The declinist imagination
Arthur L Herman on progress, despair and why today isn't like the 1930s.
Over the past year, with Brexit and Donald Trump’s US presidency providing the coordinates, too many have argued that the West is unwittingly plotting its own downfall. Some talk as if we’re heading back to the 1930s, while others are busy predicting the catastrophe to come. A bit of historical perspective is dearly needed here, which is why this month the spiked review spoke to Arthur L Herman, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, and the author of eight books, including the New York Times-bestselling How the Scots Invented the Modern World (2001); the Pulitzer Prize finalist Gandhi and Churchill (2008); and, perhaps most interestingly for the purposes of this issue of the review, The Idea of Decline (1997). Herman, as we discover, is no Pangloss. Yet his analysis of the rise of declinism shows that it is not decline itself that is the problem, but the perception of decline.
spiked review: What do you make of the analogies many seem quick to draw between the present moment in America and Britain and the rise of fascism during the 1930s? And why is this declinist vision, in which the world is supposedly sliding towards a political and social catastrophe, so prominent among certain sections of society?
Arthur Herman: I’m always amazed when people who are absolutely ignorant of history throw around comparisons between today and the 1930s, when they know nothing about why the 1930s were the breeding ground for the most catastrophic war in history, first in Asia between China and Japan and then in Western Europe, with the United States and Russia dragged in. It’s vital to remember that at the time the world was still reeling from the global war it fought in 1914-18, the worst and bloodiest in history; and it had suffered from a global depression in 1930-2 that makes the 2008-9 financial meltdown look like a walk in the park by comparison. Plus, you still had the reverberations from the collapse of three of the world’s most extensive empires: the Ottoman, the Habsburg, and the Romanov, as well as China, which had been enduring an extended collapse for more than half a century – the 1920s finally pushed it over the edge.
It was a world in which men (and women) felt they had to grasp for any last straw, whether it was fascism or Communism, or appeasement or isolationism (in the United States’ case). Their leaders were scared and their intellectual elites were in a general funk. That last is the only point of real comparison with our own time. Today’s intellectual leaders have largely betrayed the trust their fellow citizens have given them, and have disappeared down the rabbit hole of linguistic distinctions and multiculturalism and climate change. Very sad – and dangerous.
review: In EH Carr’s introduction to the second edition of What is History?, he writes the following of the cultural pessimism prominent in the late 1970s: ‘My conclusion is that the current wave of scepticism and despair, which looks ahead to nothing but destruction and decay, and dismisses as absurd any belief in progress or any prospect of a further advance by the human race, is a form of elitism — the product of elite social groups whose security and whose privileges have been most conspicuously eroded by the crisis, and of elite countries whose once undisputed domination over the rest of the world has been shattered.’ What do you make of this? Do you think Carr’s argument that a sense of decline is grounded in the material and political decline of a particular section of society, and with it, the dethroning of their worldview, could apply to today’s prophets of social and political doom?
Herman: Yes, I have to agree with Carr, an historian I otherwise dislike. In fact, it’s the main theme of my very first book, The Idea of Decline. It’s 20 years since that book came out, and I’m still impressed (if I may say so) with how prescient it is and how well it holds up. My point in that work was that decline is not a destiny, it’s a choice. In the mid-to-late 19th century, there was a wave of reaction against the Enlightenment idea of civilisational progress, largely motivated by those who saw their social and intellectual status threatened by the sweeping changes unleashed by the Industrial Revolution. Racism; vitalism; cultural and historical pessimism. As I describe in The Idea of Decline, they all sprang up from those at the top of society, not from the bottom, and who saw their world collapsing in the 1840s and 1850s. So they drew up a programme of elaborate historical theories to explain their impotence to deal with change and to get their revenge on a rising bourgeoisie, by bringing down the temple – telling ordinary citizens that what they optimistically thought were benchmarks of prosperity and progress, like a rising standard of living and democracy, were really the opposite and the crack of eventual doom.
Sadly, the enemies of the Enlightenment succeeded. They wrote the 20th century in blood. The intellectual life in today’s universities, including Britain’s, is still surrounded by the rubble left by the men of that generation.
review: Going back a little, you have of course written about the Enlightenment, especially the Scottish Enlightenment. How did the idea of progress, which emerges during the Enlightenment, transform our vision of history?
Herman: Unfortunately the idea of progress itself turned everything that happens into historical evidence that somehow the whole of society is moving forward or backward – or as liberals like to phrase it – moving forward or ‘turning back the clock’. The truth is that most of what happens in our lives and in society proves nothing except that we are very boring creatures most of the time, and capable of great evil as well as of great good in a few very extraordinary times.
review: Still, the idea of progress was a compelling idea for much of the 19th century. Why do you think the idea of progress suffered such a battering during the 20th century?
Herman: I suppose it’s not surprising the idea of progress — that is, that the advance of history makes our world increasingly better rather than worse — would take some brutal hits in the 20th century: the First World War, the Great Depression, the Holocaust, the Stalinist purges and the Great Leap Forward (which still somehow doesn’t rate as a man-made human catastrophe to compare with the Holocaust, even though some 45million human beings died in four years thanks to Mao’s effort to turn China into an industrial power overnight). But, as I explained in The Idea of Decline, the ground for despair was prepared well in advance, by the cultural pessimists like Friedrich Nietzsche and historical pessimists like Oswald Spengler. Out of self-induced despair sprang the violent anti-democratic movements that transformed the 20th century from a period of transition and necessary tension into a global charnel-house. Like I said, decline isn’t a destiny, it’s a choice.
review: For many today, being on ‘the right side of history’, being ‘progressive’, involves, say, support for multiculturalism and a commitment to environmentalism. Do you think the values we associate today with being progressive have that much to do with the older Enlightenment idea of progress?
Herman: As I also show in The Idea of Decline, and later in The Cave and The Light, modern environmentalism and multiculturalism both take their roots from the reactionary movements in Germany and France in the late 19th century. Albert Gore has a lot more in common intellectually with Adolf Hitler and Alfred Rosenberg, than with the modern science he and his ilk claim to admire and emulate. Today’s multiculturalism has the same anti-Enlightenment, vitalist roots, which believed that Western civilisation was doomed, and would eventually be overtaken by more virile and vital races and cultures, especially from Africa. But its deepest roots, as I show in The Cave and the Light, lie in a Rousseauian romanticism, which portrayed modern civilisation itself as the enemy of human nature. That romanticism even feeds the recruitment for ISIS today. On the dark web, side by side with quotations from the Koran, should be quotations from Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality. But like radical environmentalism and multiculturalism, these are all emotional overreactions and hysteria fed by propaganda, and not rooted in real life.
In fact, most of what passes today for liberal progressivism is not reality-based. The modern progressive occupies what Walter Lippmann called a pseudo-environment, a fictionalised version of reality, to which the all-pervasiveness of social media and the internet directly contribute. That’s why when the real world intrudes – the election of Donald Trump or Brexit – they react so violently and irrationally.
This is what I wrote about in my seventh book, The Cave and the Light — how the illusions of the cave that Plato described in The Republic can pass themselves off as truth and reality when in fact they are only manipulated fantasies. What else is university life today in the US with its ‘safe spaces’, and in Europe? What is most of what pops up as ‘news’ on Yahoo and Google?
What gave Western civilisation its dynamism for so long was its creative tension and balance between the material and the spiritual, between what we aspire to be as spiritual beings and what we need to be as material beings and part of nature. That’s the overall theme of The Cave and the Light: and how that creative tension reflects the twin intellectual legacies of Aristotle and Plato, the greatest philosophers the world has ever known.
What’s sad is watching other cultures around the world now grow through the same painful progress of struggling to achieve and maintain that same dynamic balance – the bloody and violent struggle the West went through for centuries – and failing. This is why the failure to teach Western civilisation as a fundamental part of education, for our own children but especially for non-Western audiences, is so tragic. The reason is not that ‘the West is the best’ – that’s an arrogant lie. It’s that the West knows best, from bitter experience. We’ve been through these particular hells before and managed to come out wiser and stronger in spite of everything, from religious wars and famine to totalitarian ideologies and mass murder – and others need to see and learn how we did it, within their own cultural traditions and institutions.
Otherwise, the dynamic balance slips away. Enlightenment progress decays into mindless consumerism, and self-regarding narcissism, and we’ve been stuck with plenty of that, especially in the US. At the same time, the Rousseauian Romantic impulse of ‘I feel therefore I am’, and the frantic demand for absolute certainty to fill the vacuum left by the death of the old beliefs and orthodoxies, becomes rigid dogmatism and elitist arrogance, whether we’re talking about Marxism and Communism or fascism and Nazi ‘race science’. We still see plenty of that, as well, from the hysterical obsessions about climate change to the dogmatic conviction on the part of liberal elites that the desire of ordinary people to protect themselves and their families from random acts of Islamist violence as in London or Paris or Orlando, is racist and xenophobic.
The key is finding that dynamic balance between the spiritual and the material, between what we want to be and where we have to start physically on that journey. Technology offers means, not ends: it’s the ends we’re all looking for right now. That’s what the current clash between globalism and nationalism is really all about, including the election of Trump and Brexit; and the perpetual struggle between liberty and authority that David Hume used to talk about.
It’s also the focus of my newest book, 1917: Vladimir Lenin, Woodrow Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder. The new world disorder: that’s the legacy left by Wilson and Lenin and their globalist visions of the perfectability of man, which triggered both America’s entry into the First World War, and the Bolshevik Revolution. We are still sitting on the powder keg those two events set the detonator to 100 years ago.
review: In your work, you focus a lot on the role of individuals in history. Do you feel that the focus on grand historical processes, be they economic or social, has obscured the history-making role of individuals?
Herman: 1917 is certainly another of my books showing about how individuals can shape history even in defiance of material forces and blind fate, and another involving two contrasting figures to reveal two sides to history, two different paths to the future – as well as two contrasting sides of human nature. I did it with Plato and Aristotle in The Cave and the Light; with Gandhi and Churchill; with Nelson and Napoleon in To Rule The Waves….Even the individual chapters in The Idea of Decline actually pit two figures against each other: Alexis de Tocqueville, the quintessential Enlightenment man, and Charles de Gobineau, the first great prophet of the decline of the West; Nietzsche and Jacob Burckhardt; Booker T Washington and WEB Dubois; Brooks and Henry Adams; the grandfather of Nazi vitalism Ernst Haeckel and Rudolf Virchow, the spokesman for rational science whose voice and research was drowned out by the hysterical advocates of ‘race science’.
In the end, the new book on Lenin and Wilson is also about the problem in history that fascinates me most. That’s the clash between man’s universal desire for freedom and his equally universal need for order and authority, as well as his impulse to turn to tyranny as a solution when that need and that desire clash. That’s the one important lesson we can learn about the 1930s: what happens when our fear of freedom, and rejection of traditional authority, propels us all as close to the abyss as any of us ever want to get.
Arthur L Herman is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of many books, including How the Scots Invented the Modern World, (2001); The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, (2013); and, to be released later this year, 1917: Lenin, Wilson, and the Birth of the New World Disorder, published by Harper.
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