Declines, Untergänge, and Other Unpleasant Matters


From time to time, writers fret about the decline of the west. Some of them worried about it so prematurely that today they stand dismissed as dreary fellows, who just weren’t up to enjoying the radiant future upon which we have entered. Oswald Spengler, after all, was ponderously Teutonic and pro-Prussian and Arnold Toynbee was a sort of secularized Anglican mystic waiting for a new universal church to fix things up. "Declinists" – as they have been called – are never popular. Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) is said to have set off debate, not just in the media and academia, but deep in the bowels of the Bush administration. There, the message that even the American empire might be subject to the lessons of logistics, not to mention history, was unwelcome, and some have even suggested that blowing up Iraq was the best argument they could find against the "declinist" thesis.


Around the turn of the last century, or "fandy-sickle," as I call it here, there came forth from European and American writers a mountain of militaristic balderdash about the glories of war, the need to have one now and then lest we lose our masculine virtues, and the like. Not all of it was written by Theodore Roosevelt, but he did his part.

Leaving aside TR, my personal favorite – for years now – has been J. A. Cramb, lecturer in history, Queen’s College, London, whose little book, Germany and England, published in mid-1914, oddly enough, is a sort of advertisement for a coming Anglo-German war. Cramb stirred up alarm about German intentions in Europe and the world, all the while maintaining that good empires – Rome, Britain – are much nicer than bad empires. That be as it may, the book lives and breathes the spirit of armchair militarism, with Cramb imagining in his concluding section "the ancient, might deity of all the Teutonic kindred, throned above the clouds, looking serenely down upon… his favorite children, the English and the Germans, locked in a death-struggle, smiling upon the heroism of that struggle, the heroism of the children of Odin the War-god!"1 At least it shows that romanticism was alive, somewhere, down to 1914.

This sort of literature may have contributed to the lunatic rush to enlist, the rather mindless super-patriotism which cut across social classes, when the "guns of August" began roaring in 1914. The world war that western civilization got, 1914-1918, was probably not quite what the pro-war drivel-writers actually had in mind. They apparently dreamed of short little wars, now and again, like the nice Franco-Prussian War. Of course, getting what you want and wanting what you get may not be the same thing. Jean (Ivan) Bloch wrote a multi-volume study of modern war in the first years of the 20th century to explain why, given the existence of machine-guns, accurate rifles, and barbed wire, any future general European war would be extremely costly in men and materiel. Few in high places read Bloch, and those who did, didn’t let him spoil their pipe-dreams about short wars with heroic cavalry charges. Oddly, Bloch thought that European governments would not be stupid enough to keep a general war going once they found out the costs. One doubts he ever dreamed that the faraway Americans would be stupid to enough to help Europe keep such a war going, once Europeans proved stupid enough to do so.


Theodore Roszak, of counter-cultural fame, once hypothesized that the timing of the pro-militarist literature suggests it was a reaction to the first wave of feminism in western societies. Whether this is true or not, there was a lot of this writing and the French may have been the worst, although you would never know it from those made-to-order propaganda books of the two world wars, which emphasized the German contribution to this awful genre. Across the water, the United States was in the throes of what Richard Hofstadter calls "the psychic crisis of the nineties" when the pro-war writers got going.

This psychic crisis grew out of the Panic of 1893 (an economic depression which righted itself within a few years because the government mostly left it alone), dangerous-looking socialist movements led by immigrant radicals, dangerous-sounding populist movements led by old-stock Americans who thought the government was harming them (as indeed it was in some ways), and some other social grievances. The cure for all this was "the splendid little war" of 1898, after which – having trounced the arrogant Spanish feudalists – Americans were able "to feel good about themselves," as the phrase goes, and their elites were able to get on with the good work of launching a neo-mercantilist economic empire.


Contrast that – perhaps compare it – with out present happy state. We do have some immigrant radicals (organized in characteristically postmodern fashion around "ethnic" grievances) and quite a lot of those native would-be populists, but no depression, as yet. Anyway, depressions have been redefined as "recessions," so as not to diminish the glories of FDR’s New Deal, which made further depressions impossible, by definition. Not to worry, however, a depression can probably be arranged, however unintentionally, by the very monetary authorities who bask in the illusion of their "scientific" ability to micro-manage whole economies.

What seems different about this century-wending, as opposed to the last, is the relative absence of any widely read body of literature promoting militarism, cultural despair, and general gloom-and-doom. Such works exist, of course, but the dominant media and talking heads can’t get past how great things are, how great they will continue to be after more decades of US/NATO/UN/Starship-Enterprise global oversight, how unsinkable the new unsinkable economic order of "free-enterprise" neo-corporatism and Open Door imperial "free trade" is, and how utterly clever the new cyber technologies are. True enough, as far as the last claim goes, but for the others, maybe not.

I am not asking for such a literature, by the way. It is puzzling to me, however, that in 1899-1900, when the civilization and culture of the west were in rather better shape than they are now, so many took up doom-saying and then, rather insanely, came up with militarism and war as therapies. And why is it that now, when a century of statism and war have actually brought about a situation worth railing against, there is so little intellectually serious gloom abroad in the land. The late Murray Rothbard always insisted that optimism is the only proper long-run attitude, because markets work and states don’t (or at least not in the usual sense of the word "work"). This is true, but I think a little gloom is sometimes in order to keep us aware of the obstacles in the way of having free and prosperous societies.


James Burnham, ex-Trotskyite and contributing editor of National Review, can be considered the first neo-conservative – some twenty years ahead of his time. His Suicide of the West (1964) is an interesting entry in the decline-sweepstakes. It is a compendium of interesting insights and debating points scored against liberal opponents. Unfortunately, it rests on a full-bore commitment to the high-holy cold war, which tends to reduce my enjoyment of its good points. Back when some of us were mutant teenage Goldwaterites, we thought it was a wonderful book.

Burnham’s critique of liberalism – if pulled out of its cold war framework – is of much value. He remarked liberalism’s endless striving to fix things, such that the good work of reform is never done and "there is no point at which the spirit can come to rest."2 Pity, as the rest of us want a break. He also noted a generalized dislike or even hatred for western civilization.

We have to distinguish between dislike for particular foreign policies and dislike for one’s civilization, even if Burnham did not. The great paradox is that in the post-cold war world, many of the enemies of western civilization look to the American empire, its satraps, and stooges to bring about the heralded touchy-feely post-western civilization of their dreams. As Paul Gottfried points out, much of the global left loves the American empire, which they expect will fulfill their (endless) program, now the Soviet Union has failed them.3 Unhappily, they are not entirely wrong in this.


Here may lie the real "decline of the west": in the desire of so many western intellectuals to see our civilized inheritance give way to just about anything else that comes down the pike. If the American empire wants to speed things up, why, that’s just fine. For Spengler, comparable periods in different civilizations – "late empire," for example – are in effect "contemporaneous." In a fold-out chart at the end of The Decline of the West, volume one, Spengler sets out "contemporaneous" periods in the intellectual history of Indian, Classical, Arabian, and Western civilization. The last two headings are very interesting: Under "Degradation of abstract thinking into professional lecture-room philosophy," Spengler equates Stoics and Epicureans with modern western "logicians and psychologists." (I leave aside his Indian and Arabian entries.) Under "Spread of a final world-sentiment," he lists Buddhism, Hellenistic-Roman Stoicism, "practical fatalism in Islam after 1000 [A.D.]," and – for the west – "Ethical Socialism from 1900."4

Now this may be a matter of playing fast and loose with the notion of corresponding or "contemporaneous" periods, and may be, in the end, quite unfair to some of the schools mentioned. Still, it may clarify a few things, such as why Al Gore turns up at Buddhist functions, for one. More seriously, Spengler is not the last thinker to remark certain similarities between our own period and Late Hellenistic civilization, especially after Rome forcibly imposed unity on that civilization.5

If there is a decline of the west, it is in our very thought and not such details as the loss of colonial empires "we" should never had had and about the existence of which so many post-colonial critical theorists appear to be so upset. The present babbling about the status of truth and the instability of language seem perfect examples of a Late Hellenistic despair quite fitting in our own period of late empire. Hugh Nibley sees in the Late Hellenism of the Roman empire "a fiercely arrogant insistence on stereotyped uniformity and a quick suspicion of any hint of independence or individuality" in a society which – "encouraged by the state to avoid serious thinking" – "worshipped its fighters, its actors, and its orators."6 If this seems at all familiar, it is not my fault. I haven’t even brought up wrestlers. The comparative use of history is not a hard science, but parallel trends in civilizations can be enlightening.


[1] J. A. Cramb, Germany and England (London: John Murray, 1914), pp. 136-137.
[2] James Burnham, The Suicide of the West (New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1964), p. 204.
[3] Paul A. Gottfried, After Liberalism: Mass Democracy in the Managerial State (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 75 (and quoting John O’Sullivan).
[4] Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926) [no page].
[5] Cf. Edward McNall Burns, et al., World Civilizations, 8th edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1991), pp. 222-223.
[6] Hugh Nibley, "Victoriosa Loquacitas" in The Ancient State (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1991), pp. 263-264.

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