By Gary North – May 16, 2013
It is time, once again, for me to return to three books that I regard as crucial for understanding the world we are in.
The great advantage of them is this: you only need to read the final chapter in each book. If I were going to teach a course on where America is, and where the world is, I would tie that course to these three chapters. The three books are these: Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, Van Creveld’s The Rise and Decline of the State, and Nisbet’s History the Idea of Progress. http://www.garynorth.com/public/8519.cfm
I have known for 35 years that Western Europe was heading into a major decline. That was evident from its declining birth rate, and also from the rise of Islam inside its borders. The Islamic world was not going to be assimilated by Western Europe. Today, I am less concerned about the expansion of Islam in Europe, because it turns out that the acids of modernity are wearing through the foundations of Islam, too. Islamic birth rates are falling. I did not know this until I began reading about it in the writings of the columnist known as Spengler.
In the 1930s, birth rates fell, because times were very tough economically. That was understandable. After World War II, birth rates in the United States and Europe rebounded. What is ominous about today’s decline is this: it is taking place in the midst of the most extraordinary prosperity ever recorded. Good times are leading to falling birth rates. This represents a loss of faith in the future. This is why Nisbet’s book is so important to understand. He did not think that Western society could continue with this kind of decline of optimism, but he also said that he thought that there may be a time of religious revival in the future, which would restore the optimism which has been abandoned in the West. But he said if such a revival does not take place, it is unlikely that this civilization world persevere.
There is always pessimism, and there is always optimism. It was best encapsulated by the opening words in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The point is this: what should we be deeply pessimistic about? If we see that there is moral rot at the foundation of Western society, which I think is obvious enough to anybody, we should not wring our hands in despair when we see that social institutions that are built on this rot are coming to the end of the road. In any society, there is a lot of rot, but there is a lot of creativity, too. Wherever we see creativity, there is hope.
I think we are in a situation in which there are be more opportunities for creativity around the world than ever before in history of man. The trouble is, I do not think Europe is going to supply much of it in the future. Europe has become bureaucratic. There will be rich people there, and there will be innovations. But societies operate in terms of a general worldview, and the worldview of Western Europe is simple to describe: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The great problem is this: older Europeans are content with their lot. Young Europeans in Spain and Greece are not content. But the old-timers, who have their pensions, or who have their six-week paid vacations, who have their soft lifestyles, and who live in homes that were built 300 years ago, look forward to the last 15 or 20 years of their lives, and they are not filled with despair. Things have gone well for them, since they were not among the 60 million who died in World War II.
Complacency is the problem. It is all right to be complacent in a time of creativity, optimism, and comparative moral stability. When the institutions around you are stable, and the divorce rate is low, and the birth rate is high, and jobs are plentiful, and education is becoming cheaper, then complacency is all right. At some age, we deserve to be complacent. But when the moral foundations of our youth are clearly no longer operational, complacency is a luxury that society cannot afford.
The generation gap in Europe is disturbing. We have nothing like it in the United States, except in the inner cities. The union system in Western Europe is so entrenched that the people with jobs have written off the people with no jobs. When you write off 60% of a generation, as Greece has done, refusing to let that generation come into the workforce because it wants to work for lower wages, you are shortsighted to a fault. The youths of Western Europe are well aware that, as a social class, the adults have written them off. They understand that the system is against them, but they do not know what could be substituted for it. They do not understand that it is the union system, backed up by monopolistic state law, that is at the heart of their crisis. They do not understand enough economics to be able to identify what has been done to them, by whom it has been done, and why. They blame capitalism, when the problem is welfare state mercantilism.
When youth loses hope, societies are in deep trouble. Asian youths seem optimistic. They seem ready to sacrifice in the present for the sake of the future. They have the entrepreneurial spirit. This is why Asia is growing, and Europe is not.
We are somewhere in the middle of the United States.
I do not think Europe will recover. It could, because, as Nisbet wrote in 1980, there always can be religious revival. People can change their minds. But the state school systems will not persuade young people to change their minds. The unions will not encourage it. The sclerotic bureaucracies that are growing stronger in Europe will not encourage it. We see the strangulation of the private sector, with the only hope being offered by the European Central Bank, and this hope is built on nothing more than fiat money and bailouts.
Western Europe has been the heart of civilization for 500 years, and has been a separate civilization for 1500 years. It replaced China is the source of innovation after 1500. Islam also went into decline. Asia in general played little role in what we know as the foundation of the modern world. This has all changed since 1945. First the Asian Tigers, then China, and then India broke with the old ways, and are now becoming major sources of innovation and technological progress. This is all positive. But, at the same time, we see Western Europe, which was the origin of this process of world transformation, turning into a gigantic retirement center.
I do not think Asia will fall back into its old ways. I think the Western Hemisphere in general is on an upward path. I am hoping Chile is the bellwether of Latin America. Mexico is certainly getting better. There is a religious revival going on in Latin America, and this will eventually change the culture. Canada will muddle through. Once the welfare state’s incubus is removed from North America by means of bankruptcy, I see no reason to believe that there will not be economic progress.
The main threat is described by Charles Murray’s latest book, Coming Apart (2011). The social disintegration that was common in the inner-city ghettos 45 years ago is now becoming dominant in the life of lower middle class white communities. The differentiation between zip codes is getting greater, not narrower. Murray’s line was really a stroke of genius: “Preach what you practice.” He recommended this to upper-middle-class and the wealthy people, whose lives still reflect the middle-class morality of the 1950s far more than it resembles the avant-garde left, whose theories of free love and social instability are not actually followed by people who live in the richest zip codes.
Freedom moved from Western Europe to North America. Then, after World War II, it moved like a cultural tsunami into Japan, and after 1979, into China. It continues to move westward. India had made the move judicially well over a century ago, but only since the mid-1990s has it begun to throw off the worst aspects of the old bureaucratic Fabian system. Where freedom goes, productivity follows. Were productivity appears, capital flows to support it. Once the Keynesian legacy is abandoned, because it will have failed visibly to deliver the goods, there will be a new birth of freedom in both North America and Asia. I think South America will also participate. But I do not see recovery in Western Europe.
In August 1914, Sir Edward Gray, Britain’s Foreign Secretary, supposedly said this: “”The lamps are going out all over Europe, we shall not see them lit again in our time.” Maybe he did not say it, but it marked the end of the Old Order. All of the lamps did not go out, but enough of them did, so that Great Britain never fully recovered. Neither did France. Then came Germany’s turn in 1945.
It is not enough to have a middle-class lifestyle. It is not enough to have gadgets that make life more comfortable. Living comfortably in a retirement home is better than living in a hovel. It is better than living in a foxhole. It is better than living in a concentration camp. But when a society dreams more of retirement living than it does of the joys of risk and innovation, then that society has passed the point of no return. When young people at the beginning of their adult lives are locked out of the employment system, forced to become welfare dependents, or forced to live with their parents, such a society has announced to the world that it has adopted the mentality of the retirement center. It is all over but the funerals.