Liberty’s Discontents


  • [t]he thought of decline consists of two distinct traditions. For each Western mental who dreads the collapse of his personal society (like Henry Adams or Arnold Toynbee or Paul Kennedy or Charles Murray), there’s one other who has seemed ahead to the occasion with glee.
  • —Arthur Herman, The Thought of Decline in Western Historical past1

In 1997, Arthur Herman revealed The Thought of Decline in Western Historical past, a e-book that examines the position doomsayers have performed in selling ideologies that reject the core Western values of individualism, capitalism, and democracy. His analytical framework strikes me as related within the present setting.

Herman focuses on thinkers from the 19th and 20th centuries, and he tries to divide the pessimists into two camps. Historic pessimists see society heading downhill. Cultural pessimists stay up for its demise. This distinction jogs my memory of the anthem of the 1980s band REM, “It’s the Finish of the World as We Realize it (and I Really feel Effective).” The cultural pessimist breaks with the historic pessimist by including the parenthetical comment.

Herman writes,

  • The historic pessimist sees the current as systematically undoing the achievements of a inventive and ordered previous. Establishments that was once in harmonious steadiness at the moment are out of sync, and social improvement turns into chaotic and harmful… Except the system by some means repairs itself, the historic pessimist concludes, its breakdown is just about preordained.

In the meantime,

  • Cultural pessimism insists that the extraordinary, regular course of civil society on the Western mannequin, as a capitalist or “business” society, resting on rational and scientific ideas, democratic political establishments, and self-consciously “fashionable” cultural and social attitudes, awaits its personal secular apocalypse.
  • … the cultural pessimist assures us that when our corrupt fashionable society has lastly ruined itself and vanishes, one thing higher will change it. This new order, nevertheless, won’t be primarily financial or political; it is going to contain as a substitute the demolition of Western tradition as a totality.

Herman takes us on an in depth tour of pessimistic thought within the 19th and 20th centuries. He offers descriptions of Arthur de Gobineau (a mid-19th century French proponent of racial theories), Friedrich Nietzsche, W.E.B. Du Bois, Oswald Spengler, Sigmund Freud, Arnold Toynbee, and Herbert Marcuse, amongst many others. It struck me that as a result of these disparate thinkers didn’t anticipate Herman’s distinction between historic and cultural pessimism, he generally has to pressure to categorise somebody as falling on one facet or the opposite.

Herman dwells on

  • the battle between tradition and civilization, or Kultur and Zivilisation… which was so essential and so expensive to the German educational custom.
  • Zivilization was the world of politeness and class, but in addition of commerce and concrete society. It was continually altering, materialistic, and even superficial… Kultur, in contrast, was everlasting and religious.
  • … However Kultur may be used within the anthropological sense, to indicate the inventive, literary, and materials heritage of an historic folks.

Many cultural pessimists seized on this distinction to articulate what was unsuitable with Western modernity. The cultural pessimist claims that no matter materials prosperity our society has produced, it has dulled the person spirit and stifled the collective soul.

“I’m involved that immediately’s cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the precept of free speech and prepared to make use of mob bullying towards these with whom they disagree.”

Herman’s description of cultural pessimism emphasizes its risks. Cultural pessimists reject nonviolence and democracy, in order that they supplied mental justification for each Nazi and Soviet tyranny. I’m involved that immediately’s cultural pessimists are unsympathetic to the precept of free speech and prepared to make use of mob bullying towards these with whom they disagree.

At present, historic pessimism could be represented by Tyler Cowen (The Nice Stagnation), Peter Turchin (Ages of Discord), Ross Douthat (The Decadent Society), Martin Gurri (The Revolt of the Public), or Yuval Levin (A Time to Construct). These authors see indicators of decline in gradual productiveness progress and the shortcoming of elites to unravel issues posed by new expertise and cultural change. However they concern nihilistic destruction and as a substitute favor reform.

Cultural pessimism could be represented immediately by Nikole Hannah-Jones (originator of The 1619 Challenge within the New York Occasions that portrays america as based to pursue slavery), Greta Thunberg (younger local weather activist), or Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (politicians advocating for socialism). These public figures see basic sin in America’s democracy, expertise, and financial system.

For extra on the subject of pessimism versus optimism about Western values, see the EconTalk podcast episodes Tyler Cowen on the Nice Stagnation; Martin Gurri on the Revolt of the Public; Yuval Levin on A Time to Construct; and Matt Ridley on Commerce, Development, and the Rational Optimist.

At present one can discover eloquent defenses of Western values. Examples embody Matt Ridley (The Rational Optimist), Steven Pinker (Enlightenment Now), and Deirdre McCloskey (Why Liberalism Works). However their arguments appear to fall on deaf ears amongst cultural pessimists.

The relentless ferocity of latest cultural pessimism has me involved. I hope younger folks don’t get swept up within the spiritual fervor that sees sin in every part that Western values have touched.


[1] Arthur Herman, The Thought of Decline in Western Historical past. Encounter Books, 2020.

*Arnold Kling has a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Expertise. He’s the creator of a number of books, together with Disaster of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Well being Care; Invisible Wealth: The Hidden Story of How Markets Work; Unchecked and Unbalanced: How the Discrepancy Between Information and Energy Prompted the Monetary Disaster and Threatens Democracy; and Specialization and Commerce: A Re-introduction to Economics. He contributed to EconLog from January 2003 by way of August 2012.

Learn extra of what Arnold Kling’s been studying. For extra e-book evaluations and articles by Arnold Kling, see the Archive.

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