WHAT IS DIFFERENT FROM 2006?
In 2006 former Culture Minister Chris Smith and I argued that the West was in danger of committing suicide, but the jury was still out. “Down one road, the road currently bearing more traffic, lies cynicism, unmitigated selfishness, indifference, re-centralization and aggression … Down the other road lies a recovery of our nerve – confidence in ourselves and our culture; emotional unity within America and within Europe, and between Europe and America, and with other European settlements, a society and civilization comprising a billion responsible individuals, bound together … by attitudes of personal striving, optimism, reason, compassion, equality, individualism and mutual identity. Travelling this road is not that hard; but it requires a change of direction.”
In 2018, Jonah Goldberg argued much the same, but specifically in relation to American democracy – we must, he said, “keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it … Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no believes in them anymore.”
Was Goldberg justified in striking a more pessimistic line? Are we losing the battle for Western civilization, threatened not by external enemies but by our own ingratitude? Is the decline of America and the West inevitable?
Suicidal Trends since 2006
My take is that there is a lot of disturbing evidence, including:
- The Disappearing Center – in both the US and the UK, and to lesser extents elsewhere, the political center is in retreat. Trump’s authoritarian anti-immigrant nationalism has spawned and been spawned by a Democratic Party moving towards socialism or an equally illiberal, centralizing creed based on identity politics. In the UK, there has been profound division caused by the narrow popular vote in favor of leaving the European Union, and the attempt of elites to subvert democracy by overturning the referendum result – as well as by a move by Labour and smaller Opposition parties smartly to the left, again towards identity politics, and in the case of Labour, a semi-Marxist agenda.
- Illiberalism of the liberals – the attempt by leading academics, politicians, and social-media loudmouths to impose intellectual and cultural uniformity, based around a leftist and trendy agenda. It has become commonplace for people who don’t conform to the new orthodoxy to be no-platformed, abused, persecuted, and in some cases even lose their jobs. Freedom of thought and expression is militantly out of fashion.
- Coarsening and pollution of political discourse – driven by social media and the relentless abuse of people with differing views, we have seen appeals to unpleasant emotion rather than calm reason, an outbreak of name-calling – especially “racist” and “fascist” – that is reminiscent in tone if not exact designation of the Nazis and communists at the height of their hate-mongering. The number of people inciting hatred is small in absolute terms, but their influence has grown massively, feeding off mutual recrimination, intimidation, violence, and the echo chambers of Twitter and other media.
- The defenders of freedom are conspicuous by their absence. So-called “hate crimes” – very often the violation of a narrow and bigoted code of political correctness – are being pursued in several countries including the UK by the police and prosecutors. Very few people are willing to stand up for freedom against the malice and personal vendettas waged by extremists.
- Perhaps even more worrying is the lack of historical appreciation and accuracy – what we may term “historicity” – in the universities, the press, television, and the internet. In many leading American universities, history as a discipline has sidelined the history of what Goldberg calls “the miracle” of Western democracy and capitalism, replacing classical history with a plethora of modern fads such as “gay and lesbian studies”. In accordance with political ideology, but in violation of the facts, most people believe that poverty is increasing – when it is plummeting, especially globally – and that “threats to the planet” are increasing when on balance they are declining.
- The lack of historical accuracy is part of a wider, totally pernicious trend – news media in the US and UK (and probably elsewhere) no longer even strive to give a balanced and accurate picture. Several television channels, including some of what used to be the best and most prestigious, have become dedicated to propaganda and spin rather than truth.
There has always been perhaps inevitable bias in television news, toward the sensational and violent – “if it bleeds, it leads” – which gives ordinary people a totally misleading view of how terrible modern society is – when it isn’t. But even worse is the use of media to peddle a party line or fixation of the elite. The British Broadcasting Corporation used to be world famous for its objectivity and balance, but on the issue of Brexit, at least, the coverage is skewed quite deliberately to the view of the BBC and other elites in parliament and the universities that implementing the popular vote of 2016 cannot be contemplated under any circumstances.
Liberal society and freedom cannot long survive a “post truth” mentality from politicians and media – once the truth cannot be recognized and celebrated, we are on the way back to the 1930s, to the triumph of Nazis, communists, and other tyrants.
- As Jonah Goldberg describes so well, popular culture is essentially ‘romantic’, rebellious, and hostile to capitalism and other Western values. Movies in particular have become increasingly violent and nihilistic. Does this matter? It can’t help.
- The original author of Suicide of the West, James Burnham back in 1964, penned a telling phrase – with liberalism, he said, “the preferred enemy is to the Right”. It is remarkable that even moderate conservatives are now routinely denounced as “fascists” and “scum”, whereas advocates of communism and other murderous ideologies, if perceived as trendy and leftist, get pretty much a free pass.
- Problems of migration and ‘integration indigestion’ are also undermining the solidarity of society. In the UK, we have seen frequent unwillingness of leftists to scrutinize or criticize crimes of certain Muslims – such as sexual grooming – for fear of appearing ‘racist’.
So far, so bad – the West appears to be well on the way to suicide. And yet:
Some Important Qualifying Considerations
- The tragedy is greatest in the US, and it comes from both left and right. Though Trump may be doing some necessary and desirable things, an important job of the presidency is to personify all that is best in America and its exceptional contribution to the world’s freedom and the dignity of the individual. Almost without exception, thoughtful Europeans cannot respect or admire Mr Trump; there is no doubt that he has dramatically lowered the ‘soft power’ of the US. The widespread opinion – which I share – that the alternative contender for president in 2016 would have been an equal disaster, though for quite other reasons, makes the situation worse and not better. How could the election have been between two totally unsuitable candidates? Meanwhile the Democratic Party is flirting with the worst kind of ersatz socialism and trendy causes – the movement towards the authoritarian left is greatest in America, rivalled only by what is happening in the UK.
If one is trying to be optimistic, however, one can view the current vile and virulent politics of America as an unhappy and probably temporary aberration. The power of the Constitution and the independence of the three branches of government – not to mention the sheer strength of the American democratic tradition – are such that when Trump goes, and when both parties nominate sensible and inspiring presidential candidates, we may wonder what all the fuss was about.
Similarly, the British Labour Party’s embrace of a Marxist-Trotskyite junta is unlikely to result in a Leninist coup. Either Jeremy Corbyn will be made to stand down as Labour leader – though an even worse leader, one who combines competence and political savvy with extreme views, cannot be ruled out – or Labour will lose an election badly and appoint a leader in the party’s long tradition of democratic socialism, or there will be a serious split in the party making it unelectable.
Even Brexit may be about to be ‘sorted’ – in which case the nastiness and division caused by Britain’s Europhile elites will quickly evaporate. Or possibly Opposition parties will force a new referendum – before the first has been implemented – and Britain will either stay in the European Union or leave, and in either case the matter will be settled. My money is – quite literally – on Britain leaving the European Union on World Trade Organization terms, and, after a few hiccups, the result being a rip-roaring success. A successful moderate center-right Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson could be in power for a long time, and the wilder shores of right and left activism will recede.
- The ebb and flow of hostility to the West’s heritage is not the only mitigating factor. The decline of the Western ethic also varies enormously from country to country. I am writing this post in the Netherlands, where I am living for a month. What strikes an outsider is how tolerant, well integrated, disciplined, relaxed and effective the Dutch Last year I spent five weeks in Australia, and what impressed me was how well second-generation immigrants, such as Chinese young people, have adapted to Australian culture, which is a poster for enduring Western values. I also spend two or three months a year in South Africa, and although it has certainly not been immune to many of the adverse trends I’ve discussed, the country is a paradise and a beacon of Western values compared to how it was before the 1994 transition to majority rule.
In Western Europe the picture is mixed – France is in places a broken society, Scandinavia is mainly okay, Germany is mainly solidly, even stolidly, a tribute to civilization, Switzerland is a haven of peace, prosperity and localized democracy outside the EU, Italy and Greece have been broken on the rack of the euro, Spain has never made a proper transition to democratic values, yet Portugal, another ex-fascist polity, despite also suffering high youth unemployment due to euro, is mainly democratic and functional. The picture in Eastern Europe is mixed but again, compared to the communist era, most countries have adapted or re-adapted well to Western values and prospered accordingly.
National characteristics and values are charmingly diverse, but generally fit well with democracy and free markets, with only the specter of “ever closer union” within a bureaucratic and undemocratic European super-state threatening to throttle the birthplace and heart of the West itself.
Given this diversity in outcomes, perhaps we should hesitate before being too dogmatic about the suicide of the West. With a few notable exceptions, and the rumblings from centralizing Euro-maniacs, the West’s suicidal tendencies are confined largely to the US and UK, and even here they may be transient. We can but hope.
- Economics, of course, determines a lot. Successful economies are free market ones; communist ones can only become successful by aping capitalist mores. Economic communism always self-destructs. But in a way a thriving modern capitalist economy is so super-productive that it makes it possible to support a large unproductive state sector that creates dependence and corrodes freedom. If we were less rich, we could not pay large tribute to the state and still survive.
This recalls a paradox which the great economist Joseph Schumpeter examined in the 1940s. Although he believed in capitalism, he saw the growth of large, unaccountable bureaucracies, whether nominally in the state or private sectors, as heralding the death of individualistic family enterprise and therefore of bourgeois values, leading to a kind of creeping socialism which could, and he thought, would, succeed.
Today, we see the decline of large corporations and the rise of entrepreneurial powerhouses which have transformed the world, giving us fantastic new products which are either incredibly ingenious and beguiling, or incredibly cheap. Yet the playthings of the new, iconoclastic billionaires paradoxically make it possible for large segments of workers, sometimes even the majority, to be trapped within the maw of the state. If there are not enough jobs in the hugely profitable new enterprises to go around, the state and quasi-state sector is happy to oblige by creating unproductive jobs in education, healthcare, the so-called social sector, the military, and endless new environmental and regulatory agencies.
The result can be a capitalist or rather entrepreneurial economy – since many of the new mega-successful firms are not capital intensive – which allows the creation of new, unproductive, socialist sectors, which encourage dependence on the state and create vested interests inimical to free market values. Does this trend of the free market feeding its enemies conduce toward the destruction of classical Western values? I rather think it may, and I see no easy way to roll back the waves.
Yet this trend-gazing, however brilliant and partially correct, can lead to wrong conclusions. After all, Schumpeter had good reasons for thinking that socialism was the future, and he was completely wrong. From 1950 right up to today, the free market around the world has gone from strength to strength. Bourgeois values may be unfashionable, but they are pretty strong too. People, even those preaching socialism or some insidious ‘ism’ to their inferiors, like to make money. Ask Tony Blair. Ask the Clintons. Ask Bernie Sanders. Ask the left-wing moguls of Hollywood. Ask the bureaucrats in Brussels or Beijing. Bourgeois values are always rife within socialist or semi-socialist elites; it is just the bourgeois contribution to the economy and society which sometimes flags a bit.
- There are two other reasons to believe that the West may not commit suicide. One is the persistent and vibrant pulse of individualism. The rules for success today at all levels are highly and increasingly individualistic, so that attempts to impose authoritarian rule are likely to be resisted. Look behind the political cant and posturing of many young people today and you see individuals who are resistant to any constraints on their self-expression. There may be a hard core of dangerous people who are disciplined, violent revolutionaries, but I suspect they are no more numerous than they were when I was at university a million years ago.
- The other reason for continued belief in the West is the entrenched nature of democracy and the common sense of ordinary electors. Our elites and intellectuals may be able to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but normal people cannot. They may sometimes vote for extremists, but if these form a government they will make a mess of things, and the electors will throw them out. The West is not like Russia in 1919 or the Weimar Republic in 1933. I would not put it past Corbyn and his ilk to try to abolish elections and stay in power forever, but I am sure they would not succeed. People are attached to their voting power – hence the so-called populist outrage at the attempts of British MPs to reverse the people’s vote for Brexit in 2016.
The other reason for hope is the inbuilt common sense of people in the West. Our intellectuals and elites may be able to believe six impossible things before breakfast, but normal people cannot.
Three Possible Outcomes
The first – and it is a realistic possibility – is that the West degenerates into a new kind of civilization: cynical, violent, crime-ridden, with authoritarian governments, a large state sector, persecution of some unfashionable minorities such as Jews, and a quasi-police state. The free market may be allowed to persist in some form, but the spirit of Western civilization – its emphasis on freedom, individualism, and personal responsibility – will have been lost, perhaps eternally.
The second scenario is that some countries maintain Western civilization – in approximate order of probability (my opinion obviously) Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, the UK, Germany, Austria, and Portugal. Others may be horribly divided or fall into the trap described above. The United States is the most important question-mark – current auguries are not good.
The third possibility is that there is a genuine, widespread revival of belief in Western values. This is a cause worth supporting and something that you, dear reader, can embrace enthusiastically. If it can be saved, Western civilization will be preserved one person at a time.