The political and economic issues broadly discussed in the media usually revolve around political cycles, terrorism, foreign policy, rising debt levels, sluggish economic performance, academic underachievement, environmental problems, ageing demographics and so forth.
In our view, this all ties into a major cycle of history that has been with us for some time, and which has been gaining traction since the 1990s: the end of Western Civilization and the transition towards a globalized society. There is some confusion between the two terms, where the latter is often perceived as the continuation of the former, but in reality the two have been in conflict for almost 100 years.
We are delighted to get Prof. Harry Redner’s views on this topic, which he has studied and written about extensively. The political, social and economic ramifications are likely to be life changing in the years to come. Politicians, investors and citizens all over the world should take note.
E. Tavares: Prof. Redner, thank you for being with us today. Let’s start with a basic yet difficult to define concept: what is civilization?
H. Redner: How and why it originated and how it developed further are extremely contentious issues, about which the views of specialists from at least half a dozen disciplines are frequently at odds. It has been debated for centuries and will continue so for the foreseeable future. My own views on these matters carry no special weight and everything I have to say can be disputed and, indeed, will be so, as there are no final conclusive answers to these ultimate questions. But for what they are worth, I will present a few of my provisional thoughts.
Civilization is a necessary and inevitable stage in human development. When human societies increase in number and productive capacity, when they become more integrated through communication, trade and authority systems and, above all, when higher cultures and mentalities above those of primitive shamanistic cults, spirit worship and fetishist symbolism arise, civilization takes off as the next stage of human development.
This happened at different times and places all over the globe, first along the river valleys of Mesopotamia and the Nile, later along those of the Indus and Yellow Rivers; later still, and completely autonomously, under different conditions in Mesoamerica and in the Andes. There is a syndrome of features, most of which these early civilizations display, more or less completely in each case, such as the rise of cities, the formation of states, class differentiations, the invention of methods of writing and organized religion, together with a mythological creed or pantheon.
However, my interest is not in these early civilizations but only in the later, more developed ones, those that survived until the start of the twentieth century. These are the so-called post-Axial Age civilizations. The idea of an Axial Age, which occurred approximately between 700 and 300 BC, was developed by the German philosopher Karl Jaspers to refer to this period when the first philosophies and universal religions arose that have persisted till now. It is a curious and still unexplained historical coincidence that many of the great thinkers and sages, such as Zoroaster, Pythagoras, deutero-Isaiah, the Buddha, Confucius and Lao-Tse all lived around 500BC in widely dispersed places. The post-Axial civilizations are based on their teachings.
In each case what was crucial for the rise and development of these civilizations was the construction of a higher form of literacy embodied in a set of canonical texts and, stemming from these, a higher form of ethical conduct. The figures of the philosopher, prophet, sage, saint, ascetic monk, scholar, rabbi and mandarin, as bearers of the highest values of literacy and ethics, arose respectively in each of the resulting civilizations. Invariably, but with some crucial exceptions, empires were founded by conquerors and rulers based on these values, which were given an organized form in schools of philosophy or law, monastic orders or churches or other types of scholarly or religious institutions. These have mostly lasted till our time. But since the start of the twentieth century at the very latest they were undermined and came under attack from many quarters in a general disruption of established traditions all over the world.
ET: Can you briefly summarize what makes Western Civilization different? Was the Greek classical tradition what made it take root across Europe, or was there something else at play?
HR: The term “Western Civilization” is used ambiguously in two somewhat different senses: it can refer to the whole development of civilization in the West from its Greek origin to its European culmination, or alternatively, it can refer only to the latter, namely to the civilization of Europe that began to flourish around 1000AD. This is a distinct form of civilization different from the Classical or Greco-Roman civilization based on the Mediterranean that lasted approximately till 500AD, as well as from the Byzantine civilization, located largely in what is now Turkey and the Balkans that followed. Clearly, there were strong historical, cultural and religious continuities between these three civilizational stages, which is the reason that they can be collectively called Western Civilization in the broad sense.
Western Civilization in the narrow sense, namely European civilization, had one of its roots in the Classical Greco-Roman tradition, but its other crucial root lay in Judaism, as developed and enlarged by Christianity. The key text of this civilization is and remains the Judaeo-Christian Bible, which is why it is often referred to as a Judaeo-Christian Civilization.
What made European civilization different was its capacity to absorb all earlier Western civilizational forms, which manifested itself in numerous Renaissances and Reformations. During the Renaissances, the first of which took place in the 12th century, it went back to its roots in classical civilization; during its Reformations and counter-Reformations it went back to its biblical roots, back to the prophets, the Gospels and the Church Fathers. Each time it gained renewed cultural vigor.
Politically, what made European Civilization so unusual was that it never unified into a single empire, as all the others had done at one time or another. But Europe always remained divided and resisted all attempts at imperial unification and domination. Instead of a single empire, it evolved politically into a system of kingdoms, principalities and semi-autonomous cities, together with a Church, also vying for power, which itself broke up during the Reformation. This meant that no single authority could ever maintain complete control over all of Europe and no single orthodoxy in respect of anything could prevail everywhere.
This is the secret source of European freedom and individualism. It gave rise to the conditions that fostered competition and contention that proved immensely conducive to creativity and innovation. Its dark obverse side was continual strife and wars which proved most damaging when they irrupted as religious wars and persecutions, and which eventually in the twentieth century turned into ideological wars that almost destroyed European Civilization.
ET: It can be said that Western Civilization reached its pinnacle just before the First World War. Clearly the subsequent loss of entire generations of would-be scientists, teachers, civil servants, doctors, priests, engineers, patriots, mothers, fathers and children in devastating conflicts was something the West never really recovered from. The peace and prosperity that Europeans have achieved since then masks this fact, certainly in relative terms. What are your thoughts here?
HR: Certainly the First World War was the proximal inciting cause for a process of civilizational destruction in Europe and the rest of the world that is still going on.
It was not so much the killing in itself, though that was bad enough – a large part of a generation of young men was sacrificed – as the demoralization and loss of faith in the enlightenment values of liberalism and democracy by which Europe had been guided in the nineteenth century and towards which most countries were moving.
This was particularly virulent in the countries on the losing side, beginning with Russia, where it led to the Bolshevik Revolution, which briefly spread to much of central Europe; and in Italy, which was on the winning side but in danger of a Bolshevik takeover, and where a Fascist reaction ensued. Soviet totalitarianism in Russia devastated its culture and society, in a process started by Lenin and Trotsky and concluded by Stalin. This upheaval might have been contained and stopped from spreading to the rest of Europe were it not for the Great Depression, which destroyed any hope for democracy and led almost inevitably to the Second World War with all its devastating consequences.
After that war, Europe lay prostrate and divided by the Cold War into two mutually closed off spheres. With American aid, Western Europe rebuilt itself materially remarkably quickly; in Eastern Europe under Soviet domination this happened much more slowly. However, there was no moral or cultural recovery. European Civilization did not rise like a phoenix from the ashes. It languished for a while and now seems to be petering out.
ET: As you argue persuasively in your books, totalitarianism ended up being a major force behind the destruction of European Civilization. However, the likes of Mussolini and Hitler rose to power by promising their nations that they would regain the commanding role in its progression – at the expense of others through the use of extreme violence. Are there inherent conflicts within Western Civilization or was totalitarianism an accident of history?
HR: Totalitarianism was an accident of history only to the extent that the First World War was an accident of history – a very tragic accident with calamitous consequences. There was nothing in European Civilization as such, or as it was developing during the nineteenth century, necessitating the First World War. On the contrary, everything seemed to point to the impossibility of such a war.
However, the war was no accident in so far as the disposition of the great power alliances was concerned. This was bound to lead to some kind of war, though not necessarily to the First World War, a war of great duration and unprecedented ferocity. The two sides were too evenly matched for either to quickly defeat the other. Had Germany won the war during the first or even second year there would have been no revolution in Russia and no totalitarianism there or in Italy. Europe would have been saved the worst, at least for a long while, though it would have fallen under German domination, but that would have been by far the lesser evil.
Hitler’s rise to power and Nazi totalitarianism was the direct consequence of the outcome of the First World War together with the Great Depression. In a sense, the latter, too, was the outcome of an accident of economic history, just like the Global Financial Crisis we have recently experienced. Nevertheless, there were robust historical causes behind both events. The idea of an “accident of history” is a relative one, for what is accidental in relation to one set of developments, generally of a broad type, is causally necessitated in relation to another set. There is no such thing as a “historical accident” in any absolute sense.
In the case of totalitarianism we cannot discount the role of individuals of exceptional ability, especially when this is conducive to evil, such as Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao and others such as Mussolini and Franco to a lesser extent. Are they accidents of history or rather men that rise to great heights when history provides them with the opportunities for doing so? Do they make history or does history make them? These are the kinds of issues that need to be considered when accounting for so-called “accidents of history”.
ET: You also talk about the role that some prominent European philosophers played in the formation of these destructive ideologies, something which is seldom discussed. Which ones do you believe made the biggest contribution to the development of European and Soviet totalitarianism?
HR: Totalitarianism could not have arisen without political ideologies; and such ideologies could not have emerged without philosophers and other types of intellectuals, some of them men of great genius. Behind Bolshevism there stands the great social theorist Marx and behind Nazism the almost as great thinker, Nietzsche. However, neither Marx nor Nietzsche is directly responsible for Bolshevism or Nazism; a long chain of mediating accessory figures had to be active in transitioning from the philosophical thought to the political ideology. These intermediaries were themselves intellectuals of a lesser kind, and there were literally hundreds of them.
Prior to the First World War, Marxism was being successfully adapted to the needs of democratic workers’ movements of socialist parties throughout Europe. Only in Czarist Russia, where the Marxist party was illegal, did a splinter movement of those calling themselves Bolsheviks arise under the leadership of Lenin, in opposition to the majority of moderate Marxists who called themselves Mensheviks. Lenin’s Bolshevik ideology was a far cry from classical Western Marxism being in large part inspired by Russian insurrectionist traditions.
Hitler’s Nazi ideology, based on virulent anti-Semitism and nationalistic imperialism, was also far removed from the classical German philosophies of Fichte, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, on which it based itself. But there were many German intellectuals who applied these philosophical ideas in ways which, at their most extreme and crudest, led to the Nazi ideology as Hitler enunciated it, and as the German people subsequently accepted it.
Again it needs to be stressed that this could not have happened were it not for the demoralizing effects of the First World War and the Great Depression that followed. The role of the intellectuals in these complex processes of creation, distortion and political application of theoretical ideas, I have studied in my latest publication entitled The Triumph and Tragedy of the Intellectuals.
ET: We are all familiar with the destructive results of revolutionary communism, particularly as it matured under full totalitarianism under Stalin and Mao. However, there were other political thinkers which advocated a much more subversive approach for the implementation of communism in the West, such as Gramsci for instance.
Shocked that during World War I workers ended up fighting other workers instead of the “maleficent” bourgeois, these thinkers reasoned that this was because Europeans were too conditioned by their own nationalism, families and religion – all of which broadly formed the basis of their civilization. So to achieve communism these institutions had to be eradicated from society, not necessarily by force like in Russia or China, but by progressive infiltration and ideological replacement of the media, education, politics, unions and even the religious institutions themselves.
However, European political elites post-Second World War also supported the replacement of these institutions in society by the state, or more specifically, the superstate which is now known as the European Union. So there was a curious confluence of interests in this process, all under the guise of eliminating the “evils” that supposedly led to the disasters of twentieth century Europe and creating a more egalitarian society. What are your thoughts here?
HR: Marxism is a very broad church which can accommodate a huge variety of thinkers, social movements and political parties. Some of these were close to the political ideology of Russian Bolshevism, whereas others were far removed from it and closer to the enlightenment ideas of Marx himself, at least in his early humanistic works. Where a thinker like Gramsci stands in this Marxist line-up is difficult to determine, because he wrote his works in the relative “freedom” of Mussolini’s jail, where he was not subject to the immediate Comintern pressure; but at the same time he had to write in code and could not express himself openly on all issues. Had he escaped to Moscow, as his colleague, the later Italian leader Togliatti did, he would have been compelled to become a Stalinist and could not have developed his ideas. Much later, Gramsci’s ideas became the basis of the Italian Communist Party, and thereby of Euro-Communism.
As Euro-Communism demonstrates, there is nothing in Marxism as such that precludes it from being tolerant and accepting towards religion, family and other such personal traditional values, even though in fact, most Marxists were atheists. However, some Christians were Marxists, including those within the Catholic Church itself who preached liberation ideology or took part in worker-priest movements. The relation between Marxism and Christianity is an extremely complex historical issue that went through many phases from outright hostility to mutual accommodation.
The role of the state in relation to traditional values, social institutions and culture in general is an overwhelming topic that can only be treated in a book-length work. By the state, we mean, of course, the nation-state, the prevalent European form. Prior to the First World War, the nation-state had by and large a positive social and cultural effect. It enabled new nations to flourish, particularly Germany and Italy, and led to national revivals throughout Europe, especially in the East. But at the same time, the nation state was a militaristic institution that led to the disasters of the First World War and what followed with the totalitarian states, the very worst manifestation of the nation-state.
Since the Second World War, the state in Western Europe has become increasingly a welfare state. It has had some remarkable successes but also incurred some failures. Its greatest achievement has been to bring about a considerable degree of economic social justice, especially in class-ridden societies like Britain. The kind of grinding poverty prevalent before the First World War is now no longer in evidence.
On the other hand, state education seems to have been largely a failure and has led to considerable miseducation in many respects: in the case of schools for the poor being barely able to instill the rudiments of the three Rs (“Reading”, “Writing” and “Arithmetic”). In Britain, private schools and the ancient universities are still the bulwarks of the class system. Of course, there are some European countries, generally the smaller ones, where state education has achieved a much better outcome.
The inception of the European Union has so far neither improved nor worsened this general condition to any great extent. Imposing a single model for all of Europe in some respects, such as in university education, is very likely a backward step. On the other hand, enabling regions with ethnic or cultural minorities to partially escape the iron grip of the nation-state is a positive step. Much more could be said about this of course.
ET: In addition to developing its own brand of destructive political philosophies, the West unleashed upon the world the Forces of Modernity, as you call them. These are generally perceived as an extension of Western Civilization, but you contend that they are now destroying it. Can you describe these forces and why they are problematic for civilization?
HR: By the term “Forces of Modernity” I mean the crucial economic, political, cognitive and technical respects, according to which nearly all societies in the world are now organized and managed, namely modern capitalism, the modern state, science and technology.
These arose unequivocally only in the European West from approximately 1500 onwards. There were other variants of these both in the Greco-Roman world and in other non-Western civilizations, particularly in China, but they do not approach what Europe achieved in these respects. The causes that made Europe alone to embark on this course, which during the nineteenth century was called “Progress”, are many and varied and are generally disputed among the major theorists on these matters, such as Marx, Weber and many subsequent thinkers. We no longer regard it as progress in any ameliorative sense, for we recognize its many drawbacks and consequences that are inimical to civilization.
During the nineteenth century up to the First World War, the Forces of Modernity were still largely in keeping with the main trends in Western Civilization, especially in America. But in non-Western societies they were having a disastrous effect on all the still surviving civilizations. Their introduction undermined traditional authorities, religions, cultures and values. They gradually prevailed all over the world, either being imposed by colonialism or through the desire to ward off colonialism by emulating the Western powers. America forced Japan to open its doors and accept the Forces of Modernity, and when the Japanese realized they had no choice about it they did so very successfully. It was a much more fraught and conflict-ridden matter in China and the Ottoman Empire.
In the West itself, the situation began to change drastically following the First World War. The nature of this war and all subsequent ones was the direct outcome of the development of the Forces of Modernity in all European societies during the nineteenth century. The huge expansion of the state power since the French Revolution, the introduction of universal conscription and a state sanctioned education system provided millions of trained and ideologically enthused soldiers ready to sacrifice themselves at the behest of their nation state. The vast expansion of mass production that capitalism brought about enabled such mass armies to be armed, equipped and supplied for many years. Science and technology invented new weapons for mass slaughter and new machines of war, some already developed before the war, but many arising out of war-time research itself. The world has made enormous progress in these respects since and it is possible that the latest discoveries and inventions will bring civilization to an end and perhaps wipe out humanity itself. It almost happened a number of times, and it was only sheer luck that saved us in the nick of time.
This is where the Forces of Modernity have brought us. But at the same time, humanity cannot do without them, for only the combination of capitalism, the state, science and technology can provide for, order, control and organize the mass of humanity, swollen to huge numbers, now inhabiting the world, without completely despoiling the natural environment and bringing disaster in another way. This is at least our hope and what we must endeavor to achieve.
ET: And the outcome of these forces is “globalization”? If they prevail, how does a post civilization world looks like?
HR: What we now call globalization is a condition where the Forces of Modernity are prevailing in all societies all over the world; they are becoming increasingly more integrated precisely through the prevalence of these forces. We are increasingly being faced with a uniform and homogenous world, in which all particularities and identities are gradually being eroded. This bodes ill for social relations, for cultures, for spiritual aspirations, for individuality, indeed for everything that civilizations offered in the past to make human life meaningful. There is still a long way to go before any such negative conditions might eventuate, for there is still much left of the old civilizations, especially Western Civilization and its cultural heritage. There is no inevitability about any outcome and much we can do to forestall the worst.
Nevertheless, we must now recognize that humanity is now entering a new and dangerous historical condition unlike any of those it ever encountered in the past. It is no longer a matter of one civilization falling, to be replaced by another, such as happened when Europe arose after the collapse of the Roman Empire. Now all civilizations are endangered and none can survive as autonomous, independent entities as in the past. It is in this sense that we are now moving to a historical stage that is beyond civilization.
This does not mean that we must abandon any further thought of civilization. On the contrary, we must do all we can to save what is left of civilization and prevent it from vanishing completely, as is now happening. This will require a coordinated human effort on the part of all major societies in the world. Whether this will ultimately succeed or fail or what the future holds for a globalized humanity is, of course, for us unpredictable.
Hence, I have no idea what a post-civilizational world will look like, except to surmise that unless some way is found to counter the worst of the present trends towards soulless uniformity, it will not be a world which I would like our children and grandchildren to inherit.
ET: But by suppressing European identities, national democracies and centralizing political power, isn’t the European Union an offshoot of those Forces of Modernity? As such, do the British people have a point in saying that getting out in the recent referendum is a necessity to regain their country and even their culture back?
HR: I do not altogether agree that the European Union is “suppressing European identities, national democracies, and centralizing political power.” I hold that it is a far more limited undertaking made necessary by the collapse of Europe after the Second World War, the Cold War and since then, by the ever increasing economic competition from the new giants of Asia, first Japan, then China and now India emerging as a global power.
In response to such multiple pressures, and with the encouragement of America, Europe did move towards economic and, to a limited extent, political integration, starting with France and Germany and bringing in more and more countries, eventually after the fall of Communism also those of Eastern Europe. But how far it will proceed is not yet decided. Everything in Europe’s past speaks against a “United States of Europe”. But that need not forestall a very open European common market with considerable labor mobility. There are centripetal forces for unity and centrifugal forces for dispersion: how these opposed tendencies will work themselves out in the future is also impossible to predict.
Thus far, I believe, the benefits have been considerable and the adverse consequences as yet not disastrous. This could reverse itself if the Mediterranean countries in the Eurozone prove unable to escape the poverty trap of a strong currency that prevents them devaluing and trading their way out of trouble. Their present levels of unemployment, especially among the young, are unsustainable. On the other hand, incorporating and integrating the former communist countries of Eastern Europe has been an enormous achievement, but one that has also had some unintended bad consequences for other countries in Europe.
The free movement of labor that brought millions of Eastern Europeans, especially Poles, into Britain was undoubtedly one of the main causes for the working-class revolt and vote for Brexit. The open-borders policy that brought a million refugees from the civil wars in Syria and Afghanistan, as well as economic migrants from all parts of Africa and Asia in an uncoordinated and uncontrolled flow was obviously mismanaged. This gave many Europeans, including those who were less affected, a fright. It was such a concatenation of incidental factors that had unexpectedly arisen in the last few years that brought Brexit about, rather than any thought-through dissatisfaction with the European Union. Cameron should never have allowed the matter to be decided by one referendum. It was a political misjudgment on his part.
I predict – always a foolhardy matter – that the effects of Brexit will be far smaller than those who advocate it wish. Theresa May and Angela Merkel, two very astute politicians, will reach a deal whereby Britain will remain close to Europe and any disruptions minimized on both sides. This could easily go awry if there is a huge exodus of multinational firms from Britain sinking the British economy; if Scotland and Northern Ireland vote for independence; or if the Conservative Party and the Labor Party break up and some other more Right wing, or, less likely, more Left wing political party comes to power. All these are possible, but, I believe, unlikely from our present point of view.
ET: As mentioned above, the state has gradually replaced the role of traditional Western institutions, a tendency which has accelerated in recent decades. As a result, there is now a complete dependency on the state to care and provide for large segments of the population, which in turn requires enormous, ever growing resources to sustain.
A byproduct of all this is a huge incentive for the misallocation of resources and even corruption, since politicians now command huge portions of the economy and society. In a democracy votes can be bought by promising all sorts of free goodies to the electorate, who in turn will never vote for anyone that will change the system they depend on, even if it is demonstrably on an unsustainable trajectory.
Has the growth of the state along these lines further corroded European values and morals? As a result, can any European government be truly reformed at this point via the ballot box?
HR: It is true that dependence on the state is increasing in European countries and that states are consuming a considerable proportion of their society’s resources. But the reasons for this vary and are not the same everywhere. The two most contrasting countries are Sweden and Greece.
Sweden is the great success story of the Welfare State and its effects on society. A century ago, it was a poor country, but in the course of the twentieth century it has gone from strength to strength, economically, socially and politically. High taxation rates have not affected its productive capacity; its firms flourish as never before. Its political system is a byword for democracy and popular consultation. Corruption is minimal.
Greece is just the opposite in all these respects. Apart from exploiting its sunshine, beaches, and building hotels, it has failed to develop economically. Tax evasion is rife. The state has been completely mismanaged, as political parties vied with each other by bribing the electorate with borrowed funds. Corruption is rife. Now the country is bankrupt and will most probably never fully recover.
Most European countries are somewhere between these two extremes; generally the further north they lie the closer they are to the Swedish model; the further south, closer to the Greek one. For those in the south, how to achieve reforms so as to make the economy more productive, increase work participation and bring expenditure to affordable limits is the big problem. Resistance to reforms, as evidenced most recently in the strikes and riots in France, is fierce from those that wish to hold on to what they have and fear losing it.
These are the fundamental concerns that will determine whether the European Union survives or goes under. They are the kinds of issues that are prominent in every major capitalist society. America has to face analogous problems due to departure of industries, outsourcing and the influx of illegal migrant labor.
The backlash from the working class and sections of the middle class is what partly accounts for the popularity of Trump. Trumpery is the direct outcome of the degeneration of American Civilization and the decline of its political culture which is now all pervasive. Another recession would bring the overheated political situation to the boil with very dangerous consequences.
ET: The most advanced – or civilized – countries in the world have the lowest birthrates. In recent years Germany (along with other beacons of civilization like Japan and Singapore) has had birthrates even lower than China with its draconian one-child policy. Is civilization bad for babies, or is something else at play here?
HR: The truth of the matter is that high standards of living and female emancipation are responsible for low birth-rates. The more educated women become and the more economically independent, the fewer babies they tend to have. Hence, countries with high birth-rates, such as India, those of the Muslim world and Africa south of the Sahara urgently need to educate and emancipate their women, for otherwise the pressures of population growth will be too much for them to cope with in the long term.
It is only in highly developed countries, such as Europe, Japan, America, and now also China that low birth-rate is a problem. It is a measure of their productivity and success in managing the Forces of Modernity. It has nothing to do with civilization as such.
Various solutions will have to be tried in addressing this problem. Immigration from poorer, overpopulated areas was, until recently, the favored option, as this provided cheap labor power. But that is increasingly becoming less of an option, as recent events have demonstrated. Japan has refused to accept mass immigration all along and is taking the technological route to maintaining productivity. Raising the retirement age is another partial solution.
Lower birthrates might be bad for these countries in the present, but it is good for the world as a whole. Ultimately, the human population cannot just increase without limit; it must sooner or later reach its maximum possible level, and gradually begin to decline.
ET: As you point out, several European governments have opened their borders and welfare systems to mass immigration, particularly from the Third World. The hope is that they will help pay those burgeoning state bills over time. After a few decades these inflows now account for a sizeable percentage of their populations, and particularly so in the larger cities.
Some immigrant communities have brought very different cultures with them, and as their numbers grew this created many social tensions within European societies. Responses to this have differed by country, but a general tendency towards “multiculturalism” is now observable throughout much of the Old Continent. Sweden even made it part of its constitution.
But by definition multiculturalism means the dilution of a nation’s own culture. In fact, liberal Europeans can’t seem to get rid of it fast enough these days. Irrespective of any benefits associated with immigration, is this seemingly unstoppable migration wave and the resulting transformation of Europe’s cultures a symptom or cause of the present demise of Western Civilization?
HR: To answer the last part of this complex question first, the mass immigration of people, generally from the Muslim world, is neither a symptom nor a cause of the present plight of European civilization. It proceeds in the first place from factors internal to the Muslim world itself; from the failure of the Muslim world to modernize, that is, to introduce and institute the Forces of Modernity in a way that is acceptable to and consonant with their culture. Neither capitalism, nor the rational-legal state, nor science, nor technology functions at all well in Muslim countries, with very few partial exceptions. The inability of these countries to modernize, indeed, the opposition to modernization, has produced all the manifestations of lack of development, instability, corruption and civil war. This, coupled with a high birth rate, generates tens of millions, possibly as many as a hundred million, mainly young people who are eager to migrate to the developed world, and Europe is their nearest and easiest destination.
Until now, Europe has been willing to accept them for many reasons. The primary reason has been economic; a young workforce of immigrants was desirable when Europe was growing at a rapid rate. The other reasons had more to do with Europe’s post-Second World War adhesion to enlightened values of liberalism, anti-racism, providing refuge for victims of intolerance and ultimately a belief in multiculturalism, namely, in all the respects in which Europe had failed prior to the war.
The absorption of those who had already arrived over the past half century or so has not proved easy, especially in a climate of economic decline when jobs have become scarce. Apart from these factors, there has been a tendency among many of these new arrivals to settle in ghettoes, where they maintain their own cultural patterns, some of which are at odds with the prevailing host cultures, especially in such matters as the treatment of women. This has led to mutual misunderstanding and resentment. Given satisfactory economic conditions, the readiness of accommodation and compromise on both sides, such problems might in time be overcome. However of late the situation has become critical due to the rise of militant Islam and the resultant civil wars in most Muslim countries. This has generated hordes of refugees and even larger numbers of economic migrants who look to life in Europe as the only chance they will ever have, because they completely despair of their own societies. If Europe continues to practice uncontrolled entry, it will be overrun in no time, with all the adverse consequences of social unrest and illiberal regimes arising.
The only solution to this staggering global problem is two-fold. On the one hand, Europe will have to bite the bullet and adjust its liberal principles, so as to reduce immigration to numbers it can absorb, as my own country, Australia, has done. On the other hand, Europe will have to tackle the problem at its source – in the Muslim world itself. Pacification, development, a brake on corruption and general enlightenment are the fundamental measures Europe will have to promote and be willing to spend the resources necessary. In the long term, this will prove cheaper than letting the current situation fester.
ET: America has always been regarded as the great hope for Western Civilization – indeed, even its prime driving force post Second War War. But you argue that “Americanism” is destroying American civilization. What do you mean by this?
HR: America escaped the civilization-destroying onslaught of totalitarianism that ravaged Europe, Russia, China and other parts of the world. In fact, America profited from the self-inflicted destruction of Europe to emerge as the leading world power in all respects. However, America has not escaped the civilization-reducing propensity of the Forces of Modernity, which it had itself developed and brought to a pitch of perfection.
Thus, American capitalism has been a tremendous success in terms of production, the generation of wealth and the rise of the standard of living of its own people, as well as all those, such as Europeans, where the American-promoted global market operated. There is no known economic system that leads to greater and more rapid GDP growth than American capitalism. China has had to learn this painful lesson after Mao.
However, there has been a high cost to pay in cultural and social terms for this tremendous economic success. American capitalism is the goose that lays the golden egg, but in the process it generates plenty of crap that somehow has to be cleaned up. This has been so in America itself, as well as in the rest of the world where American capitalism has operated, eventually almost everywhere after the Second World War.
Most of the social and cultural problems that America has had to face, especially after the Second World War, can be traced directly or indirectly to its economic success. For example, the social integrity and cultural cohesion of its cities was destroyed by the huge influx of rural migrants when its industries were booming, especially during and after the Second World War. This, in turn, led after the war to the exodus of the middle class from the cities to the burgeoning suburbs, which completely hollowed out city centers. When industries declined, this produced inner-city impoverishment and, even worse, the creation of racial ghettoes. The social problems that these ups and downs of capitalism caused are now all but insuperable.
Culturally, much damage was done by the huge advertising industry that was a necessary adjunct to mass production. It promoted a hedonistic life-style of envy, exhibitionism, status flaunting and other kinds of behaviors, which were formerly considered vices, or at least bad manners. Thus, the moral fiber of American people was weakened and in extreme cases, such as in respect of the Protestant work ethic, it was corrupted.
The Culture Industry dispensing mass entertainment and the media in the hands of big moguls, whose only interest was profit and nothing else, also played a role in the stupefaction of the American public. How this was achieved through free-to-air television is something that a number of major studies have demonstrated. Little wonder that the TV set was referred to in common parlance as the idiot box. One could continue this catalogue of adverse consequences of capitalism almost indefinitely.
This is how “Americanism”, of which capitalism is a most prominent part, is destroying American civilization. One could similarly study other aspects of “Americanism”.
ET: Like their European counterparts, Americans are also becoming increasingly dependent on the state. US government spending is projected to reach stratospheric levels in the not too distant future driven by primarily by healthcare and social expenditures. Federal debt has doubled in each of the last two administrations, and is now over 100% of GDP. Is this also a symptom of civilizational decay?
HR: The rise of the federal debt to over 100% of GDP is due to many causes, most of which are a combination of economics and politics, which has little to do with civilizational decay. However, even if these problems were overcome and expenditure reduced to more tolerable levels this may not necessarily matter to civilization, which is largely a cultural issue.
The main factor driving the federal debt is the diminution of the tax base due to the rapid erosion of American industry, which in the past generated well-paid full-time employment. Now the poor, even when they have work, pay little or no tax. The very rich have also found ways, legal, semi-legal and illegal, of avoiding tax. Hence, the tax burden is being born increasingly by a shrinking middle class. Wholesale tax reform is mandatory, but that cannot be carried through for political reasons. Vested interests of all kinds have a stranglehold on Congress and the major parties are usually in deadlock on this matter.
It is also the case that social expenditure is growing, because casual jobs and low minimum wages can no longer afford a living for poor people without aid from the state. Healthcare expenditure is also growing, because people live longer and because modern medicine is becoming increasingly more costly.
I do not believe that all these major difficulties are insoluble, given decisive political leadership. This is, however, lacking at present for reasons that I cannot go into in this context. Hence, though the burden need not be left to future generations to bear, given things are as they are at present, it most probably will be.
ET: What role do declining education standards play in all this? The US strikingly lags the developed world in academic achievement below the graduate level. And it’s their young who will end up footing the bill for all that government largesse.
HR: The declining education standards in America are, indeed, both a symptom and a cause of the decline of American Civilization. Before the Second World War, American schools and universities were among the best in the world. They continued to function extremely well for a period after the Second World War. Then the schools began to fail and some decades later, so, too, did the universities.
The rot in the schools began with the so-called “life adjustment movement” based very loosely on the educational philosophy of Dewey. From then on, for a majority of American youth, schooling became at best a social and not a learning experience. As the social critic, Richard Hofstadter in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, published in 1963, pointed out: what this approach aims to do (and here I quote from memory) is not for students “to become a disciplined part of the world of production and competition, ambition and vocation, creativity and analytic thought, but to teach them the ways of the world of consumption and hobbies, of enjoyment and social compliance – to adapt to the passive and hedonist style summed up by the significant term adjustment”. At the same time, what was taking place in the blackboard jungles of the inner city schools was much worse than that. All this was aggravated by the poor salaries of teachers relative to other professions and the lack of respect for the work they were doing. This made teaching a last resort as a career choice, into which mainly women were pushed.
In the universities, things did not begin to go bad until the late 1970s. Having poorly prepared students to work with, much of university courses had to be devoted to remedial teaching. The student insurrections of the previous period made university teaching something of a hazardous profession, and teachers naturally preferred to placate students rather than challenge them intellectually. High grades became the norm. The effect of this was felt much more severely in the humanities and social sciences than the natural sciences and the professional faculties. Increasingly fewer students chose to study humanities and social science subjects. Many of these were undermined by the “radical” theoretical fashions and the rise of various kinds of “critical” studies that catered to narrow self-selected groups, made up of those whose mind was closed and no longer open to real critical debate.
All these deleterious intellectual developments are apart from the sheer economic fact that universities charge increasingly high fees, especially the elite schools, which only the very rich can afford. But the bulk of that extra income is being spent not on teaching and research, but on administrative costs, as students are being provided with all kinds of life-style services, and as the general bureaucratization of the university grows in leaps and bounds. Officials now outnumber professors.
Nevertheless, the good American universities are still the best in the world. They are attracting the wealthiest, though not necessarily the best students from all over the world. But for how long this situation will continue remains to be seen.
ET: Technology appears to play a role here as well. For instance social media, instant messaging and all the rest create an environment where we feel we are much less effective and productive. We can only imagine how young students struggle to concentrate on learning anything these days.
This reminds of how the use of lead in plumbing and all types daily artifacts poisoned many Roman leaders, to the point of where perhaps they completely made the wrong decisions on where their society should be heading. Could technology be the twenty first century equivalent? This might explain some of the seemingly irrational decisions of Western societies of late…
HR: The parallel you draw between lead plumbing in the Roman world and modern technology is a good one, except that lead poisoning was probably not as prevalent as some of the poisonous effects of some modern technologies. One of the most beneficial technologies in our societies has, indeed been plumbing, largely introduced in the nineteenth century. It is likely that plumbers and sanitation workers have done more for human health and well-being than doctors. This is evident in Third World countries, where the building of drains and toilets should be given higher priority than the building of hospitals.
In short, some technologies, often very simple ones, have been extraordinarily beneficial. But this is not true of all technologies. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to distinguish between good and bad technologies before they have been introduced. Every technology that is taken up on a large scale serves as a social experiment; it transforms the whole of society in ways that are unpredictable in advance, for it always has unintended consequences either good or bad that cannot be foreseen.
We have learnt this lesson in nearly every case and even more so with advanced technologies. The introduction of the private motorcar on a mass scale gave people unparalleled freedom of mobility, but it also had all kinds of far from desirable consequences. It polluted the air. It destroyed public transportation. It enabled people to desert the cities, which became hollowed out shells, and so on for countless other effects, among which, moral puritans will argue, was the loss of sexual restraint among the young. How one balances the good and bad consequences is an extremely difficult issue of judgment. But it is now too late to do much about it, as the car is here to stay.
It is similar, though perhaps even more complex, with the new information technologies. This, too, is a massive social experiment, the results of which might not be known for a few generations. The benefits of computers, the Internet, social media, etc. are obvious and are being touted by all those with a vested interest in the matter: by the computer and software manufacturers, by their advertisers, the media and by state agencies, including by many education authorities who should not have been as eager to embrace these new technologies. This has been going on for nearly a generation. And already some adverse unintended consequences are becoming apparent, especially among children.
Perhaps the most dangerous of these are changes in brain function starting to appear among children who are heavy computer users. These children and youth are still too young to make any “of the irrational decisions of Western society”, but one day they will be in a position to do so. What future generations of children brought up on computers will do as adults cannot be now predicted. But we should be careful how we handle the social changes which will ensue.
It is evident even now that computers have not fulfilled their promise in education, for there are strong indications that they have been detrimental to some kinds of learning. If this can be conclusively demonstrated, then the removal of computers from schools, or their restriction to special technical centers might be one drastic move to be contemplated. This is obviously a huge issue, which will continue to be debated for the remainder of this century as more of the long-term effects become apparent.
ET: Looking at the bigger picture now, so what if Western Civilization is going the way of the dodo? We have had peace and progress over the last five decades. The nefarious Soviet Union was vanquished in the interim. And globalization and technology have brought new opportunities and interactions. Investors seem to believe in that, given that the US stock market is at record highs while global bond yields near record lows. It seems all is good…
HR: It is true, human life continues regardless of the state of human civilization. It might even be said that life is becoming better and better for greater numbers than ever before. Standards of living are rising and will continue to improve for people in their billions all over the world. The Chinese have lifted themselves out of poverty. Now it is the turn of the Indians, after that there will be others as well. The world is at peace as never before. I am not unduly troubled by the few incidents of terrorism that are so exaggerated by the media, or even by the few sputtering civil wars. So who needs civilization? Isn’t life better off without it?
Unfortunately, things are not as rosy when we look at the global situation as a whole. Many of the major problems of humanity are no nearer to being solved. The issue of nuclear annihilation still hangs in the balance; we could still destroy ourselves through some political miscalculation or some technical error. A clash of interests between the major powers could still bring on a global war. Our present peace is still precarious.
Global warming and all the other environmental problems are far from being solved. It is possible they will not be overcome, unless a majority of human beings change their way of life and cease to strive for ever greater levels of affluence and the possession of material goods. A new ethical orientation might be called for, drawing on the values of past civilizations, as adapted to contemporary conditions.
In brief, human life based on material considerations alone might not be sustainable in the long run. Man does not live by bread alone – not even by bread and circuses in their latest electronic form. Masses of people crammed into huge metropolises that cities are now becoming all over the world is hardly a pleasant prospect to contemplate for the future of humanity. Without civilization we are faced with the kind of brave new world scenario, outlined long ago by Huxley.
This is the reason we must strive to maintain as much of our various civilizations and their cultures as are still viable. Cultural conservation is as crucial as conservation of Nature. Indeed it is hard to envisage how the one can work without the other, as I have explained in my books.
ET: If Western Civilization is so important, what are investors missing given how far up asset prices have gone in recent years? Are they just too myopic?
HR: As far as investors go, it is not Western Civilization as a whole that is important, what is crucial for them is that the minimal norms of international affairs governing economic activity should obtain, above all, the rule of law and the security of contracts, because without that none of their investments are safe. As for human rights, that is important in so far as they do not wish to profit from slave labor or any other grossly exploitative conditions. If they are more ethically minded than that, as they should be, they should also insist that individual rights are implemented before they undertake business dealings in any country. Whether they should also insist on other freedoms is a moot point, unless they wish to be ethical investors and are prepared to forego some profit opportunities.
ET: What about the unique contributions of Western Civilization to human rights, rule of law, democracy, healthcare and general progress. Can these not be sustained and indeed enhanced with globalization?
HR: Western Civilization is the one that brought about the present conditions of humanity. It is, therefore the one most responsible for its problems and drawbacks, and the one charged with the task of remedying them. Indeed, it is the only one at present that has the capacity for doing so. The Forces of Modernity – capitalism, the state, science and technology – arose out of Western civilization, and the difficulties for humanity that they have brought about can be best understood and addressed within the context of that civilization.
An example of this fact is that it is the West that is forging the universal standards, which the whole of humanity can accept, and on the basis of which all civilizations can coexist, regardless of how they differ in other respects. The United Nations and its various agencies, the World Bank and many other such organizations, indeed the whole system of cooperating, as well as peacefully competing states, was the creation of Western Civilization, based primarily on its principles and values.
These organizations mandate a minimum of norms of international behavior that all states, regardless of their origins, must now accept, if relations between them and even meaningful communication are to be maintained. What this minimum of necessary norms is to be is the subject of interminable disputes. Americans tend to see it in the maximalist terms of their own traditions, as well as their national interests, and press for full democratization, as well as free market liberalism; other nations with other traditions and interests have naturally resisted this. Some basic human rights and the rule of law, no matter how interpreted, seem to be such basic minimal provisions for belonging to the international order. Democracy, healthcare and general progress is perhaps asking too much of many societies, which are unwilling or incapable of entertaining such things. Whether further globalization will alter this is dubious. We see this in the case of China, which has globalized at a rapid rate, but is no nearer to democracy or liberalism in most respects.
ET: In Part II of our discussion we will look at what is happening in the Chinese, Islamic, Indian and Russian spheres, and how they fit within the aforementioned trends. Anything else you would like to add before we conclude this part of our discussion?
HR: I would like to stress that my general theoretical analysis of the state of civilization and humanity be distinguished and separated from my detailed diagnosis of specific conditions and problems or my proposals for dealing with them. I stick to my theories, which I believe are correct. I am far less sure of my practical analyses. Someone agreeing with my general point of view might easily offer quite different accounts of things or solutions to problems than the ones that I suggest. I am quite prepared for such disagreements, for theory and practice do not necessarily entail each other.
Indeed, I welcome debate on the theoretical, practical and evaluative aspects of everything I have said here, or written in my books. I am sure I have made many errors and contravened many other worthy thinkers, present or past and expect that these sins will, in time, be exposed. But this can only happen if my views are subjected to the acid test of stringent criticism. Hence, I hope that it will be said of me, as was once said of another notorious writer: “his sins were scarlet, but his books were read.”
ET: Thank you very much.