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Is the West committing suicide?

Former British minister Chris Smith spurned the offer of after-dinner speeches to write about the crisis of civilisation instead. So, was it worth it?

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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‘I didn’t want to write a book about “inside the Blair cabinet”. I wanted to write a book that looked at where society and civilisation are heading.’

Chris Smith, former culture minister and former Blair ally, could have had a nice post-cabinet life of gossiping, writing newspaper columns on ‘Why Blair must go’, advising think-tanks and giving after-dinner speeches. Instead he chose to co-write (with consultant and businessman Richard Koch) Suicide of the West, a free-ranging polemic on the decline and fall of Western civilisation.

‘It is a cri du coeur for a number of fundamental Enlightenment values’, Smith tells me, sitting in his office looking out over the Thames. These values – each of which forms a chapter of the book – are Christianity, optimism, science, growth, liberalism and individualism. ‘Here are the building blocks that have made the West successful. We are now at a fork in the road. One way lies cynicism and despair, the other is rediscovering a belief in the things that we hold dear.’

The book is a timely intervention. We are constantly told about the terrorists and others who are threatening ‘our values’ and ‘our way of life’. The challenge to the West is presented as entirely Other: barbarians clamouring at the gates with their copies of the Koran in hand.

Yet, as Smith and Koch argue, the threat comes not so much from without, as from within. They write: ‘If there is a crisis of the West…it is internally generated. It lies in the collapse of Western self-confidence…. [This] has little to do with enemies, and everything to do with seismic shifts in Western ideas and attitudes’. Larger-than-life figures such as Osama bin Laden merely feed off the West’s self-doubt: their braggadocio has its roots in a system that doesn’t believe in itself.

Years in politics have taught Smith that this is a system lacking passion and ideals. ‘A lot of modern politics is about managerialism’, he tells me. ‘It’s not about debating ideas, but about who can tinker with the existing system. In the past, politics was about hope. I joined the Labour Party because I thought that it was the best vehicle for social change, for making people’s lives better.’ Institutions and systems that once inspired passion and allegiance are now going through the motions. The bottom line for the Western elite is holding things together, keeping the system working without too much disruption. Public institutions – from politics to the marketplace – seem to float above society, ticking over automatically.

Values such as rationality or autonomy have become barren abstractions. Suicide of the West highlights the problem that liberalism has been ‘[divorced] from its ethical base’ – that is, from an individual ‘who is going somewhere, who believes in himself or herself and in their role in society’. Once rationality is separated from our pursuit of the good life, it is merely computation, a kind of A plus B equals C. Once autonomy is detached from individuals trying to develop themselves and others, it becomes merely about ‘doing as one likes’ – that indifferent version of freedom that Matthew Arnold railed against in Culture and Anarchy.

However, like the Western system itself, Suicide of the West is full of cracks. Smith and Koch can’t quite put their finger on what has gone wrong for Western values, and how that might be remedied. At points, they seem to be throwing everything into the pot. There are lots of lists of ‘important values’: ‘The essence of the West is an indefinable blend of rationalism, activism, confidence, knowledge-seeking, personal responsibility, self-improvement, world-improvement and compassion.’ It’s a sign of the fact that these terms have been emptied out, that they can be bandied around so liberally.

The ‘crisis of the West thesis’ has appeared in different shapes and sizes over the past century – from Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West to Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism to Jürgen Habermas’ Legitimation Crisis. These theorists had a somewhat clearer vision though. ‘In the ethics of the West everything is direction, claim to power, and the will to affect the distant’, wrote Spengler. Gunnar Myrdal highlights ‘the essential dignity of the individual human being’ as key to life the West. Now it seems that we know that something is wrong, but find it difficult to put our finger on what it is.

Suicide of the West also has a strong pragmatic streak: in large part, it seems to be defending Western values because they ‘work’. The worry is that a system that doesn’t hold to essential values will breed ‘cynicism, unmitigated selfishness, indifference, re-centralisation and aggression’. Individuals need to believe in themselves, Smith and Koch write, because ‘without self-esteem, an individual can do little constructive’. They describe the six key Western values as ‘success factors’, and their conclusion gives a green, amber, red colour-coding system for how much each of these values can work for our society now. It might be true that Western values work, but we can’t commit to them for that reason alone.

We should perhaps remember that, as UK culture secretary from 1997 to 2001, Smith did his bit for the undermining of Western values. The Millennium Dome was a colossal example of the sacrifice of principles to expediency – and this was a project that Smith continued to talk up long after everybody else had abandoned ship. Yet Smith defends himself against the charge of pragmatism. He says the book is ‘about a combination of pragmatism and principle: it is about what has worked very successfully over a number of years; and it is also about what is worth believing in, it is about the enhancement of human life and the human spirit’.

Those are worthwhile goals. Suicide of the West has pinpointed a key problem that deserves consideration and work. Rather than being the end of this debate, though, it is really only the start. Which is very Western.

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Topics Politics

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