Sunday, 29 July 2018

My review of "Suicide of the West" by Jonah Goldberg for The Salisbury Review


Approximately three hundred years’ ago, Britain gave birth to capitalism, which allowed the people of Europe to achieve “escape velocity from the norm of human existence.” Britain exported capitalism around the globe, which has benefitted billions by producing formerly unimaginable levels of liberty and prosperity. The American conservative writer Jonah Golberg calls this “the Miracle”, because, while it no doubt owed something to British “exceptionalism”, nevertheless “…no one intended it. No single thing made it happen. It was an unplanned and glorious accident.” Sadly, Goldberg warns, the Miracle is now under threat from both Left and Right in those very countries it has made free and wealthy...

Although capitalism is “the most liberating force in human history”, it has one fatal flaw - “It doesn’t feel like it.” This defect has allowed the system’s numerous enemies to foster a sense of ingratitude towards it - their relentless campaign to defame the “best anti-poverty program ever conceived” has created the delusional belief that our current blessings are somehow natural, and would actually increase without capitalism (the only economic system, by the way, which creates wealth, rather than merely redistributing it). Goldberg argues that capitalism’s considerable benefits are in fact the result of an ongoing battle against human nature: left to our own devices, we invariably revert to tribalism, which, while it doesn’t make us rich or free, provides a sense of belonging and meaning - things which capitalism allows us to seek, but which it doesn’t automatically provide or impose.

The predominant form of tribalism on the Left today is identity politics, which encourages people to view themselves as part of a group rather than as individuals: if you’re gay, black, Muslim, female, or transgender (although not if you’re a Jew or a white male heterosexual) you’re encouraged to believe that, because of the victimhood status and aura of nobility conferred by  past sufferings, your tribe deserves preferential treatment. On the Right, tribalism tends to manifest itself in nationalism and racial supremacy movements. Part of the reason capitalism and Christianity spread so rapidly is the more-the-merrier universalism they share: race, class, nationality - even past sins - are no barrier to entry.

Ironically, while “compassionate” identity politics makes its adherents feel ever-so pious, it also encourages a more callous, hate-filled society, in which, for instance, all Tories are heartless “scum” and all businessmen are wicked exploiters: “When all of your identity is bound up in a single group or cause, your concern for institutions and people outside of your group diminishes or vanishes.”

Apart from tribalism, the other human instinct resistant to capitalism is romanticism, which is described as “the voice through which our inner primitive cries out ‘There must be a better way!’  But - spoiler alert - there isn’t one.”

In a lengthy and particularly entertaining section (no matter what he’s discussing, Goldberg retains his good humour and wit) he goes on to identify some of the specific groups seeking to destroy our prosperity and freedom - most notably academics, bureaucrats, governments and globalists. One of capitalism’s central problems is that it fails to pander to the considerable self-esteem of intellectuals, particularly in America and Britain - which is why teachers and lecturers teach our children to despise its undeniable benefits, and why so few of them vote for parties which support free enterprise: “As capitalism makes mass education possible, it creates a mass audience… for what intellectuals are selling. And what the intellectuals are selling is resentment of the way things are.”

Meanwhile, bureaucrats, who are described as members of a parasitic ”parallel government, operating in the shadows, outside the light of democratic transparency”, use regulations and the regulatory bodies set up to impose them, to “capture” the businesses they are tasked with overseeing. Bureaucracies also inexorably subsume those functions of civil society - Burke’s freely-associating “little platoons” - which give our lives a sense of belonging and meaning, which in turn encourages us to search for both in tribalism.

As for liberal democratic governments, over time they tend to become increasingly efficient at servicing the needs of their clients, while becoming less able to deal with more pressing public problems (the phenomenon known as “demosclerosis"). Finally, Golberg cites those members of the “new class” - particularly globalists - who find it easier to identify with their foreign compatriots than with fellow citizens who “feel a patriotic attachment to their own nation or culture.”

In case I’ve made Goldberg sound like a red-in-tooth-and-claw libertarian, I should make it clear that - in American terms at least - he’s a traditional conservative. For example, he’s sympathetic to the view that, while capitalism relies on thrift, delayed gratification, honesty and the sovereignty of the individual, it also tends to undermine the customs, traditions, culture and faith which inculcated these habits and beliefs. And, while he’s against strident nationalism, he’s all for patriotism. In fact, it’s the writer’s traditional conservatism which ends up unbalancing a book which he began working on before Donald Trump was elected president. Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review, the political journal most closely associated with the NeverTrump movement, which consists of conservatives convinced that the President’s blend of America First political populism and economic nationalism is (almost) as unconservative, divisive and sinister as the identity politics brand of liberal fascism offered by his presidential rival, Hillary Clinton (Liberal Fascism was the title of Goldberg’s brilliant first book, published in 2008).

The book’s subtitle - “How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy” - could prove offputting to conservative British readers, given that the terms “populism”, “tribalism” and “nationalism” have all been used to smear 17.4 million Brexit voters as gullible racists. For all Trump’s faults, and for all the uncertainties surrounding Brexit, the fact that both unexpectedly triumphed at the ballot box in the face of overwhelming opposition from the state in both countries might strike one as a reassertion of democracy against bullying, contemptuous elites, rather than a presage of its imminent demise.

One might not expect a book entitled Suicide of the West to end on an optimistic note, but Goldberg does offer some comfort. Having told us earlier, that, “Without effort, civilisation dies, because that is what civilisation is: effort”, he ends by assuring us that “Decline is a choice. Principles, like gods, die when no one believes in them anymore.”  The only way to keep beliefs alive is to defend them - talk matters, and, unless right-wingers start defending  capitalism against its numerous enemies, the next generation will be even more ignorant of its blessings than we are.

This is a flawed but extremely readable and thought-provoking book from that rarest of all creatures - a wise intellectual.

Suicide of the West is available from Amazon.

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