How the West Was Lost
By Ben Ryan Hurst & Company, 192pp, £20/$19.50
The decline of Western civilisation has been a persistent topic of discussion and rumination ever since the First World War. It was this global upheaval which proved such a profound shock to Europe and America’s collective mindset, shattering the peaceful and prosperous Victorian consensus. Oswald Spengler’s landmark book The Decline of the West (1922) was to herald the shape of things to come.
If the 1950s marked a brief respite, the themes of decline and decay saw a revival in the 1970s (by which time Britain had descended into actual crisis), when these themes started to become common currency in the United States. Donald Trump’s current exhortation to “make America great again” indicates that the narrative of degeneration still persists. And to read French newspapers and magazines, you will notice that our cross-channel neighbours are positively haunted by the notion that France is heading towards oblivion.
The European Union’s woes are central to Ben Ryan’s book, How the West Was Lost. The EU, many suspect, is also in decline. While it seemed to have dodged a bullet in the middle of this decade, when financial problems in the southern part of the continent looked set to bring down the euro, the union’s future is far from secure. Civic strife in France grows worse with each passing month, while the emergence of populist parties in Germany, Italy, Spain and Hungary suggest that the road ahead will be rocky.
Our culture is in decline because we have forsaken the values of solidarity, community, subsidiarity and universalism – secularised imperatives derived from Christian morality. But we rarely seek solutions in morality these days. Either we ask the state to solve things (as the Left do) or the free market (as the Right do). The leitmotiv in Ryan’s work is the plea to (re)instil a collective notion of solidarity, a value just as important as liberty and equality.
The erosion of humane and humanistic values is no more evident than in the moral degeneration of the EU. It was founded for the most part by Christian Democrats, whose faith and politics were intertwined, based on secularised Christian values of equality and solidarity. Early treaties spoke of the commitment to “the equalisation and improvement of the living conditions of workers in [the coal and steel] industries”. Back then, Ryan says, “when it came to the European project’s founding value of solidarity, economics was a tool towards a higher, moral and political end, not the other way round.”
Today, the EU has foregone morality.
The dreadful punishment of ordinary Greeks, all in the name of breaking EU rules, is a case in point. Where was the subsidiarity or the humanity there? The EU has no vision and no ideology any more – beyond market-worship, statist diktats, obedience to fiscal dogmas and slavish adherence to the doctrine of freedom of movement.
It is this lack of vision that was responsible for the Brexit vote, Ryan says. While Leavers appealed to “independence” and “taking back control”, the best the Remainers could do was talk economics and mobile phone roaming charges.
The EU’s lack of values or appeals to humanity is symptomatic of the West’s decline, suggests Ryan. “The EU has lost the ability to articulate a moral endpoint that resonates with its citizens … [T]he economic means of the 1950s have become the political ends of the 2010s.”
Although a book which places itself between – or above – Left and Right, implicitly calling for a humane centrist way, wouldn’t normally stimulate the cerebral juices, Ryan has written a brilliant, comprehensive account of our civilisation’s present discontents. It frames current tropes such as populism, isolationism, anti-immigration sentiment, revolts against “the elites”, illiberal “woke” politics and the mistrust between generations as symptomatic of a lack of common values and solidarity. The state, which compels rather than beseeches us to “share” is no solution. Neither is libertarian, free-market fundamentalism, which paradoxically only diminishes people’s faith in capitalism. Excess individualism and casino capitalism generates only alienation, mistrust, inequality and defensiveness.
Ryan’s solutions for the decline of the West, such as finding common purpose in environmentalism and campaigning for workers’ rights, are less persuasive. More crucially, in his call for solidarity and for “a hard, concrete, and deep-felt sense of collective responsibility”, he glosses over the difficult matter of multiculturalism. Sociological studies suggest that people may be more likely to display solidarity and share with people who are like them, holding the same beliefs and speaking the same language.
This is perhaps why welfare states work in ethnically homogeneous countries such as Finland, and why a welfare state has never emerged in the United States.
While Ryan’s prescriptions for our current woes fall somewhat flat, his diagnosis is spot-on. For a book on political science, How the West Was Lost is a rare page-turner.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)