Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam—and why of that loam, whereto he was converted, might they not stop a beer barrel?
Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.
Oh, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall t’expel the winter’s flaw!—Hamlet, Act V
From the Star Wars prequels to St. Augustine’s City of God, writers have always produced decline and fall narratives. Human beings have always understood how the passage of time erodes our fragile constructions. For Herodotus, history is cyclical: “many states that were once great have now become small: and those that were great in my time were small formerly … therefore human prosperity never continues in one stay.” While human ambition might allow us to summon fortune’s favor for a time, it is the fate of all mortal works to decline and be superseded. The state is no different. For St. Augustine, the decline of a superstate like the Roman Empire offered a moral and theological lesson. No power or collection of powers was sufficient to take down the Romans at their prime. Rome failed because of the sinfulness of its citizens, who wrongly assumed that an empire dedicated to the pursuit of worldly glory and riches could be exempt from the rule that all things come from and must return to dust. Only the sinless city of God is truly destined to be immortal. Centuries later, radicals on both left and right, such as Karl Marx and Oswald Spengler, gave more secular—though hardly less grandiose—accounts of decline and fall, inspired by everything from Hegelian dialectics to evolutionary theory.
Ruminations on these themes usually appear during epochal crises and times of transition, such as ours. Everything from the election of postmodern conservatives like Donald Trump to the resurgence of socialism among millennials and zoomers has inspired literature predicting or lamenting bigger changes to come. Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Nationalism and Socialism is Destroying American Democracy is one of the latest contributions. Goldberg was a conservative columnist for the National Review while writing the book. Since then—perhaps in part due to his staunch Never Trump views—he has distanced himself from the publication and moved to the Dispatch. Given these personal dramas, it should come as little surprise that a hint of bitterness occasionally creeps into the book. Goldberg chides both left and right for breaking faith with the ordered liberty politics he holds so dear. He offers a panoramic defense of capitalism and liberalism against those who would seek to replace them with various forms of collectivism. The book is convincing in parts. But Goldberg’s analysis stops short of probing deeply into the very real anxieties that have led many of us to call for more radical kinds of reform.
Defending Liberalism and Capitalism
At several points, Goldberg stresses that he has endeavored to tone down his own partisanship. He is “weary” of one-sided attempts to “rile up your own supporters … particularly on my own ‘side.’” Despite its dramatic title, the book’s tone is argumentative and explanatory, rather than shrill. Although he is a believer, Goldberg makes no appeals to God and does not employ any religious arguments that rely on a particular theological outlook. When the Christian god does appear in the book, his creed is understood as a social phenomenon, which serves some useful functions, rather than the word of a loving god providentially intervening on behalf of his children.
However there is another, more vulgar deity, who does appear throughout Suicide of the West: the god of capitalism. As Chris Rock has pointed out, Americans worship money: if you want proof, look at the dollar bill where it says In God We Trust. Goldberg deserves to be the high priest of that faith. His idolatry isn’t subtle. Goldberg writes frequently of “the Miracle,” with a capital M—and he isn’t referring to Moses parting the Red Sea. He ascribes almost all the benefits of the modern world to the emergence of liberal capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. While Goldberg admits that unbridled liberalism and capitalism have produced problems, his analysis doesn’t probe that deeply. Instead, he is content to chalk up the current anxieties about liberalism and capitalism to people “ungrateful for what the Miracle has brought us,” and to big government, social justice activism and a host of other familiar bogeymen.
The first few chapters of Goldberg’s book are the most convincing. He characterizes our political dilemma as a contest between Lockean individualism and Rousseauian tribalism: the latter of which gives a Romantic twist to many of our basic tribalist inclinations. Goldberg considers Lockean individualism psychologically unnatural. We are predisposed to tribalism, he argues, which is why liberalism and capitalism can feel so oppressive at times. We yearn for a return to the authenticity and connection of earlier periods, which is why critiques by socialists and nationalist collectivists will always find some approval among the disaffected. But Goldberg insists that we must reject these inclinations, given all the benefits “the Miracle” of liberalism and capitalism have brought us. Everything from technological advances to extended life expectancies and the surfeit of consumer goods and services is owing to the remarkable power of individual liberty and of markets that have been set loose to work their magic.
Goldberg’s pro-Enlightenment narrative of material progress makes a lot of good points. Ironically—contra Goldberg’s often shoddy understanding of Marxism—even Marx and Engels would have agreed that liberalism and capitalism have accomplished wonders. The problem is that leftist critiques of capitalism are considerably more subtle than Goldberg acknowledges. Few have denied capitalism’s remarkable capacity to produce goods. The problem is how it distributes them, and whether other social institutions might do better and whether radical change is required to ensure that the benefits of material prosperity reach everyone. For some, this a technical or historical question, for others—like myself—a moral one.
Goldberg attributes all material progress to the spirit of Locke and none to those who recognized the limitations of capitalism—including luminaries like Adam Smith, whose opinions were far more nuanced than Goldberg suggests. For instance, Goldberg praises capitalism for generating leisure time and expanding educational opportunities for all. Little attention is paid to the often heroic efforts of the labour movement in agitating for the eight-hour day and the weekend, or the vast public funds allocated to providing quality education for everyone. Goldberg talks about the precipitous decline in world hunger. But, sadly, father of the Green Revolution Norman Borlaug—who developed resistant forms of wheat and offered them patent-free to the world’s poor—doesn’t get a mention. Nor does Amartya Sen, who won a Nobel prize for showing that it was the establishment of democracy worldwide that did the most to eliminate famines. Other research pointing out the vital role state and public institutions have played in ending world poverty—see, for instance this mammoth recent study—is either casually brushed aside or never mentioned at all.
There are legitimate major moral criticisms of the triumphalist narrative that capitalism is solely responsible for ending world poverty. There are currently around 815 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment, including millions in the United States. Despite this, the world produces vastly more food than is consumed—about a trillion dollars’ worth of which is discarded. This food could be used to feed starving people—but this rarely happens, because they are generally unable to pay for it and there is little economic incentive to make it available at no cost to them. This constitutes a profound moral failure on the part of markets, and should be compensated for through ambitious redistributive policies, to help the neediest people in the world. As both liberal philosophers like John Rawls and utilitarians like Peter Singer have argued, it is not enough to simply point to aggregate improvements, since this ignores the very real needs that persist. Now that we have enough resources to feed everyone, merely pointing out that there are fewer hungry people than there were in earlier generations is insufficient.
Who Is Responsible for Our Current Anomie?
The one-sidedness of Goldberg’s analysis leaves him at a loss to account for the current discontent. He is correct that many of us are instinctively attracted to various forms of tribalism. But Goldberg fails to explain why these feelings are resurgent now, despite the fact that things are getting materially better for many of us. Chalking that up to ingratitude is pure cantankerousness. Unfortunately, the only causal factors Goldberg is willing to accept are all the old center-right staples: an unwieldy bureaucratic state, a decline in family values and, of course, social justice activism. Most disappointingly, Goldberg fails to reflect deeply on how the fairly local problem of hyper-partisan conservative political culture might explain the emergence of Donald Trump. At moments like the following, Goldberg approaches self-reflection—but fails to take the leap:
as so many new presidents do, [Trump] misread the election results, antagonizing Democrats and appeasing his most zealous supporters. As a conservative and as an American, this makes me happy, at least in the short term, because by galvanizing opposition against him, he has unwittingly strengthened the system of checks and balances. But in the long term I worry more, because he has demonstrated that conservatism, at least as expressed by the Republican Party and its more loyally allied media outlets, is not immune to the tribal desire for strongmen. Donald Trump did not cause this corruption on the right; he is exploiting it. And, having succeeded, he is accelerating it.
But Goldberg can’t explain where this “corruption on the right” has come from, beyond offering a few condemnations of Trump’s personal character and pointing out that many conservatives have felt under attack from social justice activism and the Obama administration for too long. But this rot has been festering for a long time, fuelled by everything from the manic partisanship of conservative radio and talk shows; to fervent partisans, like Rush Limbaugh; to Dennis Prager with his insistence that “the left ruins everything”; and the postmodern dismissal of the “reality-based community” by Karl Rove. Goldberg might object that the left has behaved no better—and there is something to that. Many of us progressives have pointed out that the left needs to grow past the insular partisanship of Mark Fisher’s “vampire castle” by trying to engage more seriously with the opposition. But whataboutery is no excuse for becoming what you claim to hate. If conservatism has indeed become so corrupt that right-wing pundits like Goldberg are started to feel concerned, he needs to take a harder at why.
The roots of the current discontent run deeper than Goldberg is able to explain, given his insufficiently reflective embrace of liberalism and capitalism. He follows Joseph Schumpeter in recognizing that the disruptions to traditionalism wrought by Lockean individualism have been dramatic, but he insists that, with the right emphasis on the nuclear family and firm social institutions, dramatic pushback might have been avoided. This leads him to blame the typical bogeymen—the administrative state and social justice activism—for all our ills. But it is not nearly as easy as he thinks to disentangle the features of liberal capitalist democracy he likes from those he dislikes. Other conservative commentators, like Patrick Deneen and Peter Lawler, have provided far more penetrating analyses of this. Deneen, for instance, argues that, once one accepts the liberal outlook that people must be freed from all artificial constraints, one must also recognise the likelihood that they will eventually turn to state power to liberate them from the constraints of market meritocracy and competitive struggle. Even Adam Smith recognised that capitalist firms often operate in a monopolistic and self-serving way, in order to seize political influence and power—and thus markets need to be complemented by sound policy. Peter Lawler has pointed out that, if we take the logic of capitalism seriously and see all life as the pursuit of personal satisfaction, it should come as no surprise that individuals are increasingly unwilling to commit themselves to a lifetime of responsibility. If we treat love and sex like commodities, that is because many of us have been primed to look at the whole world that way: Karl Marx writes eloquently about this in Chapter One of Capital, when discussing the ubiquity of commodity fetishism.
So, how can we foster a renewed commitment to liberalism and individualism on the part of democratic polities? For decades now, inequality has been growing, people have been given less say in the operations of their governments and the spread of one-dimensional partisan media has precluded genuine dialogue and civic engagement. Much of this was spurred by the kind of neoliberal policies Goldberg praises. If we are going to rejuvenate the liberal project, it will need to fulfil its promise of a world where we are all treated as moral equals, in which wealth and opportunities are distributed in a far more equitable manner and the seizure of state power by corporate bodies is halted through projects of democratic renewal. There is no going back to the fetishized idylls of the 1950s or the 1980s, whose failures have led to many of the problems of today. Goldberg is right: the decline and fall of liberal democracy is not inevitable. But it can be avoided only by looking to the future, not by mourning the demise of an all too imperfect past.
Image by Jason Wong