Mon, Jan 31, 2011 - Page 9 News List

The fall of the West is spawning the science of ‘declinology’

By Madeleine Bunting  /  The Guardian, LONDON

There’s an eerie sensation of time looping back 30 years. The lineup of news stories echoes those that framed my teenage world: One in five young people in the UK unemployed and the relentless flow of stories of individual lives strained to breaking point by contracting state support. Beneath the news agenda, one can catch the reverberations of that narrative of national decline that so gripped 1970s and early 1980s Britain.

The UK is not alone. Declinology is prompting a publishing boom in doom across Europe and the US. The latest is by the Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo, who made a name for herself as an outspoken iconoclast with her book Dead Aid. Now she is offering chilly comfort in How the West Was Lost: Fifty Years of Economic Folly and the Stark Choices Ahead.

Her work sits alongside books such as Losing Control by Stephen King, chief economist of HSBC, The End of Influence (Stephen Cohen and J Bradford DeLong) and The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph from an Old Continent (Walter Laqueur). And, if you fancy something even gloomier, there’s Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow Motion Suicide (Bruce Thornton).

If all that sounds grim enough, take a look at France, where declinology has become a national art. We have Jean-Pierre Chevenement’s Is France Finished? and Eric Zemmour’s French Melancholy. While in Germany, declinology has assumed hysterical proportions in Thilo Sarrazin’s bestselling Germany Does Away With Itself and Hans-Werner Sinn’s Can Germany Be Saved?

The basic decline arguments are familiar. An aging European population and high youth unemployment with faltering economic growth in the debt-laden West set against the huge economic growth rates of China, India and Brazil — the rising rest, as Moyo calls them. Within 40 years, the West will represent only 12 percent of the world’s population and Europe a mere 6 percent compared with its size on the eve of World War I, when Europe’s population was slightly bigger than China’s. The French declinologist (if I can coin the term) Dominique Moisi describes this with the phrase “the white man’s loneliness.”

Meanwhile, as the recent summit in Washington demonstrated, economic power is shifting inexorably toward China, set to exceed US GDP within the next 10 years. China is churning out highly skilled graduates while embarking on a massive buying spree of Western assets. The last decade was characterized by “made in China,” the next will be “bought by China.” Hope and optimism for the future is no longer a Western characteristic; the Pew Research Center found that 87 percent of Chinese, 50 percent of Brazilians and 45 percent of Indians think their country is going in the right direction. Meanwhile Britain scores 31 percent, the US a shade lower at 30 percent and the French a meager 26 percent.

Declinology is marked by a three-way split. First, there are the breathless potboilers whose digested read runs thus: “We are all doomed, time is running out, will we survive?” In these tomes decisions are invariably “stark,” “tough” and “hard.” Given how many of these books have been bestsellers, there is a healthy public appetite for urgent miserabilism.

Second, there are the economists and foreign policy analysts who seem to make it a point of honor to be as calm and matter of fact about decline as the bestselling authors are panicky. For many in this category the big issue is whether Europe/Britain/the West’s decline is only relative or absolute as well. Will we just lose power and influence in relation to the rising rest or will we become poorer too? Will our roads be riddled with potholes as riots break out over the last vestiges of the welfare state or will we play host to crowds of Chinese and Indian tourists on their trips round heritage Britain? Or, as seems likely, a dystopian combination of the two?

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