The Magazine


The Rotten Pedigree of American Declinism;

Mar 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 24 • By FRED SIEGEL
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Never have so many been so wrong about so much for so long with so little consequence Starting in the mid-1960s, alarmed by Vietnam abroad and racial rebellion at home, American journalists and academics prophesied that Western liberalism -- or "late capitalism," as many chose to call it -- was doomed, soon to be replaced by the younger, more vital societies of the Third World

It was not a monolithic ideology. On one hand, there were cultural pessimists like Susan Sontag, who saw the West as a "cancer" whose extinction offered promise to the rest of the world. The journalist I. F. Stone concurred, welcoming Khomeini's revolution in Iran as a sign that the Third World was escaping the dead hand of the First. On the other hand, historical pessimists like Kevin Phillips decried the decline -- but were just as sure the West was on the way down. In 1975 Daniel Patrick Moynihan noted the fears of many that liberal democracy was "a holdover form of government. . . . which has simply no relevance for the future. It is where the world was, not where it is going."

By 1988, the Yale historian Paul Kennedy was claiming in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers that an overextended United States was in irremediable decline. It was "the task facing American statesman over the next decades to manage affairs so that the relative erosion of the United States's position takes place slowly and smoothly," Kennedy wrote.

A year later the Berlin Wall fell.

In The Idea of Decline in Western History, George Mason University historian Arthur Herman notes that these thinkers were dead wrong. But he also makes a more audacious claim: that, far from being path-breakers, the declinists fit squarely into an old -- and disreputable -- strain of European intellectual history. Western theories of Progress, whether Darwinian or Whig or materialist, have always implied their own underside: The triumph of one species or bloc or class in any struggle inevitably means reversals for another. But that hardly implied that the West is moribund. Those who thought it did were merely partaking of a hoary tradition that has its roots in the " scientific" racism of the 19th century and its firmest adherents in the multiculturalists of today.

"What intrigued the 19th-century imagination even before Darwin," Herman writes, "was race theory's proposition that the natural history of man as a biological species had also produced the cultural history of mankind as social and creative beings." In his influential Essay on the Inequality of Races (1853), Count Joseph Arthur de Gobineau united theories of the "Aryan" nature of Europe with the Romantics' critique of bourgeois culture as philistine and enervating. For Gobineau, history was at once a racial and a cultural struggle -- between the remnants of the original Indo-Aryan aristocracy and the rising bourgeoisie. The victory of the bourgeoisie would ring down the curtain on European greatness. If proof were needed, observers had simply to look across late-19th-century Europe, where the growth of mining and heavy industry had created a population of human dray-horses, people so unrecognizably impoverished as to appear a separate species -- and a degenerate one.

It is the German schoolteacher Oswald Spengler who cast the die of modern declinism. And yet, by the time Spengler began publishing the Decline of the West in 1918, he was summing up a half-century of writing about Europe's degeneration. Spengler saw history as an inexorable natural process, immune to the interventions of human will. For Spengler, peoples were like individuals. Every historical culture has an "inner life force," and moves through its own childhood, youth, manhood, and old age. His key contrast was between Kultur and civilization. "Cultures" -- young, vigorous, and connected to their roots through myth and folktales -- age into " civilizations," and as they do they become neurotic, sclerotic, parasitic, out of touch with their life-giving origins, and ready to die.