The Mythology of Decline

The pessimists are lining up to announce the fall of the West and above all of the US. But the Americans will prove them wrong

How often do we hear the word “decline” applied to America, Europe and the West? The rhetoric of decline has become a staple of our public discourse, so much so that most hardly notice when it crosses the line from rationality to fantasy. The distinction is important and easy enough to apply. If a commentator claims that “Europe is in demographic decline”, he is making a statement about a statistical fact — birthrates across much of the European continent have indeed been falling for many years — which can be quantified, verified and tested. If, on the other hand, a commentator claims that “America’s decline is inevitable”, he is making a whole series of assumptions that are based, not on facts, but on what I call the mythology of decline. I want to examine the origins and purposes of that mythology in order to help us to distinguish the legitimate use of the term “decline” from the mythological one, which invariably serves an ideological agenda — what we may call declinism. And if my analysis serves to clear the somewhat fetid atmosphere that pervades this debate, in which self-fulfilling prophecies of American decline abound — if I can hasten the decline of declinism, in other words — then that is a job worth doing.

Let us begin with Gibbon. Had the author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire not written such consummate prose, had he not dared to laugh the sacred to scorn and elevate the profane to respectability, perhaps his unwieldy work would not have enjoyed classical status almost from the day of publication of the first volume. We have been meditating on the possibility of our own decline and fall ever since. If Gibbon saw in Rome a parable of the perils of religious enthusiasm — the church having first undermined, then supplanted the state — his intellectual posterity extended his paradigm to create a romantic cult of decline. 

It was as natural that the Enlightenment should view imperial decline as a consequence of irrationalism as that the Romantics should blame rationalism for the same phenomenon. As the 19th century wore on, thinkers seized on novel forces they saw emerging in their own day to explain decline: Malthus identified demography, Tocqueville democracy, Buckle climatology, Marx capitalism, Gobineau race, Nordau urbanisation. Everybody had a different terminus post quem, or starting point for decline: Newman dated it from the Reformation, Kierkegaard from the early Church,  Nietzsche from ancient Greece, Bachofen from the end of matriarchy, Freud from the dawn of civilisation. In this age of progress and optimism, decline was actually ubiquitous. In biology, Darwin had described the descent of man from the primeval slime, in physics Clausius and Kelvin had described the irreversible entropy of the universe in the second law of thermodynamics, and in metaphysics Schopenhauer had described life as “a business that does not cover its costs”.

Yet it was not in the 19th but in the 20th century that the mythology of decline really took hold. The era of the world wars and the Cold War, which witnessed the rise and fall of Mussolini’s Roman Empire, Hitler’s thousand-year Reich and Lenin’s dictatorship of the proletariat, was bound to generate theories of decline. But the most influential of them all was the one that embraced “the West”, a concept that was just becoming fashionable as the European empires reached their zenith in the years before 1914. Exactly a century ago, an obscure Prussian schoolmaster by the name of Oswald Spengler had a revelation. 1911 was the year of the Agadir crisis, the Kaiser’s clumsy attempt to emulate Bismarck’s Ems telegram, the ingenious ruse that had tempted Napoleon III into the Franco-Prussian War. Agadir was the crisis that gave “gunboat diplomacy” its name. It turned out badly for the Germans and especially for the Kaiser, who lost his nerve and with it his influence over the political and military elite, who would take matters into their own hands three years later after the assassination at Sarajevo, with catastrophic consequences not only for Germany but for Western civilisation. (It is curious that Israel’s enemies —Iran, Egypt and Turkey — have all been playing at gunboat diplomacy lately, sending warships through the Suez Canal or threatening to break the naval blockade of Gaza. My guess is that they will back down as soon as they encounter firm resistance, just as the dispatch of the German gunboat Panther to Agadir, which forced the French and British to react forcefully, ended in humiliation for the Kaiser and his High Seas Fleet.)

The spectacle of that humiliation, however, prompted intimations of civilisational mortality in Spengler. Two decades later, on the eve of Hitler’s seizure of power, Spengler looked back on that moment when his big idea came to him: 

I was disgusted by the idiocy of our policy, which calmly acquiesced in the completion of the encirclement of Germany, by the blindness of all the elites that did not believe in a war that in reality had already broken out, by the criminal and suicidal optimism, which boasted of our rise since 1870, our assumed but in reality long since squandered power base, our seeming wealth, which was actually only for the shop window, and which dismissed any notion that all this might fundamentally change. And behind this I saw the unavoidable revolution, which both Metternich and Bismarck had clearly foreseen, and had to come and not only for Germany, whether or not we came home victorious. 

He saw Marx as an Englishman and Marxism as a perversion of Manchester (what we would call free-market) liberalism. This would have surprised Marx as much as his critics, but perhaps Spengler was on to something: the evolution of China into a market economy run by a one-party state, still based on the dictatorship of the proletariat, shows that Marxism is in an important sense ideologically parasitical on capitalism. Only the free market can generate the wealth necessary to sustain a party apparatus and its sprawling system of political patronage. It makes little difference whether the party in question calls itself Communist, fascist or national socialist: in all three cases, the party has a monopoly on access to the market which enables it to enrich its leaders and enforce obedience from capitalists. Spengler himself favoured what he called “Prussianism” (Preussentum), an idealised version of Frederick the Great’s enlightened despotism. As Frederick’s favourite philosopher Voltaire remarked, Prussia was “Sparta in the morning and Athens in the afternoon”. But as Voltaire discovered when he fell from grace, “Old Fritz” was in practice more despotic than enlightened. That is why his militaristic brand of absolutism appealed so much to Carlyle, to Spengler and to Hitler. 

Seven years and one world war after Spengler’s premonition, his book appeared in 1918, just in time for the dissolution of the German Empire. Der Untergang des Abendlandes was translated as The Decline of the West, but the German word Untergang is much more drastic than “decline”: something like “downfall” would be closer. It was an apocalyptic vision for an apocalyptic time. Yet the war itself does not figure in the book, even indirectly. Spengler’s “morphological” method, which he claimed to have taken from Goethe, treated civilisations as organisms. Western civilisation had long since passed its creative zenith and, like others before it, had now entered an era of “Caesars” —empire-builders such as Cecil Rhodes, for whom Spengler harboured boundless admiration. Spengler was an extreme historicist, i.e. historical relativist: he believed that Western science, philosophy and art (not to mention religion and morality) had no objective validity, but merely expressed the peculiar products of our time and place, the ephemera of a transient culture already in the grip of dissolution.

Spengler is no longer much read today, but the influence of his mythology of decline persists. Take, for example, the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah’s new book, Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. This is a work of comparable range to The Decline of the West, and its scholarship is indubitably sounder. Indeed, such luminaries as Jüergen Habermas and Charles Taylor enthused about Bellah’s magnum opus, which has been hailed as the greatest contribution to the sociology of religion since Max Weber a century ago. Yet Bellah’s conclusion is pure Spengler: “If there is one primary practical intent in a work like this that deals with the broadest sweep of biological and cultural evolution, it is that the hour is late: it is imperative that humans wake up to what is happening and take the necessarily dramatic steps that are so clearly needed but also at present so clearly ignored by the powers of this earth.” For Bellah, then, the threat of climate change serves the same function that the threat of world war did for Spengler. Bellah also shares Spengler’s historicism, only with an anti-Western bias: “To assume that ‘we’, particularly if we mean by that the modern West, have universal truths based on revelation, philosophy, or science that we can enforce on others, is the ideological aspect of racism, imperialism, and colonialism.” 

Bellah sees his work as a demonstration that “we are all in this…together” which will “make just a bit more likely the actualisation of Kant’s dream of a world civil society that could at last restrain the violence of state organised societies toward each other and the environment”. Bellah’s dream would be most people’s nightmare, because the only states that are ever likely to be restrained by “world civil society” are Western states, leaving them hopelessly exposed to the aggression of the rest. 

Despite the incessant invocation of Kant’s essay on “perpetual peace” to undermine American exceptionalism by liberal professors like Bellah, the sage of Königsberg himself would have been horrified by the way in which the mythology of Western decline has infected academic discourse on international relations. The UN itself, supposedly inspired by Kant’s vision, is the best illustration of what has gone wrong. Predicated on the notion that the power of the West is the problem rather than the solution, the UN and the rest of “world civil society” goes to inordinate lengths to cut the US and its allies down to size, while simultaneously blackmailing the West into donating protection money known as “aid” to some of the most nefarious despots on the planet.

 The proposed new state of “Palestine”, now legitimised by the UN General Assembly, depends entirely on such ransoms, most of which sticks to the fingers of the terrorists and their civilian sponsors. Without the mythology of decline, the West would refuse to acquiesce in such a grotesque extortion racket. 

A minority of recent writers on American decline do so more in sorrow than in schadenfreude. Among them two stand out: Niall Ferguson and Mark Steyn. Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest is the latest in a long line of books in the genre of decline mythology launched by Spengler. Ferguson is, however, no ardent declinist: his books on British and American history, Empire and Colossus, are emphatically pro-Western. So, too, is Civilization. It is just that once Orientals have learnt to imitate the key features that led to Western dominance, they are bound to catch up with and even overtake their mentors. And so he concludes that the West will inevitably cede hegemony to the Asian powers, among which China and India were latecomers but are all the more successful for that. He also thinks that the Chinese are almost ready to take over. “What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance.” Ferguson, incidentally, is also unwittingly echoing Spengler when he talks up the threat of China. In Years of Decision, his sequel to The Decline of the West, Spengler warned against the “Oriental peril”. Spengler saw the West overwhelmed by Asian hordes and it is true that the European empires were defeated by the Japanese with extraordinary speed in 1941-42. However, the Western champion, the US, struck back even harder, ensuring not only the defeat of Imperial Japan, but the ultimate triumph of the Western model in the Far East. 

The trouble with China is not that it is commercially successful — if the West had not allowed Mao to triumph in the 1940s, the Chinese industrial revolution would have come two generations sooner — but that it is tyrannical and, like all tyrannies, lethally paranoid. It now has a satellite-guided missile system specifically designed to annihilate carrier battle groups of the US Sixth Fleet. This is bad news for America but even worse for China’s neighbours. Even so, there is nothing the Chinese can do that the Americans cannot do better, especially in the field of military technology. It is only the mythology of decline that prevents the US from announcing a new “Star Wars” Strategic Defence Initiative.

The trouble with Ferguson’s thesis is not that it lacks empirical evidence: he has accumulated an impressive range of statistics and other facts to buttress his argument. And he is right to point to the hole in the heart of the West: the cultural amnesia that has deprived generations of the core values that were once our secret weapon. “Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors.”

No: the problem with Ferguson is that he attaches too little weight to the powers of recuperation and renewal that the United States and to a lesser extent Europe have demonstrated over the past two centuries. The American Civil War came close to strangling the infant republic in its cradle. The two world wars came even closer to damaging Europe beyond repair. Yet both America and Europe have risen repeatedly from the ashes. The most remarkable example of all is of course Israel: the combination of European Jewish refugees and American Jewish support has created one of the most resilient nations and dynamic economies in the world. China and India cannot match the West’s ability to regenerate itself. Ferguson does not seriously deny this fact, but it is fatal to his argument. He actually devotes a chapter to debunking the mythology of decline, yet willingly succumbs to its lure himself. Ferguson is that exasperating combination, a good historian and a bad prophet. But it is the future, not the past, that has always brought the greatest rewards, tempting those who can pass for omniscient to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of the gullible.

Mark Steyn resists this unscholarly temptation better than his more scholarly rival. This literary lumberjack, who fells whole forests of liberal sacred oaks with his mordant wit, has produced two books, America Alone and After America, which have done a great job of  subverting the legitimacy claimed by the political classes in Europe and America for their self-aggrandising projects and self-destructive habits. On Europe, Steyn is as damning as he is persuasive: from demographic suicide to the abdication of self-defence, he conducts a forensic analysis of the hollowing out of the high culture for which the Continent was still respected a generation ago. Indeed, Steyn wrote off Europe years ago: content to be dictated to by dictators from Colonel Gaddafi to Colonel Putin, the European Union is much less than the sum of its parts. After two world wars, one Cold War and now World War IV, Americans are as resentful of doing the heavy lifting and Europeans are as ungrateful as ever. Yet indignation and ingratitude are not a good basis for policy and the US still has interests as well as sentiments at stake in Europe. The Obama doctrine of leaving the world to stew in its own bile is neither practical nor decent; in fact it is another product of the mythology of decline. No American statesman wants to be indicted when the cry goes up: “Who lost Europe?” 

But if it is perverse of Mark Steyn to write off Europe, it is surely even more perverse to write off America. The flavour of After America is indicated by its subtitle: Get Ready for Armageddon. Steyn believes that while Europeans had the good fortune to have the United States on hand to cushion its postwar decline, Americans will have no such luxury. This is a fair point, but it is a stretch to conclude from this that the US is on the brink of catastrophe, perhaps in the course of the next presidential term. Once again, the villain of the piece is China, which is expected by some to overtake the US economy within the next few years. Steyn has an original twist on the rise of China: he sees it as a much larger version of Islamist Iran: an ageing totalitarian behemoth, demographically crippled by its one-child policy, and rendered much more dangerous by its flaws. Steyn also points out that, contrary to so much “expert” opinion over several decades, economic westernisation has not, so far, led to meaningful political reform. Armageddon is just round the corner because for the first time in history a one-party state, run by a politburo, is in the process of supplanting America not only as an economic superpower, but as a political and cultural one, too. His favourite symbol is the steady shift from English to Mandarin as the world’s predominant language. The charge is that it was on our watch the world got used to paying homage (and interest) to an evil empire that doesn’t even use the Roman alphabet.

Steyn may be right in this analysis, but I don’t see how he can have it both ways. Either China’s rise is indeed Armageddon, or there is still everything to play for. Either America’s multiple malaises are terminal, or what he calls the “post-American world” is avoidable. Steyn’s concluding chapter is devoted to an action plan to restore American greatness: de-centralise, de-governmentalise, de-regulate, de-monopolise, de-complicate, de-credentialise, dis-entitle, de-normalise. In short: what the Tea Party might adopt as a manifesto, if it really were a party.

 All fine, but how does this radical action plan mesh with the withering mythology of decline which constitutes the rest of the book? Milton Friedman’s rule — make the wrong people do the right thing — is also Mark Steyn’s, but how do you make an entire nation of “wrong people” do the right thing? “America faces a choice,” he writes. Amen to that. But he also rails against “the inertia, the ennui, the fatalism” he sees all around him. Who are the Americans to whom Steyn’s addresses himself? All those, presumably, who have not yet been corrupted by Big Government and indoctrinated by the “Obamessiah”. But if there are enough of these ordinary Americans to make such an appeal meaningful, we must assume that the country is not necessarily facing meltdown after all. 

 There is a rhetorical sleight of hand going on here: there is a fork in the road to serfdom (Hayek is an unacknowledged but important inspiration for Steyn), and it is just not true that all roads lead to Armageddon. Steyn is a mythologist of decline, but he is no declinist: on the contrary, he would doubtless, like me, blame declinists for talking their countrymen into accelerating decline. 

The difference between us is that like Adam Smith, I believe there is a great deal of ruin in a nation — and a great deal of decline in the West. The United States still represents the antithesis of the fatalism which dominates both the Islamic world and China. The impersonal determinism that is characteristic both of Chinese communism and Islamic “kismet” seems to me a dubious basis for world domination. We live in an era that still values individual liberty, for all the infantilising effects of paternalistic statism. These lunacies, all of which Mark Steyn lovingly dissects, are nonetheless by-products of free choices. America always does the right thing in the end, once it has exhausted all the other options. Nothing less than 9/11 would have it made possible for America to strike back hard at radical Islamists; nothing less than the worst president for a century would have produced such a rapid reaction against his excesses as we are now witnessing. The mythology of decline can only capture the national imagination if we abandon the distinction between rationality and fantasy. 

America may yet be dragged down by the deadweight of defunct ideas once thought progressive. More likely, I reckon, is that the founding fathers will once again be vindicated. They trusted in the good sense of the American people. Gibbon was right to continue his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for another thousand years after the sack of Rome: his real subject is the persistence of Roman ideas and institutions long after their creators. Indeed, he might have found continuities long after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which he made his terminus ad quem. Indeed,  the last legitimate heir of the Roman emperors has only just died: Otto von Habsburg. And Rome still has its pontifex maximus. So it is with Western civilisation, which survived even the most destructive wars in history; so too with the United States, which has been able to flourish in good times and in bad thanks to the foresight of its founders. 

Nobody has written the decline and fall of the American Empire for the excellent reason that there is no such thing; a republic may, like Venice, endure for a millennium. The United States is already older than all but a handful of polities (including the United Kingdom, which was formally created a full quarter of a century after 1776). Yet the US is still constantly rejuvenating itself. Next year’s anniversary of the War of 1812 is a chance for the two great Anglophone nations to reflect on how past and present differences have been outweighed by our common heritage and shared sacrifice. 

Whether or not one or other is in decline at any one time — and often enough, as with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, their fluctuations are — Great Britain and the United States stand or fall together. Not the least of the reasons why I look forward to the resurgence of America under a new president is that I am confident that Britain, too, will follow suit.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"