Jeremy Adelman, director of the Global History Lab at Princeton University, offers an interesting essay, noting that the idea of decline is one thing the extremes of Left and Right agree upon. Adelman reviews the history of declinism, and describes the fate of several previous dire predictions about humanity's future that did not come to pass, from Malthus' 18th century essay to The Club of Rome's "The Limits to Growth of 1972. (For a recent rebuttal of declinism, see Matt Ridley's essay in The Spectator: "We've just had the best decade in human history. Seriously.")
Here are some clips from Adelman's piece:
Declinisms share some traits. They have more purchase in times of turmoil and uncertainty. They are also prone to thinking that the circles of hell can be avoided only with a great catharsis or a great charismatic figure.
But most of all: they ignore signs of improvement that point to less drastic ways out of trouble. Declinists have a big blindspot because they are attracted to daring, total, all-encompassing alternatives to the humdrum greyness of modest solutions. Why go for partial and piecemeal when you can overturn the whole system?
One dissenting voice in the 1970s was Albert O Hirschman’s. He worried about the lure of doomsaying. Dire predictions, he warned, can blind big-picture observers to countervailing forces, positive stories and glimmers of solutions. There is a reason why: declinists confuse the growing pains of change with signs of the end of entire systems. Declinism misses the possibility that behind the downsizing old ways there might be new ones poking through.
Why the allure of declinism if history seldom conforms to the predictions? To Hirschman, it was traceable to a prophetic style, one that appealed to intellectuals drawn to ‘fundamentalist’ explanations and who preferred to point to intractable causes of social problems. For revolutionaries, what awaits is a utopian alternative. For reactionaries, what lies in wait is dystopia. The result is an ‘antagonistic’ mode of thinking, a belief that history swings from one big, integrated, all-encompassing system to another. Compared with modest advances, compromises and concessions – how boring! – the magnificent vision of a complete overhaul has so many charms.
The problem with declinism is that it confirms the virtues of our highest, impossible solutions to fundamental problems. It also confirms the disappointments we harbour in the changes we have actually made. This is not to say there aren’t deep-seated problems. But seeing them as evidence of ineluctable demise can impoverish our imaginations by luring us to the sirens of either total change or fatalism.
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