Problems with Declinism (part 1)


Impressive fictional histories of American decline have been assembled. They are fictional because they never happened. They are the predictions of a wide arsenal of historians, writers, and others who predicted America’s immediate, or at least slow and embarrassing, decline. Just as unrelenting optimism seems a crucial part of the American psyche, so is an apocalyptic declinism.

Declinism is not uniquely American, however. Britain, with its stinging memory of falling from the heights of Empire, has its own elegiac form of declinism, in which well-clad dons mutter about Britain’s brighter past. 71% of British respondents think the world is getting worse, only 5% that it is getting better. France has a “booming”, declinist “industry”. In the face of Muslim immigration to Europe, German right-wing populists also predict the immediate downfall of the Abendland.

Declinism in its many forms is a popular attitude to have. Everyone simply knows that contemporary society is more disjointed, that pupils are more disrespectful, that the media has become more sensationalist, that crime has gotten worse, and that our politicians are more corrupt than ever. Not being a declinist, or at least a serious pessimist, often marks you out. In some circles, declinism is even a sign of intellectual sophistication: if only you knew history and society well, you knew things are going down the drain!

Declinism tends to be more an attitude than a clearly formulated view. And where it is a view, it tends to be frustratingly vague. However, if declinism was true, some serious effort would need to be put into establishing its truth, one which goes beyond assembling a few impressions. The honest attitude to me seems to be that we have little sense of whether our societies are improving or declining as wholes; and what evidence we have suggests, if anything, that we make progress. We should be highly sceptical, furthermore, regarding claims about global decline. We know a lot about how our societies are getting better or worse in specific respects; but general declinism is generally too ill-formed a thesis to be believed or disbelieved.

That’s a rather dissatisfying attitude to take—in polite dinner conversation, the expected thing is still to display a debonair declinism. You’re supposed to have a reservoir of anecdotes and cutting observations available which show how awful our modern condition is. This annoys the contrarian in me. Perhaps dinner-table declinism shouldn’t be taken very seriously, just as dinner-table relativism shouldn’t be.

Still, I want to say a little about why I find declinism deeply suspicious. Let me briefly anticipate the following series of posts. First, I will distinguish different types of declinism. Then I will argue that cultural declinism is rarely stated clearly, and that doing so is surprisingly hard. In the post after, I claim that history and psychology suggest that the burden of proof in the issue lies with the declinist. I then identify a number of specific problems for cultural declinism: the selection, canonization, unjust background, and accumulation problems. The political force of declinism is also ambiguous, I argue. And lastly, it’s not even clear how much it would matter even if cultural declinism was true.

(continue to part 2)

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