From time to time, people get worried and ask one another: ‘Is the world falling apart?’ I imagine this is a universal phenomenon, but my experience of it is largely confined to the West (here meant more as a cultural than a geographical expression). It happened in the 1930s, when the broadly correct answer to the question was ‘Yes’, and in the 1970s, of which more later. It happened more recently, after 11 September 2001 and during the financial crash of 2008/09. Some asked the question after Brexit. I have heard it asked again by many highly disparate people in the few days since the American-led Nato scuttle from Afghanistan. What is the answer?
My own first encounter with these gloomy discussions was in the 1970s. The political and economic background was a Cold War in which the West seemed enfeebled, the oil-price shock, inflation, the US retreat from Vietnam and — though it passed ignorant teenage me by at the time — the end of Bretton Woods. At the close of the decade, the Iranian revolution was added to the woes. In Britain, the background included endless strikes. When I first began to read this paper as an undergraduate in the late 1970s, Christopher Booker was prominent in its pages with his Jungian analyses of the collapse of civilisation and his invocation of pessimistic sages such as Solzhenitsyn. Auberon Waugh, though temperamentally averse to apocalyptic Bookerism, shared the theory of decline and his comic genius delighted in it. When writing about British workers, he always put the second word in inverted commas, insisting he would never buy shares in any business dependent on their efforts. He boasted of filling his large cellars with wine instead.
In the 1980s, declinism faded. Reagan, Thatcher and Nato allies installed cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe without nuclear conflagration. The Soviet Union began to fold. The Berlin Wall came down. General prosperity returned. In Britain, more than 29 million working days had been lost to strikes in 1979; by 1990, the figure was below two million.
The 21st century has definitely been trickier. What can we in the West be collectively proud of in the past 20 years? Collateralised mortgage obligations? Operation Enduring Freedom? BLM? MAGA? Twitter? On the whole, the West’s most intense energies seem to have gone into increasing debt and fighting its cultural civil wars. Unlike in most of the Cold War, our main adversary seems more successful than we. In 1989, the Soviets failed in repression, but China succeeded. Since then, its power has grown mightily. Here, huge efforts go into rooting out monuments to 18th-century (literal) big wigs who may have benefited from slavery and are accused of ‘colonialism’, but less effort is made to ‘call out’ the most sustained, widespread and determined imperial expansion since the Victorian age. Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is global, and seeks to connect and control ports, sea lanes, roads, railways and sources of raw materials across continents. Cecil Rhodes managed to install such a policy only in southern Africa: China is managing it almost from pole to pole. It has also stolen our intellectual property, subverted our trade rules, spied on us through cyber, and bought up lots of influential people and institutions in the West. Hence our notable reluctance to find out exactly how a virus escaped in Wuhan and has so far killed 4.5 million people across the world.
It is natural to ask how President Biden can be trusted to defend our entire way of life if he will not defend an airport perimeter fence for more than a few days despite his overwhelming financial, technological and conventional military advantage. It is equally natural to ask, if America will not bear the burden, who else will — and find no answer. It is not very comforting to say that the President is simply retreating from a ‘forever war’. The defence of American interests — and of western interests more generally — is a forever war, although it becomes a shooting one only when it has been badly managed.
The West at present is badly placed to face these challenges, because many of us either do not acknowledge them or place all the blame at home. The loudest view on campus is that everything is the fault of white men. The teaching of history often promotes this, spreading through other, improbable bodies, such as the National Trust, the British Museum or Kew Gardens. As the newly launched counter movement, History Reclaimed, says: ‘Activists sometimes assert that “facing up” to a past they present as overwhelmingly and permanently shameful is the path to a better and more “inclusive” future. But the real effect — perhaps the true aim — of their actions is nihilistic destruction.’ Such destruction is good for Beijing, the Taliban, Isis-K and all entities with our worst interests at heart.
The other great cause which saps us is net zero carbon dioxide. It posits an emergency without proving one and seeks to impose on the world a policy which countries such as China will certainly avoid, but most western nations will strive to obey. They will fail to reach the targets, I think, but not before they have damaged their countries’ competitive advantage and subjected their citizens to needless privations. The Greens want to end ‘the pursuit of endless economic growth’, which is a politician’s way of saying: ‘We want people to get poorer.’ China will be sticking by Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum: ‘To get rich is glorious.’
So, is the world we value falling apart? It feels like it. But I am confident that this not what most people in the West actually want. We don’t want power cuts and punitive energy prices, ‘Xi Jinping thought’ or sharia, statue-toppling and Greta Thunberg. And one reason that our civilisation is still powerful is that we, the people, have ways of getting what we want.
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