Tag Archives: zeitgeist

The Timely Decline of Britain*

When I started at university I was told by my professors to ignore the writings of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee and Teilhard de Chardin. The fault with these writers as that tried to impose a false narrative on history. The first two prophesied the decline of the West and in the prosperous 1960’s this seemed obviously false. The latter imposed a Catholic narrative on history. History according to my professors should be the study or recording of historical events, nothing more. Interpreting those events in order to according to some grand schema is to create an incorrect reading of the past – Brexit! (Michael Oakeshott – Experience and its Modes). Perhaps given the mess which is contemporary society, the work of these two historians is deserved of revaluation.

These two historians were not the only writers concerned for the fragility of Western civilisation. In 1920 after the conclusion of the Versailles Peace Treaty, J.M.Keynes wrote the following:

“Very few of us realise with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable, temporary nature of the economic organisation by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as natural, permanent, and to be depended on, and we lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, civil conflict in the European family.” John Maynard Keynes, “The Economic Consequences of the Peace,” New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Howe, 1920,

Oswald Spengler’s schema of decline can be used to demonstrate that the U.K. is in a downward spiral of decline.

Firstly he dismisses the notion of progress, human history he believes is not one of a linear upward trend, but cyclical. In the 1960s with the rapid recovery from the war, the war of 1939-1945 could be dismissed as a blip in history of human progress. Now after the financial crisis of 2008/9 and the climate crisis, the optimism of the 1960s seems misplaced.

These quotations from the Decline of the West seem ominously prescient.

“I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can be kept up only by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout it’s whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feelings, its own death. Here indeed are colours, lights, movements, that no intellectual eye has yet discovered.

Here the Cultures, peoples, languages, truths, gods, landscapes bloom and age as the oaks and the pines, the blossoms, twigs and leaves – but there is no ageing “Mankind.” Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return. There is not one sculpture, one painting, one mathematics, one physics, but many, each in the deepest essence different from the others, each limited in duration and self-contained, just as each species of plant has its peculiar blossom or fruit, its special type of growth and decline.”

― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

“You are dying. I see in you all the characteristic stigma of decay. I can prove to you that your great wealth and your great poverty, your capitalism and your socialism, your wars and your revolutions, your atheism and your ­pessimism and your cynicism, your immorality, your broken-down marriages, your birth-control, that is bleeding you from the bottom and killing you off at the top in your brains—I can prove to you that those were characteristic marks of the dying ages of ancient States—Alexandria and Greece and neurotic Rome.” ― Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West

Oswald Spengler was criticised for stating the obvious, that at some stage all civilisations go through the cycle of rise and fall. However what he does is that he tells a story worth repeating, and that is that the complacency and optimism of our leaders is not justified. He reminds as that Western Civilisation is not uniquely privileged, it cannot avoid the fate common to all civilisations that of decline and fall. When our politicians fail to heed reality and continue to act as if the prosperity and wealth of the West is a historical given, and that the progress is inevitable they are ignoring the lessons of history. Gordon Brown’s infamous statement that we have ‘abolished boom and bust’, which was shown to be fallacious by the financial crash of 2008/9, is typical of the misplaced optimism of all political leaders. More recent are the over optimistic claims of national regeneration made by Brexit favouring politicians.

Politicians assume our industrial civilisation will go on for ever and that progress is inevitable. What Spengler reminds us is that all civilisations eventually run out of rope. They plough just one furrow, exploit one idea and just as a field that is constantly ploughed becomes exhausted, so does a civilisation. Unavoidable climate change suggests that Western industrial civilisation is reaching its end game.

Spengler was greatly influenced by Nietzsche and the concept of the will to power. For him Western Europe had lost its dynamism. The idea that drove Western civilisation forward was being lost. Benedetto Croce saw liberalism as the great idea that drove Western civilisation forward. Liberalism was the zeitgeist of Hegel’s history. Those regimes that resisted liberalism, the German Empire had fallen, swept aside by the liberal democracies. If liberalism is the great idea of Western civilisation it is certainly dying. Britain as one of the bastions of liberal democracy is failing, and falling to a would be authoritarian populist. Nothing better demonstrates the decline of the liberal idea, than the Liberal Democrat party in coalition with the Conservatives voting for the most illiberal of policy measures. The restriction or denial of justice, through changes to the legal system that either restricted or denied access to the courts for millions.

Today’s political culture has as Spengler predicted lost its dynamism, the will to power has been extinguished. Rather than face today’s harsh realities or speak of future promise, leaders of the major parties wallow in nostalgic myths. On the right they wish for a return to the days of the 1950s, a time of monochrome culture and the false certainties f that time. The left desires a return to a romanticised past, a time when they part of a movement that encompassed that sturdy band of brothers the industrial working classes.

When he declares ‘optimism is cowardice’ , he describes all to accurately the reality of today’s political progress. Politicians always prefer to put an optimistic gloss of policies, but today’s politicians not only put a gloss on there policy, but garnish it with the most outrageous lies. When deception and deceit rather than hard truths are medium of political debate, a country is heading for the precipice as failing to acknowledge unpleasant reality are incapable of taking action to avoid the most catastrophic of futures.

There is one further quote that is of relevance to the decline of the U.K.“Through money, democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect.” Everybody knows that the catastrophic crisis of 2008/9 was caused by the collapse of the financial markets in Western Europe and the USA. What few realise is that the West is threatened by a new financial crisis, one due to the over indebtedness of our business corporations.

Cost benefit analysis has replaced reasoned policy making, every policy is claimed to deliver a cash advantage. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde politicians know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

This is my selective reading of Spengler and it is open to objection. Have I cherry picked stories from the national narrative to prove my point? In my defence I would argue that the evidence of national decline is so overwhelming that it was necessary to be selective.

All my examples are British does my ethnocentric reasoning make my conclusions about Spengler invalid.

If we are in decline is it necessary such a bad thing? Vienna of 1900 was the capital of an empire in decline, yet it had a flourishing artistic culture – Mahler, Klimt.

Britain has been in relative decline since the 1850s, now there is evidence that the decline may be becoming absolute. Increasing numbers are employed in low cost, low productive industries, as the British economy is increasingly unable to provide well paid highly skilled jobs for its people. Also Britain is a trading nation whose prosperity depends on international trade, now we have a government determined for wrong headed reasons to restrict British businesses access to international markets. If decline is absolute how should we respond?

Robert Skidelsky suggested economic history provides the best guide for current economic policy making, so should politicians look to history to provide a guide to policy making. Certainly politicians and journalists seem ignorant of history as demonstrated in The Spectator article that stated that Joe Biden would be a friend to Britain became his ancestors were Irish – Irish emigrants forced to leave Ireland because of the great famine of the 1840s!

When today I read that the government is considering the purchase of an £190 million royal yacht HMY The Duke of Edinburgh, I felt that I now lived in a Ruritanian European offshore island.

There is a BBC Radio 4 broadcast on Oswald Spengler and ‘The Decline of the West’, which I can recommend.

*Timely decline- as the British people have been complicit in the nation’s decline by voting for politicians and policies that hasten that decline.

The Corrupted Human Spirit

What economics lacks is the space to include other human sciences such as philosophy in the scope of its subject matter.  Philosophy has the grand vision that is usually lacking in economics, which is all too often a science of the minutiae of life. One concept outside the understanding of economists is Hegel’s zeitgeist or the spirit of the age. What Hegel means by this is that there is one overall idea that animates a period of human history. It is an idea which expresses the characteristics of an age, such as the ‘bélle époque’ of 19th century Paris. A Paris of the freeing of human spirit, painting was freed from the old conventions demonstrated in the art of the impressionists, the vitality of popular culture was epitomised by the exuberance of the ‘Can Can’ yet this was a freeing that also allowed the darker side of the human spirit, corruption and venality to thrive. French politics of this time was characterised by a series of corruption scandals. As a believer in the zeitgeist, I wondered what was the spirit of this age? What was the spirit that informed human behaviours in our contemporary world?

Usually this is seen as the age of Neo-Liberalism ,  yet that phrase needs explaining. According to its advocates the freeing of the markets will lead to a freeing of the human spirit. Yet the art of the age does not seem to embody the freedom of the human spirit, rather it embodies the spirit of reproduction or copying. One art work that epitomises this spirit of reproduction is an art work by Damien Hirst, it was a series of dots on a white background. These dots varied only in colour but not in any other way. They seemed to have been placed in lines on the screen only the colours of the dots seemed to be chosen at random. I as a viewer could see little creativity at work, it was a machine like picture, a picture that for me could only be produced by a machine. What it lacked was the spark of human imagination. Damien Hirst work demonstrative of an age that is lacking in originality and creativity.  A lack of originality that can be seen on any new housing estate, which consists of houses which are copies of those built for generations by the builder’s predecessors. They are inferior copies of the house of the past as they are being built of inferior materials and to much smaller dimensions. Houses that were built according to a least cost formula, a least cost that necessarily implies a lack of originality. Why go for the expense course of employing an architect to create a contemporary house incorporating new materials and bold design, when it is cheaper and easier to copy an old design?

What Neo-Liberalism has given to the age is a dominant mode of thought. Policy decisions are not to be made of according to values or any grand vision but according to a cost benefit calculation. A government project such as the High Speed Rail link from London to the North is made on this basis. Do the demonstrated costs outweigh the benefits in cash terms? This leads to all sorts of strange calculations to render values such the enjoyment of living in the undisturbed countryside in cash terms. Decisions can only be made on quantifiable or cash terms, this thinking leads to a diminution of the human spirit, as decision making is reduced to a process of calculation.  Human values have been reduced to a simple cash nexus, it is a corruption of the human spirit.

It is a world in which the heroes are the bankers and speculators, those who are the masters money. There heroic status derives from the fact that they handle vast quantities of money, money a product which is the holy grail of contemporary society, in that those who are greatest possess the most of this asset.  We know a footballer is a footballing genius as much through the income he commands as for his skill on the football pitch.

There is embodied in Neo-Liberal philosophy a realism of the most naive form. What is valued is what is tangible, what can be counted and weighed, not abstraction? There is the belief that abstract universal values have no place in contemporary society. What counts is the practicality of a belief or ideology. Neo-Liberalism is the most practicable of beliefs in that only those outcomes that can be quantified, the benefits be counted, are valued. Only those practices that have a quantifiable end result matter. The result is the target culture in the public sector, where performance is measured in terms of targets achieved. The emphasis is on ‘through put’ not on quality. In hospitals the target culture has damaged good practice. What matters is that the target is met, not the quality of service. This results in some bizarre practices, because there is a time limit set for treating patients in Accident and Emergency (A&E), patients will be deliberately kept waiting in ambulances, as by so doing the patient has not yet been admitted to A& and is not counted as an in patient. This means that the time they spent waiting in the ambulance does not count when it comes to measuring how successful the A&E department has been in meeting its  performance targets.

One of the most damaging aspects of the Neo-Liberal zeitgeist is to found in our schools. What is causing great excitement is the new stem subjects, the officially defined list of subjects in which students are expected to do well? These stem subjects are little more than a sophisticated version of the 3 r’s ‘reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetatic’ that formed the curriculum of many state schools in the 19th century. Dickens’ Wackford Squeers would feel very much at home in the new academies. This change has happened because schools are now measured by output. The output that matters is in that of the skills that business wants. Businessman want employees that are competent in the 3 r’s, if they do want painters it is a painter who can paint a wall, not an artist. There is in our schools a deskilling and narrowing of the curriculum. A deskilling in all that matters is those skills that can be quantified and measured, so creativity achieves a zero score while the rote repetition of the agreed answer gets the highest score.The narrowing the curriculum is caused by the downgrading of the creative arts, that is art, music and drama get few marks in the current system, so headteachers that wish to do well, discourage their brightest students from doing anything but the stem subjects.  There cannot have been a curriculum more designed to create a dull, boring and miserable education for children than the current one.

When economists look for reasons for the poor performance of the economy, the look the reasons that do not relate to the human spirit. The reigning zeitgist is one that is unimaginative, it only values the measurable and is one of uninspiring dullness.A corruption of the human spirit, one that discourages all that is best in the human personality. Are not some of the failings of the British economy to be found in a zeitgeist that discourages innovation and creativity. If economists raised their eyes from their desks they might see that there are studies pointing them in this direction. A recent study of the booming computer software industry in East London showed that one of the reasons for its success was that it was perceived as a ‘cool’ place to work and live and as a consequence attracts some of the best computer software engineers in Europe. Rather than worrying about how to make workers more productive, perhaps economists should look more to creating a zeitgeist that encouraged creativity and innovation. A zeitgeist that would drag the society out of its current doldrums.