January 9, 2012


The Mythology of Decline (DANIEL JOHNSON, November 2011, Standpoint)

A minority of recent writers on American decline do so more in sorrow than in schadenfreude. Among them two stand out: Niall Ferguson and Mark Steyn. Ferguson's Civilization: The West and the Rest is the latest in a long line of books in the genre of decline mythology launched by Spengler. Ferguson is, however, no ardent declinist: his books on British and American history, Empire and Colossus, are emphatically pro-Western. So, too, is Civilization. It is just that once Orientals have learnt to imitate the key features that led to Western dominance, they are bound to catch up with and even overtake their mentors. And so he concludes that the West will inevitably cede hegemony to the Asian powers, among which China and India were latecomers but are all the more successful for that. He also thinks that the Chinese are almost ready to take over. "What we are living through now is the end of 500 years of Western predominance." Ferguson, incidentally, is also unwittingly echoing Spengler when he talks up the threat of China. In Years of Decision, his sequel to The Decline of the West, Spengler warned against the "Oriental peril". Spengler saw the West overwhelmed by Asian hordes and it is true that the European empires were defeated by the Japanese with extraordinary speed in 1941-42. However, the Western champion, the US, struck back even harder, ensuring not only the defeat of Imperial Japan, but the ultimate triumph of the Western model in the Far East. 

The trouble with China is not that it is commercially successful -- if the West had not allowed Mao to triumph in the 1940s, the Chinese industrial revolution would have come two generations sooner -- but that it is tyrannical and, like all tyrannies, lethally paranoid. It now has a satellite-guided missile system specifically designed to annihilate carrier battle groups of the US Sixth Fleet. This is bad news for America but even worse for China's neighbours. Even so, there is nothing the Chinese can do that the Americans cannot do better, especially in the field of military technology. It is only the mythology of decline that prevents the US from announcing a new "Star Wars" Strategic Defence Initiative.

The trouble with Ferguson's thesis is not that it lacks empirical evidence: he has accumulated an impressive range of statistics and other facts to buttress his argument. And he is right to point to the hole in the heart of the West: the cultural amnesia that has deprived generations of the core values that were once our secret weapon. "Maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilization we inherited from our ancestors."

No: the problem with Ferguson is that he attaches too little weight to the powers of recuperation and renewal that the United States and to a lesser extent Europe have demonstrated over the past two centuries. The American Civil War came close to strangling the infant republic in its cradle. The two world wars came even closer to damaging Europe beyond repair. Yet both America and Europe have risen repeatedly from the ashes. The most remarkable example of all is of course Israel: the combination of European Jewish refugees and American Jewish support has created one of the most resilient nations and dynamic economies in the world. China and India cannot match the West's ability to regenerate itself. Ferguson does not seriously deny this fact, but it is fatal to his argument. He actually devotes a chapter to debunking the mythology of decline, yet willingly succumbs to its lure himself. Ferguson is that exasperating combination, a good historian and a bad prophet. But it is the future, not the past, that has always brought the greatest rewards, tempting those who can pass for omniscient to satisfy the insatiable curiosity of the gullible.

Mark Steyn resists this unscholarly temptation better than his more scholarly rival. This literary lumberjack, who fells whole forests of liberal sacred oaks with his mordant wit, has produced two books, America Alone and After America, which have done a great job of  subverting the legitimacy claimed by the political classes in Europe and America for their self-aggrandising projects and self-destructive habits. On Europe, Steyn is as damning as he is persuasive: from demographic suicide to the abdication of self-defence, he conducts a forensic analysis of the hollowing out of the high culture for which the Continent was still respected a generation ago. Indeed, Steyn wrote off Europe years ago: content to be dictated to by dictators from Colonel Gaddafi to Colonel Putin, the European Union is much less than the sum of its parts. After two world wars, one Cold War and now World War IV, Americans are as resentful of doing the heavy lifting and Europeans are as ungrateful as ever. Yet indignation and ingratitude are not a good basis for policy and the US still has interests as well as sentiments at stake in Europe. The Obama doctrine of leaving the world to stew in its own bile is neither practical nor decent; in fact it is another product of the mythology of decline. No American statesman wants to be indicted when the cry goes up: "Who lost Europe?" 

But if it is perverse of Mark Steyn to write off Europe, it is surely even more perverse to write off America. The flavour of After America is indicated by its subtitle: Get Ready for Armageddon. Steyn believes that while Europeans had the good fortune to have the United States on hand to cushion its postwar decline, Americans will have no such luxury. This is a fair point, but it is a stretch to conclude from this that the US is on the brink of catastrophe, perhaps in the course of the next presidential term. Once again, the villain of the piece is China, which is expected by some to overtake the US economy within the next few years. Steyn has an original twist on the rise of China: he sees it as a much larger version of Islamist Iran: an ageing totalitarian behemoth, demographically crippled by its one-child policy, and rendered much more dangerous by its flaws. Steyn also points out that, contrary to so much "expert" opinion over several decades, economic westernisation has not, so far, led to meaningful political reform. Armageddon is just round the corner because for the first time in history a one-party state, run by a politburo, is in the process of supplanting America not only as an economic superpower, but as a political and cultural one, too. His favourite symbol is the steady shift from English to Mandarin as the world's predominant language. The charge is that it was on our watch the world got used to paying homage (and interest) to an evil empire that doesn't even use the Roman alphabet.

Steyn may be right in this analysis, but I don't see how he can have it both ways. Either China's rise is indeed Armageddon, or there is still everything to play for. Either America's multiple malaises are terminal, or what he calls the "post-American world" is avoidable. Steyn's concluding chapter is devoted to an action plan to restore American greatness: de-centralise, de-governmentalise, de-regulate, de-monopolise, de-complicate, de-credentialise, dis-entitle, de-normalise. In short: what the Tea Party might adopt as a manifesto, if it really were a party.

 All fine, but how does this radical action plan mesh with the withering mythology of decline which constitutes the rest of the book? Milton Friedman's rule -- make the wrong people do the right thing -- is also Mark Steyn's, but how do you make an entire nation of "wrong people" do the right thing? "America faces a choice," he writes. Amen to that. But he also rails against "the inertia, the ennui, the fatalism" he sees all around him. Who are the Americans to whom Steyn's addresses himself? All those, presumably, who have not yet been corrupted by Big Government and indoctrinated by the "Obamessiah". But if there are enough of these ordinary Americans to make such an appeal meaningful, we must assume that the country is not necessarily facing meltdown after all. 

 There is a rhetorical sleight of hand going on here: there is a fork in the road to serfdom (Hayek is an unacknowledged but important inspiration for Steyn), and it is just not true that all roads lead to Armageddon. Steyn is a mythologist of decline, but he is no declinist: on the contrary, he would doubtless, like me, blame declinists for talking their countrymen into accelerating decline. 

The difference between us is that like Adam Smith, I believe there is a great deal of ruin in a nation -- and a great deal of decline in the West. The United States still represents the antithesis of the fatalism which dominates both the Islamic world and China. The impersonal determinism that is characteristic both of Chinese communism and Islamic "kismet" seems to me a dubious basis for world domination. We live in an era that still values individual liberty, for all the infantilising effects of paternalistic statism. These lunacies, all of which Mark Steyn lovingly dissects, are nonetheless by-products of free choices. America always does the right thing in the end, once it has exhausted all the other options. Nothing less than 9/11 would have it made possible for America to strike back hard at radical Islamists; nothing less than the worst president for a century would have produced such a rapid reaction against his excesses as we are now witnessing. The mythology of decline can only capture the national imagination if we abandon the distinction between rationality and fantasy. 

America may yet be dragged down by the deadweight of defunct ideas once thought progressive. More likely, I reckon, is that the founding fathers will once again be vindicated. They trusted in the good sense of the American people. Gibbon was right to continue his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for another thousand years after the sack of Rome: his real subject is the persistence of Roman ideas and institutions long after their creators. Indeed, he might have found continuities long after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which he made his terminus ad quem. Indeed,  the last legitimate heir of the Roman emperors has only just died: Otto von Habsburg. And Rome still has its pontifex maximus. So it is with Western civilisation, which survived even the most destructive wars in history; so too with the United States, which has been able to flourish in good times and in bad thanks to the foresight of its founders. 

Isn't it best to think of Mr. Steyn as our Whittaker Chambers, wildly overstating his case, but for all the right reasons?

Posted by at January 9, 2012 6:32 AM

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