Civilizational Collapse and Regeneration

Civilizations are living ideas, not just economic constructs.
by T.J. Nelson


T here is much debate these days about the historical meaning of 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and countless similar attacks from the Islamic world. Are they the outpourings of conflict in a region unable to cope with modernity, or are they a symptom that our civilization is crumbling, becoming weak and decadent, and in danger of being destroyed?

This question is important because it will decide not only how we respond to these acts of aggression, but also how our civilization should adapt. Few would argue that Western civilization could collapse in the next few decades. But what about the next two hundred years?

Today we think of ourselves as Homo Economicusses (or whatever the plural of that miserable word is). Civilizations are economic entities; they survive if their economic system benefits its people. But they are also living things—organisms composed of ideas. Without a living culture to give it direction, the ideas will scatter and the civilization will blow away like leaves in the wind.

Spengler's Decline of the West

The idea that Western civilization is in decline is closely associated with Oswald Spengler. Most people know of Spengler as the historian who compared civilization to a biological organism that was born, grew old, and died. But his metaphor was much more sophisticated than that. He thought of civilization as a living idea, almost a sentient being. Cultures, he wrote, are born when a great soul awakens out of humanity. They are like majestic waves: “They appear suddenly, swell in splendid lines, flatten again and vanish, and the face of the waters is once more a sleeping waste.” Like plants, they are rooted to the landscape out of which they arose. Their culture congeals and hardens and becomes a civilization. When it is old, its confident spirit declines into reflection, creating classicism that is common to all dying cultures, and “... finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of proto-mysticism.” When it dies, he wrote, a culture reverts back into the proto-soul.

So Spengler thought of us, not as an organism, but as a group consciousness. The idea of collective consciousness was popular in those days; psychologist Gustave Le Bon also used it to describe civilizations as well as crowds. Spengler's science fictiony mixed metaphors make civilizations sound like the vast sentient beings in Olaf Stapledon's novel Star Maker who searched the cosmos for their creator. But his ideas should not be dismissed just because we have trouble describing them in words.

Glubb's Fate of Empires and Search for Survival

Years later, Sir John Glubb took up the theme, and simplified Spengler's argument in two articles titled The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival. He was more prosaic than Spengler, but also broke new ground in our unending quest to be as pessimistic as possible.

Glubb's Five Stages of Civilization
1. Pioneers / outburst
2. Commerce
3. Affluence
4. Intellectualism
5. Decadence

Glubb was especially critical of the narrow vision of historians and of the propaganda that is always taught in schools. “Men can scarcely be blamed for not learning from the history they are taught,” wrote Glubb. “There is nothing to learn from it, because it is not true.” He wrote that civilization proceeds through five stages: pioneers, commerce, affluence, intellectualism, and decadence. Each stage causes the next, and few cultures last more than 250 years. The last stage, decadence, is marked by defensiveness, pessimism, materialism, frivolity, an influx of foreigners, a welfare state, sympathy for other cultures, and a weakening of religion. He wrote: “A community of selfish and idle people declines, internal quarrels develop in the division of its dwindling wealth, and pessimism follows, which some of them endeavour to drown in sensuality or frivolity.”

The anthropologists' view

Modern anthropologists are influenced by the natural sciences even more than Glubb and Spengler. They regard civilization as a purely natural phenomenon. Joseph A. Tainter wrote that an empire collapses when two situations converge: first, there is an external threat, and second, the individuals decide they'd be better off without the empire. The classic example he gave was the Roman Empire. Rome's economy was built on expansion. After it ran out of other countries to conquer, his theory goes, money began flowing out instead of in. To pay for their empire, the Roman government raised taxes so high that families were forced to sell their children into slavery. So when the barbarians attacked, they realized they'd be no worse off throwing their lot in with the new guys, despite their bad manicures, and they threw open the gates.

Archaeologist Eric H. Cline also thought of civilizations as natural phenomena. He compared the collapse of the Late Bronze Age civilization around 1177 B.C. to a forest fire that clears away the old for the new. But throughout history, civilizational collapse has been marked by extermination of entire peoples, either through conquest or through catastrophic demographic change. In the end, wrote Glubb, citizens no longer make an effort to save themselves, because they are not convinced that anything in life is worth saving.

So we are not only talking about death of civilizations here, but also individuals on a vast scale. It can happen through conquest, mass starvation, or gradual demographic change, as government and social pressures create disincentives to raising children. The end result is the same: extinction, or at best dispersal. Archaeologists just call it ‘disappearance.’

Toxic ideas

If civilization is a living idea, it can also become sick with viruses and bacteria. These toxic ideas appear first in the parts of our culture that deal with ideas: our universities and our popular culture. Indeed, our liberal arts colleges are currently suffering from what has been called a virus. A better term would be explosive diarrhea. They tell us our culture is evil, unjust, racist, and patriarchal. Since they are often paid by the states and funded by government grants, the goal of many of these academics is a selfish one: to produce greater centralization of power in government, thereby ensuring continuation of their funding.

These self-hating gentiles have even managed to get one of their disciples into the highest levels of power. Having been immersed from childhood in a stew of anti-Western ideas, this leader's self-appointed task is to weaken Western civilization and, if necessary, destroy it in order to atone for its perceived sins. He is finding it is not as easy as he thought.

Spengler devoted one-fifth of his book to “Problems in Arabian Culture.” It is a huge and enduring topic. Islamic terrorists are threatening to us not because they have power but because much of their ideology is shared by many of our intellectual leaders. That is why so many at our universities feel such an affinity for them, and why the universities so often help them by providing them with ideological and moral justification. Their goals are the same.

But we can no more blame outsiders or the universities for the decline of our civilization, if that is what's happening, than we can blame bacteria and fungi for colonizing a dying animal. If a sick animal can't fight back against diseases, it will die. The barbarians that attacked Rome were incidental. Rome would not have fallen if it had not been weak, corrupt, and hated by its own citizens. Like bacteria, if the Islamists strike hard enough they can provoke an immune response that can, at least temporarily, give new life to our civilization—or at least a few weeks of cruel amusement for it.

If a civilization is to survive, it has to renew itself from within. Civilization cannot be preserved by holding on to what was valuable in the past. It must be constantly regenerated in new and creative ways. It would be a mistake to look at dying institutions, like our movies, our liberal arts universities, or our newspapers, for signs of renewal. Today more imagination is poured into our computer games than movies. They also engage their audience to a far greater degree. According to one gaming site, worldwide revenues from movies in 2012 were around $126.8 billion, compared to $78.5 billion for video games, mobile games, and online gaming services. In the UK, computer games are already the most valuable entertainment market, generating more revenue than movies, recorded music, and DVD sales.

Whether you call it a virus, a disease, or decadence, the traditional creators of Western culture now want to leave the gates open, and let the barbarians come in and destroy us. The excuses they use vary as convenience strikes them, ranging from class envy to simple anti-white racism. Theirs is an old trick: create divisions within the society you want to destroy. Divide and conquer. France was shocked last month to discover that the barbarians are already inside the gates. But Muslims are not the threat. The threat is the ideologies that divide and weaken us, and the social structures that make the ideologies profitable.

But if civilizations are living things, they have a will to live. If universities and cultural leaders in movies and TV try to undermine it, they will eventually be pushed aside, just as earlier cultural forms like landscape painting and harpsichord music were pushed aside. Our fate may be determined more by our geeks as by our philosophers and artists. It is the geek culture, not Hollywood's, that will prevail. Call it poetic justice.

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