Belmont Club


Spengler at the Asia Times asks whether “civilizations” are eventually superseding nations as basic units of human organization; whether countries, which are based on ties of ‘blood and language’ are slowly being swallowed up by civilizations based upon a common view of the universe. Nations have long survived civilizations but is the present different? Are nations dying?

Half of the world’s population now lives in three supra-ethnic states, that is, states in which citizenship has no ethnic connotation. These are China, India and the United States. The three great supra-ethnic states are internally stable and have little cause for conflict anywhere on their borders, let alone with each other. …

The prospective extinction of nations, cultures and languages has become the leading source of instability for the 21st century. Never before in human history have so many people held their lives so cheap. Among other things, this explains why suicide has become a widespread technique of war-fighting for the first time.

In other words, maybe we live in an age where people no longer fight for hearth or even home, but for ideas. Spengler may be overstating the case — tribal and linguistic differences still count for much as shown in Iraq — although his thesis partially explains why elites in certain countries are so eager to shed their national identities in favor of supra-national ones. Yet if the concept of a “Clash of Civilizations” has any validity it must imply that ideas can divide people as much as ethnicity. Civilizations must matter; the only question is how much.

One of Spengler’s most interesting ideas is that these Empires of the Mind are ultimately on the march for God, or at least a reasonable substitute. “Mortality becomes unbearable in the face of modernity,” for without final ends a civilization will lose the will to live. Like Tolkien’s parable of Numenor, Spengler thinks that the longer the span of our lives the greater the fear of eventual extinction. It gnaws on civilizations until they despair.

All cultures worship at the shrine of their ancestors. They exist to ward off the presentiment of death. Breaking continuity with the past implies that our lives have no meaning past our own physical existence. If we do not continue the lives of those who preceded us, nor prepare the lives of those who will follow us, then we are defined by our physical existence and nothing more. In that case we will seek to maximize our pleasure. It is perfectly possible for entire peoples to live only for their own pleasure and feel nothing for their prospective obliteration. How else should we explain fertility rates in Europe and Japan at barely half of replacement?

Spengler’s argues that one nationality among all others must buck the trend towards absorption into supra-national constructs by definition: the Jews. “Only one nation conceives of itself as eternal, and that is Israel, whose belief that the Creator God’s love for its ancestor establishes its immortality beyond the death of the universe itself.” This automatically creates a tension between Jewry and any jealously militant, comprehensive civilization. Osama bin Laden’s vision of a totally Islamic world — a world dominated by a single civilization — is obviously incompatible with one in which Yaweh’s promise to the Jews is fulfilled. Less is obvious but equally interesting is whether an Israel can exist in John Lennon’s vision of a Imagine.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

But it’s interesting to reflect on what the nature of the peace in Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ will be. Is it the peace attained after one civilization has conquered all the others? Or is it the quiet resignation in the anteroom of extinction?