The Nation State Is Going Down

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Every era ends at some point. The world of classical Greece ended with the rise of Macedon. The empire of Alexander ended the Greek city-state forever. Rome replaced Alexander’s empire three centuries later. Rome broke apart over the next four centuries. The medieval world lasted for at least 800 years in the West – a decentralized social order. In the eastern Roman empire, Byzantium was a separate civilization. We can date its end: 1453. It fell to Islam.

In the West, the Renaissance grew out of the ashes of the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes, all fall down” surely applied to Western Christendom. The Renaissance was a self-conscious break with the medieval world. We call it medieval because the Renaissance named it: the world in between Rome and modernity. The Renaissance was a self-conscious attempt to resurrect the classical world.

In 1492, Columbus opened up a new world geographically. This opening westward marked the transition to the modern world. This world has belonged to Western science, technology, philosophy, and culture. It has eclipsed Islam. The fall of the Ottoman Empire after 1875 clearly seemed to end the Islamic alternative. This had not been clear in 1800, when Barbary pirates looted Western ships in the Mediterranean.

The remarkable and unexplained advent of 2% per annum per capita economic growth in 1800 changed the old world forever. A new civilization appeared, one which was clearly radically different in 1875. As I have said before, all this has happened in just three generations: John Tyler (b. 1790), his son Lyon (b. 1853), and his grandsons Lyon, Jr. (b. 1924) and Harrison (b. 1928), both of whom are still alive.

In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama, a then-unknown scholar, wrote an essay: “The End of History?” It was published in the neoconservative journal, The National Interest. He argued that Western democracy has triumphed, and no rival political system is likely to displace it. This article was a frontal assault against Marxism.

He was surely right about Marxism. It is dead. It will never be revived. It had been abandoned by Communist China a decade before Fukuyama’s article. The symbol of Soviet Communism’s demise was the fall of the Berlin Wall. On December 31, 1991, the USSR was voted out of existence by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which disbanded. That was the most remarkable collapse of an empire in history. It was bloodless.

Yet, for all this, there are signs that the social and intellectual world created by the Renaissance and extended by the Enlightenment – right wing and left wing – is nearing its own final days. This is marked by the crisis of the democratic nation-state. It faces these crises:

1. The bankruptcy of its welfare programs for the aged2. Rising rates of violent crime3. The failure in the United States of tax-funded education, K-124. The bankruptcy of the American empire5. The loss of legitimacy of the democratic nation-state6. The break-up of the European federation and euro7. The failure of the United Nations Organization8. The rapid extension of Islam in Western Europe9. Falling white birthrates in the West: below replacement rate10. The decline of historical knowledge among the West’s elite11. Loss of faith in the idea of progress12. No replacements for the church and the nation-state13. Boredom

There is economic growth, but Asia seems to be the wave of the future. Asia will have its demographic day of judgment in 20 to 30 years – an aging population without either state funding or family funding – but this is not evident now. Also, Asians kill female infants in the womb. Westerners do, too, but on an equal opportunity basis: males are killed at the same rate.

These trends are known individually by hundreds of millions of people, but there is no widespread alarm that anything fundamental is at stake. There is little sense that these trends are part of a package deal.

Rarely does a bell toll to mark the end of a civilization. The demise of the USSR in 1991 was the greatest exception in human history. Nothing else matches it. But the bells are tolling, one by one.

In this report, I am going to give you a brief survey of five chapters in three books that have shaped my thinking over the last three decades. I do not expect you to read any of these three books cover to cover. Of course, it would hardly hurt you to do this. If you read the five chapters, and decide that they are important enough in your own thinking to justify reading the books, I recommend that you do so. But I want to save you time. I want to introduce you to some ideas that I find compelling, and which I think you should consider very carefully in making your own plans.

Robert Nisbet’s History of the Idea of Progress

This was published in 1980 by Basic Books, the neoconservative book publisher. It was written by the professor who had the greatest influence on my thinking. Officially, he was a sociologist. In fact, he was a social philosopher and brilliant social commentator. (He once wrote an essay on the misuse of the word “brilliant.”)

He became one of the most famous conservative thinkers in the world after 1965. This was because of the social changes that disrupted the United States and many other Western nations, 1965-1970. He had given a lot of thought to the kinds of changes that were taking place. So, when he began to write systematically about these changes, beginning in 1965, his influence grew extensively.

There was another factor, which he once mentioned to me in private conversation. He became one of the favorite sociologists of the neoconservative movement. He did not regard himself as a neoconservative. He did not use the phrase. But a group of formerly left-wing Jewish intellectuals, most of whom were atheists, who had been influential in intellectual circles for decades, began to pay attention to him after they began their switch from leftism sometime around 1965. Some of them had been Marxists in the 1930s, whether Stalinists or Trotskyites. They had made a transition from Marxism to Democratic leftism in the 1950s. Then, in the middle of the 1960s, it made the next transition, and the results of that transition has become known as neoconservatism. I have written about this development here.

Nisbet told me that the greatest boost to his career had been the fact that Jewish intellectuals in New York City began to publish his articles and then his books. As he said to me, Jews read a lot of books. That was certainly accurate. When Nisbet began to be published in the Jewish periodical Commentary, and in the neoconservative quarterly publication, The Public Interest, his reputation grew. This enabled them to begin finding a market for the books which he was ready to write, beginning in 1965 or 1966. Scholars dream of such opportunities in their lives, but it rarely happens in the second half of the scholar’s career. In Nisbet’s case, it was the final third of his career.

Nisbet had studied at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1930s and early 1940s. He was highly influenced by a social thinker and remarkable historian, Frederick J. Teggart. Teggart was a philosopher of history. Nisbet was his graduate assistant, and one of his important tasks was to go to the library and get books for Teggart. He told me about carrying piles of books to Teggart’s office, which was piled high with books. The University of California had the best library in the West Coast. Teggart read widely, and this introduced Nisbet to a vast array of academic materials that most of his peers had never heard of. Teggart was eclectic and not widely known, then or now. He is known today mainly because Nisbet has written about his influence in his own academic career.

Nisbet chose as his doctoral dissertation French conservative thought in the 1820s and 1830s. This topic had gone down the academic memory hole decades earlier. It was virtually unknown to the academic community. This gave Nisbet a real advantage. There was no one out there to tell him his thesis was wrong.

After World War II, he returned from the military and became a professor of sociology at Berkeley. This was during the phase of the enormous growth of higher education in the USA, because of the G.I. Bill. Millions of young men who would not otherwise been able to go to college returned to college because of the federal government’s subsidy. This vastly expanded the number of colleges, and Nisbet was in the right university at the right time. Nisbet wrote a book on this change, The Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1972).

In 1953, his book, The Quest for Community, was published by Oxford University Press. It received some attention, mostly favorable, but it was hardly a bestseller. He asked these questions: “Why was it that the modern world had turned to totalitarianism in the middle of the 20th century? What had taken place in the societies that gave birth to totalitarianism?” He concluded that it had to do with the breakdown of social order. Those institutions to which men had given allegiance throughout history, such as the family, the church, the guild, the fraternal order, and similar voluntary institutions, had faded in importance in the twentieth century. This left only the isolated individual and the modern nation-state. Men gained a sense of belonging through their participation in mass-movement politics. Totalitarian leaders began to attract individuals who were isolated, even though they were living in large cities. These leaders were able to offer a sense of brotherhood to millions of people who felt alone in the midst of cities. The modern totalitarian state functioned as a substitute for the family, church, and voluntary associations that for millennia had given people a sense of purpose and participation. So, totalitarianism was born out of radical individualism, institutionally speaking, even though as a philosophy, totalitarianism is completely opposed to individualism.

In the second phase of his career, he served as an academic administrator at the newly launched undergraduate-only university, the University of California, Riverside, from 1954 to 1965. Then he took a sabbatical to teach at the University of Bologna, the very first university. When he returned, he went back into full-time teaching – remarkable for an administrator. That was when the third and most productive phase of his career began – also remarkable for a scholar. He wrote a series of books that were widely praised and widely read, including The Sociological Tradition (1966), Social Change and History (1969), The Social Philosophers (1973), and The Twilight of Authority (1975).

Then came The History of the Idea of Progress, which is his most profound book. For some reason, he included no footnotes – a pity for those of us who collect footnotes.

He believed that societies need faith. If he was a practicing Christian, I did not hear about it. In his book, he traces the history of Western man’s faith in progress from the Greeks to the late 20th century. I think he was wrong about the Greeks. I think they believed in cyclical history, just as J. B. Bury said in 1920. Nisbet was self-consciously reacting against Bury. I think Stanley Jaki was correct: the absence of a concept of linear time kept the Greeks and the Romans from moving beyond technology to science.

In the Introduction, he writes the following about the idea of progress:

. . . I remain convinced that this idea has done more good over a twenty-five-hundred year period, led to more creativeness in more spheres, and given more strength to human hope and to individual desire for improvement than any other single idea in Western history. . . . The springs of human action, will, and ambition lie for the most part in beliefs about universe, world, society, and man which defy rational calculations and differ greatly from physio-psychological instincts. These springs lie in what we call dogmas. . . . Everything now suggests, however, that Western faith in the dogma of progress is waning rapidly in all levels and spheres in this final part of the 20th century. The reasons, as I attempt to show in the final chapter, have much less to do with the unprecedented world wars, the totalitarianisms, the economic depressions, and other major political, military, and economic afflictions which are peculiar to the 20th century than they do with the fateful if less dramatic erosion of all the fundamental intellectual and spiritual premises upon which the idea of progress has rested throughout its long history (pp. 8-9).

Chapter 9 of his book, Progress at Bay, discusses the evidence for the loss of faith in the West regarding the future. He writes:

Behind this spreading atmosphere of guilt and loss of meaning or purpose in the West and its heritage lies a constant erosion of faith in Western institutions; not just political but social, cultural, and religious institutions. Hardly a week passes without some fresh poll or survey indicating still greater loss of respect by Americans and Europeans for government, church, school, profession, industry, the media, and other once respected institutions – and, naturally, those who in one or other degree preside over or represent that these institutions (p. 332).

This passage indicates something that I regard as fundamental in our understanding of the decline of faith in the idea of progress. Nisbet touches on it, but he does not sufficiently emphasize it. The issue of progress is intimately tied to the idea of morality. The loss of a sense of moral purpose is at the heart of the loss of faith in the idea of progress. It is not just that people have lost faith in progress; they have lost faith in a moral universe of cause-and-effect, which once governed the thinking of the West. We cannot separate the doctrine of the idea of progress from morality, which in turn is established through faith in God, who provides both purpose and meaning for the universe.

If there was a single source of this loss of faith it was Charles Darwin. His concept of unplanned biological change rested on his denial of any purpose in the universe prior to man. This is the heart of his system, and he knew it. He was reacting against teleology: cosmic purpose or design.

Darwin’s followers latched onto the idea of man as the highest evolutionary being in the universe. Without man, Darwinists say, there is no purpose in the universe unless there is a higher evolutionary species out there is space, whose sense of purpose trumps ours. (The idea of “higher” implies a hierarchy, which is a hierarchy of power: the survival of the fittest, as Herbert Spencer summarized it.) This places the origin of meaning and purpose in mankind: collective mankind. But who speaks for mankind? On what basis?

The heart of Darwin’s theory is that nature has no autonomous purpose. It has no end in mind. It has no mind. It is not structured to benefit man, and man must struggle against the forces of nature in order to retain his dominance in nature. There is nothing outside of man that gives support to man, and there is nothing outside of man that guarantees man’s success in extending his rule over nature in history. There is no natural law in Darwinism in the sense that was believed in Western history from the Greeks to Darwin. There is also no sovereign God who oversees the affairs of men, which has been the belief of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from the beginning.

Man is cut off from any source of positive or negative sanctions in response to a transcendent system of morals. So, with the triumph of Darwinism and secularism, faith in transcendental morality has disappeared among the intellectuals. This in turn has undermined their faith in progress. There is no way to define progress unless there is a universal scale of values, meaning good, bad, and worst: the guides for mankind. The god of any society is the source of its laws and the enforcer of these laws. In the Darwinian universe, this means collective mankind. The trouble is, mankind cannot be trusted, precisely because mankind is afflicted with moral perversity.

In the Epilogue to his book, Nisbet warns that, without faith in the future, no society can be maintained for long. The Greeks, he argues, never did lose faith in their gods. The same holds true for the Romans. Obviously, this was true of Christianity. Even during the Enlightenment, most of the promoters of Enlightenment rationalism were Deists or theists of some kind. He contrasts this with the present situation.

In our day, however, religion is a spent force. If God is not dead, he is ebbing away, and has been since the early part of the century. We have, in Jonathan Swift’s coruscating words, “just enough religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another” – or, enough to make us see the flaws and cankers of the society around us but not enough to generate hope for the future. Just as religion has seriously waned, so have most of the systems of thought which for a time served intellectuals as surrogates. There are many today who find either Spencer’s first cause or Marx’s dialectic convincing (p. 353).

He then surveys the loss of faith within academic disciplines. He says that philosophy is a spent force. Nobody pays any attention or has any interest in what a professional philosopher thinks today. But who has succeeded the philosophers? “There is no ready answer. We appear to be destitute of any reigning intellectual class. Intellectuals and artists have gone the way of business and political titans, of clergy and philosophers, of scholars and scientists. When has literature been held in as low estate as it is today in the West? Never has the gulf between creative writer and the public been as wide as it is now” (p. 354).

He gets to the point.

The reason for this condition, this debasement of literature and estrangement of writer and public, is our lack of a true culture. And fundamental to this lack is the disappearance of the sacred, always at the heart of any genuine culture – from ancient Athens to Victorian England. For some time we thought we could live off the yield of the sacred, even though it was gone or passing away. Then it was easy to maintain belief in progress and, so believing, to seek to add what a cherished past had contributed. It is no longer easy, for behind the death of the past, the displacement of Western pride of civilization, the waning faith in economic growth in the works of reason lies the moribundity of religious conviction, of belief and faith in something greater than the life immediately around us (p. 354).

He quotes Alexis de Tocqueville. “When men have once allowed themselves to think of no more of what is to befall them afterlife, they lapse readily into that complete and brutal indifference to futurity which is but to conformable to some propensities of mankind.” Nisbet continues:

Only on the basis of confidence in the existence of the divine power was confidence possible with respect to design or pattern in the world and in the history of the world. . . . But it is absent now, whether ever to be recovered, we cannot know. And with the absence of the sense of sacredness of knowledge there is now to be seen in more and more areas absence of respect for or confidence in knowledge – that is, the kind of knowledge that proceeds from reason and its intrinsic disciplines” (p. 355).

Then he asks the crucial question:

But is this contemporary Western culture likely to continue for long? The answer, it seems to me, must be in the negative – if we take any stock in the lessons of the human past. . . . I believe, first from the fact that never in history have periods of culture such as our own lasted for a very long. They are destroyed by all the forces which constitute their essence. How can any society or age last very long if it lacks or is steadily losing the minimal requirements for a society – such requirements being the very opposite of the egocentric and hedonistic elements which dominate Western culture today?” (p. 356).

Then he raises a crucial issue. This is the issue of what he calls religious renewal. “Whatever their future, the signs are present – visible in the currents of fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, even millennialism found in certain sectors of Judaism and Christianity. Even the spread of the occult and the cult of the West could well be one of the signs of a religious renascence, for, as it is well known, the birth of Christianity or rather its genesis as a world religion in Rome during and after the preaching of Paul was surrounded by a myriad of bizarre face and devotions.” There are also other signs. “By every serious reckoning the spell of politics and the political, strong since at least the seventeenth century, is fading. It is not simply a matter of growing disillusionment with government bureaucracy; fundamentally, it is declining faith in politics as a way of mind and life” (p. 356). With politics fading as a religion, there could be a revival of supernatural religion. That, too, was basic to the replacement of Roman empire by Christendom, although Nisbet never said this explicitly.

Nisbet regarded religion and politics as inevitably at war with each other. I think he was wrong. Every religion is manifested in some kind of legal order. Every legal order for society rests on some system of morality, and every system of morality rests in turn on fundamental presuppositions that are accepted on faith. This is the heart of every society’s religion. So, rather than seeing politics and religion is antithetical, I see certain kinds of religion at war with other kinds of religion. One of these battlefields is politics. This is why Christian homeschooling parents pull their children out of the tax-funded schools.

What Nisbet was talking about was a loss of faith in politics as a source of healing. He was talking about the loss of faith in messianic politics. It was clear by 1980 that what he had described three decades earlier in The Quest for Community was dying. The old totalitarianism was fading. The Soviet Union no longer had faith in the Communist future. By the time this book was published, China was going through the transformation that was begun in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. The Chinese economy was being freed up in terms of individual ownership of the means of production: a most unMarxist concept.

It is worth noting that 1980 was the moment of truth for Soviet Communism. The Moscow Olympics brought rich Western people to Moscow. There, the leaders of the Soviet empire saw the suits and watches and shoes of the West. They saw that the highest positions of power in the USSR enabled you to look like a Russian bureaucrat. The Soviet leaders never recovered from that realization. At exactly the same time, the Solidarity movement began in Poland, launched by the chance discovery in a railroad yard that cans labeled “fish” being sent to Moscow were in fact cans of Polish ham. That marked the beginning of the Polish revolt. A year before, a Pole had become Pope Paul II. I like to think of all this as providential. Rival systems of religion and politics went to war against each other.

What was fading in 1980 was messianic politics. The idea that political change will produce some sort of social regeneration was no longer taken seriously by people in the West. Political campaigns invoke the word “hope,” as Bill Clinton’s campaign and Barack Obama’s campaign showed us. But the hope was not fulfilled. Political hope around the world has not been fulfilled. As this confidence in politics fades, something is going to replace it. That was what Nisbet saw as a real possibility in the West. More than this, he believed that, if this religious renewal does not take place in the West, then Western civilization will fade.

This had also been the view of Pitirim Sorokin a generation before Nisbet’s book was published. Sorokin was the founder of the Department of Sociology at Harvard. In 1941, Sorokin’s book appeared, The Crisis of Our Age. He called the worldview of modern man “sensate.” If something cannot be touched and measured, it is thought to have no validity. Like Nisbet, he believed that it is not possible to maintain such an outlook without undermining civilization.

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November 14, 2011

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit He is also the author of a free 20-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2011 Gary North