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Ed Driscoll

The Decline of the West

January 2nd, 2011 - 3:09 pm

Speaking of Oswald Spengler, his Decline of the West, a best-seller in the Weimar Germany of the 1920s, was a treatise on exhausted civilization; presumably, even he couldn’t have foreseen the horrors to be unleashed the following decade.

In her exceptional recent City Journal article, Claire Berlinski coined the term “Weimar Cities” for those regions where it’s obvious that the tectonic plates of change would soon radically transform them — and as the name implies, likely not for the better:

Weimar Cities have emerged, blazed, and died throughout history. The sack of Rome and the fall of the Empire prompted Augustine to write The City of God, the work itself an emblematic admixture of the anxiety and creativity that marked the epoch. Constantinople before the fall was consumed with evil prophecies and the well-founded fear that Byzantine culture was as doomed as it was glorious. A similar mood possessed the extravagantly genteel elite of antebellum Charleston. Moscow and Saint Petersburg in 1917 were cities of this sort, marked by the kinetic creative energy that accompanies the belief that the forces of history will soon somehow sweep away the past. The tortured intellectual blossoming of Vienna at the turn of the century was intimately connected with a sense of helplessness about the city’s fate, which all who lived there understood was not in their hands. The currency crash of 2002 prompted a creative efflorescence in Buenos Aires. San Francisco during the Summer of Love was a Weimar City, Hunter S. Thompson’s famous Wave Speech a characteristic signature: “There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere.”

All were cities marked by voluptuous excess, excitement, and fear, but the archetype, of course, is Berlin in the twenties.

Which brings us to Joel Kotkin’s latest piece in Forbes, titled, “The Poverty Of Ambition: Why The West Is Losing To China And India,” which begins, “The last 10 years have been the worst for Western civilization since the 1930s.”

Berlinski sees modern-day Istanbul as a Weimar city, being pulled by both continuing the Islamic reforms and modernity that Ataturk began in the 20th century, counterbalanced by an equally intense desire to return to reprimitivization. But Kotkin sees the entire west as being on the same sort of knife-edge that the original Weimar teetered on, though sadly for his readers on the right side of the aisle, he’s also a pox on all their houses sort of fellow:

The West’s politics are in the grips of two profoundly retrograde mentalities. One, a small-minded conservatism, harks back to the “golden” age of the 1950s when Western power faced only a flawed Soviet challenge. The idealistic but flawed commitment to imposing democracy by force of the Bush years has faded; it has been replaced by an obsession with taming a bloated public sector. While this focus may be justified, it is fundamentally more reactive than proscriptive.

The Left, which once portrayed itself as the bastion of scientific rationalism, increasingly embraces neo-druidism, a secular form of nature worship. This tendency’s roots can be traced back to the “Limits to Growth” ideology of the early 1970s which projected, mostly mistakenly, that the planet was about to run out of everything from food to oil. Concerns over climate change have transformed this dismal sentiment into a theology, with carbon emissions treated as a form of original sin.

The anti-progress nature of the new Left is unmistakable. Rather than seek ways to control climate change, suggests The Guardian’s George Monbiot, environmentalism is engaged in “a battle to redefine humanity.” Monbiot believes the era of economic growth needs to come to an inevitable denouement; that “the age of heroism” will be followed by the decline of the “expanders” and the rise of the “restrainers.”

Europe, particularly the U.K., suffers acutely from metaphysical angst.  Once touted as the new great power by its leaders and their American claque, the E.U. is quickly dissolving along cultural and historical lines; this is especially evident in the division between the  resilient countries of the north (something like the Hansa trading states of the late Middle Ages) and the weaker countries along the periphery. For the most part, Europe no longer seems capable of doing much more than finding ways to control an unaffordable welfare state without tearing about its social net. The once cherished notion of a multi-racial “new” Europe largely has dissolved as immigration has devolved from a source of demographic and cultural salvation to a widely perceived threat to the E.U.’s economic and social health as well as security.

Such defeatism usually has less success in the United States. But America’s “progressive” left increasingly resembles its European cousins.  Obama’s science advisor, John Holdren, has been a long-time advocate of the idea of “de-development,” the purposeful slowing of growth in advanced countries in order to protect the environment. The critical infrastructure needed to accommodate upward of another  100 million Americans — new dams in the west, intelligent development of our vast natural gas reserves and building new cities, airports and ports  – are not at the center of either party’s platforms. These could be financed largely with private sources, given the right incentives.

Fortunately the West’s decline is not at inevitable. China, India, Vietnam, Brazil, South Africa all deserve their day in the sun, but this does not mean that Americans or Europeans should cower in the shadows. Western countries still possess much of the world’s cutting-edge technology and leading companies; the combined GDP for the E.U., North America and Oceania stands at over $33 trillion, almost five times that of India and China together.

More important still, the political and cultural institutions of the West — with their liberal values — represent the best hope for a stable world of self-governing peoples. Does anyone in the West, particularly the progressives in the media and academia, really want a world run by Chinese despotism?

The current financial crisis should serve as both a warning and a spur for a new focus on economic expansion. But this can only occur if the West can restore its belief in its future. This does not necessitate a return to the colonial attitudes of the past, but rather a keener appreciation of our unique human, physical and political advantages.

But how do we Renew America (to coin a phrase) when our current president doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism* — and by inference, likely doesn’t believe in western exceptionalism in general? Or to tie this post in with the previous item, what Glenn Reynolds wrote about the Mideast’s reprimitivization could apply to an increasingly modernizing Third World almost as well. “When the Western world was strong and self-confident about its values, they wanted to Westernize. Now, not so much.”

* Presumably his recent feints in the other direction are just that.

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