Some literary works are better known for their titles than contents. Just think of The Age of Anxiety, a long poem by W.H. Auden. It can be used to describe practically every generation, from baby boomers to Generations X, Y and Z. But I don’t personally know anyone who actually read it. Then there is The Decline of the West, by Oswald Spengler.
With a title like that, you can be sure people will be forever citing it even if they haven’t read a word. But I do know a few people who have read it, or some of it, including the ex-chairman of a major company in Hong Kong.
It’s said to be the favourite book of the influential right-wing British philosopher Roger Scruton, who died in January. Businesspeople tend to be on the right, or right of centre, and the book generally appeals to those on the right just like Marx does on the left.
Published in two volumes in 1918 and 1922, it has never been out of print. People in desperate times or from societies in turmoil, especially in the West, will always refer to it. The first volume was released as the imperial German army collapsed, leading to defeat and the subsequent German revolution.
The second came out at the height of hyperinflation during the Weimar period, whose traumas have had a profound effect on Germans, even today. In his memoir Inside the Third Reich, about his relationship with Hitler, Albert Speer remembered how The Decline of the West made a deep impression on him as a young man and that it was the bible of university students of his generation, many of whom ended up joining the Nazis.
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If you had lived in those times, Western civilisation must seem to have been collapsing. Today, after the global financial crisis, and with the collapse of the liberal-political consensus, with the retreat of globalisation, the ongoing unprecedented global pandemic and the rise of the Chinese bogeyman, the West again must feel like it’s under assault.
Google the book in the news section and hundreds of entries appear, many in recent months, in major publications such as the Financial Times, The Globe and Mail, The Diplomat and The Nation.
“I’ve been brooding over Spengler’s prophecy lately, because science, I fear, has entered its decadent phase. Signs of decline abound,” a columnist and scientist wrote in Scientific American.
However, Spengler has a particular appeal to right-wing populists in Western countries. That may itself be a sign of decline and fall.
Spengler’s most famous claim is that every significant culture – what we would now call civilisation – has to go through the cycle of youth, growth, maturity and decay; and that the West is in terminal decline.
This meta-historical narrative – whether right, wrong or just meaningless – fits well with right-wing ideologies – from Nazism and fascism of the last century to the contemporary white supremacy of skinheads and “white nation” gun nuts, and the more serious populist intellectuals and politicians in Europe and the United States.
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For some in the movement, the very existence of the white race is being threatened by immigrants and foreigners, with the full complicity and cooperation of liberal governments.
This is sometimes called the Great Replacement or “genocide by substitution”. For the disappearing traditional white middle-class, their interests are being ignored or undermined by “liberal” politicians. It’s sometimes called the “browning” of America.
If you think such opinions are only on the fringe, think again. Just look at who has been sitting in the White House in the past four years. You will also find top intellectuals writing sympathetically about such “white” concerns.
In Who Are We?: The Challenges to America’s National Identity, the late Samuel Huntington, best known for his “clash of civilisations” thesis, warns America’s identity is being threatened by large-scale Latino immigration and Islamic groups.
To remedy, he advocates imposing the English language and Protestant culture on immigrants and their children. In short, make them WASP, as in White Anglo-Saxon Protestant!
An interesting book has just come out: Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy. You would not be surprised if the first thinker the book profiles is none other than Spengler himself. The book’s general thesis is that the political mainstream in the West today has shifted significantly to the right and that the Western liberal orthodoxy has been broken or is breaking down.
Another meta-historian, Arnold Toynbee, has concluded in his multivolume masterwork, A Study of History, that civilisations typically wither and die rather than be murdered. On this point, Toynbee and Spengler agree.
Right-wingers, by and large, only get the first part of Spengler’s message, which is that the West is under threat and in decline, but not the second part. It is that decline, or what he calls decadence, is inevitable and internal to the logic of a culture’s rise and fall. You can blame immigrants, foreigners, the Chinese, Russians and Iranians all you want. But the rot spreads from the inside.