There’s an evergreen appeal to books about the world going to hell. There might be better or worse times to tell a story about civilization falling apart – the ‘30s and ‘70s were ripe for it; the ‘60s and ‘90s not so much. We’re in one of those doomsaying boom times again.
I think of Oswald Spengler publishing his ground-breaking feel-bad chart-topper The Decline of the West in 1918, just when no one would deny that things had gone very wrong and were likely going to get worse. He must have smiled tightly to himself as he anticipated the public reacting to his assertion that “we have to reckon with the hard cold facts of a late life, to which the parallel is to be found not in Pericles’ Athens but in Caesar’s Rome.”
“Of great painting or great music there can no longer be, for Western people, any question,” Spengler wrote. “Their architectural possibilities have been exhausted these hundred years. Only extensive possibilities are left to them. Yet, for a sound and vigorous generation that is filled with unlimited hopes, I fail to see that it is any disadvantage to discover betimes that some these hopes must come to nothing.”
When former journalist and columnist Andrew Potter published On Decline in 2021, he must have had a similar sensation. His book isn’t as authoritative or ponderous as Spengler’s – it’s a modest chapbook of just 119 pages compared to Spengler’s two-volume tome – but he strikes a similar dismal gong when, surveying a hobbled, fractured world in the second year of the pandemic, he writes that “no one can honestly claim to be surprised.”
The pandemic came out of nowhere (though Potter insists that “serious people” like Bill Gates had warned us), “but more generally can anyone really claim to be caught off guard by the dystopian condition into which we have stumbled?” Potter wrote, “It’s time we accepted that we’re in a state of decline.”
The problem, looked at one way, was heightened expectation and disappointment: the future had over-promised and under-delivered. Perhaps not everyone thinks we’re in terminal decline (thank God for the optimists) but it’s hard to deny an overwhelming feeling that the world is stagnating.
Potter quotes economist Tyler Cowen who wrote about “The Great Stagnation” in another short book published in 2011, where he said that we were innovating and progressing more slowly thanks to the rapid rate of technological and economic progress starting roughly during the 18th century and the “age of Reason.”
Once the social and political conditions lined up with our ability to innovate, we essentially went through the “low-hanging fruit” that had been just out of our reach for thousands of years. Further innovation will require greater investment in the pursuit of breakthroughs that will arrive less frequently.
For people with living memories of the postwar economic boom – an anomaly, unlikely to be repeated any time soon, though it took a long time to understand this – the return of the economic cycle of boom and bust, inflation, the flattening or loss of earning potential and increasing class disparity has created the feeling that we’re living in the ruins of a once-great civilization. “Our mistake was believing that the world had figured things out in a way that was more or less stable and permanent,” as Potter puts it, and then even more succinctly: “We didn’t climb a ladder, we stumbled into a buffet.”
But Potter goes on to elaborate on how, technology and economics aside, “the causes of the Great Stagnation are fundamentally political and cultural – and those forces holding back progress are getting more entrenched, not less.”
Our politics has become a problem, with preservation of the status quo becoming a priority regardless of which party is in office, thanks to hypertrophied bureaucracy and regulation. As Potter says “it’s like we stumbled out of the desert into a great buffet, ate all the food, and then spent the next 40 years tying the chefs up with ever-more stringent rules over what they could cook, under what conditions, and who they could serve it to.”
And politics has become confusing for anyone who grew up with the old rules that defined political orthodoxy in the last century. Liberalism and the political left were once understood to be a place of rebellion against authority, but there has been a reversal in political polarities that Potter calls “unexpected,” with “the right setting itself up as the true countercultural opposition to the left’s restrictiveness and enforced conformity.”
Even more confusing is the fight over what Liberalism is, with one side using the word to define the ongoing Progressive project, tasked with eliminating inequality and fighting systemic privilege, while the other considers it another term for the pursuit of personal liberty, limited government, and the free market. Once again, we’re using the same words while professing completely different meanings.
The issue is that the West – and if we’re completely honest this is an issue that applies almost entirely to the developed “First World” – has reached a point of comfort and plenty unimaginable just a few generations ago, and the stuff of fantasy at the turn of the 19th century. It’s a place where, as Potter writes, “status has replaced survival as our dominant social imperative,” and our online lives have made this possible.
Life online and the urge to share our first, least considered thoughts have given rise to status opinions – slogans more than beliefs that, once shared, don’t need to be examined or even actualized in real life. They act as a signifier of our social and political virtue and, deployed in anger, a virtual cudgel to use against perceived transgressors against the shared signifiers that have taken the place of what once created bonds in the real world – things like geography, shared experience and family.
There’s insight to be found in Potter’s book, but also little tells that come from the author’s background in journalism – the use of phrases like “weaponized free speech” and the assumption that belief in “fake news” is unique to the political and cultural right.
Potter is also given to invoking “climate change” as one of the imminent threats working against us and speeding us along the decline. I have to admit that every time a writer uses the phrase, my sympathy for their argument, no matter how well presented, diminishes.
I have a lot of sympathy for the idea that technological stagnation, economic crisis, polarizing political rhetoric, a grasping political class preoccupied with self-interest and growing social disunity are real problems, but doubt that weather is one of them. It’s one thing to worry about air and water quality and depleting resources (though we’ve predicted resource exhaustion many times in my lifetime, decades littered with unrealized end times); it’s another to imagine the sea, earth and air rising against us like embodiments of wrathful pagan gods.
But maybe our eagerness to do this is another sign of decline.
He also conflates belief that “God is three persons but also one person” with claiming that “the Democratic Party ran a child sex ring out of a Washington pizzeria.” I’m sure this would get a big laugh out of the right audience but betrays a lack of serious understanding of centuries of theology – the polite liberal equivalent of evangelical Protestants asking Catholics why they “worship statues.”
He hits on a profound truth, though, when he writes that “the barbarians aren’t at the gates. They’re in our heads.” This becomes a problem when the gulf between what we believe and what we know becomes wider – and especially when an excess of information is undermined by loss of trust in institutions or faith in our ability to discern. We are richer and fatter and longer-lived than ever before, but the suspicion that we didn’t earn it makes us certain that it can’t last – that we don’t deserve the world.