Revisiting The "Suicide" of the West
On the false promise of self-inflicted destruction.
The genre of “declinism” in the American imagination is constantly recurring, variations on a single theme. Declinism, as one scholar describes it, is “the rhetoric of once and future greatness,” illustrating again why declinism only appears in certain societies at certain times. I suppose we, Americans, are the lucky ones.
Declinism isn’t the same thing as self-contempt, but it does gesture at a particular kind of pessimism that undervalues the accomplishments of the home society while overestimating the very societies with which one is less familiar. This produces a kind of exotification of what is different and novel. In an essay for, I explored how this led to wildly exaggerated assessments of Soviet superiority.
For a country built on optimism and expectation, the preoccupation with decline might seem odd. Paradoxically, however, to hope for the future inevitably leads one to wonder whether one’s best days are firmly in the past. It was only when the United States had reached the pinnacle of its power and dominance, at the conclusions of World War II, that declinism established itself as something of an American pastime. Almost every American alive today has lived in this time of longing.
While thinkers like the German polymath Oswald Spengler had written about Western decline, this tended to be a particularly European interest. Europe was in decline, after all. It was only in the 1960s that attention began to shift to the United States, which had by then eclipsed Europe entirely. In 1964, the American philosopher James Burnham published The Suicide of the West, a title that by now seems like a cliché, with hundreds of iterations on the theme written since. If the United States had reached the pinnacle of its power, influence, and self-confidence in 1945, was it really possible that it might find a way to commit suicide in less than two decades? Burnham’s answer seemed to be yes. “With the end of the Second World War, the rate of Western disintegration quickened,” he writes.
Burnham’s primary metric was territorial contraction, with a focus on Communist expansion at the expense of the now American-led Western order. It is difficult to find paragraphs quite as un-prescient as these.
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