VOLUME 5 (2003) - ISSUE 10 (WINTER)

The Decline of The West Revisited

by Patrick HUNOUT & Brent SHEA

Patrick HUNOUT is the President and Founder of The International Scope Review and The Social Capital Foundation.

Brent SHEA is a Professor of Sociology at Sweet Briar College, Virginia, USA.

Dear readers, 

During the First World War, the German erudite Oswald Spengler wrote The Decline of Western Civilization, a book that caused quite a stir among intellectuals around the world. Like that of many German theoreticians of the 19th century, Spengler's work was one of monumental scholarship, discussing in depth diverse interdisciplinary topics and integrating them all in a single coherent philosophy – unlike the one-dimensional, overspecialized theoretical work of intellectuals educated in more recent times.  

Juxtaposing events in different cultures and civilizations, Spengler suggested that cultures and civilizations are living organisms in their own right, just like plants, animals, and humans, although of a much higher order. Each culture has its own distinctive soul, which expresses itself in artistic, scientific, political, economic, and religious forms. This German-spirited, Communitarian concept (Spengler was championing “ethical socialism”, which placed the interests of the community above those of the individuals) drove him to identify nine higher organisms, some of which having perished very long ago, some others having attained "old age" centuries ago but never wholly extinguished, and two others having not yet completed their life cycle. Western civilization was one of these, and was well into late adulthood. (The other was born in Russia, but was handicapped through trying to absorb alien ideas from the much older Western organism, which Spengler called a "pseudomorphosis"). For Spengler, just as a human being reaches puberty during the second, and full adulthood in the third, decade of life, a culture also passes through phases of a predetermined sequence whose durations do not vary greatly from one higher organism to another. Its "springtime" is characterized by strong religious faith, which slowly gives way to increasing intellectuality and materialism. During "autumn", life becomes dominated by materialism and by purely rational thought. Warfare between the culture's constituent nations increases in intensity, with tensions between various strata of society also reaching a breaking point. Eventually, one state becomes vigorous enough to conquer and absorb all others, imposing an authoritarian "Imperium", which could be observed in the classical world with the Romans, in South America with the Incas, and in Eastern Asia with the state of Qin (Ch'in) which ultimately incorporated the rest, giving the name China to the integrated empire. During the Imperium, people realize the limitations of a purely intellectual view of the universe, so there is a return to religion - based on that of earlier centuries, but differently experienced through having emerged from a more advanced way of life. Spengler regarded this process as quasi-biological and as inevitable, except in one case: namely the sickness and premature death of the cultural organism.  

What stage, according to Spengler, had Western Civilization reached? His answer would be that the 20th and 21th centuries were destined to be those of transition into an imperial era, but this was prevented, or maybe delayed, by the world wars. Almost one century later, what is the exact status of the evolution of Western societies? According to many observations, it does not seem that far from Spengler’s suggestions and predictions. The development of so-called “globalization”, the edification of a new Empire described by the work of Hardt & Negri and by various TISR issues, the comeback of authoritarianism associated with a dream of radical individual freedom, and the slow implosion of the society, can be regarded as sure signs of a deep, although not necessarily rosy, progression to the “imperial phase”.

This TISR 10th issue is devoted to the publication of Part II of The Erosion of the Social Link in the Economically Advanced CountriesThis book, edited by Patrick Hunout between 2000 and 2004, addresses the societal facets of this erosion. Part I (our previous issue) demonstrated how the mainstream individualistic, hedonic, and consumerist system of values erodes both the social link and social capital. Suicide mortality, the increase in consumption of drugs, the escalation of incivility and tension in interpersonal relationships, the problematic adjustment in male-female reciprocal expectations, and the loss of ethnocultural benchmarks were among the themes discussed in that issue. The present issue develops this approach in relation to related topics, then goes on to apply it to new ones.

The chapter by Duncan Cramer reviews the research literature on changes in the practice of divorce over the last 100 years in economically advanced countries, and examines the suggested explanations for those changes.  This chapter examines the rise in divorce that could be observed in most economically advanced countries in recent decades: Divorce rates in most of these countries - though sometimes influenced by legislature changes - are in fact very high. Recent data show a 75% rate (as percentage of marriages) in the case of Belgium, which has the highest divorce rate in the world. Divorce rates for that country show a steady increase since the 1960’s, with a strong acceleration in the mid 1990’s. Considering that this rate has quadrupled in only 30 years, divorce has become a phenomenon whose social importance is not yet fully known. Is this increase caused by a weakening in expectations for commitment?  Has the ideal of a stable and committed couple been devalued?  Is this increase a sign (or alternatively a cause) of a crisis of the social bond at large? This chapter suggests that commitment values are affected by the rise of purely individualistic short-term, hedonic attitudes. In our previous issue, Hexham and Poewe’s chapter had shown how sects and new religions are gaining ground, and how this can be related to a loss of moral benchmarks that confronts individuals.

In our current issue, Masachi Ohsawa’s chapter resumes this approach to the subject. His contribution analyzes the social consciousness of contemporary Japanese society by investigating the context of the Aum terrorist attacks. First, it examines how the Japanese religious group Aum can be seen as an extreme reflection of Japanese society in general. An account of why Aum held such fascination, especially among the youth, provides insight into contemporary Japanese consciousness. Second, it locates Aum within a Japanese post-war history that the author divides into two stages: the era of ideal and the era of fiction. The Aum incident can be interpreted as the end of the second stage leading, paradoxically, to the return of the ideal of total destruction. Third, through investigating Aum’s irrational attachment to sarin gas, it considers the distinctive sense of bodily experience central to the ambivalent relation to the “other.” Fourth, it explains why Aum’s negative eschatology, which seeks the total destruction of the world is attractive for Japanese youth, suggesting that the popularity of a cult such as Aum is a symptom of the social disintegration brought forth by advanced capitalism.  

Willem Schurink, Anton Senekal, and Emmerentie Oliphant’s chapter examines the taboo subject of violence and crime in a multiethnic context; on the basis of a South-African example. Whenever violence and crime occur the social link between people erodes, i.e., society loses its organic unity, integrity, or cohesion, becomes more and more atomized, and - as a result - individuals and groups progressively tend to view each other less as human beings and more as objective means to be used to achieve selfish goals. The guiding value by which the social link is eroded becomes: “I want what I want when I want it and I’ll get it at your cost if need be. Everything and everybody that assists me in this process is good and everything and everybody that obstructs me in this process is bad. Therefore, even the use of violence and crime is justified to rid myself of any such obstruction if need be”. South Africa has been plagued by crime and violence for many years. However, the country experienced an alarming rise in serious violence in the years leading up to 1994 when it became a political democracy. While there have been fluctuations in the rates and manifestations of violent crime after this historic event, it remains unacceptably high. This chapter raises the question of the links between the “multiethnic society”, characterized by a weak social contract and high levels of anomie, and the rise in levels of crime and violence.

Evanthe Schurink’s chapter bears on homelessness, a phenomenon that has returned to all economically advanced countries in the two last decades, counter to predictions that it would disappear in the course of  economic progress. The chapter argues that homeless people pass through a sequence of stages during which their social bond (social cohesion) with conventional society becomes weaker.  The main focus is on the process of becoming homeless:  homelessness does not happen overnight, and it is not a fixed status. Homelessness is described as a process in which, apart from economic losses, homeless people loose a sense of belonging, a psychological sense of home. They gradually drift away from their family and community. Their links to conventional society (family, colleagues, non-homeless friends) becomes blurred and ultimately breaks down. They no longer have conventional informal and formal social support systems but become part of the homeless subculture, with new values and norms. If this process is not stopped and reversed, they become entrenched in a homeless status.

Finally, this issue tackles the problem of widespread erroneous responses to the social crisis that can have consequences that may worsen rather than solve this crisis.  

In the chapter by Russell and his collaborators, the findings of an empirical research project on the use of the Internet as a way to alleviate loneliness are presented. To investigate who forms online friendships, a large sample of college students attending a Midwestern university was studied. Several demographic and personality variables (extraversion, neuroticism, loneliness, self-esteem, and shyness) were analyzed as predictors of internet usage and the development of online friendships. Structural equation models indicate that measures of internet usage, especially visiting chat rooms and using the internet for fun, predicted the development of online friendships. In addition, students who were high in neuroticism were more likely to make online friends. Being male, a minority student, or shy predicted developing Internet friendships indirectly through their influence on use of the Internet. These results suggest that the use of the Internet as a tool for encountering other people may be regarded as a way, perhaps projective and illusory, to alleviate difficult or threatening personal relationships. The use of alternative encounter methods may be more appropriate for expanding existing social networks than it is for providing a firm basis for creating new ones. 

In the final chapter, Bill Doherty and Patrick Hunout argue that traditional psychotherapy in its many forms has ignored the societal dimensions of human problems, privileging individual dimensions to the detriment of community bonds. Although most psychotherapists sincerely attempt to do a good job, they may in an implicit way encourage a purely individualistic - and therefore erroneous in the long-term - approach to personal accomplishment. The authors trace the reasons for the split between the interior sphere of life and the community sphere, show how this split plays out in the therapeutic setting,  describe ways to bring a community perspective into therapy, and summarize the Families and Democracy Project, which involves psychotherapists as citizens working with other citizens on problems that affect individuals and their communities.

TISR's venture has so far been very fruitful. It now offers a broad, holistic, and consistent basis for understanding our social world. In addition to accounting for contemporary societal evolution, providing practical answers at both the individual and the collective levels is part of TISR's mission. In future issues, we will try to give more room to practical-minded, down-to-earth perspectives.