The Rotten Pedigree of American Declinism;
Mar 3, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 24 • By FRED SIEGEL
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.
As Herman shows, Spengler's distinction between vital "culture" and decadent Enlightenment civilization drives the thinking of a variety of mid- and late-20th-century thinkers, from Frankfurt School Marxists like Herbert Marcuse and Theodore Adorno to such faddish Francophone thinkers of the 1960s and '70s as Frantz Fanon. Many of today's radicals -- critical Marxists, multiculturalists, postmodernists or radical environmentalists -- draw as much from the Spenglerian right as they do from the intellectual antecedents they actually acknowledge. And this is not to mention those idols of the postwar left, such as Jean Genet and Michel Foucault, who were drawn not only to the Spenglerian view of culture but also to the power and violence of fascism, of which his declinism formed a component. So capacious, in fact, is Herman's argument that it could easily embrace such British writers as George Bernard Shaw, who thought mass man so hideous that "if we desire a certain type of civilization and culture, we must exterminate the sort of people who do not fit in."
In his most important chapter, Herman shows that Spengler's opposition of culture and civilization is central to the thought of America's preeminent black intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois. As a graduate student in Germany, Du Bois grew a Kaiser Bill mustache and was attracted to both German socialism and volkisch arguments about the merits of German Kultur compared with Western European civilization. It was a theme he adopted in The Souls of Black Folk (1903), where he treated black spirituals as the key to an African-American folk culture. Echoing Spengler's distrust of "soulless Americanism" and "the worship of technical skill, money and an eye for facts," Du Bois insisted that the aristocratic African-American capacity for "sleep and laughter" was superior to the rootless mechanization of white America -- and laid out the arguments for preserving racial purity that are now standard on campuses. In fact, there is little in the current repertoire of afrocentric assertions that Du Bois didn't lay out. For Du Bois, who would later become a Communist, Marxist ideas of progress floated in a sea of cultural pessimism. In this he hardly differed from the white leftists of his time or ours.
Although specialists will find fault with particular sections of a book so wide-ranging, Herman has tapped into a rich vein of inquiry. His book should trigger a long-overdue scholarly debate, but don't bet on it. Not even the fall of communism could convince the academy of its wholesale failure to diagnose the relative health of the West. Sovietologists have gone back to churning out accounts about social mobility under Stalin, and a host of recent books from the left (like Cornel West's Race Matters) and the right (like Edward Luttwak's The Endangered American Dream) continue to insist, against the evidence, on our impending doom.
Fred Siegel is the author of The Future Once Happened Here: New York, Washington, Los Angeles and the Fate of Big-City America, forthcoming from Free Press.