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Jonah Goldberg: His new book argues liberal, democratic, and capitalist civilisation is being eaten from the inside out (Gage Skidmore CC BY-SA 2.0)



Does contemporary Western civilisation face any threat more pressing than that which emanates from within our own societies? The phenomenon that the conservative historian Maurice Cowling labelled “the higher liberalism” poses a greater danger to the health and survival of the West than any challenge from without, be it an assertive China, a failing Russia, or violent Islamic extremism. The dominant mode of thought among the political, media, and academic establishments, the higher liberalism threatens to strip us of our self-confidence and moral resources. It is inimical to freedom of thought and action. And manifested in modern identity politics, it also threatens to drive us all insane.

The appellation of Jonah Goldberg’s new book is certainly eye-catching. Yet it is a wholly appropriate one, as well. The book borrows its title from James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism of 1964. Nor do the comparisons end on the front cover. Both Burnham and Goldberg’s works constitute urgent interventions in intellectual, political, and moral crises that threaten to swallow the West. Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review, the venerable magazine of conservatism founded by William F. Buckley, and holds a post at the American Enterprise Institute. He is also a prolific political commentator, writing for many American newspapers and making regular appearances on television. He is known for his 2008 polemic Liberal Fascism, which was an instant classic and exposed the brazen hypocrisy of the contemporary progressive Left to a wide popular audience.

Goldberg’s latest book is no less important, or persuasive. His subject is the way in which liberal, democratic, and capitalist civilisation is being eaten from the inside out. He argues that this is the convergence of multiple problems. One is the fact that we are hardwired to live in small tribes. Larger societies are, in evolutionary terms, a recent innovation, and one that human beings struggle with. The only way we can adapt is by finding some form of fulfilment in an inherently impersonal community. One method of achieving this is to forge a national, and looser civilisational, identity that carries wide appeal and earns the loyalty of those who live within its boundaries. Since the 18th century, this has worked well. Yet the merits of our society are now increasingly taken for granted by elites, bureaucrats, intellectuals, and artists. We are all accustomed to hearing that Western life is illiberal, oppressive, and exploitative. Simultaneously, the bourgeois values which helped the West to prosper — meritocracy, industriousness, creativity — are under attack from these same dominant voices. There are other problems, too. Capitalism itself, through its relentless dynamism and creative destruction, undermines traditions and ways of life. The secularisation of the West has weakened another of the most important social glues. The indirect result of all this is that the institutions of civil society, the things that make life worth living, from families and professional associations to schools and community groups, have fallen into a state of disrepair.
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