An apocalyptic vibe seems to have settled over the West. Signs and portents abound: The Covid plague and the Russo-Ukrainian War have unleashed two of the Four Horses of Revelations. For those not terminally “woke,” gaudy transexuals performing for prepubescent school-children, and credentialed medical doctors poisoning and mutilating healthy children and young people bespeak the moral idiocy that typically marks civilizational collapse. A self-created energy crisis threatens to turn off the heat and lights and all the other amenities of modern civilization. And cities rife with murder, daylight plundering of stores with impunity, junkies shooting up near schools, excrement polluting the sidewalks, and the mentally disturbed roaming streets and subways summon up images redolent of rough beasts whose time has come round at last.
What we’re really talking about is that staple of historiographical pessimism, what in 1918 Oswald Spengler called the Decline of the West. Since then many moments of Western decline have come and gone. But is this time different? Are we finally facing the end of the most sophisticated, wealthy, and powerful civilization in history?
Our geopolitical rivals certainly think so. Putin’s Russia, Xi’s China, and Khamenei’s Iran watch our cultural degradation, hedonistic lives, intolerance for physical and psychic discomfort, obsession with even low risk, and dwindling faith, and calculate that we no longer have the nerve or convictions to maintain our global dominance, and can be pushed aside for new, autocratic Axis Powers that will be the global hegemons.
To this geopolitical triumvirate, the Western “new world order” postwar paradigm comprising democracy, rule by law, free-market economies, political accountability, human rights, equality of the sexes and sexual preferences, confessional tolerance, and the separation of church and state is played out. Now other, more autocratic traditions marginalized by the arrogant West will be better stewards of the global community.
And why shouldn’t they think we are declining, when for decades many of our own cultural, intellectual, and political elites and institutions have turned against those defining goods?
They have banished faith from the public square; redefined marriage, sexuality, and the two sexes themselves; polluted our schools and universities with illiberal doctrines and intellectual higher nonsense; opened our southern border to millions of unvetted illegal aliens and tons of lethal drugs; assaulted and defaced, literally and figuratively, our history, monuments, and national heroes; denigrated patriotism and embraced a utopian globalism; and replaced our national and civilizational sagas with narratives of racism, sexism, xenophobia, oppression, conquest, and other collective sins for which we should feel nothing but guilt and shame.
Why, then, wouldn’t our rivals take our cognitive elites at their word and strive to dismantle and replace this toxic civilization that for more than half a millennium has tyrannized the world, befouled the earth, and plundered its resources? Haven’t our own environmentalists for decades been preaching prophecies of climate doom brought on by Western technology, consumerism, and capitalism that have ravaged the natural world and brutalized its peoples? Aren’t our green catastrophists now demanding that the West pay multiple billions in reparations to those victims in the developing world? Haven’t our wealth, leisure, comfort, and security come at their expense?
This new axis of enemies can see that we have already been doing their work for them. We have become propagandists against our own civilization, fifth-columnists undermining our institutions of learning with self-loathing curricula devoid of basic skills; our militaries with self-hating racist dogma and transsexual pseudo-science; and our economy with cronyism, rent-seeking, and unsustainable debt.
Worst of all, the United States––the alpha power that for 77 years has defended the West, brought down its nuclear-armed rival, and led our allies in developing new transformative technologies, and widely distributing wealth––now has infected Europe with our lunatic cultural fads, and endangered its economies by driving the world’s largest economy to bankruptcy with our metastasizing debt and trillions of dollar in unfunded liabilities.
Worse, many of us are relentlessly dismantling and trying to replace with a technocratic despotism the Constitution that for more than two centuries has allowed us enough stability, freedom, and protection from tyranny to make this power and wealth possible.
Such catalogues of decline typically are accompanied by explanations of why. As far back as ancient Athens, the corruption of the citizenry’s character by wealth and leisure has explained the erosion of civic virtue like courage, service, and duty that brings on decline and defeat.
For example, in the direct democracy of ancient Athens, citizens could vote to spend public money on themselves through state subsidies and stipends. According to the historian Theopompus, this redistribution of money made 4th century B.C. Athenians “less courageous and more lax.” Rather than spending money on the military to check the ambitions of Phillip II, “the Athenian people thoroughly squandered their state revenues. . . . The young men dallied over prostitutes in the little flute-girl establishments, men slightly older than they over drinking, dice and similar debauchery, and the entire citizenry spent more on public festivals and sacrifices than on the management of the war” with Phillip. The sorry end came in 338 B.C. at the battle of Chaeronea, where Phillip’s victory ended Athenian political freedom and autonomy.
Over the centuries this dynamic has been blamed for a state’s decline. Wealth and leisure, along with the power of the citizens to redistribute money to themselves, become a toxic brew that weakens character. It also fosters short-term, selfish thinking that prefers enjoying today’s pleasures to preparing for tomorrow’s dangers––a bad habit endemic to democracies. Free citizens who vote in regularly scheduled elections that hold politicians accountable, encourage such thinking.
That’s why our crisis of unfunded liabilities in the big-three entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, has been neglected even as year-by-year bankruptcy moves closer and closer. And why our military budgets lack the resources and attention needed to check the aggression of our global rivals.
And don’t think China, Iran, and Russia haven’t noticed. Their economic and autocratic dysfunctions in the long-term may likely be unsustainable, but that doesn’t mean that for now these powers aren’t dangerous. Moreover, our various cultural and fiscal problems, which for decades millions of free citizens have indirectly chosen and continue to support, are part of the autocrats’ arguments against liberal democracy and political freedom, and for an even more powerful and controlling government that sacrifices unalienable rights for greater efficiency––a tempting bargain, as our own progressives and many corporations demonstrate with their admiration for China.
Another standard cause of civilizational decline is the abandonment of religion, and a mentality “that would like to see God eradicated once and for all from the public life of humanity and shut up in the subjective sphere of cultural residues from the past,” as the late Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI put it.
But without a transcendent authority to buttress our virtues, principles, and rights given not by other flawed men, but by “nature and nature’s God,” as our Declaration of Independence put it, our defining principles, morals, and laws are cast adrift. Especially in an open and free society, every ideal, good, virtue, or principle becomes negotiable and relativistic, mere subjective preferences and tastes for which most people are not likely to fight, kill, and die.
The central importance of religion is the argument of Russia and Iran, who contrast their regimes–– founded, whether sincerely or cynically, on faith and religious observance––with the Christophobic West. The perceived heathenism of America and Europe has been a constant theme both in jihadist exhortations, and in Vladimir Putin’s sermons and rationalizations for his brutal invasion of Ukraine.
Again, these assertions may be pretexts perfuming more earthly or venal motive. But the point is not whether they are true, but whether they are effective at marshalling support and strengthening morale for the aggression. Meanwhile, the West’s circulation of sordid images and preposterous cultural fads like transsexualism only make our rivals’ claims about our lack of faith and moral corruption more plausible.
All this doesn’t mean decline is inevitable. Our Constitutional order may have its weaknesses that give scope to the frailties and selfishness of human nature, but its enumerated, unalienable rights and its guarantee of political freedom and equality have not, despite the near-century of effort by progressive technocrats, been cast aside. At least not yet.
If we are living in the end of days, and if decline will be our destiny, it will be we free American people who make that choice.