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In 2009, the late Charles Krauthammer penned an essay titled “Decline Is A Choice,” in which he argued that the eclipse of American power on the international stage—the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world—was not preordained but very much under our own control.
Now Krauthammer was careful to note that decline isn’t always a choice—he cited Europe’s descent and destruction in the two world wars, and the United States’ unintentional rise to world hegemony thereafter as two examples of this qualification. Even Krauthammer had to admit that decline can still occur even if unsought.
Never mind that Krauthammer was primarily concerned with foreign policy in his essay—he still argued that in 2009 America’s fate was not a fixed downward trajectory.
Unfortunately, the last decade has proven Krauthammer entirely wrong. Our civilization has declined, and will continue to decline, despite our best efforts.
Decline isn’t a choice; it’s an inevitability.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
At the close of World War I, the famed Irish poet and mystic William Butler Yeats wrote one of his most famous poems, “The Second Coming,” which for a brief and glorious generation was memorized by just about every schoolboy and schoolgirl in America.
This schoolhouse wisdom articulates a vision of the course of history that is fundamentally pessimistic. It is not the “Whig” view of history, history as progress ever marching forward; nor is it Krauthammer’s more agnostic point of view, emphasizing a culture’s free will to fail or flourish. It is the view that a civilization will collapse by its own internal momentum:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world
This view was later picked up by the German philosopher Oswald Spengler in his monumental Decline of the West. Spengler argued that a civilization, like any organism, has a lifespan. Eventually it will decay and die. The post-condition of life, as it were, is death; the mere fact of existence necessitates an eventual breaking-down of the organism, whether it is an individual man or a whole culture. Civilization—and empire—is merely the adulthood or old-age of a culture. The fact that America has become an empire is the sign and signal of its coming decline and eventual death.
What Nietzsche Knew
But what we fail to realize is that decline is a necessary predecessor to renewal, just as creation follows destruction. Nietzsche was the perhaps one of the few philosophers to realize that decline—epitomized by nihilism—is the precondition for renewal. In his posthumous The Will to Power, he writes:
Overall insight. Actually, every major growth is accompanied by a tremendous crumbling and passing away: suffering, the symptoms of decline belong in the times of tremendous advances; every fruitful and powerful movement of humanity has also created at the same time a nihilistic movement. It could be the sign of a crucial and most essential growth, of the transition to new conditions of existence, that the most extreme form of pessimism, genuine nihilism, would come into the world. This I have comprehended.
In other words, we need not take an entirely pessimistic view of things.
The Greeks, after putting on a series of tragedies, would always end a festival of plays with a comedy. Out of the ashes arises a phoenix. Children are born to couples who eventually pass away. Life is neither a tragedy nor a comedy, neither a winter of discontent nor a summer of content, but both together—a cycle, in a word.
To take one example (to avoid too much abstraction) the overflowering #MeToo movement has now become a new Victorianism—men and women have not re-adopted codes of conduct and segregation that were prevalent in the past.
A real, fundamental change has occurred: male sexuality has been demonized, whereas female sexuality remains liberated. The Victorianism of the 19th century conceived of female sexuality as nonexistent—it was always the male who possessed dangerous sexual impulses which might corrupt the pure and innocent female.
But the Victorianism of the present day fully admits that woman has a sexuality as willful and free as man’s while it denies man the ability to act on his own sexual impulses. In short, the fruits of the 1960s Sexual Revolution, once admitted to both sexes, are now the exclusive property of women.
This kind of antagonism between the sexes is, it appears, simply not tenable. It is a real question when—not if—this newborn arrangement will collapse.
And what will replace it? That is a more difficult question.
A reversion to sexual norms of the 1950s—or even those of the 19th century—certainly is possible. But a debate about the likelihood of either of those two outcomes is not point of this essay. What matters is that the present state of affairs will not continue for long, and that something will arise in its place to fill the vacuum.
Donald Trump is an agent of chaos—he overturns the established order. Many on the right and left are justified in predicting the death of neoliberalism, globalism, and liberal democracy. But this is by no means an indication that we will experience a rise in the number of political reactionaries or their creed—this is the forging of something anew.
Decline isn’t a choice, but neither is renewal.
Photo Credit: Joseph Pennell