- [t]he idea of decline consists of two distinct traditions. For every Western intellectual who dreads the collapse of his own society (like Henry Adams or Arnold Toynbee or Paul Kennedy or Charles Murray), there is another who has looked forward to the event with glee.
- —Arthur Herman, The Idea of Decline in Western History
In 1997, Arthur Herman published The Idea of Decline in Western History, a book that examines the role doomsayers have played in promoting ideologies that reject the core Western values of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. His analytical framework strikes me as relevant in the current environment.
Herman focuses on thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries, and he tries to divide the pessimists into two camps. Historical pessimists see society heading downhill. Cultural pessimists look forward to its demise. This distinction reminds me of the anthem of the 1980s band REM, “It’s the End of the World as We Know it (and I Feel Fine).” The cultural pessimist breaks with the historical pessimist by adding the parenthetical remark.
- The historical pessimist sees the present as systematically undoing the achievements of a creative and ordered past. Institutions that used to be in harmonious balance are now out of sync, and social development becomes chaotic and destructive… Unless the system somehow repairs itself, the historical pessimist concludes, its breakdown is virtually preordained.
- Cultural pessimism insists that the ordinary, normal course of civil society on the Western model, as a capitalist or “commercial” society, resting on rational and scientific principles, democratic political institutions, and self-consciously “modern” cultural and social attitudes, awaits its own secular apocalypse.
- … the cultural pessimist assures us that when our corrupt modern society has finally ruined itself and vanishes, something better will replace it. This new order, however, will not be primarily economic or political; it will involve instead the demolition of Western culture as a totality.
Herman takes us on an extensive tour of pessimistic thought in the 19th and 20th centuries. He provides descriptions of Arthur de Gobineau (a mid-19th century French proponent of racial theories), Friedrich Nietzsche, W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Spengler, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Toynbee, and Herbert Marcuse, among many others. It struck me that because these disparate thinkers did not anticipate Herman’s distinction between historical and cultural pessimism, he sometimes has to strain to classify someone as falling on one side or the other.
Herman dwells on
- the conflict between culture and civilization, or Kultur and Zivilisation… which was so important and so dear to the German academic tradition.
- … Zivilization was the world of politeness and sophistication, but also of commerce and urban society. It was constantly changing, materialistic, and even superficial… Kultur, by contrast, was permanent and spiritual.
- … But Kultur could also be used in the anthropological sense, to signify the artistic, literary, and material heritage of an historical people.
Many cultural pessimists seized on this distinction to articulate what was wrong with Western modernity. The cultural pessimist claims that whatever material prosperity our society has produced, it has dulled the individual spirit and stifled the collective soul.
“I am concerned that today’s cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the principle of free speech and willing to use mob bullying against those with whom they disagree.”
Herman’s description of cultural pessimism emphasizes its dangers. Cultural pessimists reject nonviolence and democracy, so that they provided intellectual justification for both Nazi and Soviet tyranny. I am concerned that today’s cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the principle of free speech and willing to use mob bullying against those with whom they disagree.
Currently, historical pessimism might be represented by Tyler Cowen (The Great Stagnation), Peter Turchin (Ages of Discord), Ross Douthat (The Decadent Society), Martin Gurri (The Revolt of the Public), or Yuval Levin (A Time to Build). These authors see signs of decline in slow productivity growth and the inability of elites to solve problems posed by new technology and cultural change. But they fear nihilistic destruction and instead prefer reform.
Cultural pessimism might be represented today by Nikole Hannah-Jones (originator of The 1619 Project in the New York Times that portrays the United States as founded to pursue slavery), Greta Thunberg (young climate activist), or Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (politicians advocating for socialism). These public figures see fundamental sin in America’s democracy, technology, and economic system.
Today one can find eloquent defenses of Western values. Examples include Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now), and Deirdre McCloskey (Why Liberalism Works). But their arguments seem to fall on deaf ears among cultural pessimists.
The relentless ferocity of contemporary cultural pessimism has me concerned. I hope young people do not get swept up in the religious fervor that sees sin in everything that Western values have touched.