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OK Doomer

Why Spengler still matters

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Periods of upheaval always bring their own prophets, divining doom or salvation for those around them and for the world at large. We have our fair share today, with various tellers of dire fortune warning of imminent environmental apocalypse, technological Armageddon, and the takeover of society by leftism or fascism. Particularly instructive is the German conservative historian and philosopher, Oswald Spengler (1880–1936) in whom there has been a resurgence of interest particularly in the wilds of the online right. 

Spengler attempted a “predetermining” of history in his monumental The Decline of the West (1918 and 1922), the first volume of which was published in what proved to be the last months of the First World War. Trying to chart a way forward in the postwar chaos, Spengler published a more directly political work, Prussianism and Socialism (1920), advocating a particular type of authoritarian socialist politics supposedly rooted in Prussian culture. There was then a return to philosophy, and an evolution in his worldview, in his Man and Technics (1931). 

Spengler’s final major work was The Hour of Decision (1934), where he predicted and advocated a German Caesar to grasp the fragmenting country in an iron grip. Needless to say, Spengler got what he asked for, but not in the way he wanted. His writing is therefore a warning, not just for its diagnoses and predictions, but also for what adopting such a worldview can lead to when seized upon uncritically. 

Spengler’s The Decline of the West is a massive two-volume study of what makes societies rise, decay and fall, and why this is so. As Spengler wrote at the outset: “In this book is attempted for the first time the venture of predetermining history, of following the still untravelled stages in the destiny of a culture, and specifically of the only culture of our time and on our planet which is actually in the phase of fulfilment — the West-European-American.” 

Spengler applied his fields of academic study — maths, natural science, philosophy — to the subject of historical forces and found that the West’s destiny was bleak. For him, the fundamental movement of history is from the living, vitalist society grounded in a thriving, expansive Kultur to a static, lifeless, hollowed-out and decaying Zivilisation. 

Spengler viewed such an evolution through a naturalistic lens, terming it a “morphology” of cultures and their life-cycles. Indeed, he presented cultures as rising in their springtime, peaking in the summer, declining into Zivilisation in their autumn, and entering the darkness of destruction in their winter, from which a Caesar would rise to begin the cycle again. 

Spengler therefore actively repudiated the Christian conception of linear time, instead harking back to the cyclical time of the Classical world, inspired by Heraclitus, his dissertation subject. As Tom Holland has written, Augustine in The City of God had spoken of the saeculum, which means the flux of time, on which we are born and are heading towards oblivion. 

This is the fate of fallen mankind, in the City of Man. For Augustine, mankind is redeemed from the flux of history that sees cultures and civilisations rise and fall like the winter wheat by the religio, the bond woven by the Church that joins us with the eternity of Heaven, the City of God. Spengler thought this was nonsense, a view rooted in his philosophical debt to Nietzsche, who he named as one of his chief influences (the other being Goethe). 

Along with a rejection of linearity came a rejection of any sense of universality. Cultures, for Spengler, were self-contained life worlds, which had their own mythic-symbolic complexes that enabled each culture’s members to make sense of their place in the world. Each culture’s unique style articulates its own “soul”. As Spengler wrote:

I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can only be kept up by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the 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 its 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 feeling, its own death. 

Spengler named nine cultures, that of Egypt, Babylon, India, China, Classical Greece and Rome, the “Magic” — roughly the Middle East and the Byzantines, Mexico, the West (which Spengler dubbed “Faustian”) and Russia.

To Spengler, Western culture was both the most dynamic and abstract culture that ever existed. But, in accordance with his rejection of Christian linearity of time and universality of morals, he turned the view of European history upside down. He exploded the traditional view that Christianity brought forth the West. As Matthew Rose writes in A World After Liberalism, Spengler “did not argue that there is no Western civilization without Christianity. He argued that there is no Christianity without Western civilization.” Spengler proclaimed that “it was not Christianity that transformed Faustian man, but Faustian man who transformed Christianity”. 

In light of Spengler’s view of incommunicable differences between peoples, Rose writes that “While Spengler did not have a name for what he anticipated, we do: identity politics.” He was therefore “a prophet, at least in one irrefutable respect. The politics of the third millennium, he predicted, would not replay the intellectual battles of the twentieth century. They would feature the struggle for recognition between diverse human identities and the cultural symbols that reflect them.” 

Despite his insistence of the unbridgeable void between them, Spengler wrote that he had undertaken a comparative study of these cultures, which had revealed the mathematical and biological laws of history: “Cultures are organisms, and world history is their collective biography. Morphologically, the immense history of the Chinese or of the Classical Culture is the exact equivalent of the petty history of the individual man, or of the animal, or the tree, or the flower.” 

Spengler therefore diagnosed the West of his time as having entered the stage of Zivilisation, which as David Engels writes in his essay in the Key Thinkers of the Radical Right anthology, is “characterized by technology, expansion, imperialism, and mass society, and [which Spengler] expected to fossilize and decline from the year 2000 on”. 

Our time of Zivilisation is one of “a century of purely extensive effectiveness, excluding big artistic and metaphysical production — let us say frankly an irreligious time which coincides exactly with the idea of the world-city — is a time of decline.” Cities, inherently destructive of man’s inner vitality and a culture’s strength, become “megalopolitan” centres of global commerce and cosmopolitan multiculturalism. 

What Spengler called the “money power” becomes paramount. The people in Zivilisation become deracinated, de-souled, and cut off from the soil of the Kultur that gave them meaning, purpose and vigour. The fact that cultures and peoples die is testified by history’s elegy for the lost. We’re here because those great men and women of the past, whose societies also seemed invincible for a time but are now long gone. Why should we be immune from such an end?

There are echoes of Spengler’s “doomerism” all around us

There are echoes of Spengler’s “doomerism” all around us if one cares to look, as chronicled by Ross Douthat in The Decadent Society. The sense of disconnection from each other, our history and who we are is driving a ceaseless search for a sense of self in a world where the economic, political and cultural order seem set on disembedding all the old ways. 

Spengler’s depictions of cultural death extended beyond the West. Writing in the rightist language of the time, he wrote of the rising of the “coloured” world and nations to challenge “white supremacy.” Given how such language presaged the catastrophe of the Third Reich, this way of putting things is distinctly distasteful. However, the substance of what Spengler is describing resembles nothing more in geopolitical terms than the decline of Anglo-American power. We are facing a shift in the balance of power from the US-led unipolar world order to a new multipolar era of great power competition, wherein civilisational states like China and Russia join forces with smaller nations to challenge US global hegemony. 

Of course, this also reveals the limitations of Spengler’s framework, for he took scant account of America’s rising fortunes evident even in his own time, and it looks preposterous now for arguing that Russia would be the new centre of Kultur on the geopolitical stage, saving the West from itself and embodying its own form of vitalist strength as a manifestation of the revolution of the historical wheel. This blinkered perspective throws the limits of Spengler’s conceptual monism into stark relief.

Another of the themes from Spengler’s work is the role played by technology. As Spengler’s American biographer John Farrenkopf writes, Spengler’s view of history evolved in his Man and Technics into a worry that man’s struggle for mastery over nature would result in environmental crisis. This crisis would be not a simple by-product of innovation, but “the destruction of modern civilization would ineluctably result from its irrationality, despite its extraordinary but ultimately superficial rationality, as epitomized in Western science and technology”. Spengler here anticipates Paul Kingsnorth’s radical reactionary critique of the technological Machine by 90 years.

This has consonance with our situation today when we face environmental degradation. Meanwhile, China’s technological capacity has accelerated over a very short a time — thanks in large part to short-sighted Western economic and political utopianism about the power of political and economic exchange — such that the American-led order faces the prospect of losing a shooting war with China at the hands of technology that the West enabled the Chinese to develop.

Spengler appeals to growing numbers on the online “dissident” right

All of this should make plain why Spengler appeals to growing numbers on the online “dissident” right. Popular YouTubers in this space, like Auron MacIntyre, Morgoth’s Review, and others apply Spengler’s cyclical vision of history to the Pax Americana. Right-wing commentators like Michael Anton and those around the Claremont Institute school of philosophy openly discuss the possibility or, or even need for, what they call a “Red Caesar”. 

The problem is that Spengler’s prediction of and advocation for such a figure in The Hour of Decision to stave off Faustian decline in the face of a non-Western world that had “come to feel their own common strength”, turned out to be a disaster. He himself admitted this, calling Hitler mad. Hitler and the Nazis were the opposite of what Spengler desired or thought appropriate. As with Ernst Jünger and other members of the conservative revolution, Spengler derided Hitler and his uniformed thugs for being low-class rabble-rousers who expressed and furthered the unchained passions of the proletarian and low-grade bourgeois mob.

Moreover, despite Spengler’s use of racial language, he actively rejected the racial supremacy and hatred that defined Nazism. He wrote scathingly that “Race purity is a grotesque word in view of the fact that for centuries all stocks and species have been mixed,” and further that “a strict classification of races is impossible”. The modern race-realist right conveniently overlooks this. Spengler suffered personal repercussions for his repudiation of Nazism. In 1936 he predicted the destruction of Hitler’s death cult within ten years, a vindication he did not live to see. 

Spengler’s view of history, culture, technology, and metaphysics are a challenge to our own zombified liberalism. But they are also a warning that the tides of history are unpredictable, and we risk being swept away by the madness that can be unleashed in the wake of our grand designs. 

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