Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West: The 100th Anniversary Update

Over on the Archdruid Report a busy-sounding person asked John Michael Greer to just send him a list of predictions, presumably so the commentator could check them off as the years go by. I suppose you could do this, but it misses the point of describing a historical trend; the narrative is essentially poetic, and you can either grasp some deeper layers of the poetry or you can’t; furthermore the layers you see might be invisible to the author. I think such a list would be of no value at all for Greer, since most of his historical writing took place in the past five years and most of what he talks about has yet to come, but we can get some value from writing up a list of the predictions made by his predecessor, Oswald Spengler. We now have about a century of difference between Spengler and us and can judge the accuracy of many of his statements.

So, I have attempted a 100th anniversary update to Spengler, maybe not quite in the same vein that caused people to write 20th and 30th anniversary updates to The Limits to Growth (“We’re still telling you so, and in 30 more years we’ll say we told you so”), but at least in the same great Western conceit that theories should make testable predictions. It became obvious while attempting this task that Spengler’s claims could not be written in checkbox form, and that if I quoted the entire supporting argument found in the text, this post would be book-length in short order. I have therefore paraphrased Spengler. Let us hope that it does not have to happen again.

Preface: Spengler was not a reactionary; in fact, he thought reaction was a mere sideshow to Western action. (1.X.1-2)

“We may talk today of transvaluing all our values; we may, as Megalopolitans, ‘go back to’ Buddhism or Paganism or a romantic Catholicism; we may champion as Anarchists an individualist or as Socialists a collectivist ethic — but in spite of all we do, will and feel the same.” (1.X.1) … “The beginning of moralism is a claim to general and permanent validity. It is a necessity of the Faustian soul that this should be so. He who thinks or teaches ‘otherwise’ is sinful, a backslider, a foe, and he is fought down without mercy.” (1.X.2)

Whenever you declare yourself in support of an “-ism”, you are simply agreeing to be one of the voices within the Western dialectic that drives it forward. But, you ask, what if I don’t like this Faustian narrative at all? Well, Okawa Shumei spoke of the Tao in this way: “Ideology is a viewpoint made adequate for unifying all spheres of human life. Life is ceaselessly moving, and does not know holding its breath.”

1920: Fine art is over as a Western tradition. (1.VII.10)

The Western aesthetic, “fine art”, has achieved what it set out to express and has nothing left to accomplish. Art will no longer be able to be characterized as a well-defined thing with shared characteristics across the West, but will be a matter of schools, individuals, and mere commercial design. Borrowings from non-Western sources will become unavoidable.

Prediction came true: Yes. This wasn’t a very difficult thing to figure out by 1915-1920, honestly. Spengler names Wagner as the last identifiable fine artist — not an uncontroversial choice, he admits, but certainly a poignant one.

1920-2000: Inevitability of historical progress thrown into question. (1.III.6)

The 20th century will think harder about history and critique the predominant Western narrative of Darwinian “historical progress”, which gave rise to the myth by which man marched out of the Dark Ages into the Enlightenment and shed off his medieval superstitions through the force of science and reason. The cultures of other eras will be considered on their own terms.

Prediction came true: Yes, among historians and the well-educated. Progress remains the watchword among the general public, but historical methodology has improved tremendously. Spengler presaged an entire century, not only in his literal predictions but in his historiographical expertise.

1940: A second World War. (2.XI.9)

Just as the Hague conference of 1907 laid the groundwork for World War I, the Washington Naval Treaty of 1921 has made it obvious that a second World War is inevitable. The alternative is the extinction of several great powers, which is not a plausible choice at this point in Western civilization.

Prediction came true: Yes. Remember that Spengler wrote this at the beginning of the Weimar Republic. When the Nazis did come to power, Spengler wrote to a friend that their “thousand year Reich” would come to an end no later than 1946.

20th century: Conscription armies replaced by volunteer forces, dispatched to destroy smaller states. (2.XI.9)

The size of armies will shrink from millions of conscripted men to hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Central commands in the great cities will dispatch these volunteer armies around the world. The massive death tolls in these distant wars will command the sympathies of humanitarians, but not the political upheaval that would be induced by a war where the armies are based.

Prediction came true: Yes, depressingly so.

1990: Russia will throw off the mantle of communism and revive a Christianity which will sustain it for many centuries. (2.VII.2)

Communism is a Western ideology and fundamentally un-Russian. The alienated Russian bourgeoise, seeking reunion with the peasantry, forced communism onto an unwilling Russia, but Russia’s metaphysical perfection cannot be sought in Western forms but only in the Orthodox Christianity articulated by Dostoyevsky (the work Demons is specifically mentioned). Communism will therefore go into the wastebasket of history and Russia will renew its vows to a religion to which “the next thousand years will belong”.

Prediction came true: Yes. Not only did Spengler predict the end of Communism in 1917, but he was able to explain why it would fail and what it would be replaced with in completely unambiguous language; the mark of the sort of expert “psychohistorian” whom Isaac Asimov could only imagine in the vaguest of allusions.

2020: All remaining sciences will become extensions of understanding human behavior. (1.III.5, 1.XI.15)

The intellects of the late West will recognize that the attempt to systematize or categorize anything is more of a reflection of the psychological and socio-historical paradigms that engender the imagination of such systems than it is something that really exists “out there” in Nature. Interpreting the signs and symbols of past centuries is in fact the “last Faustian philosophy” and the only possibility remaining to the Western mind (1.IV.12). [Tangent: Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game describes a post-collapse society where such interpretation has become the highest and only art-form left in the world.]

Prediction came true: Yes. By the late 1960s, the “objective” status of the scientific observer in sociology and anthropology was already subject to some doubts. In the 1980s, the social sciences and philosophy were thoroughly wrecked by the work of Jacques Derrida. These two categories of study never recovered from this Copernican revolution but are basically running on steam. Since roughly 2005, the humanities have also made a definite turn towards what Spengler calls “physiognomical” analysis, and it is fair to assume that the hard sciences will begin to turn inward in a similar way in the coming years, especially after the failure of ITER and other mammoth experimental projects.

For those who think Spengler ultra-conservative, it is interesting to note that he is eager to promote (in 1.IV.12) what basically amounts to cultural relativism.

21st century: A “United States of Europe” will become a counterpart to the Roman Empire. (1.IV.9)

Napoleon’s fault was in his French monarchic vision; the actual conquering spirit of the West is the English spirit of liberal democracy, by which Europe will be able to unite under a single political unit and obtain the Augustan classicism of all exhausted cultures.

Prediction came true: Perhaps. The European Union is certainly a liberal-democratic union of the entire continent, but it’s not clear if this is really analogous to the Roman Empire. The EU was not founded by a “matter-of-fact Caesar” as Spengler insinuates, and its structure seems unlikely to support a single imperial leader. Perhaps Spengler was dreaming too big when he saw Cecil Rhodes as the model for his Faustian Caesars; the real EU founders were content with being political engineers, to whom we dedicate neither statues nor paeans.

20th-21st centuries: Money becomes increasingly detached, complex, and abstracted from reality before finally vanishing in a cloud of meaninglessness. (2.IV.4, 2.XI.10, 2.XII.12, 2.XIII.3)

The transition from a nascent culture to a powerful civilization is bound up with the discovery of the monopoly the dominant regime holds over coinage. By the late 19th century, the Anglo-Saxon world had figured out that the creation of money was too powerful a weapon to be left in the hands of the common people, and assumed total dominance over paper money. The 20th century opened with increasingly complex forms of money manipulation, which Spengler dubs “other money dimensions,” likening them wryly to “non-Euclidean geometries.” It will eventually be recognized that the reins of money-power cannot be entrusted to states with poor judgment but must be kept secure and centralized by expert hands. The promise of money will accordingly sour in the eyes of the common people. It will come to look like an unjust power, concentrated in the hands of a few to control the masses and escape justice, and in the age of Caesars it will be crushed and supplanted entirely by direct, concrete power.

Prediction came true: Yes, but this was not much of a prediction; Spengler simply articulated a general principle based on observation of the “money markets” of his own time. Although he correctly predicted the idea of hyperinflation, this is more of a correctly described trend that has become much more readily apparent in our own era, to the extent that the masses are beginning to question the modern idea of money. One wonders if Spengler was able to read the complete works of Sima Qian; he would have found a like mind in depth of consciousness about money.

21st century: All other forms of social division will take a backseat to the huge, ever-deepening gulf between mega-city cosmopolitanism and “provincialism”. (2.IV.4 and 5, 2.XI.5)

It will no longer matter whether one is ethnically Russian, German, Brazilian, or Nigerian, religious or non-religious, male, female, or Other, or indeed sexually reproductive or sterile. The only distinction that will be made will be between the inhabitants of a few “gigantic” global metropolises, and the inhabitants of land, town, and city outside these places, who will be backwards rustics and provincials. Cosmopolitanism will assume and invert all of the social superiority previously assigned to the noble class. “Rights” will become the privileges of these new elites. Even those urbanites who grow tired of the pretentiousness of the mega-city will prove unable to go back to their roots, given the ostracism this would involve.

Prediction came true: Yes. This is fairly well visible in America, where living in a conservative city is considered as bad as living in a small town. Within a generation it will probably hit Europe as well; Russia is already viewed as “provincial” against Europe. The emergence of this trend was very accurately described by Charles Murray in his 2010 book Coming Apart, and the formation of the present and future cosmo-polis was documented by David Brooks in Bobos In Paradise, a book Spengler would have loved.

21st century, after 2000 AD: Mega-cities will support the population of 10-20 million people. (2.IV.5)

Spengler strikes an unusually concrete prophetic tone: “I see, long after A.D. 2000, cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of countryside, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of today’s and notions of traffic and communication that we should regard as fantastic to the point of madness.”

Prediction came true: Yes. Wikipedia lists the following metropolitan areas with populations of over 10 million each: Tokyo, Jakarta, Seoul, Delhi, Shanghai, Manila, Karachi, New York, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Beijing, Guangzhou, Mumbai, Osaka-Kyoto, Moscow, Cairo, Los Angeles, Kolkata, Bangkok, Dhaka, Buenos Aires, Tehran, Istanbul, Shenzhen, Lagos, Rio de Janeiro, Paris, and Nagoya. The largest cities of Spengler’s time were London and New York with 7.5 million each, but London does not even rank in today’s list. Wikipedia itself is an example of urban communication that Spengler would have found fantastic.

21st-22nd centuries: Population of the civilization plummets; immigration serves as dilution. (2.IV.5)

The world-weary inhabitants of the mega-cities find life in decadent Civilization to have little drive, and have no interest in raising children. Marriage becomes a matter of preference. Governments institute laws (precursors in the 1940s in northern Europe, in earnest in 2010 in Japan) rewarding families for producing children, or else (around 20 B.C. in Rome) penalizing those without offspring. However, the only real choice is between open borders and disappearance. In A.D. 193, the Roman Empire allowed anyone who spotted untenured land in Roman territory to take legal possession of it by farming it; this should be a signal that Rome had lost all demographic coherence by that time, although a farce of political continuity lingered on for a few centuries more. Conservatives fear immigration, for as Spengler puts it, “a people is only really such in relation to other peoples” (2.XI.1); but the alternative is burnout.

Prediction came true: Yes. The choice in the West between open borders and disappearance is already upon us and is a regular talking point of political pundits. Our own fallow land law will likely be written by our grandchildren, if we have any.

Mid-21st century: The final draw to Western civilization will not be the promise of bread and circuses, but the promise of jobs. (1.X.8, 1.IV.6 in passing)

The dictatorship of the proletariat will come and go, but in a broader sense, socialism is here to stay — socialism as the ethical conviction that destiny is achieved by collective effort. When all the Western dreams fall short and the citizens no longer believe in peace on earth and goodwill to men, Western civilization will continue to draw them in with the promise of, and I quote, the “Right to Work.” Furthermore: “in the last terrible stages of evolution it will culminate in the Duty to Work.” This will be the last political problem of the democratic era: even as all other dreams fail for want of money, the dream of existential reward for work will continue to appeal to Westerners. Arbeit macht frei.

Prediction came true: Yes. A principal goal of “second-wave feminism”, which should not be seen as a rebellious movement but as an integral part of the Western spirit, was to give women the right to work, and in the United States we already have right-to-work laws that allow people to take jobs without having to join unions. An ethical imperative to work is probably some decades down the line, but the belief that working at a job is the fulfillment of what God made you for is already given in the West.

Late 21st century: As the population becomes a formless mass motivated by poverty, Caesars take over promising employment to all, ushering in an age where raw power is superior to money. (2.XI.10, 2.XII.12, 2.VI.7, Table III)

The Caesars will come when democracy has been so corroded by money that the people long for nothing more than the destruction of both moneyed power and democracy. They will wave the flag of all that the West holds dear, but their reality is a reflection of a spiritually vacant age, and their victory marks the end of all care for politics. As Alexander the Great (King of Asia, 331-323 B.C.) was to Augustus Caesar (Emperor, A.D. 14, 330 years later), so will Napoleon (Emperor-King, 1805-1814) will be to these fellows. After a century of their leadership, voter turnout across the West will be virtually zero. Marauding thieves and pirates will present more rigorous and admirable forms than the mega-city elites.

This prediction is of a time still to come. Note that Spengler was certainly not predicting the Nazis and their ethnic obsessions, but was speaking of an age when a diverse Western population no longer possesses ethnic or indeed any defining characteristics, comparable to China in the time of the Qin or the Roman Empire under Caesar (for details on Rome, see The Ancient City by Fustel de Coulanges).

22nd century: The Second Religiousness. (2.IX.6)

The realities of suffering that all Western civilization had attempted to avoid return in full force, and the trendy religious experiments of the mega-cities lose their excitement. No longer will the West fawn over the traditions of the East; such “inspiration” will not be desirable. Instead the West instead will turn entirely inward, towards early medieval Christianity or something similar to it. The task of winnowing and preserving the knowledge of the West will be taken up and contemplated by something akin to monastic communities; perhaps they will be especially interested in history books?

23rd century: The Caesarist state machinery, a relic of centuries prior when the Westphalian nation-state concept made sense, breaks down under the weight of total irrelevance. (Table III)

This is not actually discussed by Spengler, but can be seen as entry in his comparative timeline. The state of the world in this century is easy to imagine. When Caesarism becomes indistinguishable from banditry, as was the case by the 5th century in Rome, there will be no point to having a “job” and doing “work” with no chance of reward, as a wild and free world awaits just over the hills surrounding the exhausted remains of the mega-city. Both the French and the Germans thought of themselves as free peoples beyond the reach of what was left of Roman state machinery; the very word France can be easily traced back to the word “free”.

Roughly 24th century: Western culture ceases to exist. (1.V.2)

Regardless of whether Western books and art are still around, they will perplex any human beings alive in only “a few centuries from now [1920].” People will wonder why we wasted so much time to create so much nonsense. I’m going to say he has a pretty good chance with this one.

Conclusion: Spengler gets an A+

In this blog post I have listed every prediction Spengler made in his thousand-page magnum opus. This was not a selection made with hindsight and rose-colored glasses, but an honest and complete compendium. I invite the reader to look back over the list of predictions and results, and try to tell me with a straight face that Oswald Spengler was some kind of eccentric.

Posted: October 23rd, 2014 | History 4 Comments »

4 Comments on “Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West: The 100th Anniversary Update”

  1. 1 Adam G. said at 8:18 pm on October 23rd, 2014:

    Very well done.

  2. 2 Adam G. said at 8:20 pm on October 23rd, 2014:

    My only quibble is with the Second Religiousness. Spengler argues it will by highly syncretic in its popular forms, although at root basically a medieval revival. So stuff like popular devotion to St. Buddha.

  3. 3 Avery said at 8:22 pm on October 23rd, 2014:

    Thanks for pointing that out. I got that the first time I read Decline, but this time I got distracted by a footnote.

  4. 4 YYYQQQ said at 10:24 pm on October 28th, 2014:

    I’ve been wondering a lot lately whether the miserable condition of representative government in the late Roman period might have been what gave the image of the crown of thorns its poignancy to early Christians.
    I think of the sneering derision of modern-day “representatives” when the public reacts against each new depredation–“We’re your representatives, therefore whatever we do to you is really being done by you to yourselves! So don’t you dare complain!”
    The franchise that you believed was your ultimate protection against tyranny, is cruelly transmogrified into a carte blanche justification for tyranny. A crown of thorns.