The Political Uses of Declinism
There are many reasons, then, to be sceptical of declinism. Independent from its truth, however, there are the political uses and abuses of declinism. (I return to declinism in its general, not merely cultural, form here.) Here I find myself torn, similar to when I wrote about relativism. Relativists, I suggested, are wrong about morality; still, culturally, socially and politically I normally find tolerant, open-minded relativists more sympathetic than dogmatic, close-minded realists. The world would probably be better if everyone was a relativist than if everyone was a realist.
There’s a little bit of that structure to the story about declinism as well, but not as much. One major difference is that declinism ranges across the political spectrum. There are different aspects of the supposed apex we’ve fallen from that left-wing and right-wing declinists emphasise, but its basic flavour remains the same. The opponents of the declinists are the optimists, who are not found on any particular location on the left-right scale. They might be post-humanists, who see transformed humans conquering everything. They might be Silicon Valley cultural libertarians, whose belief in the ability of technology to solve any problem is unquenchable. But otherwise, they will share little.
Still, optimist arguments often have a conservative subtext of a particular kind. Often, in making their case, optimists seem to be saying that things are just fine, and so that we should keep the status quo mostly as is. Denying declinism does not entail “no change” as a political program, however. Indeed, you might think that what has caused the tremendous human progress we’re experiencing is an open, diverse society, one which often advances through leaps and bounds. What a close look at human progress might then entail, is that we should be open to experiments and sudden revolutions.
Neither does optimism logically entail that further social changes are not urgent; nor does it show that the status quo is justified. This is clearest, for example, when we look at international development. We can readily admit the huge strides which have been made in decreasing poverty across the world (especially in Asia), for example, without thinking that the persisting poverty is acceptable in the least.
Nor does anti-declinism commit you to the idea that we should proceed just as things were. You might acknowledge that poverty was reduced under the 90’s Washington Consensus, while still thinking that it was a terrible and harmful policy vision. The relevant comparison here is not to the past, but to other, counterfactual policies that could have been chosen instead. Optimism is not a blanket defence of whichever force have brought about human progress. It can be well be coupled with a significant reformist mind-set.
But these are logical entailments: they are claims about what declinism coherently could be, not about what it normally is. More often than not, I suspect, do anti-declinist arguments serve some apologetic purpose. Declinists might see the world in an unduly negative light; but the activism that such a vision tends to spurn is much preferable to the conservative complacency that optimism can entail. (Sometimes it is claimed that declinism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, that “obsessively fretting about your possible decline can be a good way to produce it”. I don’t quite see how or why this would be the case, however.)
These associations are weak, however, and declinism’s political force is ambiguous. Impatience with piecemeal progress can fuel radicalisation, a fracturing of the political spectrum, and as a result, lead to solutions that are worse than the problems. Declinism can also become cloying nostalgia or wistful resignation which saps, rather than buttresses, political activism.
In short, there’s little reason to think that belief in declinism would be hugely beneficial, or hugely detrimental, to progress. In the face of the mixed political message it bears, there is thus little reason to endorse it for strategic reasons.