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Why liberalism is in crisis

John Gray and Ross Douthat debate the decline of the West.

By John Gray and Ross Douthat

In a new series, named “Face to Face” in homage to the former New Statesman editor John Freeman’s celebrated television interviews of the 1960s, today’s foremost thinkers, writers and politicians debate the forces reshaping the world. We begin with a written exchange between Ross Douthat, author and columnist at the New York Times, and our own John Gray. They discuss decadence and declinism, a possible religious revival, the culture wars, and the effects of the “Great Awokening”.

John Gray

One of the reasons it is so good to be in conversation with you is that each of us has been interpreted as believing the opposite of what we have written. When arguing that Western societies are decadent, you have made clear this means they face stagnation and repetition, not some Weimar-like catastrophe. When I argued against Francis Fukuyama in the 1990s that history had not ended, I meant (and repeatedly wrote) that history would go on as usual. But I was seen as suggesting that a cataclysmic denouement was in the offing. We are both anti-apocalyptic writers who have been read as prophets of an end-time.

We are also at one in thinking liberal societies face serious difficulties. Where we may differ is on how far these are soluble problems. The idea of decadence implies a falling-off from some earlier and healthier state of affairs. I am sure it is true that liberal societies used to be more tolerant than they are today. There has been a dramatic shift in this regard in the UK over the past few years, and the intellectual pluralism that existed when I took my first university post in the early 1970s is unimaginable now. In the US, where I spent a lot of time from the mid-1970s through to the early 1990s, the situation looks worse. Campus sectarian warfare seems to have spread nearly everywhere.

I don’t see this as a decline that can be reversed by returning to a supposedly purer form of liberal thought and practice. When some commentators call for a return to classical liberalism, they forget that it rested on the moral foundations of Jewish and Christian monotheism and the historical contingency of Western global power. Today Europe is post-Christian in its moral culture – with the exception of Poland, for example, abortion and assisted dying are not deeply divisive issues. Americans are intensely divided over such questions. That too, however, makes any restoration of classical liberalism impossible. The value-consensus that underpinned it no longer exists.

At the same time, I don’t believe the US or other democracies are morphing into radically different regimes. The US is not going to become a larger version of Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in any realistic scenario. The far right could make further advances in France and, I suspect, Germany, during the present decade. But no democracy in the developed world is likely to become a dictatorship unless there is a marked shift in the global balance of power.

Unfortunately, such a shift appears to be ongoing. I will be surprised if the thriving democracy in Taiwan, or the more besieged one that has emerged in Ukraine, is in place some years from now. It is always hazardous to extrapolate from current trends. Even so, it is hard to see how the rapid contraction of Western power that is under way can be arrested.

The argument for liberalism has become a story about prosperity and technology. Only open societies, it has been insistently asserted, can generate technological innovation and wealth creation. Though it was held as an article of faith, this was at bottom a falsifiable proposition. China has falsified it.

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China’s economic difficulties are the stuff of daily headlines there. The country has high levels of debt, an ageing population and vast environmental degradation. But it also appears to be advancing technologically at an extraordinary pace, particularly in areas that are pivotal in warfare – not just in hypersonic missiles, but quantum computing. If this continues, even for a few more years, China’s military superiority over the West (if such an entity still exists then) could become overwhelming.

This doesn’t mean a third world war, unless one takes place by accident. Most likely it portends a continuation of the present state of affairs in a more exacerbated form. The West will retreat from confrontation and China, and to a lesser extent Russia, will expand their power and influence. What remains of liberal civilisation will be eroded.

The West is not nearing an end-time. It is simply in decline, a process that is normal in history and affects all civilisations: it is liberals who are succumbing to apocalyptic thinking in imagining that theirs is exempt from this universal truth.

John Gray: “no one can any longer claim that politics is anodyne”. Photo by Charlie Forgham-Bailey

Ross Douthat

It’s a great pleasure to carry on this exchange, and a particular pleasure to be in conversation with the rare writer who has been accused of an unseemly pessimism more often than I have! Although, as you say, neither of our diagnoses of the contemporary West are exactly catastrophist: my portrait of a successful civilisation slipping into decadence, and your account of the inevitable waning of Western liberalism’s time-bound and contingent global power, are both compatible with years of relative stability and comfort.

And indeed, in the context of US politics these last few years, my slow-declinist vision has come to seem fatally naive to many friends – both those on the left who discern a looming fascism in Trumpism, and those on the right who are convinced that the new progressivism promises a soft-totalitarian future. In effect, by remaining merely pessimistic, not necessarily catastrophist, I have become a relative optimist. I wonder if you have had a similar experience in post-Brexit Britain.

Picking up where your missive left off, perhaps we can talk about whether anything internal to Western civilisation can arrest its process of decay – the global retreat of liberalism before various forms of nationalist power. You wrote a fascinating essay a few months ago in this magazine, arguing that even as debates within Western liberalism have become more sterile and limited – a recitation of the progressive catechism that is then “policed by peer pressure and professional sanctions” – in the world beyond the US and Europe, ideas from the more dynamic (and, sometimes, destructive) phases of Western history still have great influence. That is, 19th-century European nationalism lives on in Narendra Modi’s India, while China still cultivates an officially Marxist identity even as its junior intelligentsia reads the Western classics and argues over Alexis de Tocqueville and Thomas Hobbes and Carl Schmitt. In this sense, any successor to the West’s global power will be a true successor – not just a rebel against Euro-American hegemony but a partial heir to Western thought.

But I would note that it isn’t only the Chinese who have picked up Schmitt and Marx and other past Western critics of liberal piety. In America, at least, the most interesting younger writers and thinkers have been following similar paths for the past five or ten years. They have been reviving schools that were dormant during what I consider the true “hyper-liberal” years (using the phrase differently than you do) – meaning the late 1990s and early 2000s, when globalisation was a living faith and all political and economic questions were supposedly settled by the Third Way centrists. Now, though, the younger right is dominated by would-be populists, nationalists and integralists, and the left has self-styled socialists once again. Even the decline of intellectual pluralism that you rightly discern on college campuses reflects the influence of a kind of Protestant revivalism – shedding Christian doctrine but retaining the Puritan, purifying spirit.

In this sense, while the climate within many liberal institutions is definitely more uncomfortable and stifling than in the recent past, there is also more genuine intellectual turmoil, and more attempts to reach outside the confines of circa-1999 neoliberalism, than we had in public debate ten or 20 years ago. So I wonder, do we think all this turmoil can simply be reabsorbed by the system? Can the left-wing radicalism be transmuted into rules for corporate HR departments and the right’s post-liberalism be tamed into a bog-standard sort of Fox News partisanship? I tend to think it can, because decadence is not so easily overthrown; the internet tames radicalism as often as it inflames it; and nothing is stopping the steady ageing of the Western world. But I’m curious if you see anything in recent ideological ferments, the socialist-populist dialectic of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn and Trump and Orbán, that might suggest there’s still life (and yes, with it, danger) in the superficially exhausted West?

Ross Douthat: “my slow-declinist vision has come to seem fatally naive to many friends”. Photo by Stu Rosner

John Gray

You are right in your suspicion that I have become a relative optimist in regard to post-Brexit Britain: it is uber-Remainers who have fulminated hysterically about impending cataclysm. I hoped that as a reaction against the excesses of globalisation, Brexit would bring about a tilt away from neoliberal capitalism in this country. So far, accelerated by the pandemic, this has been the case. Any party that proposes returning to post-Cold War orthodoxy – a global free market and mass mobility of labour across national borders – will find itself out of power.

You are also right that I see some signs of life stirring in the exhausted West. Mostly they are by-products of what liberals call “populism”. The upheavals of the past five years – Brexit, Trump, the rise of illiberal democracy in post-communist Europe – were attempts to re-politicise issues that had been excluded from mainstream debate. Immigration may have been the key issue, but the revival of religion in a political context has also been important because of its links with issues such as abortion and assisted dying. (I am “pro-choice” on both questions.)

The re-entry into politics of fundamental conflicts of value has some downsides. Discourse is often polarised as a result. Demagogues have wider scope. Old toxins such as anti-Semitism have reappeared, but not only on the right. (The campus anti-Semitism that is so common in the US is a virus of the progressive left.) More generally, there has been a decline in tolerance, which remains an indispensable part of what Hobbes called “commodious living”. Perhaps most importantly, chronic internal dissension breeds a climate of solipsism in which external threats are underestimated. Western societies may be too self-absorbed to defend themselves in the ongoing geopolitical struggle.

But no one can any longer claim that politics is anodyne. Basic questions about the organisation of society are being raised again. The notion that a particular kind of capitalism is the final phase of economic development is now widely, and rightly, rejected as risible. The primacy of class in economic inequality is being rediscovered. Critical race theory is coming to be seen as what it always was: a pastiche of vacuous dogmas lacking any of the intellectual power of the classical Marxism from which it claims to be derived. The central role of Jewish and Christian monotheism in the formation of liberal values is being addressed once more. These are signs of health, not debility.

Yet I doubt whether reconnecting with these intellectual traditions can do much to slow, still less reverse, Western decline. Discredited theories can survive and exert power for generations when they serve as rationalisations of economic interests, as “woke” ideology does by promoting would-be elites over-produced by inflated universities. Hyper-liberal woke beliefs are too entrenched in our institutions, and are too useful to those who espouse them, to be affected by any demonstration of their falsity.

Nor am I confident that religion can act as a counter-weight to woke enthusiasm. The principal Christian congregations seem to share some hyper-liberal fantasies: Pope Francis, for example, appears to share the utopian vision of a borderless world. Christianity is also growing outside the West, in China and Africa, while in nearly all of Europe it is in retreat. Is the US an exception to this trend?

The principal Western default is not that it has lost its grip on its supposed foundational principles. Even in the US, a Protestant mythology of natural rights is not going to be resurrected in a form that is politically transformative, and neither is Steven Pinker-style Enlightenment rationalism, a secular variety of fundamentalism with limited popular appeal. Centuries of historicism and relativism – much of which was incubated in the Enlightenment – cannot be reversed by an act of will.

The real default is a lack of realistic thinking about the West’s diminished position. Is this because our leaders take seriously their own rhetorical declarations? Or is it that Western cultures are now too fragmented and introverted to form any clear view of their place in the world?

Ross Douthat

On the specific question of Christianity, my sense is that some kind of religious revival is the only way that the stirrings of intellectual energy could take on a wider social form. I mean this both in terms of changes to everyday life, new forms of community and the higher birth rates that our ageing societies keep trying to unsuccessfully generate, and in terms of an aesthetic creativity and cultural energy that’s been lost since the crack-up of mainstream Christian culture in the 1960s. Not that Christianity is the only possible source of religious renewal: there are pagan and Islamic influences at work in the West as well, which have their own fascinating potential implications. But these currents haven’t yet become a real religious stream. If you’re looking for something on a large-enough scale to re-energise a decadent society, a Christian revival of the sort you saw in 19th-century Europe and repeatedly in America’s Great Awakenings seems like the only plausible near-term candidate.

But I don’t see much evidence that such a revival is in the offing. In the US a certain kind of revivalist spirit is palpable at the moment, but only among progressives, whose “Awokening” resembles prior Great Awakenings in its moralising zeal, its air of utopian certainty. But it conspicuously lacks the metaphysical framework, the cultural-aesthetic imagination and the institutional structures that make for an enduring religious movement. Wokeness is more the last heresy of an attenuated Christendom than a sign of that Christendom’s resilience or revival.

On both sides of the Atlantic, there is hope among my fellow conservative intellectuals that, with the judicious use of state power, the kind of “cultural Christianity” that endures among non-church-going but politically conservative Europeans – and in a different way among American evangelicals – can become the basis of a restoration of Christian culture in full. But I am doubtful that history works this way: cultural Christianity is not something sincere believers should sneer at or reject, but it is a penumbra of real faith, a fading echo of real zeal. It’s not clear that you can start with the penumbra or the echo and work your way backward to the real thing. In the places where a conservative populism has taken shape, from France to Poland, church-going is either negligible or in decline, and Éric Zemmour’s rhetorical affection for Notre-Dame is just empty nostalgia if the traditional France he’s trying to conjure remains secular and sterile.

Meanwhile, the Francis pontificate, which began with a kind of dynamism, a vivid icon-ography of Christian love, has descended by stages into the fatal torpor of liberal religion – first with the attempt to hollow out various controversial Church doctrines, which provoked a Catholic civil war to no great purpose but at least had some sort of reforming energy behind it; and then with the drearier spectacle of the Church bureaucracy enacting a “synod on synodality”, an exercise in exactly the kind of Catholic navel-gazing that Francis was elected to reject. My Church at its centre feels lifeless at the moment, which leaves the peripheries – the Christianising countries of Africa and Asia – as a more plausible source of renewal for the Christian faith than anything going on in Europe.

But if that global renewal is affecting the once-Christian West, it’s happening at the immigrant margins, somewhat invisibly to elites. This relates in certain ways to your question of why the West’s leadership class is not reckoning with the reality of relative decline.

One answer, of course, is simply that humankind cannot bear too much reality, and political leaders less than most. But another issue is that while the political and economic might of India and China, and the demographic weight of Africa, are all undeniable realities poised to reshape the world, there is not yet any kind of non-Western cultural imperialism or influence to match, say, the US cultural imperialism of Hollywood and Coca-Cola (which defined the American century at its height). Yes, India exports future CEOs and Korea exports pop music and Japan exports anime, and we all eat a kind of world cuisine in Western cities. But globally I believe the dominant arts and ideas of our time are still recycled Western ones, the global celebrities and sports heroes are still mostly American, and, indeed, as American political culture fuses with celebrity culture, this pattern has only intensified: no one right now is as famous as Donald Trump.

This is not to say that American cultural imperialism is as strong as it once was; something like the woke revolution feels fundamentally parochial and inward-looking and likely to be rejected when it’s carried into other cultures by our state department or multinationals (as it was rejected, thoroughly, in our disastrous Afghanistan adventure). But there is still no Chinese or Indian equivalent, as yet, of the kind of cultural-export process that Americans are accustomed to carrying out. Instead, from the Western perspective China remains opaque and mysterious, more so even than the Soviet Union at its height, rather than representing a rival world-culture poised to displace our own. Whatever happens, we have got the Marvel films, and they have not.

I wonder if you think this absence of non-Western cultural imperialism matters to the global balance of power, or if the influence of even a decadent Hollywood is just a way for Americans to maintain illusions about our real status in the world – right up to the moment that China takes Taiwan, expels us from its end of the Pacific, and puts a stamp on our imperial decline. And either way, since you raise the question, from the point of view of policymaking in either Washington or Berlin and Paris, what would change if our leaders suddenly dropped their illusions, and adopted “a clear view of their place in the world”?

John Gray

“Wokeness is more the last heresy of an attenuated Christendom than a sign of that Christendom’s resilience or revival.” Here we are in full agreement. Though notably lacking in forgiveness, “woke” is in many respects a neo-Christian movement. That may be one reason it has had so little resonance outside the West, where it is regarded with a mixture of bafflement and pitying disdain. I also share your view that much of Western Christianity has “fallen into the fatal torpor of liberal religion”. In the light of our very different metaphysical standpoints – yours that of a Catholic believer, mine of an atheist – this is an interesting convergence.

You ask about the absence of any alternative to the cultural imperialism of the West. This is a question of central importance, since it brings to light a fundamental error in much thinking (not yours) about the position of the West at the present time. Western power is fast shrinking in both geopolitical and cultural respects. However, that does not mean any new global hegemon is emerging. China will not fill the space that America occupied in the world, partly because it is not driven by anything like the universalistic value system that Western liberalism inherited from Christianity. Russia does not aim to promote a global political project as it did in Soviet times, but wants to reassert itself as a great power. Islam is a universalist faith, but too internally divided to mount a systematic challenge to what remains of Western civilisation. There will be no successor to US hegemony for the foreseeable future.

Through its economic hold over Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Western universities, China will continue to increase its cultural and political influence. India will export its culture too, partly through the success of its diaspora, one of whom – Rishi Sunak – may be a future UK prime minister. Commonly written off as a culture-exporter because of the chilling effect of Putin’s authoritarianism, Russia may expand its civilisational reach through its growing influence on its “near-abroad” and the elites of continental Europe. None of these developments will amount to what you describe as “a rival world-culture” that could displace the once-dominant civilisation of the West. The three or four centuries in which humankind lived in the West’s shadow are surely over. The emerging reality is a world that is decentred and fragmented along the lines of hard and soft power.

This suggests an answer to your final question: what would change if our leaders suddenly shed their illusions and achieved a realistic view of their position in the world? No such epiphany seems likely any time soon, but were it to occur it would mean the end of any idea that “a liberal world order” can somehow be restored. Rather like cultural Christianity, which you rightly characterise as the fading penumbra or echo of the real thing, Western discourse regarding “the international community” is an empty gesture, an expression of decadent nostalgia more than anything else.

In policy terms, a shift to realism would entail accepting that states that are still animated in some degree by Western liberal values will have to learn how to co-exist with radically different polities and cultures. The task will not be to make over the world in a Western self-image, a role in which our leaders have in any case shown themselves to be incompetent over the past 30 years. It will be to defend Western societies against the growing economic and military threats posed by their rivals and enemies. Sadly, with dangerously muddled messages emanating from the US and Nato on Taiwan and Ukraine, there is no sign of our leaders having any coherent view of the West’s vital interests or the limits of its power.

TS Eliot is not one of my favourite poets (Wallace Stevens seems to me superior in every way). But the celebrated line in the Four Quartets (1941), where Eliot writes that “humankind cannot bear very much reality”, applies today in politics more than in any other area of life. A clear-headed realism may be like a revival of Christianity, a form of renewal of which the West is incapable. We press on regardless.

Ross Douthat

Since I broadly agree with your diagnosis of the Western situation and what realism requires, let me conclude our generally pessimistic conversation by trying to push beyond the frame of decadence a little bit. You imagine, in effect, a truly multipolar world, divided into re-emergent civilisation-states of the kind that Samuel Huntington once prophesied, and that contemporary analysts such as Bruno Maçães and Razib Khan have written vividly about of late. Each state would be culturally and politically influential in its sphere, none achieving the kind of global dominance that the European empires enjoyed 100 years ago and to which their American successor temporarily aspired.

This seems plausible as a portrait of the world between now and, let’s say, 2040: an America consumed with its own internal divisions, a Europe dealing with the pressures of migration amid its continuing decline, an India and China and Russia carving out larger spheres of influence at the West’s expense.

But then I wonder about what sort of pressures build up within this multipolar world. On the one hand there are the pressures of renewed civilisational competition, which was the great engine of European development during its centuries of competing empires. Under multipolar conditions a revival of the chauvinistic impulse in science and technology – one of the things we’ve been missing in our post-Cold War stagnation – might once again give us the “race” to space, the “race” to genetic engineering, the “race” towards nuclear fusion, and more. These competitions could carry us to dark places as well as happy ones, but either way we would no longer be gripped so intensely by stagnation and ennui.

There are then also the pressures of what you might call “internal selection” effects. At the moment the rich world is defined by institutional sclerosis and demographic senescence, but the kind of institutions, movements and families that take shape and flourish amid these conditions will, by definition, be selected for their resilience and creativity, their inoculation against decadence. When I’m asked to imagine a true religious or cultural revival within the Western world, not just the woke simulacrum, I usually envision it forming on this kind of generational timescale – where the deeper future of the 21st century is reshaped by the children and grandchildren of the people who are actually having kids right now, who are trying to live lives against decadence, and whose reward may be to be dramatically more influential in a future that belongs, after all, to the people who show up for it.

And that note of relative optimism does get at the key difference between us. One of the great themes in your work, good atheist that you are, is the folly of imagining a providential masterplan for human history, a long arc of progress that we’re destined to transcribe. I agree with you about the hubris of trying to discern that arc exactly, let alone trying to bring utopia into existence overnight. But as a Christian I do think there is a plan, however clouded the glass through which we strain to see it. As a simple observer of the species Homo sapiens, that most extraordinary of all the animals, I don’t really believe we have risen so far, achieved so much, to simply sink into a deadened virtualism, an endless cycle of futility. No, decadence is deep but impermanent: the stars still beckon, the divine still waits.

And since you ended with Eliot I will as well, but on a somewhat more optimistic note – reflecting optimism of the will, at least, if not the intellect: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”

John Gray is an NS contributing writer. Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and the author of “The Decadent Society: How We Became the Victims of Our Own Success” (Simon & Schuster) and “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery” (Convergent)

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This article appears in the 26 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Light that Failed