Sometimes the best metrics for public intellectuals are the short articles they write for magazines. There are page limits, so they have to get to the point. It isn’t as easy to camouflage vacuous ideas behind a smoke screen of verbiage. Take, for example, the case of Oswald Spengler. His “Decline of the West” was hailed as the inspired work of a prophet in the years following its publication in 1918. Read Spengler’s Wiki entry and you’ll see what I mean. He should have quit while he was ahead.
Fast forward to 1932, and the Great Depression was at its peak. The Decline of the West appeared to be a fait accompli. Spengler would have been well-advised to rest on his laurels. Instead, he wrote an article for The American Mercury, still edited at the time by the Sage of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, with the reassuring title, “Our Backs are to the Wall!” It was a fine synopsis of the themes Spengler had been harping on for years, and a prophecy of doom worthy of Jeremiah himself. It was also wrong.
According to Spengler, high technology carried within itself the seeds of its own collapse. Man had dared to “revolt against nature.” Now the very machines he had created in the process were revolting against man. At the time he wrote the article he summed up the existing situation as follows:
A group of nations of Nordic blood under the leadership of British, German, French, and Americans command the situation. Their political power depends on their wealth, and their wealth consists in their industrial strength. But this in turn is bound up with the existence of coal. The Germanic peoples, in particular, are secured by what is almost a monopoly of the known coalfields…
Spengler went on to explain that,
Countries industrially poor are poor all around; they cannot support an army or wage a war; therefore they are politically impotent; and the workers in them, leaders and led alike, are objects in the economic policy of their opponents.
No doubt he would have altered this passage somewhat had he been around to witness the subsequent history of places like Vietnam, Algeria, and Cambodia. Willpower, ideology, and military genius have trumped political and economic power throughout history. Spengler simply assumed they would be ineffective against modern technology because the “Nordic” powers had not been seriously challenged in the 50 years before he wrote his book. It was a rash assumption. Even more rash were his assumptions about the early demise of modern technology. He “saw” things happening in his own times that weren’t really happening at all. For example,
The machine, by its multiplication and its refinement, is in the end defeating its own purpose. In the great cities the motor-car has by its numbers destroyed its own value, and one gets on quicker on foot. In Argentina, Java, and elsewhere the simple horse-plough of the small cultivator has shown itself economically superior to the big motor implement, and is driving the latter out. Already, in many tropical regions, the black or brown man with his primitive ways of working is a dangerous competitor to the modern plantation-technic of the white.
Unfortunately, motor cars and tractors can’t read, so went right on multiplying without paying any attention to Spengler’s book. At least he wasn’t naïve enough to believe that modern technology would end because of the exhaustion of the coalfields. He knew that we were quite clever enough to come up with alternatives. However, in making that very assertion, he stumbled into what was perhaps the most fundamental of all his false predictions; the imminence of the “collapse of the West.”
It is, of course, nonsense to talk, as it was fashionable to do in the Nineteenth Century, of the imminent exhaustion of the coal-fields within a few centuries and of the consequences thereof – here, too, the materialistic age could not but think materially. Quite apart from the actual saving of coal by the substitution of petroleum and water-power, technical thought would not fail ere long to discover and open up still other and quite different sources of power. It is not worth while thinking ahead so far in time. For the west-European-American technology will itself have ended by then. No stupid trifle like the absence of material would be able to hold up this gigantic evolution.
Alas, “so far in time” came embarrassingly fast, with the discovery of nuclear fission a mere six years later. Be that as it may, among the reasons that this “gigantic evolution” was unstoppable was what Spengler referred to as “treason to technics.” As he put it,
Today more or less everywhere – in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa – industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. the unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed.
In other words, the “treason” consisted of the white race failing to keep its secrets to itself, but bestowing them on the brown and black races. They, however, were only interested in using this technology against the original creators of the “Faustian” civilization of the West. Once the whites were defeated, they would have no further interest in it:
For the colored races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as scaffolding, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technic will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten – our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins, like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technic is fast drawing to its inevitable close. It will be eaten up from within. When, and in what fashion, we so far know not.
Spengler was wise to include the Biblical caveat that, “…about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36). However, he had too much the spirit of the “end time” Millennialists who have cropped up like clockwork every few decades for the last 2000 years, predicting the imminent end of the world, to leave it at that. Like so many other would-be prophets, his predictions were distorted by a grossly exaggerated estimate of the significance of the events of his own time. Christians, for example, have commonly assumed that reports of war, famine and pestilence in their own time are somehow qualitatively different from the war, famine and pestilence that have been a fixture of our history for that last 2000 years, and conclude that they are witnessing the signs of the end times, when, “…nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places” (Matthew 24:7). In Spengler’s case, the “sign” was the Great Depression, which was at its climax when he wrote the article:
The center of gravity of production is steadily shifting away from them, especially since even the respect of the colored races for the white has been ended by the World War. This is the real and final basis of the unemployment that prevails in the white countries. It is no mere crisis, but the beginning of a catastrophe.
Of course, Marxism was in high fashion in 1932 as well. Spengler tosses it in for good measure, agreeing with Marx on the inevitability of revolution, but not on its outcome:
This world-wide mutiny threatens to put an end to the possibility of technical economic work. The leaders (bourgeoisie, ed.) may take to flight, but the led (proletariat, ed.) are lost. Their numbers are their death.
Spengler concludes with some advice, not for us, or our parents, or our grandparents, but our great-grandparents generation:
Only dreamers believe that there is a way out. Optimism is cowardice… Our duty is to hold on to the lost position, without hope, without rescue, like that Roman soldier whose bones were found in front of a door in Pompeii, who, during the eruption of Vesuvius, died at his post because they forgot to relieve him. That is greatness. That is what it means to be a thoroughbred. The honorable end is the one thing that can not be taken from a man.
One must be grateful that later generations of cowardly optimists donned their rose-colored glasses in spite of Spengler, went right on using cars, tractors, and other mechanical abominations, and created a world in which yet later generations of Jeremiahs could regale us with updated predictions of the end of the world. And who can blame them? After all, eventually, at some “day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven,” they are bound to get it right, if only because our sun decides to supernova. When that happens, those who are still around are bound to dust off their ancient history books, smile knowingly, and say, “See, Spengler was right after all!”