Theories of decline are on the rise: we are inundated with stories about impending civil war and looming climate apocalypse; studies show that civilisation could collapse within a few decades; eccentric “cliometricians” warn of a miserable decade ahead.
Sounds like bad news, right? Perhaps. But it has always been this way. Historian Arthur Herman’s 1997 book The Idea of Decline in Western History describes declinism from its nineteenth-century origins in concepts of racial and intellectual degeneration to its late twentieth-century manifestations in the eco-pessimism of Al Gore and Ted Kacyznski. Herman’s major point — that theories of decline evolve in a dialectical fashion both with theories of progress and with competing theories of decline — is about as unexciting a perspective as any author can offer, so it should hardly come as a surprise that his work failed to stem the tide of warmed-over apocalyptic literature.
As a historian, I always regard with bemusement the various attempts at laying down universal “laws of history”, much less writing the history of the future. The former, even in the hands of individuals such as Peter Turchin or biophysicist Jared Diamond, seems too close to writing an adversarial legal memorandum: first you state the laws, then you fit the facts, which at any rate are always disputed. The latter is closer to fiction than to history, more interesting for what it tells us about an author than for the validity of its claims.
“The collapse of the world is a young man’s game,” Peter Karsten, my dissertation advisor, used to tell me, citing both the history of English property law — which historians F.W. Maitland and Frederick Pollock framed as a perpetual conflict between parents seeking to protect their estates and children interested in selling them to experience fleeting material pleasures — and his own experience as a young officer on a destroyer during the Cuban missile crisis. His point was: no matter how apocalyptic the times, life goes on, much as it always has, for good and (mostly) for ill.
Scattered along the stages of life’s way are, of course, a handful of catastrophic events, born of weather or war or whatever other time and tide-tossed horrors mankind must face. More common are tiny tragedies such as the closing of a family business, the diminution of a hometown, the untimely death of a breadwinner — all collapses of a sort, setting lives on downward trajectories, and sometimes difficult for even the sharpest minds to distinguish from broader trends that might actually imply planetary extinction or the “passing of a great race”, whatever those concepts would entail.
The discourse of decline and collapse, then, plays out primarily on this personal level. For example, Peter Turchin first theorised “elite overproduction” as the source of societal collapse in his 2016 book Ages of Discord. But the idea that there were too many would-be elites floating around was at the front of my mind five years earlier, when I was applying for tenure-track history positions. And even after I secured one of these coveted jobs, the effort left me scarred; I came to regard the humanities as a dying field enthralled by mumbo-jumbo, an ember near extinction that served as a microcosm for the world itself.
Beyond the realm of the personal, at the level described by Herman, decline and collapse represent a topic with perennial appeal for public intellectuals and their publishers. Books on the subject are always among the best-selling releases in any given year: The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Earth in the Balance, The Twilight of Democracy, The Democracy Trap, Democracy on Trial, Giving Up on Democracy, The Frozen Republic, The Selling of America, The Bankrupting of America, The Endangered American Dream, and Who Will Tell the People all appeared within a ten-year span between 1985 and 1995, during which time the United States continued to hold peaceful federal and state elections while my own household priorities were related to bare-minimum subsistence and survival.
It is simple enough to explain the public’s thirst for this material — personal setbacks of any sort can make a person feel as if the whole world is coming to an end. For public intellectuals, the incentives to produce it are irresistible. Predictions and forecasts are some of the easiest pieces to write, particularly if their reckoning is far enough in the future that their author can change directions if the winds begin to shift. And as Pierre Bourdieu noted in his essay “The Metamorphosis of Tastes”, intellectual work constitutes a field where supply — increased as colleges and universities graduate more would-be public intellectuals — creates its own demand. Elite overproduction of this sort might not serve as a bellwether for social unrest, as Turchin argues, but it represents a useful shortcut when determining how much writing will be published relating to the relationship between social unrest and elite overproduction.
After all, the prophets of decline rely heavily on the work that came before them. One of the most obvious genealogies runs from Friedrich Nietzsche, whose pioneering work in its expurgated, pro-German form prompted Oswald Spengler to write his own historical analysis of concepts like “race”, “blood”, and cultural creation in the West. Spengler in turn inspired Arnold Toynbee to produce an even longer series of works, which borrowed Spengler’s concept but welcomed the West’s gradual decline. All the while, everyone else was reading them in order to respond to their work, with a 1928 Time review of the second volume of Spengler’s The Decline of the West noting that “it was imperative to read Spengler, to sympathise or revolt”.
When one views declinism at a far remove from its truth or falsity, its professional function becomes apparent: it is a fun and easy thing for intellectuals to argue about. These ideas become mere pieces on a chessboard, with the moves of the authors improved and refined over the course of their careers. This is not necessarily good or bad, but rather the nature of the marketplace of ideas.
However, this work, when consumed carelessly and in bulk, can exact a significant toll on members of an already-atomised society. Even sophisticated readers of decline and collapse literature find themselves reacting to it on the personal level — more personal than ever before in a society of extremely siloed “selves” and “identities” four decades past the “culture of narcissism” examined by Christopher Lasch. In such a world, even people far removed from poverty struggle to imagine their posterity. Millenarian fantasies of death and hellfire sell well when the people building society cease to imagine a future. The idea of the world ending in one’s lifetime certainly offers a romantic prospect for some melancholy souls.
But the world, even the world of recorded history, will likely outlast these naive notions. The Annales School of historical writing’s concept of the “longue durée”, with its emphasis on the impact of slow-changing factors such as geography and climate, offers a mature counterpoint to “histoire événementielle”, the event-driven historical approach that popular historians struggle to avoid, given the ease with which every minor political scandal or protest march can be laden with significance and transformed into a portent of the end times.
My own perspective on the matter aligns most closely with G.K. Chesterton’s, as articulated in his short essay “A Much-Repeated Repetition”. There, Chesterton noted that “although the life of man is a terrible thing at many times and in many places” and “he has much to put up with in any case”, he “has not to put with the horror of history repeating itself”. The future outcome of human history remained a mystery to him, but he was sure that tyrants laid to rest did not rise from the ground again like blades of grass. “In history a thing recurs,” he wrote, “but it never recurs quite exactly.” The story of mankind remained “literally a story: that is, a thing in which one does not know what is to happen next”, and thus a narrative in which one still has an active role to play throughout their lifetime.
A heavy dose of declinism can ease an anxious mind by providing a compelling justification for passivity and quiescence, but this is also its most invidious side effect. Under its influence, one might sneer at small things you can do right now, focused interventions that can turn the tide of this or that event.
But we are never quite as powerless as we assume. For example, the campaign against critical race theory in education was largely the work of one man, Christopher Rufo. His efforts, love them or hate them, appear to have played a part in the outcomes of several 2021 American elections.
Mind you, victory or defeat in a process as mundane as an off-year election hardly means the end of world. But this, thank heavens, is precisely the point.