Since the publication in 1918 of the first volume of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, prophecies about the inexorable doom of what he called the “Faustian Civilization” have been a recurrent topic for thinkers and public intellectuals. The current crises in the US and Europe — the result primarily of US capitalism’s inherent ethical failures, and Europe’s dysfunction — might be seen as lending credibility to Spengler’s view of democracy’s inadequacy, and to his dismissal of Western civilization as essentially driven by a corrupting lust for money.
However, determinism in history has always been defeated by the unpredictable forces of human will, and, in this case, by the West’s extraordinary capacity for renewal, even after cataclysmic defeats. True, the West is no longer alone in dictating the global agenda and its values are bound to be increasingly challenged by emerging powers, but its decline is not a linear, irreversible process.
There can be no doubt that the West’s military mastery and economic edge have been severely diminished. In 2000, the US’ GDP was eight times larger than China’s, today it is only twice as large. Worse, appalling income inequalities, a squeezed middle class and evidence of widespread ethical lapses and impunity are fueling a dangerous disenchantment with democracy and a growing loss of trust in a system that has betrayed the American dream of constant progress and improvement.
However, this would not be the first time that the US’ values prevailed over the threat of populism in times of economic crisis. A variation of the fascist agenda once appeared in the US, with Father Charles Coughlin’s populist onslaught in the 1930s on former US president Franklin Roosevelt’s “alliance with the bankers.” Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice, whose membership ran into the millions, was eventually defeated by the US system’s powerful democratic antibodies.
As for Europe, the eurozone crisis has exposed democracy’s weaknesses in dealing with major economic emergencies, as well as the flaws in the EU’s design. In Greece and Italy, technocratic governments have taken over from failing politicians. In Hungary, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has pressed for an authoritarian “re-establishment of the state.” Such cases seem to point to the return of a European past in which democracy’s failures gave way to more “expedient” forms of government.
Despite this, while Europe remains a question mark, economic growth and job creation, however fragile, are back in the US. Moreover, even if China becomes the world’s largest economy in, say, 2018, Americans would still be far richer than Chinese, with per capita GDP in the US four times higher than in China.
To be sure, income inequality and social injustice are a concomitant of capitalist culture throughout the West. However, challengers like China and India are in no position to preach. Compared with Indian capitalism, capitalism’s ethical failures elsewhere look especially benign. A hundred oligarchs in India hold assets equivalent to 25 percent of GDP, while 800 million of their compatriots survive on less than US$1 a day. Politicians and judges are bought, and natural resources worth trillions of US dollars are sold to powerful corporations for a pittance.
Having the largest economy is vital for a power aspiring to maintain military superiority and the ability to define the international order. Hence, the receding power of the West means a tougher fight to uphold the relevance of key components of its value system, such as democracy and universal rights.