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James C. Bennett, The Anglosphere Challenge: Why the English-Speaking Nations Will Lead the Way in the Twenty-First Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004, $39.95, 337 pages, ISBN 0-7425-3332-8)—Trevor Harris, Université François Rabelais, Tours



The Anglosphere—not formally defined until half way through the second chapter—is the emerging network of Anglophone societies whose fully evolved civic dimension gives them a unified character and distinguishes them from all other societies or groups of societies. The Anglosphere is characterised by its loose, unplanned, but highly efficient structure, functioning through “coalitions of the willing” or “variable geometry” [90]. It is a “high-trust” culture in which individualism, enterprise, the honouring of covenants and the rule of law are fundamental attributes. Exchange throughout the sphere is facilitated by the English language, as well as by the adherence of the population to a powerful narrative which links the different elements of the Anglosphere through its long history. The sphere is not racially defined, however. It is the ultimate “template society,” capable of endless assimilation: “For the purposes of this work, a person of, say, Cantonese genetic ancestry growing up in the United States is a member of American society, of the English-speaking network civilization” [147]. 


It is because of all these characteristics, according to Bennett, that the Anglosphere is best placed—as opposed to the Sinosphere or the Hispanosphere, for example—to take full advantage of the “Era of the Singularity” [43]: that is, the point now reached in social evolution where a number of paradigm shifts, occurring simultaneously, combine to push the graph of human development into a vertical climb. That Singularity brings with it “wonders and dangers” and the Anglosphere—“the cradle of the scientific-technological revolution” [6]—is “the best hope of exploiting and constraining them” [31]. The twenty-first century will, Bennett confidently predicts, be the Anglosphere century: it is “poised to lead us, step by step, through the travails of yet more change, to the stars” [66]. In short, the English-speaking world is “the pathfinder for all of humanity” [67].


Per ardua ad astra? I doubt whether Bennett has ever been in the RAF, but he certainly enjoys a flight of fancy. Restraint, as one can readily see, is not to the fore in his scheme of things. Despite the denials dotted through the text, the triumphalism of Bennett’s position is difficult to dismiss.


Bennett himself describes the book as “a series of linked essays” [7]. The links are there. Indeed, there are rather too many of them. His argument—appropriately enough given the centrality of information science to the successful emergence of the Anglosphere—is really a “loop.” At best, he often seems simply to be affirming the obvious concerning the current domination of American business practice and technology. At worst, Bennett’s glib generalisations leave one rather dazed at the theoretical insouciance of the whole enterprise. The “Table of Contents,” in which each chapter is developed in a long list of bullet points with no obvious hierarchy, is already an indication of the assertive, iterative style in which the entire book is couched. There are no notes at all. Bennett does not arrive at any formal conclusions. The “Annotated Bibliography” [291ff.] amounts to little more than another restatement of the main themes he has already worked through several times. The text itself, as well as being repetitive and full of generalisations, occasionally wanders into a quasi-aphoristic mode and crumbles into a series of one-sentence paragraphs. Bennett is no doubt a high flyer in many ways. But it is sometimes difficult to avoid the suspicion that this narrative, carried away by an almost boyish enthusiasm, glides ever upward on the thermal of its author’s own hot air.


He systematically rejects all aspects of the extra-liberal. Geopolitical development, he asserts throughout, is, and will increasingly be, conditional upon culture and information, not on place. “Culture” and “place” are set in opposition and Bennett thus turns “cultural studies” on its head: rather than seeing culture as the starting point for a politics to “critique,” as its proponents might say, the dominant discourse, culture merely serves to enforce it. The Anglo-culture in question, issued from the loins of Saxon England, is a local, exceptional culture which, through what is presented as its inherent superiority, has spawned a global, self-aware, cultural elite. Its central values are liberalism, continuity, evolution. Feudalism, slaveism (sic), utopianism, the French Revolution, Marxism: all these are so many foreign ideas sent to “plague” (Bennett’s term) the Anglosphere, “an alien graft on its values” [106] and have, one after the other, duly bowed to the slow progress of the English exception, an unstoppable civic empire. Indeed, the Anglosphere, Bennet affirms, is “recognizably evolved from Alfred’s kingdom” and the inhabitants of the Anglosphere are the “heirs of the Magna Carta” [89]. But the Anglo-world “does not impose solutions on nations we cannot assume will benefit from them” [91].


Bennett thus combines a quasi-mystical adherence to the principle of continuity, while putting us in mind of any number of “cultural” travellers from the nineteenth century convinced that the benefits of liberal theology were inaccessible to the non-white populations of the British Empire. Just as British imperialists used evolutionary science as an a posteriori justification for their cause at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth, so Bennett seems to appropriate technology for his purposes. Indeed, for Bennett, as for those imperialists, history is one, long, unfailing sweep towards the global dominance of the English civic spirit. Bennett never bothers himself with such trifles as “yob culture,” curfews, ASBOs, gun crime, myriad social injustices, endemic poverty, “managerial” politics, cant or conniving media: and that’s just in Britain. The putative inhabitants of Bennett’s Angloworld all seem, by default, to be footloose yuppies constantly on the make.


Bennett concentrates on the twenty-first century and has little time for the twentieth. The latter, in Bennett’s reading, is no more than a vast and tragic parenthesis for the world. True salvation for the future will lie in the medieval English way, rediscovered by the nineteenth century, which was in its turn rediscovered at the end of the twentieth: Bennett is clearly imbued with the same Victorianism as Margaret Thatcher—first on the list of the author’s acknowledgements. Bennett even recommends [92] the study of Winston Churchill as the starting point for an “Anglosphere studies program.” His neo-liberal faith jettisons declinist discourse of both left and right varieties. He combines obeisance to the pristine democracy of the English Shire, with a boundless enthusiasm for the future of technocracy and the e-world. Just as the expansion of England a century ago prompted theorisation on the superiority of the English race from a position of visible advantage, so Bennett spins the present “Anglo-Saxon” hegemony into a set of self-evident truths concerning the superiority of the Anglosphere’s civic, commercial and—above all—digital arrangements. Genes may have given way to “memes”—the digital building blocks of hyper-evolution—and biology to information science, the argument none the less remains rooted in the concept of a superior society. The “imperial” has mutated into the “Anglospherean,” the physical has become the virtual. Yet the language of domination has not been erased, but converted, re-encoded.


Bennett’s main historical model for the Anglosphere appears to be the medieval Hanseatic League or, to a lesser extent, the modern Commonwealth. True, he does find a counter-model within the limits of the Anglosphere—multiculturalism—but instinctively looks outside it for his main targets. The EU—“more of a solution than the problem warrants” [110]—in particular, and all things “continental European,” of which he has monolithic, almost caricatural vision, come in for repeated criticism. The EU, despite some successes, remains “at its worst, a backward-looking mechanism” [63], because of its subsidies and harmonisation. Within the EU, France, with its “low-trust society,” and centralised, “formulaic” democracy, is the most complete and typical antithesis of the Anglosphere. And poor old England, “insulated from many of the more absolutist influences” [35], was none the less “dragged into the political system of the European continent” [93] by the Norman Conquest.


Notwithstanding this temporary setback, democracy in England remained “substantive,” even if it was medieval, and despite the fact that English society was feudal. Like so many of his predecessors in this area—many nineteenth-century utopians among them—Bennett believes that it is the ancient constitution of England, hibernating through the long winter of “continental” influence, which is at the heart of Anglosphere pre-eminence. It was this, Bennett argues, which typified the outlook of those who took the Anglo-Saxon spirit out of the British Isles: “The colonization of North America happened in such a way that the most useful characteristics of civil society were brought to its soil from England, while many of the less useful remnants of feudalism were left behind” [36]. Indeed, the degree of belonging to the Anglosphere, moves outwards in a series of eccentric circles from its English base: the inner core corresponds exactly to old “white” Empire or “colonies of settlement.”


In short, Bennett is an “Evolutionist.” Evolution, that is, not revolution, produces the most lasting results for societies as for organisms. The “network commonwealths”—“the characteristic political form of the emerging era” [67], the Anglosphere foremost among them—“will emerge in an evolutionary fashion, as do most viable political mechanisms, growing from, altering and redefining institutions” [148]. Social evolution can only take place slowly and it is the very long history of development of English civil society—already “well-rooted by the fourteenth century” [34]—which gives it the edge over its competitors in the struggle for domination of the twenty-first century:

Social mechanisms evolve, and evolution is conservative. It rarely eliminates an existing evolved mechanism unless it is actively harmful, and it prefers to work by adapting existing mechanisms to new purposes. Thus, a fish’s air bladder becomes an amphibian’s lung, and a feudal parliament that evolved to resolve disputes between nobles and kings becomes an instrument of constitutional democracy. [109]

Taking his cue from Lamarck, rather than Darwin or Spencer, Bennett argues that new characteristics can be acquired within the space of a generation and passed on to the next generation, thus accelerating evolution further still. “Social Lamarckism,” therefore, is what defines the progress of the Anglosphere: the survival of the quickest.


In the end, for Bennett, technology has replaced art, Western civilisation, as a consequence of “evolutionary conservatism” [110], has effectively died out and been replaced by “English-speaking civilisation.” The old economic states can no longer keep up. The Anglosphere, “more than coincidence but less than foreordained fate” [10], the ultimate network commonwealth or civic union, the “fast convoy” [161] will be governed through “a sort of Hanseatic Diet in Cyberspace” [168]. The EU, by contrast—from which Britain, for its own benefit, ought really to withdraw—is an economic union of economic states, still labouring under “ponderous governmental bureaucracies” and “the illusion of economic sovereignty” [2].


Bennett’s book is a vast case of special pleading in favour of the laptop universe, the all-embracing, benevolent despotism of the market. It would be difficult to imagine a book more calculated to irritate or, more likely, amuse French readers. This is Whig narrative raised to the highest degree or, as Bennett himself might call it, “Whig history 2.0” [4], a new updated version of the civic society software which has already proved its worth and is even now set to take the English-speaking world forward once again to virtual pastures new.

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