“In order for things to stay the same they have to change.” — The Leopard.
Both the left and the right seem to feel intuitively that the West is dying. On the right conservative Pat Buchanan’s book The Death of the West (2001) laid out a vision for a civilization on the brink in stark terms, laying out a bleak picture of border overrun and a collapsing birth rate sapping the vitality of Europe and America. On the Left from those who want to #SmashThePatriarchy make no bones about what they’re smashing: from calls to topple statues of men like British imperialist extraordinaire Cecil Rhodes to rewriting the curricula of schools to make them more diverse.
So what is “The West?” What does it mean to say that it’s dying? And how does that death impact you?
What Is a Civilization?
Civilization is a social construct. Any idea like “the West,” is a story which we tell ourselves and each other, and keep alive by handing down traditions, narratives and behavioral norms from generation to generation. By all agreeing to invest in the truth of our collective story, we are able to organise social hierarchies and systems in such a way that people can get things done without hurting each other. So a figure like “the president” holds his power because society created a fiction of “a president” and imbued it with certain powers we agree to give the office holder. Trump has the same two arms and two legs as anyone else, and if at any time everyone just stopped believing in the collective story called “America,” he would soon find that his power is ephemeral and granted to him only by popular investment in that story.
Over time cultures evolve, integrating elements from other cultures and abandoning practices which are no longer useful or interesting. Although we like to think that the way we do things now is optimal, there really isn’t a reason to presume that. Our culture is a combination of what’s worked previously, what the path of least resistance is, deliberate influences from powerful interested factions and responses to currently available technology. What it isn’t is a perfectly mapped out “optimal way to be” or the latest point on an endless upward trajectory of progress. What it is is the collective “best guess” on how to live at that moment in history.
Some mistake culture for race. Since cultures are inherited and passed on from generation to generation, culture becomes heavily associated with lineage, especially where families have lived in one place for a long time. In the states organisations like Daughters of the American Revolution continue to honor the descendants of those who fought to overthrow British rule and establish independence. To a certain extent genealogical loyalties, at the very least as far as kinship goes, are unavoidable.
But race and culture are distinct. Sometimes a civilization embeds a notion of race as a prerequisite for membership (as the West has done in the past, despite the shoddy science of race). Normally citizenship and cultural acceptance are obtainable by those of different backgrounds, as long as they accept the overarching story.
What Is The West?
The West, insofar as it is a unified culture, means that when you look back you’re looking to Rome.
The cultural values of the West are essentially greco-Roman values infused with Christianity, and developed gradually through two thousand years of European history. This means, broadly speaking, a roman-inspired rationalist culture of rule of law, combined with a centring of the individual rather than the family or clan unit as being responsible in the eyes of society and the law for themselves, based on the Christian understanding that all men are equal in the eyes of God.
But due to the vast swathe of time the West has existed, and the technological changes which have taken place in the interim, large parts of the culture are perpetuated without anyone necessarily understanding why they are there. Especially when the original reason for why those elements were instituted becomes lost in time.
Here’s an example.
The electoral college in America has caused controversy recently because Donald Trump won the presidency, but not the popular vote. Partisans of the losing candidate, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, complained that the system was unjust since it did not award the presidency to the candidate with the largest support.
What those objections failed to take into account was why the electoral college was implemented in the first place. America was designed as a federal country, with a large amount of power devolved to the states and a limited federal government. The electoral college was established as a backdoor safeguard against a populist tyrant.
What Does It Mean to Say the West is Dying?
The West dying means its story is eroding. Fewer and fewer people in the educated class have a working knowledge of the classic works of Western Civilization, and fewer and fewer citizens buy into the shared narrative of the West.
- Christianity as the central faith of public life.
- The notion that Western values are good values which have brought prosperity and happiness.
- Belief that the Western story is worth handing down to their children.
The late Andrew Breitbart argued politics is downstream from culture. The “Death of the West” is not an economic or military problem but more like a collapse in confidence in the narrative.
If it continues, as it looks set to do, the once seemingly unshakeable institutions which govern our societies will collapse. As that happens people will start looking for new stories to hold onto. As more new stories are created, a new public narrative will be weaved to underpin a new set of institutions.
How Does This Impact You?
Change is the nature of all things. Trying to cling onto the remnants of a dying culture may prolong the end for a little while, but ultimately it will not help.
It is also unneeded.
The collapse does not necessarily mean there will be widespread chaos or that the roads will stop being maintained. It does mean that another paradigm will rush in to fill the vacuum. Exactly what that paradigm will be, the values it perpetuates and the metaphysical framework on which it will be based are currently up for grabs. Rather than maintaining a narrative of decline, it is far more empowering to acknowledge the end and get to work building what is coming next.
If this change is taking place anyway, individuals have a choice to either watch it happen or get involved in deciding how they want that new world to look.
This means taking what works from the old order, inventing new modes of being in response to technological advances, and blending other elements from the many cultures the West is now entangled with. This journey will be exciting, innovative and liberating.
There is every reason to be optimistic about the new thing, rather than despondent about the loss of the old.
It also goes beyond mere conversation. We want to empower people to look critically at their own lives, and what stories they are telling themselves about the broader narrative they’re a part of. If they don’t like the story, it’s time to make a new one.
Grassroots civilization building means being aware of your own role in the broader grand narrative while implementing your preferred civilizational model at the micro-level in your own life.