Suicide of the West (SOTW) is a study in contrasts. Jonah Goldberg begins his ambitious new book by removing God from his argument, but ends it discussing how the fading belief that God is watching us underlies many of our problems. The book is a passionate plea for classical liberalism, and yet it is also deeply conservative and traditionalist. Goldberg argues that liberal democratic capitalism is unnatural and unique in human history while tribalism is the default characteristic of humans, yet calls for a robust defense of the former and firm limits on the later.
It is a complex, sometimes periphrastic, tour through anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, philosophy and politics. Goldberg marshalls all of these disparate elements to argue for a seemingly simple thesis: human nature is constant, the vast majority of human history is one of suffering and squalor, but thru a series of serendipitous events the West escaped this torturous plateau into a world of increasing wealth, health and human flourishing.
He then offers both a call to action and a warning. The call: understand this history, reflect with gratitude on our blessings, and pass it on to the next generation. The warning is the flip side: this world of freedom, material wealth, and growth was created by the power of words and ideas (the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves) and it must be defended. Nature is always waiting. Corruption sets in without vigilance. The ingredients of the Miracle, as Goldberg terms it, can be lost and we can return to a world of tribalism, conflict and stagnation.
What follows is the first part of my review which functions as a summary of sorts. In the second part I will address some of the book’s critics and the tensions noted above.
The book starts with a deep dive into biology, anthropology, sociology, economics and history to understand that, as Goldberg likes to say, human nature has no history. Human beings come preloaded with a great deal when they are born. Preference for the family or tribe, distrust of strangers, adherence to group norms, the importance of status, the desire to create meaning, etc.–these aspects of human nature will always be with us.
The role of civilization is to tame, direct and channel human nature towards productive ends. Civilization is the fundamental building block for the Miracle but it is a necessary, not sufficient cause:
The ingredients for liberty and prosperity have existed on earth for thousands of years, sloshing around, occasionally bumping into each other, and offering a glimpse to a better path. Religious toleration, restraints on monarchy, private property, the sovereignty of the individual, pluralistic institutions, scientific innovation, the rule of law–all of these things can be found piecemeal across the ages.
So why exactly did the Miracle appear where and when it did? It was “an unplanned and glorious accident.” Goldberg is deeply suspicious of simple answers to complex questions, understands that history is messy and, for the sake of his argument, refuses teleology (whether religious or ideological) as an explanation, but the answer comes down largely to ideas and language.
Building on the work of Deirdre McCloskey and Joseph Schumpeter, Goldberg argues that changing attitudes and forms of speech about markets and innovation led to the birth of capitalism. Innovation was no longer viewed as a sin, ideas about trade, labor, and private enterprise changed, and the economic revolution followed.
What Goldberg calls the Lockean Revolution (the individual is sovereign, our rights come from God not governments, the fruits of our labors belong to us, and no man should be less equal before the law because of his faith or class) grew in the unique soil of English liberty and flourished in America due to an equally unique set of circumstances.
The story had been developing organically for millennium but John Locke wrote it down and in important ways universalized it. The American Founders were both influenced by it and distanced from it but put this universalized form into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This story (another word for civilization/institutions/society) made liberal democratic capitalism possible.
But a good story requires a villain and Goldberg offers us two (or perhaps one in different forms): corruption and romanticism. By corruption Goldberg does not mean bribery or payoffs, but a process whereby nature takes back what was hers; entropy, in the sense of decline into disorder, breakdown and decay. The power of human nature is such that if we don’t work to keep it at bay, it will retake control.
This is where the tension between the ubiquity of tribalism for most of human history and the uniqueness of the Miracle plays out. We can’t assume that the blessings of our civilization are the new normal; it is not natural or inevitable. We too easily slip into the natural equals good mindset. Goldberg spends a chunk of the text harshly tearing down this fallacy.
This corruption can come from both the top down and the bottom up and in ways that align with human nature. Top down: elites make rules that benefit them and block those seeking upward mobility. Whether in politics, economics, sports, religion or any other area of life, the powerful will naturally seek to protect and expand their interests. History is overflowing with examples.
The benefit of liberal democratic capitalism is the creation of competing spheres of influence, institutional pluralism, in order to restrain and limit this temptation. The American Founders sought a system with checks and balances that would limit and channel these tendencies in the political arena. The free market fosters competition which undercuts monopoly and other forms of economic power.
But corruption can also come from the bottom up. When the people give into tribal instincts and seek unity above all, corruption will result. Cultural, religious, and institutional pluralism is a necessary ingredient of the Miracle. This requires a mental division of labor where loyalties are spread across strata and organizations; from our family and relatives up and outward through neighborhood groups and clubs, religious communities, the economy, and government (local, state and federal).
Romanticism, personified here by Jean Jacques Rousseau, is in many ways the driver of both forms of corruption. Goldberg contrasts Rousseau with Locke, and posits them as two of the main currents in Western thought:
It is a fight between the idea that our escape from the past has been a glorious improvement over mankind’s natural state and the idea that the world we have created is corrupting because it is artificial. One side says that external moral codes and representative government are a liberating blessing. The other says that truth is found not outside of ourselves in the form of universal rules and tolerance for others but in our own feelings and the meaning we get from belonging to a group.
Rousseau sees the modern mental division of labor as artificial and oppressive and holds out the nation-state as the unifying organizing principle to return us to our natural state and remove our feelings of loneliness and alienation. His noble savage is a nostalgic seeking of a mythical past of unity and internal coherence. Instead of pluralism, unity and conformity.
This temptation is at the root of all modern politics :
It is my contention that all rebellions against the liberal order or the Miracle are not only fundamentally romantic but reactionary. They seek not some futuristic modern conception of social organization. Rather they seek to return to some form of tribal solidarity where we are all in it together. Romanticism is the voice through which our inner primitive cries out “There must be a better way!
Which brings us into the realm of current politics, which Goldberg introduces by detailing how the Progressive Era drank deep from Rousseau and thus sought to undermine the Miracle. He then highlights how the corrupting influence of the romantic/reactionary impulse from both the left and the right is undermining liberal democratic capitalism in America.
On the left, progressives fundamentally reject limited government and institutional pluralism seeking instead a government run by unelected elites; supposedly for the good of the masses. Seeking flexibility to re-interpret the Constitution in light of their ideology, masquerading as science, they give government more and more power with fewer and fewer checks and balances.
The result is the modern administrative state; vast swaths of government virtually unaccountable and yet controlling practically every area of our lives. At the same time, the modern left is obsessed with identity politics; tribal groups and power rather than individualism and equality. In the name of freedom and equality they undermine the very system that has brought increased wealth and opportunity to so many.
The troubling part is that instead of defending and strengthening the values and principles that created the Miracle, those on the right seem intent on joining the left. Tired of being attacked as racist bigots, having their faith squeezed out of the public square, and often out of anxiety with the centrifugal forces of the globalized culture and economy, many on the right are increasingly engaging in tribalism, populism and their own form of identity politics.
Valid concerns about the power of the administrative state and the damage another four or eight years of progressive ideology could do, conservatives seem willing to embrace a figure, Donald Trump, whose character and philosophy reflects the weakness in our culture not its restoration.
Trump represents the romantic/reactionary impulse toward tribal unity, an emphasis on feelings and power rather than ideas and principle, and the hope of a return to a mythical past. Instead of character and ideas, the true meaning of conservatism, they seek power and winning at all cost.
Under attack from the left and the right are the very values and ideals that sustain our civilization. Democracy, free speech, free market capitalism are all increasingly treated with hostility. If the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves shape our society, then these dramatic changes in rhetoric should be deeply concerning.
So what is the answer? Be grateful for our inheritance and fight to pass it on to the next generation. Goldberg knows this is a never-ending battle:
There are not permanent victories. The only victory worth fighting for–because it is the only victory that is achievable–is to hand off this civilization to the next generation and equip that generation to carry on the fight and so on, and forever. We cannot get rid of human nature and humanity’s natural tribal tendencies. But we know that, under the right circumstances, our tribal nature can be grafted to a commitment to liberty, individualism, property rights, innovation, etc. It happened in England, accidentaly, but organically[…]
And we cannot be forced to stay committed to our principles. We can only be persuaded to. Reason alone won’t carry the load, but the task is impossible without it. Parents must cultivate their barbarian children into citizens, and the rest of us must endeavor to keep the principles of our civilization alive by showing our gratitude for it.
In essence, Goldberg argues that defending and passing on the underlying principles of our civilization must take precedence over both our tribal instincts and our day-to-day partisan battles. If left and right join together in reactionary populism they will destroy the very thing they both claim to want to preserve and defend.
That is the Suicide of the West.
Next, critics of SOTW.