Accessibility links

World: Scholar Notes Special Success Of 'Anglosphere'

  • Don Hill

A science fiction writer assigned the name "Anglosphere" in 1996 to a particular segment of the Earth's civilization. Now a clutch of social scientists has seized upon the concept to describe the group of nations that they say have been consistently most successful in operating liberal democracies and market economies. Our correspondent Don Hill questions one of these scholars, U.S. anthropologist and Internet entrepreneur James Bennett.

Prague, 15 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Britain, the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand -- that is to say nations of the Anglo-American tradition -- may have begun an inexorable process of withdrawing from what has been known as Western civilization.

This notion has acquired so much currency that a U.S.-based policy organization, the Hudson Institute, organized late last year in England a conference it called "The Future of the English-Speaking Peoples." A number of participants spoke -- and later wrote in magazine articles -- of a new civilization, something called the "Anglosphere." This was a name used in 1996 by science fiction author Neal Stevenson.

The Anglosphere theorists contend that for various reasons English-speaking peoples have been more successful in developing liberal democracies, that is democracies combined with the rule of law, effective constitutions, and protections for minorities.

Then what exactly is the Anglosphere? One of the speakers at last year's conference, anthropologist and internet entrepreneur James Bennett, offers a description in a telephone interview with RFE/RL:

"The short definition of the Anglosphere would be the entirety of the English-speaking world -- more specifically referring to those societies which use English as the home language of the majority population, [or] at least one of the official languages, and which base their legal systems on the Anglo-American common law system."

Members of the Anglosphere, Bennett says, have more in common than merely their language:

"If you look at, you know, the various sorts of league tables of countries according to statistics that have been assembled, you always find this interesting cluster of English-speaking nations, and they tend to be grouped together in any ranking, no matter what the topic is. So this is a sociologically significant phenomenon, no matter what value you want to put on it. What I'm interested in is trying to understand why this is so. And whether it is a persistent characteristic of the civilization, or what."

He says nations that fit all the criteria -- Britain, the United States, Canada -- are at the core level of the Anglosphere. A country at the second or third level, with some exposure to the British tradition and substantial use of English, is India:

"India is actually the most interesting case because it's so large and is so close to what I think is a substantial economic takeoff. We already have seen some elements of takeoff, and it's interesting that a lot of the takeoff has been because India has sort of come closer again to the Anglosphere in the last 10 years than it was for the previous 40, because of the computer industry."

It is this increasing diversity, says Bennett -- who recently published an article on the topic in the Hudson Institute's "American Outlook" magazine -- that may be contributing to a growing distance between Europe and the Anglosphere:

"The point I was trying to make in the article is that, say, in the year 1900 the English-speaking countries were just very visibly part of a Western civilization that was still quite distinct from other civilizations. And I think that what's happening is that the commonality in Western civilizations is beginning to dissolve."

Not all scholars familiar with the Anglosphere movement accept the idea without reservations. Iain Murray, a British researcher with the Washington policy organization Statistical Assessment Service, says some Anglosphere proponents advance extravagant ideas such as suggesting that Anglosphere nations become new states of the United States.

"That's going way too far. The problem with these definitions of the Anglosphere is that they don't give enough weight to the individual countries' national interests."

What do the Anglosphere theorists believe it is about the English language and the British tradition that lead to special success in operating liberal democracies and market economies thus far? Bennett says it may be just a happenstance of history that the Anglosphere and powerful civil societies go hand in hand.

"And my conclusion is that basically it comes down to the strength of civil society, that this is a phenomenon that is relatively rare in world history. It's relatively rare in [the world] today, and the strength of civil society correlates very strongly with a successful democratic-constitutional governmental tradition and also to an effective market economy."

"Civil society" is a political science term of art. It refers to the ability of members of a society to form formal and informal associations based on mutual benefit, to build institutions that limit the relative power of government, to develop wide circles of trust in people and institutions that go beyond extended families or clans.

The Anglosphere writers tend to share the view of U.S. political scientist Francis Fukuyama that democracy and free markets have achieved the most effective form of human government.

If that is so, and if -- as the Anglospherists contend -- English-speaking people are markedly best at operating this form of government, have they created a dangerous doctrine, a kind of linguistic chauvinism? Bennett says not:

"Well, first of all, we don't confine ourselves to native English speakers. I think that one of the points about Anglospherism is that we're very interested in the phenomenon of immigration, and the fact that the English-speaking societies have been more successful than many others in integrating people from other backgrounds and cultures and adding them to the mix. That's not [characteristic] of your typical chauvinist."

But Murray says that there is a danger of arrogant chauvinism in Anglospherism.

"This is one of my major worries about the Anglosphere concept, that it could be hijacked by people who are basically Anglo-Saxonists, like the Victorians of the last century, or the British Israelites, who believe that there's some sort of racial justification for this."

Bennett say he believes that there is no innate superiority in the English language or of English speakers. It is just, he says, that they happen to have been the repository of common traditions and traits that have bestowed on them -- at this point in history -- the blessings of an effective form of government.

He says, "We are perhaps at the point where the process has first become noticeable. The Anglosphere may take another century to define itself."