Why the idea that the world is in terminal decline so dangerous.

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert, c1771. Courtesy Musée d'Art Moderne André Malraux, Le Havre Source: aeon.

Messages from all around the world have been heralding possibility of something uncanny to ensue.  With such dangers being propelled each day, may be its worth contemplating what it harbingers in the coming days. The idea of this decline has been agreed upon by both the Left and Right wing extremists. The Right says that West and Judeo Christian Civilization have been clawed by foreign and native extremists. The Left wing on the other hand talks of collapsing capitalism encumbered by surveillance regimes and coups. Like several others who shout out stances of decline, the German Sociologist, Wolfgang Streeck says it is capitalism or democracy that will harbour either anguish or paradise. In How Will Capitalism End? (2016), he claims that  “Before capitalism will go to hell, it will for the foreseeable future hang in limbo, dead or about to die from an overdose of itself but still very much around, as nobody will have the power to move its decaying body out of the way.”


Even Julian Assange recounted to an American reporter that source of the Earth’s evil could be traced to decline like that of Rome’s where the historians are said to have doom steered it.  He whispered repeatedly that “This could be the beginning.” The First World War brought the idea of doom into the modern age. German historian Oswald Spengler’s publication “The Decline of the West (1918) offered a version of this where the influenza plague and carnage of Flanders wiped out almost 5% of the world’s human population earlier than time to sound the decay. Spengler also predicted that by the end of the century, the Western civilization would require an invincible executive to rescue it.


Research says that the ‘declinist’ age is significant as it will not only impact the Westerners but the entire globe. Globalization makes economies interdependent, whether it is world supply chains or climate change, they equally ensure probable extinction. Our lifestyles pose no lesser risk than externally perilling factors. ‘Declinism’ professes some traits indicating increased purchases in times of uncertainty and turmoil. ‘Declinists’ think that this vicious circle can be avoided only with a grand liberation or a dominant charismatic figure. Moreover, their ideas reflect drastic alternatives instead of milder solutions to dealing with situations. The best-seller Club of Rome’s The Limits of Growth (1972) sold copies in 30 languages and the “Project on the Predicament of Mankind alarmed readers a portrait of demise, mapped out with gloomy confidence about ‘feedback loops’ and ‘interactions” Thomas Malthus shared a lot in common as his work also reflected his obsession with diminishing returns. Eventually, he too took to understanding that machinery and colonialism offered solutions to the problem of feeding too many mouths with meagre resources. Some of his later works like ‘Essay on the Principle of Population’ (1798) explored this.

Albert O Hirschman in 1970s warned that predictions could blind the visionaries. He said ‘declinists’ confuse the challenges and agony associated with change with signs of an ending system and that they overlook the possibility of newer solutions. According to Hirschman, the attraction to ‘declinism’ could be traced to a prophetic style and this appealed to intellectuals who were drawn towards ‘fundamentalist’ explanations, pointing to stubborn causes of social problems. He says, while Revolutionaries await a ‘Utopian’ alternative, the Reactionaries value ‘dystonia’. This results in an ‘antagonistic’ belief that history fluctuates from an integrated system to another. In his early days, Hirschman had witnessed Weimar Germany victimised to ‘ideological trap’ and torn down by the Communists and Fascists, who dismantled the republic in their pursuit of contending Utopias, while disagreeing on other things. Years later, he observed how Latin Americans lost hope on the prospects of democratic reforms.

Source: The American Prospect

Students at the University of Buenos Aires joined the ranks of urban Revolutionaries. Argentine Reactionaries lamented the end of Western civilisation, emerging as paramilitary death squads. Hirschman was concerned about how the youth was being trapped ideologically. His special preface to the German translation of his classic Exit, Voice, and Loyalty (1970) resonated memories of Berlin 1933.

Trade relations have become increasingly politicised with leaders urging people to meet the globalisation challenges. Policies’ guiding the world towards a safer future looks bleak today as the global political scenario is rather hostile to globalisation as opposed to being cordial.


In today’s context the rise of Islamist terrorism hauls the collapse of state structures in many of the countries from where the terrorists hail. The peaceful regions in the world today have erupted as the most violent ones attributed to influx of refugees and Middle East disorder that disrupts the European continent. The decline of the west is contrasted with the rise of the east, like that of China. While fitting a rising power into a decaying international system has never been a peaceful journey, it could be positively assumed that a superior Western and Eastern statesmanship will avert possibilities of a major war. However, in historical terms this could be seen as an advantage.

While ‘declinism’ endorses the virtues of our highest, impossible solutions to most rudimentary problems, it approves of regrets harboured in changes made in reality. Though problems sometimes lie within, observing them as evidence of inevitable demise can deplete one’s imagination by enticing them to the warning bells of either radical change or despair.

Article by Rochita.


Why the idea that the world is in terminal decline so dangerous.


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