Types of Declinism
To get started on declinism, it’s useful to distinguish different versions of it. Some forms of declinism are just outright silly, as you have to discount lots of evidence to the contrary. Modern societies are by far richer, healthier, more populous, more scientifically knowledgeable, more technologically advanced, more peaceful, and more socially liberal than almost all societies in the past. (If we choose the appropriate time span of comparison—more on this later.) This is true, in most cases, whether we focus on the progress of individual societies or the world as a whole.
In the face of all this—easily measurable—progress, the category in which our societies are declining must be some other dimension. This should already give us some pause. If our lives are getting worse, this must be, on many form of declinism, a case of starving amidst abundance. This starvation must be one of the mind, or of culture, or of communal bonds, or some such.
One form of declinism is “great power” declinism—the kind of declinism which can be summarised through headlines like “China Rises as America Weakens”. On this way of approaching the topic, whether our societies decline or improve is a function of the count of soldiers, armaments, nuclear weapons, international treatises, economic production, share of global GDP, “soft” power, and so on. Many apocalyptic scenarios of American downfall are worries that America loses out in this international zero-sum game of thrones.
Whether America, or Europe, or “the West”, is declining in these ways is a question for the international relations scholar, an area far out of my expertise. There is, however, something navel-glazing and narrow-minded about this kind of declinism which makes it uninteresting. If we live satisfying lives in close-knit communities, surrounded by rich culture and economic prosperity, what’s so bad if we’re lagging in the comparative count of guns and steel? There might be some relation, of course, between declining international power and domestic welfare—the downfall of American global power might be bad precisely because it threatens our enjoyment of these others values. But often, I suspect, the link between global power and domestic welfare is more imagined than real.
Another form of declinism is political. Trump, Brexit, and the rise of European right-wing populism certainly make it easy to assume that we’re on a quick downward spiral into madness. Whether such political declinism is plausible, I suspect, highly relies on our choice of time frame. You might as well think that the Trumpian age, for example, is a temporary and desperate backlash against a long-term victory march of progressive forces. Nor is it obvious that our politicians are more corrupt now than in the past—just listen to the Nixon tapes.
Even if political declinism is true, political declinism is again less interesting to me. What makes our politics go well or badly depends on highly variable factors which change, if not yearly, at least every decade or so. It is hard to think that the political climate in twenty years will resemble our current one very closely. Furthermore, I suspect that political decline, even if real, is only interesting insofar as it reflects some other, wider decline—economic, social, cultural, or some such. Erosions of political norms in the Trump age should be taken seriously; but they start to be less exciting if you zoom out to longer time periods.
Another form of declinism is social declinism, the well-explored “bowling alone” idea. Aren’t our communal bonds fraying? Aren’t our societies becoming more atomistic, more cold-hearted, more based around who has the sharper elbows? Aren’t manners getting worse? Social declinism shares with cultural declinism—to which I’ll get in a moment—that its central thesis is a somewhat vague one. I find it less convincing that its cultural cousins, however. Social declinism derives most of its plausibility from an implausible nostalgia about some imagined past community, almost always homogenous societies in which everyone “knows their place”. Little survives of this type of declinism, I think, once you reject these distorted imaginings of the past. The same is not true, at least not immediately so, when it comes to cultural declinism.
Cultural declinism, then, is the most interesting form of declinism. It claims that our current culture—the books, magazines, music, architecture, and so on—is in some way deprived, less deep, or otherwise inferior to past culture. One can formulate this form of declinism with a keener look to the production side of culture, or a stronger focus on its consumption side: we could focus on which artworks are made, or which are enjoyed and consumed. Along the latter lines, we might focus on how well-educated the average citizen is, how sophisticated the average cultural conversation is, and so on. With regard to the former, we might look at what artworks our best artists create, how vivid the cultural “scene” is, and so on.
This is the type of declinism which is often found at the dinner table. It’s also the most nebulous thesis, not easily disproven by any hard data. So it’s worth our special attention. I return to some general observations on declinism in the end.