YouTuber and professional provocateur Nick Fuentes, self-styled conservative, has generated controversy in recent days as he celebrates the advance of Russian troops on Ukraine. It would be, in his words, a defeat of the “great Satan”: the United States. Here and there, other voices on the right seem to echo the argument that the war initiated by Russia is not a threat, but a hope. After all, Vladimir Putin has already given clear demonstrations that he opposes gender ideology, feminism and the rest of the politically correct package that the United States and Western Europe have been exporting in recent decades. The argument of Fuentes and his colleagues is that the West, like Rome in its period of decay, is no longer worth saving. But is there anything real about it? Is the West going downhill or is it just an illusion?
Fifty-eight years ago, writer James Burnham, an important figure in American conservatism, published the classic book “The Suicide of the West”. At the time, Christianity was almost unanimous in Europe and in the United States, homosexuality was a crime — as was abortion. Amicable divorce, without proof of guilt, did not exist in most of these countries. Ideas like gay marriage sounded absurd to even the most radical progressives. However, Burnham saw that the tide was starting to turn. Especially in universities and other intellectual circles.
In the book published in 1964, he observed that the West was “contracting”, and prophesied: “If the process continues over the next few decades more or less as it did in previous decades, then – this is a mere mathematical extrapolation – the West will be finished; Western civilization, Western societies and nations in any meaningful and recognizable sense, will simply no longer exist.”
The process he was referring to was the loss of the “will to survive.” A disease intellectual and spiritual, not material, in Burnham’s words. “It cannot be the case that the West is contracting for lack of physical resources and power; that lack did not and does not exist.”
The root of the problem, for Burnham, was what he called “liberalism”—not economic liberalism, but the idea that there are no objective values and that it all comes down to a matter of equally valid preferences. In other words, a renunciation of the idea of truth. The “liberal illusion”, for Burnham, is to believe human nature can be changed, and that humanity can achieve a state of global peace. In this scheme, the West does not have a more special tradition than that of the Tupinambás Indians.
“Easy times, weak men”
Burnham was not the first nor the last to write on the subject. His work can be placed in a lineage that includes William Buckley’s ‘God and Man at Yale’ (1951), Allan Bloom’s ‘The Closing of the American Mind’ (1951), and ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ (2018), by Patrick Deneen.
Before of them all, the Swiss Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote, still in 75, that the progress of civilization was making people materialistic, superficial and morally corrupt, with no appreciation for their nations and religion. “The politicians of antiquity constantly spoke of morals and virtue; ours only talk about commerce and money”, he criticized, in what is known as the First Speech.
Rousseau’s argument does not differ much from the meme that reappears now and then on social networks, and according to which “Hard times beget strong men, strong men beget easy times, easy times beget weak men, weak men beget hard times.” Even before the Industrial Revolution took place, Rousseau already anticipated that the prosperity and evolution of the “arts and sciences” would come at a price. “A taste for ostentation seldom co-exists, in one’s mind, with a taste for what is honest. No: minds degenerated by a host of futile concerns can never generate anything great; and even if they had the necessary strength, they would lack the courage”, he raged.
In common, these authors have the argument that the West turned its back on its tradition and became weak. Whether the invasion of Ukraine has anything to do with this perception of fragility in the moral field, we will never know for sure. But perhaps the image of US President Joe Biden, aged and confused, can be seen as a symbol of the West’s own state of mind.
While the recruitment videos of the Armed Forces of Russia and China emphasize strength and virility, the United States took the opposite path. One of the most recent campaigns, filled with cartoon animations, shows a young woman with a childlike voice as she tells her story: raised by a lesbian couple, she is proud to have participated in protests in favor of the LGBT cause. Instead of enlisting in the army out of loyalty to the motherland, she did so to prove “inner strength”, whatever that means.
Vladimir Putin, a nostalgic tyrant of the Soviet Union, explores this gap with calculated displays of virility and an appeal to traditional values — which perhaps explains the strange fixation of more right-wing groups with an ex-KGB spy, the communist secret police.
Where the West is doing well
The most pessimistic arguments about the future of the West may sound exaggerated to some. And that makes sense.
Economically, Western countries are experiencing a period of unparalleled prosperity. Young Europeans may not find their dream job, but the reality is that, both there and in the United States, scarcity is a distant memory: ordinary workers manage to maintain a standard of living unimaginable for their grandparents and great-grandparents. In the United States, companies have struggled to fill job openings with a salary of US$ 15 per hour (the equivalent of about R$ 23 thousand per month).
Even people considered poor are far from the misery: most have cars and live in comfortable houses. The homeless problem is almost always due to mental illness or drug addiction. But, as a rule, those who work can stand on their own two feet — which is why immigrants from Africa and the Middle East continue to head to Europe, rather than India or China, in search of a more comfortable life.
Military, the West remains sovereign. Since the Second World War, the territory of NATO countries has remained virtually unviolated, with the exception of occasional terrorist attacks. Despite making rapid progress in this regard, China cannot stand up to Western might.
Culturally, the West doesn’t seem to be doing badly either — at least not when the criterion is influence. Powered by the internet, music and films produced in the United States and Europe reach the four corners of the globe with impressive ease. The cultural relevance of China, for example, is practically limited to its borders.
Money is not everything
If economically, militarily and culturally the domain of the West remains undisputed, how is it possible to say that it is in decline? The answer is that economic, or even military and cultural success, does not explain everything.
There are good arguments in favor of the thesis that the decline of the West is mainly moral, and that the other pillars will end up giving in with time. And it is possible to look at some objective data. If progress generates selfish, hedonistic and superficial individuals, the consequence will be the ruin of three essential elements of a civilization: family, religion, country. In common, the three carry the idea that there is something above the individual and more important than self-satisfaction.
Confidence in the future is not calculated by statements or in philosophy books, but into more objective elements: the birth rate and the willingness to risk one’s life in the defense of the nation.
The first pillar, that of the family, does not seem to go well: most Western countries have birth rates below 2.1 per woman, which means the population is decreasing. Divorce levels are high, and they only stop growing because more and more people don’t even get married.
Religion, in turn, seems to follow the same path as the family. Going to church has never been more unpopular. The problem is greater in Europe, where countries like the Czech Republic and France have almost 25% atheists and agnostics. But the United States follows the same path: in this year, a survey by the Pew Research Center showed that the number of people who attend church regularly has never been lower.
Finally, the idea of sacrifice for the country has become a relic of the past: the number of people who would die for the country is small. A global poll released in 2015 by Gallup showed a clear pattern. The highest average percentage was in the Middle East and North Africa — mostly Muslim countries. In this region, the average was 83%. At the opposite extreme, the lowest percentage was that of Western Europe, with 25%. In the United States, the rate is 44%. China,(66%), India,(75%) and Kenya ( 69%) are above the global average.
Even economically, the West, if it is not impoverishing, is losing importance relative. Especially for China. Just two decades ago, the United States was the main trading partner of African countries, and of most Asian countries. Today, the Chinese have taken that lead. With the commercial partnership with the Chinese, a diplomatic commitment also arises. The result is a shift away from African and Asian countries from the Western bloc.
Progressives have given up on the idea of the West because of its heritage (slavery, machismo, racism). Conservatives seem to hesitate because, today, the West has already been profoundly transformed by progressives — to the point where a company with a children’s audience, like Disney, is proud to include LGBT content for children and that one of the “Women of the Year” is a biological man. .
At the same time, a movement — curiously, led by non-Americans, has propagated the idea that the salvation is in a redoubled bet on the traditional tripod: family, religion and nation. The so-called “national-conservatism” is modeled on Israel and Hungary.
In common, these regimes have the fact that they are anti-liberal — that is, they do not agree with the principle that all civilizations are equally valuable, and that objective morality is a mere illusion. Israel, in particular, seems to be a good example: the country has a much higher birth rate than European countries, religion continues to play a central role in Israeli society, and 44% of Israeli citizens say they would die for the nation. Divorce rates are among the lowest in the developed world.
Perhaps it is no accident that the name of Israeli author Yoram Hazoni is becoming increasingly popular among American conservatives concerned about the decline of the Western. Author of “A Virtude do Nacionalismo” (released in Brazil in 2019 by Vide Editorial), Hazoni says that pluralism and multiculturalism are illusions: for him, without a clear national identity, strong families and a sense of transcendence, human societies lose their very reason for existence.
One of the possible explanations for the fall of the Roman Empire was its success. Not just because financial progress took the easy times to spawn weak men. The very idea of empire seems to be self-destructive: as it expanded, the regime had to incorporate other peoples and necessarily become less Roman. As he became less and less Roman, he also lost the one factor that held him together. And it fell.
If Israel has anything to teach, it is the fact that only a clear national identity, rather than a generic appeal to ideas like “humanity”, is capable of giving vitality to a people. The question is whether the United States and Europe are willing to follow this path. If the pessimistic scenario is confirmed me, it will be possible to say that James Burnham was right: the death of the West will have been a suicide.