Monday, August 24, 2009

Price, Matthew. "The End Was Nigh." THE NATIONAL August 20, 2009.

The West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future: its loss of power, the climate crisis, terrorism, rogue nuclear weapons, economic collapse, the unchecked flow of immigrants across borders. Whether the calamities envisioned by today’s Cassandras will come to pass cannot be determined, but our vivid imagination for disaster has long and deep roots. Indeed, the story of the West might be seen as tale of progress married to peril. Advances in technology, governance, and standards of living have been accompanied by new anxieties and an uneasy self-consciousness about the fragility of such gains. Technology appears as wonder and horror alike, both panacea and mortal threat. We twitter blissfully away on our laptops, worrying all the while about the collapse of the electronic infrastructure on which we now depend – or the malignant ends to which it could so easily be turned. One law of civilisation might be cast as follows: Every strength needs to be opposed by a perceived existential threat. The sum of these fears – or their apotheosis – is the belief that civilisation (read: “the West”) is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress – that “It’s getting better all the time”, as Sir Paul McCartney put it. But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again – a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion. Few thinkers savaged Europe’s faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called “progress” was a mere illusion – if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: “I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity.” Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline – and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability – that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics. . . . Read the rest here:

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