On Decline by Andrew Potter (book review)

Do you think we’re* in “decline”. This book argues that we are. Basically, economic stagnation breeds zero sum (your gain is my loss) thinking, playing into political tribalism which inhibits reason. All this taking place in a media environment (social media, smartphones and everything else designed as “casinos”) intended to short-circuit critical thought. That’s the overall argument. It’s heavy on “the enlightenment” and lacks for political and social context. That said, I was well prepared to dismiss the book but it kinda won me over. The basics of the analysis are true even if much is true in addition.

More content not saying I agree or disagree: we’re lucky to live in the current day rich world where “survival” isn’t a concern but… status seeking has replaced survival resulting in absurd behaviours and beliefs detached from practical reality. This can be generalized to the level of countries (for ex. Canada’s mismanagement of Covid-19 is papered over by how rich we are). The political right is the new counterculture** (flouting rules and conformity) while the left imposes new social rules. Smartphones and social media are genuinely more bad than good. “Democracy, technology and progress” once aligned but we’re out of “low hanging fruit”. Decline is not a matter of apocalypse but rather many different smaller problems amounting to one giant slow moving disaster.

*Who comprises the “we” anyway? Always a fun and uncontroversial question.

**His point is that the whole concept of “counterculture” is stupid though.

Jacques Barzun on historical trajectory

“…what is history in itself, the vast profusion of events tending now this way, now that? Is there in it a meaning to be read, a goal to be foreseen? And whether there is or not, how are we to explain the emergence and dissolution of ‘civilization’ or of any given civilization?

These are deep questions. Many good minds have tried to solve the riddle of the rise and fall of empires, and the answers vary widely: soil exhaustion, inferior weapons, low morals, mosquitoes and malaria—take your choice. Some observers, like Vico in the 18th Century, Nietzsche in the 19th, and Spengler and Toynbee in our time, have seen in the total record a cyclical movement, but they have not agreed as to its pattern. Others, such as the Biblical prophets, Saint Augustine, Hegel and Karl Marx discerned a linear progress, but they disagree about its direction: toward the end of the world, or perfect freedom under government, or perfect justice without the need for government.”

Jacques Barzun on “envy and self-justification” way before social media (1969)

“If we could take an objective look at the amount of talk in our society which amounts merely to self-praise, we would be appalled. It begins with individuals and goes on to institutions, to colleges and universities particularly. Every little group, every momentary or permanent establishment, feels the need to continually say what good work it is doing and to show other groups (which scarcely pay attention) that they are indispensable to the welfare of the whole.

The combination of envy and self-justification have dire consequences. It leads first to what might be called a biased self-analysis. What am I doing here? Why am I doing it? Have I done more in the first six months of this year than the first six months of the year before? How is that other outfit doing? These questions generate a self-consciousness which is just as bad as the intolerable shyness of an adolescent standing on one foot and now on the other, putting his fingers in his mouth and not knowing whether he wants to be there or underground.

Self-consciousness, in turn, is at the root of our alienation -the knowledge that reality has withdrawn, for the obvious reason that we are always thinking about ourselves, our place in the room, our place in the world or in the whole line of endeavor that we happen to pursue. We are not living, we are spectators at our life. Notice how it comes out in our talk, in the self-depreciation that matches and becomes as bad and automatic as the self-praise. The two are the two halves of what would be a real life lived.”

Fritz Stern on “liberalism” as understood by the Germanic Ideology and the Conservative Revolution

The Germanic Ideology on liberalism

“Above all, these men loathed liberalism, Lagarde and Moeller saw in liberalism the cause and the incarnation of all evil. It may seem curious that they should have fastened on liberalism, the one political force in Germany that perpetually lost. To understand why they did this leads us to the core of their thought. They attacked liberalism because it seemed to them the principal premise of modern society; everything they dreaded seemed to spring from it: the bourgeois life, Manchesterism, materialism, parliament and the parties, the lack of political leadership. Even more, they sensed in liberalism the source of all their inner sufferings. Theirs was a resentment of loneliness; their one desire was for a new faith, a new community of believers, a world with fixed standards and no doubts, a new national religion that would bind all Germans together. All this, liberalism denied. Hence, they hated liberalism, blamed it for making outcasts of them, for uprooting them from their imaginary past, and from their faith.”

The Conservative Revolution on liberalism

“The chief target of the conservative revolutionaries, however, was liberalism. All the vast and undesirable changes in the lives and feelings of Western man they blamed on liberalism. They sensed that liberalism was the spiritual and political basis of modernity and they sought to equate liberalism with Manchesterism, with the disregard of man’s spiritual aspirations, with the acceptance of economic selfishness and exploitation, with the embourgeoisment of life and morals. They ignored -or maligned- the ideal aspirations of liberalism, its dedication to freedom, the hospitality to science, the rational, humane, tolerant view of man. For what they loosely called liberalism constituted little less than the culmination of the secular, moral tradition of the West.

That liberalism was much more than an economic or political philosophy has been recognized for a long time. In the 1860’s already, Cardinal Newman said of liberalism: “It is scarcely now a party; it is the educated lay world . . . it is nothing else than that deep, plausible scepticism, which I spoke about as being the development of human reason, as practically exercised by the natural man.” Nearly a centruy later, Lionel Trilling said of America that liberalism was our “sole intellectual tradition.” It was liberalism in this larger sense that the conservative revolution fought, and by doing so, it could most easily make the leap from cultural to political criticism.”

David Broder on Italy’s decline

“In Gallino’s terms, the loss of collective hope -the belief that common actions can have a real bearing on political and economic decisions- has given rise to individual and atomised responses, characterised by disillusionment and despair. These have been the sentiments mobilised by both the Five Star Movement and the Lega, in turn planting their flags in former heartlands of the Left. The socialists used to speak of the ‘sun of the future’, the promise of tomorrow -a vision hard to imagine in the current climate. Deprived of a party of their own, the atomised masses have broken up into disempowered fragments, capable of sporadic signs of discontent but not to carry forth an alternative set of values, a vision of regeneration, a community built on collective pride. Italy does, indeed, have social conflict, but it is a war being fought from above, dismantling and disaggregating the historic conquests of the labour movement and driving an ever-harsher climate of resentment, division and disdain for the public sphere.”