Bloomsbury Continuum, 2017, 352 pp., $26
Little, Brown, 2017, 240 pp., £16.99
Economist, 2017, 272 pp., $26
A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Oswald Spengler. The writings of the great German historian, who published his two-volume Decline of the West between 1918 and 1924, are back in vogue. Spengler warned that a Western-centric worldview—and the concomitant presumption that history was a march towards modernity and progress—was not fitted to the challenges of civilizational survival. As the centenary of his work approaches, fears of internal combustion or eclipse by Asia have bubbled to the surface once more, prompting handwringing in Europe and infecting the American mind with a heavy dose of pessimism too.
Europe “has lost its way,” America “searches for its identity,” and the rise of Asia seems inexorable, explained the French philosopher and one-time associate of Che Guevara, Régis Debray, in a 2013 issue of New Left Review, and so “Spengler’s infamous coinage . . . features once again in the comment pages.” The economist David Goldman, a friend of Steve Bannon, writes in the Asia Times about the failings of globalists under the pseudonym “Spengler.” Alexander Dugin, the champion of Eurasian supremacy said to be the Kremlin’s favorite intellectual, waxes lyrical about Spengler’s wisdom, relishing his depiction of the inevitability of Western decline.
Predictably, Spengler makes an appearance in two of these three arresting books here in review, and flecks of the angst of Mitteleuropa are visible on them all. Douglas Murray, arguably the most controversial and certainly the most eloquent conservative writer in the United Kingdom today, acknowledges the standard rejection of Spenglerism—that fretting about decline is just part of the Western psyche. But he counters that the West has failed to heed Spengler’s warning about the fate that befalls civilizations when they lose their spirit and soul. Today, much of Western Europe is suffering from “an exhaustion caused by a loss of meaning,” making it weak and vulnerable to enemies and rivals. He cites another German concoction, Geschichtsmüde, to describe this feeling of being “weary of history” and opens with a powerful line from Stefan Zweig’s famous 1942 novel, The World of Yesterday to describe the current predicament: “I felt that Europe, in its state of derangement, had passed its own death sentence—our sacred home of Europe, both the cradle and Parthenon of Western civilization.”
Bill Emmott, former editor of the Economist, ponders what Spengler would think if he were transported to 2017. On the one hand, he would have things to say that have a whiff of the Alt-Right: about the inadequacy of democracy as a system of government; or the recurrent flaws in our foreign policy, from the hubris that makes us intervene abroad to the “lily-livered” weakness that means we fail to conquer in those places we do tread. On the other hand, Emmett suggests Spengler would ultimately have his eye drawn to the two major challenges most likely to bring about sunset in the West, for which we have yet to find a suitable answer: the demographic crisis caused by an ageing society; and the rapid technological advancement by which human beings spend billions of dollars daily in a concerted effort to make themselves economically obsolete.
Edward Luce, the long-time Financial Times columnist and a former speechwriter for Larry Summers during the Clinton Administration, prefers to invoke Spengler’s contemporary, Thomas Mann, who complained of those, like Spengler, who cultivated a “sympathy for the abyss.” Just because the “end of history” has proved short-lived—so Luce argues toward the end of his short and vivid book—this does not mean that we should embrace the inevitability of the “clash of civilizations” as an alternative thesis.
Yet the truth is that Luce does little to alleviate the enveloping gloom. After a compelling account of the breaking of the Western social contract—the discrediting of genuine meritocracy and the collapse of social mobility—he produces a chapter called “Fallout” that envisages a potential U.S.-China war. Thus, his narrative swings ominously from the Elephant Chart (which shows the comparative stagnation of Western middle-class incomes against the global median in the past thirty years), to the Thucydides Trap, which Luce fears President Trump is more than capable of triggering through strategic blunder or an errant tweet.
These are more than the wails of a privileged of a few. Throughout the West, fears of decay and sclerosis manifest themselves horizontally—across the political spectrum—and vertically, up and down the social hierarchy. Nearly everyone agrees that something has malfunctioned in the body politic and the economic contract. But on the diagnosis, let alone the cure, there is very little consensus. Some reach for the opioids, in the form of a political quick fix, while others prescribe a return to first principles to steady the ship of state for stormy seas ahead. Liberals act like conservatives, trying to hold on to the hard-fought gains of struggles past as electorates keep conjuring up nasty surprises, while conservatives become radicals, advocating an abrupt rupture with a complacent and flabby status quo that will lead us all to ruin if left to run its course.
Firmly in the latter camp is Murray, who adapts his title from one of the most influential British political books of the past century, George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935. One can also see the influence of Reflections on the Revolution in Europe: Immigration, Islam, and the West, Christopher Caldwell’s 2009 book that warned about the challenges to the European way of life by mass migration from the Muslim world.
But Murray is his own man. With considerable intellectual bravery, he has spent the best part of the past decade upsetting Britain’s genteel commentariat as the scourge of multi-cultural mores and its willful delusions about the causes of the growing terrorist threat. Such is the shift in mood about the question of immigration (tied up, however much one might hope to see them separated, with the politics of Islam) that he now occupies unfamiliar terrain somewhere to the right of a new center ground. The publication of his latest book is an intellectual event that his critics cannot ignore. It has spent 20 consecutive weeks in the Top Ten of the British bestseller lists, rising to number one in the non-fiction charts. In terms of its impact on the British political psyche, it is perhaps comparable to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy of 2016, which surged to the top of the American bestseller charts shortly after President Trump’s inauguration.
If Europe is dying, says Murray, it is because it is killing itself. In failing to control mass immigration while jettisoning European founding values (a combination of Judeo-Christian culture, the ancient Greeks and Romans, and the Enlightenment), Europe, he argues, has inflicted upon itself “two simultaneous concatenations from which it is now all but impossible to recover.” Never one to shirk a row, he returns to the infamous 1968 speech by Conservative shadow minister Enoch Powell, who predicted “rivers of blood” as a consequence of mass immigration. As Murray admits, Powell’s speech flunked because parts of it “made it too easy for his political opponents to attack him.” Were he around today, however, Murray wonders whether Powell might have thought that he underestimated and understated his case.
For Murray, Europe’s “existential civilizational tiredness” has deep historical roots. It can be partly explained by an indissoluble residue of guilt about past European imperialism and an exaggerated disdain for nations and nationalism as societal bonds. “The nation state,” said German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1996, “cannot solve the great problems of the 21st century.” The void left by the decline of Christian belief has created a space for the “ever-inflating language of ‘human rights’,” in which lawyers and bureaucrats become the new priesthood. The assumption that economic prosperity or equal rights were all that man desired has fed into a failure to take hostile ideologies at their word (to be explained away as grievances to be remedied, or needs to be met). The spate of terrorist attacks across Europe, seemingly on an ever-upward trajectory, are partly explicable by the botched approach that European governments have taken in trying to soft-peddle Islamist groups over the past few decades.
While the picture that Murray paints is one of incremental decline (and tough reading for many), one episode illustrates his point more than any other. This was Angela Merkel’s August 2015 unilateral declaration that all Syrian asylum-seekers were welcome in Germany—no matter which EU country they had first entered—which created a profound political rupture in Europe, encouraging a refugee flow of hundreds of thousands.
At the time, the champions of the move adopted the Obamian catch phrase Schaffen Das (“We can do this”). Noble instincts must be acknowledged. This was, in part, a conscious act of repentance for uglier episodes in the German past. But the domestic and international adulation Merkel initially received evaporated within a few months. Germany alone began to strain under the weight of new arrivals, now reaching an estimated million in number. Between April 2015 and August 2016, Merkel’s approval rating slipped from 75 to 47 percent, opening the doors for Alternative für Deutschland to improve its results in regional and then national elections. Other European states began to bite back against the decree, feeding into the narrative of a resurgent neo-nationalist Right in much of Eastern and Southern Europe. “It was not France that said come,” complained then-French Prime Minister Manuel Valls. The sight of hundreds of thousands of refugees marching through Europe acted as a backdrop in Britain’s EU referendum campaign that was seized upon opportunistically by the UK Independence Party.
Although Murray supported Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, he does not tell this story of European tribulations with any relish. His lament is more forceful for the fact that he exhibits a genuine pan-European consciousness, albeit one that will offend some cosmopolitan sensibilities. In my view, he invests too much in European high culture as the barometer for civilizational health (perhaps betraying my own less sophisticated taste for soccer over opera). But the point is that the multilingual and highly literate Murray is deeply invested in Europe’s cultural hinterland, and weaves his story through music, painting, and literature. He bemoans the “over-ripeness” of contemporary European art and its descent into the “parasitism” and the “studiedly insincere.” He speaks with bemusement of attending an academic conference in Heidelberg, once the beating heart of European intellectual life, where every word—country, nation, state—was torn down by postmodernists until nothing was left but an ambient ennui.
For Murray, the French novelist Michel Houellebecq is the most “emblematic” writer of modern Europe. His controversial novel, Submission, depicts France in 2022 under sharia law. It was published the day of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January 2015. It is a sign of the times that Emmanuel Macron recently said much the same of Houellebecq in an interview with Der Spiegel: He “is surely the novelist who best describes contemporary phobias and fears, portraying the postmodern character of our society.”
Luce and Emmott set themselves a more ambitious task in assessing the state of the West as whole—more specifically, the state of liberalism in the West. Like Murray, they believe that the Western liberal democratic system is creaking under the weight of its own contradictions and that its greatest enemy is from within. Unlike Murray, they see this as coming from a surge in populism that threatens to pollute the liberal ideal. Although they acknowledge the structural inequities that have fed this political rebellion against established elites, fear of Trump looms large in both their books. Both cite Fareed Zakaria’s warnings about the rise of “illiberal democracy”; and, with their eyes trained firmly on the White House, both invoke Jefferson’s mantra that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance.”
As an Oxford graduate, former Clinton Administration speechwriter, and long-time journalist for the Financial Times, one might expect Luce to be soaked through to his core with a certain worldview. It is to his great credit that he begins his book with a refreshingly honest and good humored self-critique. Journalists, he writes, have a habit of flattering themselves that they are writing the first draft of history and “have an annoying habit of designating what we failed to predict as serenely inevitable in hindsight.”
From his undergraduate days around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) in Oxford—the degree of choice of Britain’s governing elites—Luce describes how he was inculcated with a “conceit about the primacy of Western thought.” A teleological belief in “Progress” remains the closest thing to a shared religion in the West. For that reason, there are many who are in denial about the alternative world opening up before them. Luce unleashes an unexpectedly fierce critique of “Davos Man,” a species first identified by Samuel Huntingdon in 2004. The annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Switzerland includes “the world’s wealthiest recyclers of conventional wisdom—and consistently one of the last places to anticipate what is going to happen next.” This will be hard reading in a place where the Financial Times is the newspaper of choice.
Luce is surely right in observing that the West’s “souring mood is about the psychology of dashed expectations rather than the decline in material comforts.” At the same time, however, the metrics also make for uncomfortable reading. The West’s middle-income problem is “real and deepening,” caused above all by economic plateau and then stagnation. For the past century and a half at least, the concept of modernity was an inherently Western one. The presumption, seemingly proved over the longue durée, was that liberalization of an economic system would be accompanied by the arrival of an open society. The rise of Asia—more specifically, China—is so unsettling precisely because it seems to outline an alternative path to prosperity and modernity.
Since the start of the 21st century, 25 democracies have failed around the world. Luce recounts a conversation with Francis Fukuyama about this worrying state of affairs, who wonders “whether this is market correction in democracy; or a global depression.” At some point in 2008, too, the so-called Washington Consensus suffered a mortal blow. In the West, it is the “left behind” or the “precariat,” the squeezed middle classes, who are leading the revolt. Suddenly, armies of pollsters, manifesto writers, and concerned think tankers try to understand their plight. Yet the disruptive economy and its pillaging effect on the West’s blue-collar workforce was regarded as a rather arcane subject until last year—that is, until a handful of crucial swing districts in Rustbelt America turned red in 2016, and more than a third of the British Labour Party’s core vote (more than half in former manufacturing and shipbuilding towns in the north of England) plumped for Brexit. Take that.
What is to be done? Luce is careful not to lay all at the door of Trump or Brexit. In keeping with the new mood, he pleads for a better understanding of those who voted for both. Reaching for another gem of German culture, Bertold Brecht, he is aware of the hypocrisy of elites who long “for the government to dissolve the people and elect another.” Perhaps inevitably, however, his prognosis becomes increasingly Trump-centric as it reaches its crescendo. Trump and the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage—who has, it is worth noting, never been elected to parliament in the UK after countless attempts—become the pantomime villains, “arsonists in charge of the fire brigade.” The Art of the Deal, we are told as the analysis slightly runs out of puff, is no match for The Art of War. We are asked to consider what Trump would do if he took a “magic pill” that gave him knowledge. The answer, of course, is exactly the opposite of what he has done so far. The author notes that sales of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Hannah Arendt shot up in the wake of Trump’s victory. But this tells us more about the people buying these books than it does about Trump himself or his movement.
Bill Emmott is sensitive to the idea that every Davos Man was caught with his trousers down in 2016. On the contrary, in a recent letter to the London Review of Books, he claims to have seen the portents of danger before most. He is the chair of an organization called wakeupfoundation.eu, an “educational charity that aims to raise public awareness of the dangerous trends currently under way in Western societies.” His primary concern, the theme of his book, is to preserve “openness,” which he believes is the foundation of political and economic success in the West, and to guard against the “tribalism” that has been belched forth into the current political debate from an atavistic past. Once again, the ogre-like figure of Trump is the perfect symbol of what has gone wrong.
Unlike many highbrow European commentators, Emmott does not lick his lips at America’s troubles. He is under no illusion about the fact that the health of the United States is what matters more than anything else to the functioning of the West. He quotes Leonard Cohen’s memorable line, “You’re not going to like what comes after America.” Yet given the urgency of tone he adopts about the “fate of the West,” what he prescribes is rather milky. His answer to the fundamental questioning of the existing social contract is technocratic tinkering at its edges. In the manner of a traditional liberal, his answer to economic inequality is greater equality of legal rights in the labor market. Likewise, the response to the collapse of faith in the financial system after 2008 is anti-trust regulation. For record disapproval ratings for Congress, we need campaign finance reform. In Britain, trotting out an old idea, it is time to jettison the “first-past-the-post” electoral system, which maintains the two-party system, to ensure “equality of voice.” And it is hard to sustain his argument that the weakness of Thatcherism was that it led to an “inequality of political rights and voice.” Whether it was justified or not, as the price of modernizing a failing British economy, Thatcherism sank whole industries and left gaping holes in regions of the country that have yet to recover.
As for rescuing the European project, Emmott endorses the Macron approach (an end to austerity) over the more fiscally cautious strategy of Angela Merkel. He prescribes not “more Europe” but more “collaboration” between its national states. Should all these levers be pulled in short succession, he believes an opportunity awaits to “set America straight again,” along with the rest of the West. While his optimism is welcome, this seems akin to fighting a new war with old weapons. Such exercises in soul-searching are much needed. But one suspects Spengler would have thought that something of the soul is still missing.