Are we destroying our own civilization, the most appealing and ethical there has ever been? To say Yes or No, we need to examine the roots of our society, which we’ve seen are Christianity, optimism, science, economic growth, individualism, and liberalism.
There is a big divide between America on the one hand, where Christianity is flourishing, and Europe and other areas on the other hand, where the churches are increasingly irrelevant. This matters for religion, but perhaps not very much for society. The Christian heritage – individual responsibility and development, self-improvement based on love, and the commitment to equality and compassion – long ago burst the banks of organized religion. The rise and rise of the self-help movement shows that the spirit of Christianity has been widely diffused and deeply impregnated within Western society. I therefore give a green light for today’s Western civilization on the issue of Christianity.
The eclipse of optimism is a warning for Western civilization. Only confident and forward-looking civilizations march forward. Optimism is integral to Western success. If optimism does not return, to Europeans as well as Americans, the continued success of the West will be lopsided at best. A flashing yellow light.
Western science, rather weirdly, has forfeited the moral authority enjoyed by earlier and less informed scientists, the confidence that their work revealed a beautifully consistent and meaningful universe. The failing authority of science is another warning, another yellow light. And yet, the laws of nature are few and becoming fewer. There is an underlying logic to the universe – we need a great communicator to make this apparent to all of us non-scientists. At root the universe has simple causes, though complex results.
Economic growth is another issue that appears weaker than it really is. You often hear people say that the baby boomer generation had it easy, and that times are tougher than they were. Certainly there is a structural issue where young people are having opportunity restricted by older citizens, whether trade unions protecting the jobs of their existing (older) members, or pensioners exercising greater voting power. But underlying it all, Western technology and creativity has never been stronger, and the move from centralized mega-corporations to smaller and richer ones, such as Google, Amazon, and Apple, advances both freedom and growth.
No, the problem with growth is that it is too secure. While the West moves to less energy intensive forms of growth – and probably before long to a more relaxed society that is less obsessed with wealth – the rest of the world is still industrializing at a fearsome rate. If there is to be a cataclysmic end to Western civilization, ecological suicide is by far the most likely cause. Another yellow light – flashing strongly.
Like science, the problem is not the reality of individualism, but its perception. Individualism has become so integral to Western civilization – and especially to the English-speaking and Northern European countries, the more successful ones – that the demise of individualism is highly improbable. Our problem is not individualism, but the partial failure to embrace it properly, maturely, socially and altruistically. Even so, there is no green light here. The enemies of individualism, and the genuine difficulties – psychological more than economic – that individualism creates for the less successful members of society, dictate another flashing yellow light.
I’ve left liberalism to last, because it’s here that I detect the greatest vulnerability. We have seen five self-inflicted reverses for Western liberalism – misdirected anti-terrorism, the resurgence of American-led imperialism, the fragmentation and devaluation of democratic politics, the moral emptiness of modern liberalism, and ultra-liberal relativism, which says there is nothing special about Western liberal society after all, and incubates the false victim mentality.
What is most alarming is that today’s trends are all reinforcing these problems. As Western societies mature, grow more complex, and more prosperous, power and decision-making in society become more and more devolved, ultimately to the most active and creative individuals within it. This is no bad thing, yet these individuals, for the first time in history, do not comprise a class, a self-conscious elite, or an ‘establishment’. They have no common family or social ties, no common ideology, and no common loyalty. Unlike all their predecessors, they do not need these attributes to be successful. And so, by and large, they do not have the values and networks that used to sustain liberal society.
On top of this, the quality and depth of Western liberalism is at an all-time low. Cynicism and apathy towards the political process is fed by the media and politicians are less respected than ever before. Is this cynicism deserved? I do not think so. There were always rogues and predators in the ranks of politicians. They and their flaws are just more evident today. The large majority of politicians are decent people, plying their craft in more and more difficult circumstances, without the support and links to ordinary people who can keep them honest and inspired by what they do. The decline of mass political parties is perhaps the most serious reflection of the decline of liberalism. We desperately need good leaders – leaders who are not only clever and inspiring, but also of golden integrity and decency, people who are genuinely “good”. But good leaders come from good followers – the leaders need the followers as much as the followers need the leaders. We need to revive the political process if we are to keep our decent society. And we need a fair proportion of the “best” people – morally and intellectually – to go into politics, which they used to do and do no more.
We come back time and again to the common purpose of members of society. Common purpose ultimately derives from deeply held and often quite submerged beliefs. Our society has real resilience and strengths, but the biggest problem is that idealism is retreating. It is not just that liberalism is so weak and vapid that it is easily violated. The new realists, the cynics and the throng of victims, under-achievers, and the willfully uneducated, are active or passive destroyers not just of liberal ideals, but of all ideals – of the spirit of Christianity, with its restless activism, conscience, and compassion; of the optimistic view of humanity; of confidence in the supreme value of increased knowledge; of the use of economic growth to eliminate hunger, indignity, and want; and of responsible individualism. At the moment, we are harvesting our past heritage, living off and using up the goodwill and human spirit planted by
Civilizations move forward or they move back. They realize dreams or they discard them. Ultimately the West rests on one great idea and one set of actions, one that stands behind and unites the six great strands of Western civilization. The great idea, the common theme, is talking personal responsibility to improve oneself and the world. The West stands for personal responsibility; it stands or falls by personal responsibility. Will it stand or fall? It is up to all of us. The challenge is not primarily economic; it is personal and spiritual. It is the way we choose to view the world. And yes, in a way it is ideological. Ideas matter. Ideas have consequences. There are good ideas and bad ones. We need to attack the bad ones, the cynicism and irresponsibility of mindless hedonism, the view that there is no purpose to our lives and our civilization. There is a most noble purpose for every life. We just have to find it and live it. This is true in business, in the arts, in caring for the sick and the fragile, in educating ourselves and our people, and even in the devilishly tricky business of communication, ideas, and politics.
Whether it is completed or not, the destiny of the West – springing from its unique ideas, and evident in what it has already substantially attained – is to create a more humane, free and rich civilization, by releasing the hopes, and more importantly, the potential and moral qualities, of all its people; and just conceivably, in the fullness of time, a model attractive enough to excite most of humankind.