This essay is adapted from How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom for 5 Modern Crises,
by Spencer Klavan (Regnery, 256 pages, $29.99.)

The Empire That Never Was

America is starting to feel like an ailing republic at home and a failed empire overseas. America, and the liberal order it imposed and upheld after the Second World War, became the first worldwide hegemon—without ever acknowledging the fact. And despite the triumphant thrill of seeing the Berlin Wall come down in 1989, America’s general trajectory of global dominance appears to be heading into swift decline, to be replaced by a strategically disciplined and increasingly ruthless Communist China.

“The failures of the war [in Afghanistan] reveal a need for deeper introspection into what has gone wrong with American democracy and its institutions—including the story of failed expertise,” wrote former Columbia University research fellow Richard Hanania in the New York Times in 2021. In other words, protracted ineptitude abroad should be the occasion for serious introspection at home—where, unfortunately, the picture is similarly bleak. “The three jobs with the most projected growth in [America] all earn less than $27,000 a year, and . . . all the secondary institutions that once gave structure and meaning to hundreds of millions of American lives—jobs and unions but also local newspapers, churches, Rotary Clubs, main streets—have been decimated,” wrote Alana Newhouse, editor-in-chief of Tablet magazine, shortly after the 2020 election. Newhouse cited Michael Lind from the University of Texas, who has argued extensively that a new ruling elite, led in large part by tech magnates, has used the “global economy” to depress American wages and offshore American jobs, creating a permanent and growing underclass.

Digital technology, which holds out such promise and potential to decentralize power, has in effect often worked to consolidate power among a very few. The upshot is that the republic has begun to look more like a corrupt oligarchy, run by those who may be good at getting wealthy or climbing bureaucratic ladders, but who have little respect for, or even knowledge of, republican ideals. The unprecedented COVID lockdowns imposed in 2020 made it hard to think of ourselves anymore as Madison’s locally governed nation of free men and women with irrevocable, God-given rights. The national lockdown, imposed on the advice of an unelected medical expert (and the highest paid member of a federal administrative perma-state), gave leeway for state and local leaders to invoke “emergency” powers of their own that treated “unalienable rights” as very alien indeed. 

The lockdowns, mask mandates, and the tolerance in many locales for 2020’s Antifa and Black Lives Matter protests—which resulted in $2 billion dollars’ worth of property damage, 700 injured law enforcement officers, and as many as 19 deaths—led some to wonder whether their fundamental right to property or even life was simply forfeit when the ruling class deemed it so. It came to seem as if major decisions about Americans’ personal and civic lives were no longer in the hands of Americans themselves.

Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

The New Marxism

Barring secession—which would likely be catastrophic and bloody—there are limited options when a republic starts decaying into oligarchy. One is the option proposed by the German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels back in the 1800s: a revolution that totally restructures society and fundamentally rearranges its economy.

In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels articulated what they called “the materialist conception of history.” Frustrated with the high abstraction of earlier German philosophers, most notably certain followers of Friedrich Hegel, Marx began from the premise that man is not fundamentally a political or a rational animal but an economic one: “Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion, or by whatever else you prefer. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organization.” To Marx, man’s gods, his myths, his dreams, and his high ideals are not, as I have been arguing throughout this book, intimations of supernatural truth. Instead, they are pretexts, misapprehensions, and justifications that emerge reliably out of what Wordsworth called “getting and spending.” Material wealth and survival is what drives mankind and guides his actions.

Thus Marx deemed republican political theory, like most other high ideals, as mere window-dressing that allowed the powerful to disguise—from their subjects and from themselves—a mere struggle for power. “In an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy, and bourgeoisie contend for mastery, and where mastery is therefore shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves dominant and is expressed as an ‘eternal law.’” In reality, though, it is only another means to subjugate the working class.

In America, decades of leftist political activism has shifted Marxism from its primary economic focus to an “intersectional” one, in which aggrieved minorities, especially racial minorities, play the part of the working class. Marx’s shadow looms behind liberalism’s ever more intense skepticism about Western civilization and American ideals, and as such Neo-Marxism goes far beyond socialism. Marx’s own theory was largely about class and class warfare. But in the mid-twentie20th century, America’s robust middle class made it difficult to animate a revolution based on purely economic resentments. So “class” became a matter not simply of money, but of other identity markers as well. In Europe, Marxists like Antonio Gramsci and Rudi Dutschke helped move cultural issues to the fore. In America, theorists like Ted Allen and Noel Ignatiev fixated on race and “white-skin privilege” as predominant fault lines in American society. “The first question is not ‘can the white workers be radicalized?’ but ‘can the white radicals be radicalized?’” Allen wrote. Could American lLeftists be taught to see slavery as an ineradicable evil whose legacy underwrote and intensified all other forms of inequality? In this sense, Marx is the intellectual forefather of the identity-based grievances that currently dominate our political culture. “We actually do have an ideological frame,” said Black Lives Matter co-founder, Patrisse Cullors. “We are trained Marxists.”

Marxism explains why “anti-racists” and other “woke” groups tend to believe that all intellectual arguments are reducible to material interests, making their opponents guilty of “false consciousness” or bad faith. Anti-racist theorists like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo insist that though you may think you aspire to colorblindness and meritocracy, those are just pretexts for consolidating the power and privilege you derive from ancient economic arrangements built on slavery and the exploitation of black labor. Your “white fragility” is in effect one expression of your class allegiance. “The very heartbeat of racism is denial,” said Kendi in an address at the University of Rochester.

Neo-Marxist convictions also explain why political groups like the Democratic Socialists of America constantly yoke other alleged inequalities to calls for economic redistribution of wealth. “Our fight to end capitalist exploitation is inextricably tied to our fight to end oppression,” their platform declares: “A democratic socialist society must end all systemic domination, whether it’s based on race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability, or gender.”

If indeed our problems in America are at heart the result of a class struggle between an oligarchic elite and an oppressed underclass, then a Marxist would argue the only way out is to overturn the system altogether—not only the republic but the whole method of trade and incentives known as “capitalism,” because, for Marx, capitalism underlies monarchies, republics, and oligarchies. The only way to escape their problems is through a Communist revolution, “revolutionizing the existing world,” and “attacking and changing existing things.” The people must rise up, seize control of the means of production, and form a government where all goods are held in common and distributed according to need.

This is why America’s far Left turns to rioting more readily than its far Right—and with much more encouragement from mainstream figures and politicians. For conservatives or reactionaries, revolution remains a last resort. For Marxists, it is always and everywhere the only solution—one to be hastened and encouraged at every turn. “There needs to be unrest in the streets for as long as there’s unrest in our lives,” said RepresentativeCongresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) during the summer of 2020. Marxism’s guiding idea is that the whole cultural, economic, and political system, root and branch, must be revolutionized until private property is abolished and inequality eradicated for good.

iStock/Getty Images

Fine Wine

Leaving aside for a moment the many failures and atrocities that have attended previous socialist and communist uprisings, it is worth noting that abolishing private property is not a suggestion that originated with Marx. Already in the Republic, Plato could see what Rome would learn and what Machiavelli would describe: economic resentment is a deadly danger to the health of a regime. That is why he suggested that rulers, at least, should live in a state of total koinōnia—a Greek word meaning “having things in common.”

Plato’s version of koinōnia looks remarkably like a communist utopia. Not only property, but families, are shared: “the possession of women, marriage, and procreation of children must as far as possible be arranged according to the proverb that friends have all things in common.” In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels also called for the “abolition of the family,” a demand which was recently renewed by the feminist theorist Sophie Lewis. In her book Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family, Lewis argues that a truly just society would be one in which “we break down our assumptions that children ‘belong’ to those whose genetics they share.”

“Want true equity? California should force parents to give away their children,” wrote Joe Matthews in tThe San Francisco Chronicle. Matthews cited Plato as support for the idea that “the rich should give their children to the poor, and the poor should give their children to the rich.” The principle behind free love is the same as that behind communism: If competition and resentment is destroying the peace, why not share everything and abolish envy altogether?

The answer to this question is nearly as old as the communist impulse itself. Responding to Plato’s suggestion, Aristotle made what remains a succinct and effective attack on communism, which ought to disqualify it as the solution to America’s or anyone’s political problems. In the end it is philia—friendship, or love—that binds political communities together. And “just as mixing a little wine with a lot of water makes the wine impossible to taste,” so too does holding all property and family in common dilute the character and quality of personal affection. So “a law like that will necessarily have the opposite of the desired result . . . for in cities, we think that the highest good is love.”

This explains why calls for communal childcare slide seamlessly into the promotion of childlessness: “I’ve been opening up about how I do not enjoy being a mom,” tweeted the writer Arianna Rebolini to the tune of 12,000 “likes.” “I think a large part is my belief that normalizing (/celebrating!) the decision to be childfree can lead to more communal childcare.” The profusion of articles by parents who regret having children, or people who think the world isn’t worth bringing children into, suggests that our newfound desire to share child-rearing comes along with a diminished desire to have children at all. Communism dilutes love.

Love, responsibility, and ownership go together. Tacitly but reliably, holding property in common means valuing it less.

The love we feel for our own home, for our own children, for this woman or this friend and no other—for what is ours and no one else’s—forms the basis of all real and lasting political union. To be someone’s friend is to “desire for him the things that you believe to be good, not for your own sake, but for his—and to be inclined, so far as you can, to bring those good things about.” People become friends for various reasons: because they enjoy each other’s company, because they have some advantage to offer each other, or simply and purely because they recognize one another’s excellence of character. But there is a certain kind of friendship—a certain kind of love—which comes into being between neighbors.

People who share space and time, who develop rituals of “intermarriage, family allegiances, festivals, and all the other pastimes of living together” are, maybe without knowing it, engaged in what Aristotle calls “a labor of love.” They are about the business of creating another, more natural kind of koinōnia than the one that Plato theorized, or that Marx hoped would come through revolution. The basic routines of life together are, for Aristotle, the building blocks of politics. They are the stuff of the small-c constitution, the framework of family devotion and economic partnership that turns a group of people from a random ethnic or geographical mass into a real political community. And the affection that suffuses this kind of life is called politikē philia—civic friendship, or civic love.

In the modern era, it sounds naïve to suggest that mere love can fix our problems. We tend to assume that citizens of fractious, pluralistic, multiethnic republics cannot hope to share a common vision of higher truth. Instead, we imagine, they must get by on the minimal grounds of working together in mutual (largely economic) self-interest. Leo Strauss called this the “low but solid ground” of modern political philosophy: rather than joining together in shared faith, work, and love, citizens in the modern state seem to be little more than self-centered consumers who share nothing other than space. 

Philosophers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill have helped shape a vision of society organized on the lowest possible common denominator of safety, comfort, and non-intervention in each other’s lives. It seems to have worked up to a point—but only up to a point, and its limitations as a political system have become more apparent as our own republic appears to degenerate. That is why “classical liberalism” has come under fire from critics, like political philosopher Patrick Deneen, who see within it seeds of our present spiritual emptiness, isolation, cultural uniformity, and loss of freedom.

We live next to one another in identical apartments stacked across a bland urban landscape; we rely on our leaders to arrange it so that everyone can order cheap goods from China on Amazon; government is a matter for bureaucrats. So long as we refrain from seriously inconveniencing or hurting one another, so long as we follow the bureaucratic diktats, nobody gets much into anybody else’s business. Friendship in this society is irrelevant, including even the low kind of friendship that arises from shared ambition. Society is a mere non-aggression pact, a kind of indifference masquerading as love—which is to say, not love at all. Perhaps that is all we can expect from the modern state. Perhaps friendship of the kind Aristotle envisioned is impossible beyond the confines of a single city—maybe we are doomed to dilute our love after all.

But that is not how America’s founders saw it. Taking leave of his presidency and bidding adieu to public service in his famous farewell address, George Washington told his citizens, “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together.” He looked on his country with “that fervent love towards it which is so natural to a man who views in it the native soil of himself and his progenitors for several generations.”

In this same vein, John Adams wrote to the Massachusetts militia that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The letter of the law will be useless unless it guides a people who already share some common spirit—some mutual devotion to God and country that goes beyond simple self-preservation. The founders understood this, as did Lincoln: “We are not enemies, but friends,” he said, pleading with a nation whose bonds of affection were fraying. “We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.” America cannot survive on its large-C Constitution alone. It needs a small-c constitution, too, a shared spirit of common purpose and ritual. And for that, we must become friends again.

What Comes Next

Much has been made of the argument over whether America is a “creedal” nation—that is, whether its existence depends wholly on maintaining certain beliefs, such as a dedication to individual liberty, or whether there is also some important ethnic and cultural component to our small-c constitution. And it is true that American identity, like Roman citizenship, has proven adaptable and extendible up to a point: it has been the nation’s pride and joy to welcome and assimilate members of practically every nation and faith. Often immigrants—especially refugees from oppressive regimes like Cuba—demonstrate the deepest devotion possible to American values like freedom and impartial justice.

But just as no human soul floats abstracted in the air without a human body, just as no form becomes visible except when encapsulated in matter, so no creed is carried forward except in the common life and memory of a people. That is why conservatives object so strenuously to crises like the one that is unfolding at our southern border, where illegal immigration is at flood tide. It is not that “brown people” can’t be good Americans. It is that a massive influx of people from outside would be a shock to any national system, let alone one as culturally anemic as America’s in the 2020s. “The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin . . . would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities,” said Theodore Roosevelt in 1915.

Roosevelt was discussing the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of “hyphenated Americans”—those who qualify their allegiance to this country by reserving some attachment to another national or cultural identity. Italian-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Muslim-Americans, and so on may all in practice be devoted patriots. But in principle it is a manner of speaking which dilutes the character of citizenship. Not for nothing were new arrivals required by the Naturalization Act of 1795 to “renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty whatever.”

The antidote to social crackup is not more openness but more cohesion, more careful attention to the ancestral memory and shared history of the people already struggling to live together in this country. Rhetoric that is truly “divisive” and “partisan” is not that which invokes America’s national identity but that which encourages Americans to think of one another in terms of race, sex, or even vaccination status. In this context consider what it means that JoePresident Biden and his administration regularly talked in terms of a “pandemic of the unvaccinated”—as if some portion of the American citizenry was tantamount to a disease. Consider also what it means that Brittney Cooper, a professor at Rutgers University, said publicly that “I think that white people are committed to being villains in the aggregate.”28 Examples of this sort of talk abound, and they are truly corrosive. The most damning indictment of our political and cultural elites is that they seem dedicated, with almost every word and action, to eroding the civic friendship that remains our only real hope of survival and restoration. Too many of our leaders seek to be demagogues, exploiting the already tense divisions between us for their own venal ends.

The net effect of our bitter national politics is to alienate us from ourselves and each other, to get us thinking in grand terms of epochal crisis and tribal warfare. And to make matters worse we may well be living through an epochal crisis of the kind Polybius would have recognized. Faced with foreign policy incompetence and retreat, and a heavy-handed, self-dealing, and disingenuous federal bureaucracy— the global and federal nature of our apparently imminent collapse—it’s common for average citizens, people with no formal political power except the vote, to feel either helpless or reckless. Whether we riot or simply surrender, we suspect the cycle of regimes is crushing us under foot, no matter how we might fight back.

But the way out of this mess, paradoxically, is to think smaller and not bigger. The truth is that you and I are not, in fact, powerful enough to Save America or Save the World. Nor indeed will we get anywhere by continuing to think only in grand abstractions, even lofty and noble ones like “America,” “the republic,” or indeed “the West.” We need those ideals to guide us, it is true—if I did not think so, I would not have written this book. But one article of wisdom that comes down to us through the history of Western thought is that all such high ideals are embodied in the small concerns and daily activities of the here and now. We fight for them by living them out in our own lives, and we preserve them by taking some part of them into ourselves. If it is true that our regime crisis is a failure of civic friendship, then the antidote is not grand schemes to redistribute wealth or overturn the 2020 election but reinvestment in our neighbors as our neighbors.

“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar. For the man who hates his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20). All politics is local, and the bonds of civic friendship are formed locally: face to face, shoulder to shoulder, at the volunteer fire department, in church, on Little League baseball fields. Social media has obscured this to a large degree, because it creates the illusion that everyone is equally close to us and all concerns are equally, crushingly, ours to bear. But it is not so: we are still and will always be embodied souls, human beings in time and place with other people near to us who share our concerns.

Here’s an exercise to try: conduct a searching inventory of your emotional state. Are you anxious? Dejected? Fearful? Dismayed? Now ask yourself how much of that feeling is related to things that are actually going on around you in physical space, and how much of it is about catastrophic disasters that you fear happening “out there.” If the atmosphere of your emotional world is more directly tied to your Twitter feed than to how your kids are doing at school or your relationship with your wife, something is deeply wrong.

This is not at all to say that when you turn your attention to the people and things immediately surrounding you, there will be no problems to contend with. There might be terrible problems like drug addiction, child abuse, contentious school board meetings over racial and sexual extremism, or the threat or reality of poverty. But the strangely comforting thing about even these problems is that they are you-sized: unlike the global disasters which you perceive or imagine, your personal and local problems represent the potential for you and those around you to get on with the actual work of civic engagement and republican friendship. In this context you actually can make things better—as parents around the country are starting to do with their local schools, and as ordinary people do every day, over the breakfast table and on the street, in acts of charity and kindness. The burden of building a family and cherishing it, the burden of fighting through the rubble of this broken world toward the good, the true, and the beautiful: these burdens, no more and no less, are yours to bear.

When you do get about that work, you may find that the tribal designations you have attached to yourself hold less and less weight. It may surprise you to learn that a “Republican” is not actually a type of person, and neither is a “Democrat.” In our transformative age of realignment, the divide is really, more than anything, between people who want to live in the real world—the world where there are two sexes, kids are important, and the weak need protecting—and people who want to deny or upend that world.

Seek the people who want to live in reality, and you may find yourself side by side with hunters and environmentalists, Trump voters and old-school feminists. You may also find that some aspects of high tech can help you, rather than hurt you, in restoring peace to some small patch of your community. What if cryptocurrency, for example, could help you shore up your financial assets and start your own online business? The irony is that digital technology, if we use it well, has the potential to make us more independent from urban centers. The internet can free some of us to work remotely while we live in small towns and devote ourselves to local communities, rather than flocking into densely populated hubs where “all the action is happening.” San Francisco and New York do not have to be the center of the world anymore. That is in our power too—if we choose to use new technology wisely.

None of these things is going to transform the course of history on its own. But all of them will get you back in the saddle of your own life and give you real agency. They will get you thinking like a citizen of a republic, with friends and fellow citizens at your side. There are still times, thank God, when we are called upon to vote and campaign and demonstrate—for presidents and senators and congressmen—who have power to shape national politics. When we do, we should demand that they show seriousness about representing our real interests—including and especially breaking up the tech monopolies which commodify us and our tribal allegiances while accruing unaccountable power over our communications technology. But in order even to know what our major concerns really are, we will need to know what life is really like in our neighborhoods, our cities, and our states.

That means going to the farmers’ market, to city council meetings, and, yes, even to church. There is no getting around this. Classical liberalism, republican liberty, and even the American Constitution: none of it was meant to survive on its own. They are jewels set in a crown, upheld and supported only by the grand traditions of the West, including worship. Our inalienable rights are granted to us by a Creator—for that sentence to make any sense at all, the word “Creator” has to mean something.

I have stressed throughout this book that all the good and noble things we want to fight for cannot exist unless God does. And there will be no “saving the republic,” no “escaping the cycle of regimes,” without God. The reason we all feel so anxious to save the world is because we don’t trust that He is there to do that job. And so we take upon ourselves world-saving responsibilities for which we are quite laughably unequipped. But it will be He who determines whether our republic stands or falls, and whether this nation tomorrow goes the way that all nations must one day go. And if it does, then only He will endure and only our investment in Him will have turned out not to have been in vain.

Because the West, which is God’s, does not depend on the survival of America. The truth, which is His, has endured the rising and falling of many nations, the coming and going of the cities that were great in Herodotus’s youth and the empire that once belonged to Rome. When the princes of the world are deposed, when powers that seemed eternal vanish like the Persian dust, there are things that remain.

Even for all the manuscripts that are lost heedlessly or burned in war, for all the towers that come crashing down, some things—the memory of lost republics, the nagging conviction that justice is eternal—endure. They endure because they too are God’s.

After defecting from the Soviet underground, Whittaker Chambers, even in his darkest mood, wrote of “snatching a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots” to preserve for a better day “when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else.”

No one knows the hour or the day when Rome will fall. No one knows the role he will play in history’s retrospect. But you and I wake up every day in a world that is real, surrounded by people who are also real, and that is enough. It is everything. And if you and I wake up determined that we will live as if the eternal truths handed down to us by our ancestors are as real as ourselves and the world around us—if we do that in faith, then that’s better than good. That is how to save the West.

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About Spencer Klavan

Spencer Klavan, a scholar, writer, and podcaster, has a lifelong devotion to the great works and principles of the West. After studying Greek and Latin as an undergraduate at Yale, he spent five years at Oxford earning his doctorate in ancient Greek literature. Now an editor at the Claremont Institute, he has written for many outlets, including The Atlantic, the Los Angeles Times, City Journal, Newsweek, the Claremont Review of Books, The Federalist, The American Mind, and The Daily Wire. His book How to Save the West: Ancient Wisdom For 5 Modern Crises was published in February 2023.

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