in a technological, civil and social sense. Japan is a modern society in the sense that it has elections, general equality for all citizens and a fast-paced economy that stresses productivity, consumerism, and exports.
Only a little over a century and a half ago, Japan was a completely different society, with inequality running rampant and extreme militarism. More than this, they had almost no industrial capacity at all. Although Japan managed to create a limited industrial infrastructure before -– and during — World War II, it was only after the introduction of full democracy following the American occupation of Japan that the Japanese industrial miracle took place.
As noted by CNN, India is another example of a nation attempting to leapfrog into the modern age without addressing the social and economic inequalities that still exist throughout the country. India produces fighter planes, textiles, ships and even sophisticated spacecraft. But given that Indians in general have a far lower standard of living than others living in nations capable of producing such items, it’s questionable whether this leapfrog attempt can actually be called effective.
It seems clear that the introduction of civil rights is an integral part of any modern society, and that modernization and industrialization both require the kind of freedom of action and thought that only free individuals enjoy. Hopefully, this isn’t a lesson we’re going to forget in the United States.
[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]