Are We Decadent

If there is one premise that serves to unite most adherents of the Old Right, it is that the West -- or America, or Christendom, or whatever label and identity they want to specify - is in trouble, has been in trouble for a long time, and is probably not going to get out of trouble for quite a while, if ever. In a famous but somewhat overdone synopsis of the course of modernity, Richard Weaver saw the decline beginning with the 13th century nominalism of William of Ockham and proceeding logically to the nihilistic existentialism of the current era. Frederick Hayek believed the age was lurching merrily down the road to serfdom; Whittaker Chambers was convinced that the side he had joined when he deserted communism was the losing side; and James Burnham warned that the liberalism that dominates Western culture and politics would facilitate the suicide of the West. From Oswald Spengler to Robert Bork, virtually everyone on "the right," regardless of the exact meaning of the term, has prophesied a steady descent into Avernus and a continuous disintegration of Western morals, religion, social institutions, cultural traditions, political freedom, economic affluence, and civil order. Only in the last few years, with the electoral victory of Ronald Reagan and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have people calling themselves "conservatives" begun to chirp and coo about the "victory" of the right and the triumph of the "Conservative Revolution." But most of those who do are simply the hired hacks and professional cheerleaders of partisans. The intellectually serious right -- conservative, counter-revolutionary, or reactionary -- entertains no illusion that any such triumph is on the horizon, or even anywhere over it.

Yet the visions of decadence and decline may be a bit exaggerated. Those versed in world history will recall that epochs that appear to one historian as periods of collapse seem to others to be periods of rebirth and regeneration. What the secularist Edward Gibbon saw as merely the decline and fall of the Roman empire and the pagan classical civilization it ruled, the Catholic Christopher Dawson saw as the rise of Christian Europe. Virtually the same stretch of time in which Jacob Burckhardt perceived the civilization of the Renaissance Johann Huizinga understood as the waning of the Middle Ages. The principle is nothing more complex than what every school child already knows: whatever goes up must come down, and whenever one thing is coming down, another is probably going up, if only we have the eyes to see it rising.

In the case of civilizations as in most of what happens in and to human societies the things that are going up or down are really elites or ruling classes. As James Burnham put it years ago in The Machiavellians, "A nation's strength or weakness, its culture, its powers of endurance, its prosperity, its decadence, depend in the first instance upon the nature of its ruling class. More particularly, the way in which to study a nation, to understand it, to predict what will happen to it, requires first of all and primarily an analysis of the ruling class. Political history and political science are thus predominantly the history and science of ruling classes, their origin, development, composition, structure, and changes." The transition from pagan Roman imperialism to Christian Greco-Roman imperialism occurred not because most people in the empire suddenly got right with Jesus but because a new, Christian ruling class displaced the old, pagan ruling class. I do not question the honesty or devotion of the converts, but Christianity offered advantages for rationalizing the political regime and mobilizing the loyalty of its subjects that an exhausted paganism no longer possessed, an exhaustion proved by the sad and fruitless effort by Julian the Apostate to restore paganism only some fifty years after the conversion of Constantine. At the risk of sounding cynical, I suspect it was the political and other secular advantages of Christianity as an imperial public orthodoxy rather than its purely spiritual appeal that enabled it to triumph and become the animating faith of a new civilization.

The same seems to be true of the end of the Middle Ages, whether we see the era as one of "waning" or of "renaissance." The emergence of new ruling classes based on commercial wealth, humanistic learning, scientific and technological advances, and urban residence more or less demanded a new civilization, one marked by what we now call individualism, secularism, rationalism,and continuous innovation, in opposition to the medieval civilization created by older feudal elites whose power was based on land and its products. If you fixate your eyes only on the medieval dimension, all you will see is its gradual disappearance and all you will think about is decline. If, on the other hand, you fix your eye on the emerging social and political forces, you will probably start seeing something else.

So it is today. Most of the exponents of the Old Right cited above observed and wrote from the perspective of the civilization of which they were members and of the ruling class whose dominance they approved, and as a result what they saw was indeed the long, slow, and painful historical process of "waning," what Spengler so poetically called the Undergoing of the Evening Lands. The ruling class being displaced was the descendant of the class that rose to power at the close of the Middle Ages, the bourgeois elite, and the remnants of the feudal aristocracies with which it had allied.

From the perspective of the interests, values, and ideologies of that elite, the erosion of the family, the sexual revolution, the decline of traditional religious beliefs, the emergence of mass democracy, and what Robert Nisbet called the "racial revolution" of the twentieth century are all self-evident signs of decline, not only of their civilization but probably all civilization.

But this is simply not so. New elites displaced the old bourgeois class, and the "civilization" they "created" (I am sufficiently bourgeois myself as to be unable to speak of them without quotation marks) is the managerial system that has been slouching toward, if not Bethlehem, then at least New York and Washington, to be born. From the standpoint of the older elites and those traditional conservatives who express their values, it is no civilization at all, of course, but merely a jungle of moral, aesthetic, and social anarchy, frequently punctuated by periods of literal political anarchy occasionally relieved by other periods of political repression. The late Allan Bloom's complaints about the prevalence of "relativism" among his students illustrate a typical conservative (although neo-conservative) criticism of the new age. "Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative," Bloom wrote on the first page of The Closing of the American Mind, and relativism was to him the certain sign of the uncertain future of civilization.

But regardless of what Bloom's students believed or said they believed, what is certain is that virtually no one other than professional philosophers really espouses relativism, any more than anyone really acknowledges that he is "decadent." Students may profess relativism when they wish to question the morality of a punishment they don't want to suffer or of a war they don't want to fight in or of any duty they don't want to perform, but they never invoke relativism when their own interests and preferences are at issue. Nor is it the case that the ruling class of the managerial regime is relativist, for all its chatter about the obsolescence of sexual morality, the equality of races and cultures, and the impossibility of knowing the real truth about God, the universe, and good and evil. Neither the managerial elite nor their offspring who idled away their youths listening to Professor Bloom are relativists when it comes to punishing John Demjanjuk or Gen. Pinochet or Timothy McVeigh. When inner-city blacks riot, the pet journalists and commentators of the managerial class will whine and whimper for weeks afterwards about the need to explore the "roots of the rage," but when suburban whites resist forced integration and busing or a white separatist in Idaho refuses to answer a court summons, it's time to call in the troops and shoot to kill. College students may reach for relativism when they want to shack up with their girl friends or boy friends, but they are not relativists about "hate crimes" or "racism" or "sexism" or "homophobia" or any of the other high crimes and misdemeanors that managerial morals condemn and which the managerial class does not hesitate to denounce, punish, and try to extirpate. It is simply not the case that the current ruling class recognizes no morality and no standards, and if it does recognize and try seriously to enforce its morals, its standards, and rules that reflect its interests as an elite, it cannot be said to be decadent or to preside over a system or society that is decadent.

What is happening and has been happening in the advanced industrial societies of the West for the last half century and more is not merely the decline of civilization but the decline of one civilization and the emergence of another, as the ruling class that serves as the core of one civilization withers and the class that forms the core of the other civilization waxes. The old "bourgeois" elite is in fact in decline, not only in its power and wealth in local and regional power bases and in owner-operated entrepreneurial firms, but also in the values, moral codes, political formulas, and ideologies that reflect its world-view, its identity, and its socio-political interests. It is precisely because the old elite is in decline and is being replaced by a new elite that the old civilization that formed the outer bulwark of the old elite is also in decline, that its values are discarded as obsolete and repressive and its institutions, symbols, and heroes are extinguished outright or are redefined as evil and tyrannical.

So did Christianity redefine the pagan gods as demons, even as it redefined pagan temples and festivals as Christian churches andholy days.

Nevertheless, it is rather preposterous to compare the pathetic artifices of "managerial civilization" with the edifice of medieval Christendom or even with the vast civilizational leviathan of post-medieval modernity. Unlike both Christendom and the modernism that eventually displaced medieval Christian hegemony, managerialism has a serious problem. So far it has been unable to formulate a myth or a coherent world-view that both represents the interests of its creators and rulers in the managerial class and also appeals to and mobilizes the loyalties and actions of its subject classes. Since it is militantly secularist, it cannot make much use of traditional Christianity or any other traditional religion that acknowledges the reality of transcendence. Managerial religion is simply humanitarianism and feel-good, flavored with a bit of syrup siphoned off from Marxism and Third World ethnicity. Indeed, managerial society cannot even make much use of myth at all. It is the nature of myth to be fundamentally irrational, and the rationalism of managerial society persists in refuting and exploding any and every myth that the managerial mythographers can manufacture. How many more managerial gods must fail before the whole pantheon and the empire it supports collapse?

It may be that managerial society will eventually articulate a formula that can provide an effective rationalization of the social and political domination of technocracy. But so far all that the managerial class has been able to come up with is the claim that what it has to offer is materially and economically superior to any conceivable alternative. In managerial capitalism, John Kenneth Galbraith's New Industrial State, you can make more money, buy more stuff, cure more diseases, have more facelifts, play with more toys, get more vacation time, and enjoy more orgasms than in medieval Christendom or the dour, frugal, and hard-working modernity that replaced it. The justification, at least so far, of the managerial regimes that prevail in the West is nothing more sophisticated than the kitchen debate between Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev at the World's Fair in 1960: We're better than you because we have dishwashers and you don't. The communist branch of managerial society offers exactly the same answer, except that it is unable to produce the dishwashers.

Of course, a civilization that can think of no better justification for itself than dishwashers and higher living standards can hardly be called a civilization at all. Certainly, however useful its appeal to materialism may be in prosperous and successful times, it won't be able to use that appeal to justify the sacrifices, endurance, and risks that real civilizations always demand sooner or later in the course of their histories. How can it justify the wars it will have to fight, the lives it will have to lose, the failures and defeats that it, like all human enterprises, will inevitably have to experience? How, for that matter, can it even justify the disciplines that it has to impose on children, on criminals, and on internal enemies?

What appears to be the decadence of America or of Western civilization is in fact the result of a combination of two different phenomena, the real decadence of one elite that no longer understands or even believes in the civilization its forebears created and ruled and which it is now unwilling and unable to defend and transmit, and the moral and cultural emptiness of what purports to be the civilization destined to replace the one in decline. The first is dying and cannot be salvaged; the second is up for grabs, and whoever is able to press his hand on the wax of its animating myths will determine and define its content for as many millennia as the new civilization endures.

This article first appeared in Chronicles in the year 2000 here.