It is nice to start the new year with some expression of hope. Will this be a better year than last? Well, we can always dream, but all the indications are that it will be worse. The malign forces that are undermining Western society remain in the ascendant and are getting stronger.
Yet life is never without consolations, and it is an unusual privilege to witness the declining days of a dying civilisation. It doesn’t happen often in history. It is happening now, to us. Too pessimistic, you think? Well, consider the evidence.
Take the current pandemic of idiocy. We are in the grip of idiocy; you encounter it everywhere, from the ravings of climate lunatics about the world getting uninhabitably hot to the denials of biological reality by gender cranks, to the manufactured lies that pass as education, to the delusion that the senile President Biden is some sort of leader. No government or individual has the capacity to suffocate this nonsense.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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How do we explain the slide from rationality to idiotic fantasy? Could it be that in the intellectual civil wars of the 1960s and after we have marginalised the intelligent elite who once guided our society? Certainly, “elite” has acquired a pejorative meaning, especially in education where it has been replaced with the pursuit of “equality of outcome”, for which, of course, it was necessary that standards be lowered. The dislike of “elitism” showed itself in all sorts of ways. In Australia for instance no longer was it considered necessary to try to speak correct English. “Strine” and “Aussie English” were the new norm, promoted on the ABC and elsewhere with propaganda about one accent being as good as another and not being ashamed of the way we spoke. Simultaneously formality, which takes some effort to maintain, was progressively discarded everywhere, from Government House to what you wore to a restaurant. Public institutions and utilities replaced their Latin mottos and coats of arms with infantile logos and meaningless utterances such as “bringing you world-class service”, the excellence boasted of being invariably in inverse proportion to the quality of the product supplied. Across the Western world, the lowest common denominator—the tastes and preferences of “the common man” whose century it was said to be by an American vice-president—dethroned a striving for excellence. Indeed, the concept of excellence was abolished in favour of cultural relativity. There is no evidence that this state of affairs is changing for the better.
This world being an imperfect place, you can’t have the good without the bad. The descent of our society into, at best, mediocrity, is the result of democracy. Rule by the demos is cultural and intellectual as well as political. States where power is centralised on a ruling figure or class are those where cultural achievement is at its highest. If one accepts this unpalatable conclusion, then one must accept the corollary, that democracy, at least in the case of the West, has been a stage in civilisational decline. There seems no reason why the next stage shouldn’t be outright collapse.
Idiocy cannot reason. It argues by means of violence. In our unfortunate society mob rule has come to determine much of public policy. The mob de nos jours doesn’t always need to be visible in the streets smashing shop windows or glueing itself to the road, though its shrieking armies do emerge into the daylight from time to time. It is usually to be found far more insidiously in action, crouched over its keyboards unleashing its opinions into that seething Babel of amplified ignorance that is social media. The sheer volume of the voice of the mob online outweighs the voice of expertise and experience, to the extent that that still exists anywhere. Politicians cower before it, and when they obey its dictates hysteria and unreason are at the helm of our society.
If inwardly our circumstances are not good, they are no better externally. The first necessary condition for a civilisation to flourish is peace and we can no longer count on that. We are losing the guarantor on whom we have relied for peace in the last eighty years. The United States, though it is still (not without misgivings) in NATO, and will share its nuclear expertise with Australia in AUKUS, is ceasing to be a hegemonic power. It is renouncing its commitment, imposed on it by events or its own ambition, to bring order to troubled lands, just as the British, whom we previously relied on, had to do. The US will take care not to find itself again in an Iraq or a Vietnam or—as it recedes into history let us not forget it—Afghanistan, where the ignominious scuttling from the enemy decreed by President Biden showed that the concept of pax americana has crack’d from side to side, like the Lady of Shalott’s mirror. (That there is a certain sense of justice in this, since it was post-war American politicians who did so much to bring about the dismemberment of the British Empire, is no cause for comfort.)
Can any free country still count on the United States to defend it? We shall find out soon enough when communist China decides to “repatriate” Taiwan. And with not only China but so many other likely troublemakers—a nuclear Iran, Russia returning to its old role of aggressor (imagine the international outrage if Ukrainians were “people of colour”) and terrorists from a dozen countries—the peace which has enabled us to live a civilised life cannot last much longer. We are going the way of Nineveh and Tyre in Kipling’s “Recessional”.
Like the Roman empire, the decline of the United States has been caused mainly from within. The patriotic energy of the US and its past zeal for spreading democracy, even if mistakenly applied in many cases, have been cut away at their roots, tossed on the scrapheap as a manifestation of “white supremacy”. America has been hollowed out, the values and beliefs that have hitherto defined it scooped out of the body politic as you might scoop marrow from a bone.
This decay has not happened by accident. It has happened because schools and universities deliberately departed from their proper function and turned themselves into incubators of grievance politics and disseminators of Marxist and sub-Marxist dogma. This began in the 1940s in academic humanities departments and seeped down into schools so that anyone who had had a secondary or tertiary education was at risk of being infected. It was not a conspiracy in the sense of plotters sitting round and planning to infiltrate themselves into key positions, not so much a programmed “long march through the institutions” with some sort of central command directing things. It was more the result of an intellectual fashion. The Left became glamorous. No one with pretensions to being a thinking or “caring” individual would claim to be anything but a socialist. No opportunity was missed in academic and cultural circles to deride the capitalist system we live under as “exploitative” and unfair. Only those who were indifferent to being thought stupid and greedy could afford to be politically conservative.
For years a Manichean dichotomy hung over universities like a cloud: intellect and creativity were of the Left; the rest was middle-class mediocrity. No one was taught the history of Stalin’s gulags and liquidations, though the horrors of Nazism were constantly rehearsed and anyone conspicuously conservative risked being compared with Hitler or called a fascist. It was simply taken for granted that the Left was on the side of peace and enlightenment, the Right, with its “military-industrial complex” which had supposedly precipitated two world wars and was itching to start another, was for stale conformity and the crushing of “individuality”. All at once this caricature, like the virus at Wuhan, wafted out of the tutorial room into the wider community. Graduates were the Trojan horse carrying the contagion into the wider world. Several generations later nothing illustrates the victory of the Left more clearly than that its attitudes are parroted in the very citadels of capitalism, the banks and commercial and retail corporations.
Along with this went the replacement of the traditional shared beliefs that made our society cohesive with a whole set of new beliefs that divide us into groupuscules based largely on race and sexuality. To women who subscribe to the new vision of the world, men are potential threats and enemies. To someone gay, non-gays are a source of hostility. Our common humanity, once a binding force, counts for nothing. Our common history is a cause for shame because the things we are alleged to have done to various of these groupuscules amount to oppression and exploitation.
The speed with which these new orthodoxies have been implanted—not in the minds of radical students but of the respectable middle class who would once have been horrified by them—is astounding. People who used, admittedly without much thought, to uphold the old orthodoxies seem to have been easy targets for adopting the new ones, which they dutifully repeat whenever called on. Think of the ubiquity of mindless “acknowledgments of country”. That sanctimonious little ceremony, concocted by Aboriginal actors in the 1970s, was certainly the thin end of a wedge. From it has emerged the real threat of Australia being divided by race, as South Africa once was. That division, because whites were in charge, enraged leftists, the same sort of leftists who are ecstatic about the prospect of this new one. It is the culmination of their efforts to reconstruct our national destiny by reversing (with blithe indifference to the fact that they are beneficiaries of it) the supposed destruction by British colonists of a unique and mature indigenous civilisation. This reversal, engineered one suspects less for love of Aborigines than for hatred of white civilisation, is well on the way to completion and the “first nations” (which of course Aborigines never were; the term is a direct pinch from American racial politics) will soon have their own “Voice” outside the national parliament along with an “ambassador” to roam the world complaining of injustice, and diplomatic representatives in our embassies and high commissions. A parallel polity in other words. The success of this campaign to divide us may already be measured in the number of alleged Aboriginal place names appended to their emails by corporate employees.
But easy targets of whom? It’s hard to point to individuals. Perhaps it’s more targets of a climate of thought which few people have the will or the knowledge to resist. The middle classes, passively accepting the new orthodoxies and not much interested in the abstractions of politics, are now analogous to the proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Who is the Party? We don’t have one yet but the World Economic Forum, with the sinister Klaus Schwab, looking like a Bond villain, as its arch-plotter and the “Great Reset” as his plot, is making a determined effort to cast itself in that role, bankrolled by the even more sinister George Soros.)
In geopolitical terms the treason of the educators has produced the worst possible political outcome for the West: a cynical American government in philosophical sympathy with repressive leftism and in thrall to the kaleidoscope of idiocies into which that Left has now subdivided itself, with a senile opportunist, whose own family is compromised with China, as puppet-president.
Defence of the nation is something the Left has no time for. Nations are seen as obstacles to the leftist goal of “global governance”. They are blamed as a cause of war. The armed forces themselves have woken up to this new orthodoxy and redirected their attention towards non-military objectives such as “diversity” and “inclusion” calculated to appeal to the dominant zeitgeist. No country that does not value its defence as highly as its freedom is going to embark on military actions; and no country that does not value its own defence is going to come to the defence of another. If China invades, we will be very likely on our own here in Australia. Yes, we’ll have a nuclear submarine capability thanks to the US and Britain, but does that sound enough to save us against the world’s largest land army and China’s huge sea and air forces?
Short of a war of nuclear extinction for all, China would almost certainly win if it attacked Australia, in which case our most probable future is, at best, as a client state of Beijing (we are already some distance down that path). Our lot would be that of Palestine under the Romans, with perhaps a bit of autonomy conceded us for window dressing or ease of administration (we would certainly not be as free as India under the British). At worst we would be occupied as a Chinese imperial possession, an antipodean Tibet. That would amount to the Dark Ages overlaid with technology. Not a cheering thought with which to begin 2023.
Yet even without these external threats our civilisation would be in danger because it has been undermined by its own citizens. Civilisations in decline lose interest in perpetuating themselves. Not only have birth rates in the West fallen below replacement level but millions of potential new lives are deliberately destroyed. A society that kills its young is doomed morally and demographically. That this slaughter is carried out in the name of “women’s health” only testifies to the hypocrisy and lying now rampant in public life. At the same time we have developed the obsession with sexual deviation common to decaying civilisations, particularly, as the philosopher Camille Paglia has pointed out, with regard to homosexuality and other forms of non-procreative sexuality. In what healthy culture would you find people who subordinate their whole personality to flaunting their sexual “diversity”, even, in a particularly preposterous twist, defying the logic of the language with their insistence on plural pronouns to advertise their “difference”?
Our science, once coldly objective and guided by evidence and falsifiable thesis, has diverged from its path of rational inquiry and allowed itself to be lured into the service of irrational ideologies that have declared objectivity a false belief. Science is being “decolonised” which means it will no longer deal with facts but with the history of how those facts came to be known judged by ideological criteria as acceptable or shameful (mostly the latter, one imagines, since modern science is a product of Western civilisation).
Until recently it was possible to see these signs of decay as a passing phase. Surely, it was thought, common sense would prevail, the unheard-from majority, those who grew up before the idiocy set in, would assert themselves. There would be a conservative resurgence. There seems little likelihood of that now. Older generations, articulate conservatives apart, don’t seem to care about the signs of civilisational collapse, or don’t recognise them as such. Anyway, older generations as a proportion of voters are diminishing, and won’t be a majority much longer—if they still are—and there is no sign that younger people who have known only the caricature of civilisation peddled by their educators are anxious to return to former values. Nor is there any point in clinging to vague hopes about the indomitable human spirit somehow saving us. The indomitable human spirit didn’t save earlier civilisations.
It is true that Cassandras have declared our civilisation dead before and it has survived. But there is a huge difference now. For the first time our civilisation is not being handed on. Its beliefs and values stop with us. They are either not imparted to the next generations or mocked and dismissed as evil.
How can a civilisation that hates its past survive? We have been taught by those same universities to hate ours and to feel ashamed of past achievements. In abandoning our religion we abandoned not only our morality, public and private, but the belief in the unique value of every human individual, a belief now lost in the cacophony raised by perfectly well-off people who have never suffered a day in their life loudly lamenting their supposed lot as victims of “oppression” at the hands of patriarchy or colonialism (they’ll really have colonialism to complain about if the Chinese take over). We have lost our belief in the unique value of our culture with its responsibility to bring the benefits of Christian civilisation to the less fortunate. That phrase would merit a sneer in “enlightened” circles today.
The income we live off is increasingly beholden to the economic might of China. We have handed the Chinese pretty well all of our manufacturing and hamstrung what’s left by subservience to a new pagan religion of earth-worship. And that’s without taking into account the economic cost of Covid and the colossal debts it has forced us to accrue, and for which we are too pusillanimous to demand indemnity from China, the source of it all.
Culture is a hallmark of civilisation. Our “culture” has become a pathetic joke. We have fouled the nest of true creativity by handing out public money to “creatives” who have to please no one but aesthetically illiterate bureaucrats. When was the last time you saw a painting or a play or a piece of architecture and thought “that is a product of genuine talent”? We have lost the criteria of excellence. We elevate the vulgar and trivial to the status of art and ascribe merit to the race or sex of the “artist” instead of to the artifact.
In 1849 Arthur Hugh Clough finished his poem “Say not the struggle nought availeth” with the comforting words, “But westward, look, the land is bright.” Not in our own time, I fear. All is dark in the West. If anyone thinks this conclusion unjustifiably gloomy I should be pleased to be shown where I am wrong. If anyone detects signs of hope I should be even more pleased to know what they are.
Christopher Akehurst lives in rural Victoria. He has contributed to Quadrant since the 1990s.