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December 26, 2000

Western Civilization: Love It Or Leave It


by Joseph Stromberg

AGAIN THE MILLENNIUM

Today we stand just a few days this side of the real thousand-year mark, that is, midnight 31 December 2000. You knew I wasn't going to let that go, didn't you? I still wonder why all the calendar-challenged classes insisted on having a big song and dance last year, but can't be bothered, it seems, to notice that January 1, 2001 is more than an ordinary New Year's Day. The Brits even built an insane Millennium Dome, which no one admits to liking, for last year's premature party. I suggest moving it to the fairgrounds of one of our Midwestern States. You could get a lot of grain and cattle into that thing.

The reason why the New Millennium was welcomed in the wrong year may be the same reason a lot of things happen when they do. Sir Ernest Gellner, the sociologist, once referred to the "postal error theory of history," which may not have been original with him. This theory held that, by some terrible mistake, the liberating, revolutionary message meant for the working classes had been handed over to sundry nationalist movements, with deplorable results. Of course, where the message did get in the "right" hands, even more damage was done, but why quibble? Historians still shed a conventional tear about what happened to poor Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, but don't these historians know what the comrades wanted to do? Evidently, the "social changes" envisioned by the comrades were just the thing, but at the end of the 20th century we ought to know better.

METAHISTORY, QUIGLEY, AND 'CONSPIRACIES'

Metahistorians like Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, Pitrim Sorokin, and Carroll Quigley sought to find the processes by which civilizations rise and decline. The first three were rather gloomy – reacting in part to the civilizational disaster known as World War I – although Spengler did dare us to throw those historical dice. It's just as well that he died before various historical actors threw them in the disaster known as World War II.

One of the players in World War II, Uncle Joe Stalin, had a metahistorical doctrine of his own, to which he contributed a number of turgid essays even less readable than those of Lenin and Trotsky. On Joe's orders, as orchestrated by a Stalinist professor of anthropology at Columbia University, Trotsky met with assassination. No wonder no one trusts anthropologists any more. Anyway, Stalin's historical doctrine held that if everyone gave up control of everything to his regime, in time everyone would have strawberries and cream, after which this horrible regime would "wither away." Even at 20 million plus deaths this seemed a good deal to many people. Others understandably resisted and under cover of helping out, the other Uncle – Sam – made his bid for world dominance.

Buoyed up by their own sense of competence, Yankee ingenuity, and American know-how, our northeastern elite built a world empire on which the sun has not yet set. They didn't notice, or didn't much care to notice, that in the process they had deconstructed their own country. Perhaps they just thought of it as a convenient place to stand while carrying out their good work. I only wish they had presented it clearly to the voters: "Support the empire, destroy your way of life, you'll feel better when it's all over." I'll bet there wouldn't have been as big a consensus, had they done so. So they said, instead: "Give us total power to stop the commies and we'll give it back later. Trust us." Many people did trust them. H. L. Mencken long ago addressed why that might be.

PHASES OF CIVILIZATION

In a roundabout way, this brings us back to Quigley. The Evolution of Civilizations (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1979 [1961]) is probably his most important book. In this work Quigley sought to find the developmental pattern of civilizations. Very briefly, he spied seven phases in the life of any civilization which lasted long enough to go through the full set. These are mixture, gestation, expansion, conflict, empire, decay, and invasion. These phases are not "given" to observation but are generalized from what we know about past civilizations. There is no predictive science here, nor does every civilization go through all seven stages. Constituent states within a civilization might so weaken the civilization through constant warfare as to skip the empire phase, going straight from conflict to decay and invasion. A civilization in one of the first two phases might run up against another in its expansion phase and simply succumb.

Quigley believed that Western Civilization had, in effect, recycled itself three times. Uniquely, it had gone through three expansion phases based on feudalism, merchant capitalism, and industrial capitalism, respectively. Each expansion phase had kindled a conflict phase without, however, leading to a universal empire incorporating all or most of the civilization. When Quigley wrote, it was not clear whether the United States could or would bring the dubious blessings of universal empire to Western Civilization.

AN ANTI-WESTERN UNIVERSAL EMPIRE FOUNDED BY THE WEST?

In recent decades, the will to extend US imperialism everywhere has certainly been in evidence. What is interesting is that in recent years the US leadership's will-to-power has gone hand in hand with an anti-Western rhetoric about universal values, "diversity," and the like. The elite wields this rhetoric against its own backward American people, who are expected to pay for the elite's moral and political lost weekends, whatever the damage to the original republican scheme which the people were blind enough to let go.

Empires tend to proclaim some universal mission as justification for their existence. This may be the first time that an empire has proclaimed the suicide of its civilization as part of its mission. Even the Spanish empire's trinity of God, gold, and glory seems more appealing than amalgam of enforced diversity, the implementation of UNESCO directives, and the realization of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, here and now – if that were the only other choice.

IS ANYTHING TO BE DONE?

The best choice of all would be to abandon the path of empire, for empire destroys not just hapless foreigners in its path but the core civilization from which it arose. Of course ruling elites do not give up their projects willingly. Some pressure from below will be needed. Now there is a task worthy of a new millennium. I suppose those who don't value Western Civilization won't give a monkey's whether empire destroys it or not. Anti-imperialists will just have to learn how to talk past them to those who have some lingering attachment to their own inheritance.

Historians go astray quickly when predicting the future. I won't make any predictions. Assessing "the present situation" (as the Marxists like to say) is enough for now. There is plenty of work to go around.

In Quigleyan terms we see signs of the last three phases of civilization – empire, decay, and invasion – all around us, simultaneously. The strains on what the New Left used to call "the system" are many. Too bad so many of the New Left are now in the system. The late shambles of an election may be a good sign. It will be harder to inflict "fair elections" on the foreign enemy state of the week in the face of the inevitable ridicule. Next, the Bushians – whatever their interest in rigging the world oil market – seem to lack their late opponents' ideological mania for doing right globally. Finally, there are a few signs of cultural resistance. Home-schooling is just one of them.

These may be reasons for guarded optimism. Ludwig von Mises, who wrote eloquently of the unique relationship of Western Civilization to freedom, also had this to say: "Bad policies can disintegrate our civilization as they have destroyed many other civilizations. But neither reason nor experience warrants the assumption that we cannot avoid choosing bad policies and thereby wrecking our civilization.1

Note

  1. Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1985), p. 221.
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    Joseph R. Stromberg has been writing for libertarian publications since 1973, including The Individualist, Reason, the Journal of Libertarian Studies, Libertarian Review, and the Agorist Quarterly, and is completing a set of essays on America's wars. He was recently named the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His column, "The Old Cause," appears alternating Fridays on Antiwar.com.

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