After the Wall, Three Decades of Cultural Despair

The Politburo of the East German Communist Party had made a fatal mistake. It had met in emergency session on the cold evening of November 9, 1989, as the country’s border controls were collapsing and hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets of East Berlin demanding democratic reforms and human rights. Other communist regimes were disintegrating in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania, and similar irreversible processes were underway in the Soviet Union itself. The party chiefs knew that there would be no Soviet support for a brutal crackdown, as Mikhail Gorbachev pursued his campaign to modernize communism. Almost casually there emerged a proposal to lift the ban on East Germans leaving the country. Incredibly, the Politburo grasped at it, hoping to relieve the pressure while aligning itself with the liberalization being promoted by Moscow. Just before 7pm the order was given, and by midnight thousands of Ossis were surging through the checkpoints to be greeted by Wessis waiting with flowers and champagne on the other side.

It was the moment of ‘people power’. Soon German folk, delirious with joy, were dancing on top of the Wall in front of the Brandenburg Gate, where eight months later half a million people joined Roger Waters of Pink Floyd in a massive star-studded concert version of The Wall, culminating in a stirring rendition of “The Tide is Turning” that helped embed the idea of ‘people power’ in popular culture. In one hugely symbolic moment the Cold War effectively came to an end. The dismantling of the Soviet bloc and the foundation of democratic states in its stead had still to unfold, but the Wall was down and the Curtain had parted. It seemed that the world had evaded the abyss of a new dark age and could finally move forward into “the broad, sunlit uplands of freedom” that Churchill had so eloquently evoked 50 years before as he galvanized the besieged liberal democracies after France had capitulated to the other great totalitarian force of the 20th Century.

For one intellectual it was a career-defining moment. In an act of astonishing prescience (or incredible good luck), a young academic, Francis Fukuyama, had submitted an article “The End of History” only months before to the National Interest where it was published in its Summer issue of 1989.  It seemed to relate directly to the epoch-defining events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Fukuyama argued that the world had reached not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such. That is, he believed humanity had reached the end point of its ideological evolution and seen the vindication of Western liberal democracy as the ultimate form of human government. It was an apotheosis: the previously intractable conflicts inherent in global politics had finally been resolved and liberal democracy had emerged victorious over communism and its other opponents in the great war of ideologies. The logic of modern history had led “the greater part of humanity to liberal democracy.”

Such extraordinary claims provoked many thoughtful responses, including in the October 1989 issue of Quadrant, which published incisive critiques by the eminent political philosophers, Samuel P. Huntington and David Stove. Internationally, embassies, governments, and journalists from all over the planet hounded the National Interest for a faxed copy of the article, while the editors ordered several more print runs to keep up with demand. Fukuyama immediately set about turning his succinct article into a large book, which he published as The End of History and the Last Man in 1992. This rekindled some of the earlier excitement and supported the conventional wisdom of the time, which postulated the inevitability of a globalized world led by America and the other triumphant liberal democracies. Amongst the more balanced and informed responses to the book was a comprehensive critique provided by Keith Windschuttle in The Killing of History (1994).

Today, as Sheridan points out. Fukuyama’s optimistic claims now seem little more than absurd, however enticing the notion was that ‘people power’ uprisings of liberal democratic enthusiasm can overthrow authoritarian and totalitarian states. Indeed, as North Korea, Syria, Iran, and the ‘Arab Spring’ illustrates, such regimes now have the political will and military capacity to protect themselves at virtually any cost to their citizenry;  in the absence of external intervention, their survival is mainly a function of their will-to-power, ruthlessness, and control over their military.

And so, 30 years later, the great sense of triumph has evaporated and been replaced by a stultifying cultural despair. As Greg Sheridan noted in a recent article, “Liberalism stumbles over the debris“, “the  triumph of 1989 was … a false promise. [Fukuyama] was absolutely dead wrong. Liberalism is in decline around the world. Its prestige has fallen as the prestige of the West has fallen. Within the West, liberalism has gone mad,” and now pursues “ever-more-neurotic obsessions,” exemplified by “the barren road of identity politics,” the exclusionary and persecutory nature of which is the antithesis of liberal universalism.

How could this have happened?  Sheridan argues that one source of the crisis of liberalism is the intellectual takeover of our universities and the media by the ideas of neo-Marxists and postmodernists like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. According to these immensely influential ideologues and their contemporary acolytes, there is no such thing as truth or rational argument and everything is about power. Moreover, through their intellectual stranglehold such nihilistic apologists for totalitarianism have successfully obscured the unprecedented hideousness of Communism, with its self-inflicted death toll of some 100 million people, and promoted instead the popular conviction that it is the West that is the enemy of freedom everywhere. As a result, it has become virtually impossible to teach a course on Western Civilization, as the Ramsey Centre saga demonstrates, while our university administrators fall over themselves, groveling to grab lavish foreign funding to teach and promote Chinese communism and Islamic theocracy.

However, the crisis seems to be far deeper than just the hegemony exercised over the universities and the media by superannuated 19th Century leftist ideologies and opportunistic academics. It appears ultimately to be spiritual or metaphysical in nature. Consequently, Sheridan cites Douglas Murray’s, The Madness of Crowds (2019) as “a brilliant exposition of the madness of contemporary liberalism”, particularly in Europe, and quotes Murray’s claim that “Europe remains paralyzed by a crisis of civilizational morale that only the willfully ignorant or fanatically secular will fail to recognize as spiritual in character.” Sheridan concurs: “the lack of civilizational self-belief, of confidence, of élan, all of which flow from a sense of transcendent purpose, mean Europe cannot really do anything much at all.” Anything, that is, apart from pursue fantasies of an imminent global ecological catastrophe, which are actually just a re-activation of the apocalyptic imagination that has bedeviled the West for 2500 years. Impotent and demoralized, EU elites fantasize about their own demise as a way out.

This conviction that there is a deeply-rooted crisis of Western Civilization has been around for quite some time. Indeed, one of the most powerful analyses of it was developed in the mid-20th Century by the mysterious figure of Leo Strauss who was, ironically, one of the most important influences on Fukuyama as he developed his ‘End of History’ thesis. Stauss saw deeply into the nihilistic abyss that is presently engulfing the West.

At the time, Fukuyama was taking a class offered by Allan Bloom, another key figure in this genre of liberal-conservative thought, whose famous exposé, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), prefigured most of the essential elements of the critique offered by Murray and others. In particular, Bloom deplored how university professors, “the repositories of our best traditions and highest intellectual aspirations”, were intimidated by radical student leftists; were “fawning over what was nothing better than a rabble”; were making public confessions of guilt in a fashion reminiscent of Stalinist show trials; and were meekly adopting the ideological agenda of militants who were little more than juvenile fascists. As can be seen, Bloom was extremely prescient, as nothing much has changed in our universities, except that the problem is even more acute and the administrators are even more gutless.

Bloom’s teacher at the University of Chicago had been the German-born Jewish political philosopher, Leo Strauss. In his lifetime Strauss (1899-1973) was regarded as an apolitical figure who never sought a public profile. He  had acquired an academic eminence based on his deep knowledge of ancient and modern philosophical texts and the sacred works of the Christian, Judaic and Muslim traditions, to which he applied a close hermeneutical style of reading that was frequently described as ‘Talmudic’ in its thoroughness and intensity. A principle aim of this approach was the uncovering of the esoteric meaning of the texts embedded below the merely exoteric message with which less attentive readers remain satisfied. He was renowned as a charismatic teacher, lecturing for hours on arcane issues to devoted students.

Despite such apparently inoffensive preoccupations Strauss became a very controversial figure, with one book, The Truth about Leo Strauss (Catherine and Michael Zuckert, 2006), opening with the observation that “a spectre is haunting America, and that spectre is … Leo Strauss”. Time described him as “one of the most influential men in American politics”; the Economist believed he was the hidden “puppeteer” pulling the strings of American presidents; Le Monde, saw him as the master thinker who created the “theoretical substratum” of American foreign policy.

This ‘theoretical substratum’ was his conviction that the West had a universalizing liberal democratic mission of potentially great benefit for humanity. It was a measure of the power of Strauss’s thought that this vision saw him mercilessly demonized in a way that has become very familiar for conservative figures today. Conspiracy theorists identified him as the godfather of a sinister neoconservative cabal operating at the highest levels of the American Federal government; as the principle source of a new America imperialist mission with an agenda for global domination; and as a principle inspiration of the foreign policy that led to America’s wars in the Middle-East and Afghanistan.

But this was only part of what Strauss had to say about the crisis. Basically Strauss had a bifurcated view of the West and its historical role. On one hand, he believed it had its universalizing liberal project – it was this optimistic aspect that Fukuyama developed into his ‘End of History’ thesis.  However, on the other hand, Strauss had a grim view of the metaphysical situation of humanity and despaired of the debilitating crisis of confidence that afflicted the West and was embedded at its core.

Writing in the middle decades of the 20th century, Strauss recognized that the West faced great external dangers in the form of the predatory totalitarian movements approaching from the East. However, for him, the true crisis was internal.  Strauss’s lifetime of study and experience in Weimar and Nazi Germany, and then in mid-century America, had convinced him that integral to the West was its world-historical project, unifying its people around the vision of a universal liberal democratic global civilization of free and equal nations enjoying affluence, justice, and happiness. However, the West had been betrayed by its intellectual elites who had torn this vision apart in the name of totalitarian ideologies to which they had mindlessly committed themselves. It continues to be this internal loss of self-belief – transformed into virulent self-hatred – that chiefly constitutes the crisis of the West in the contemporary world.

Strauss believed that the seeds of this crisis were deep-seated and lay quiescent like a dormant disease within the Western tradition until the past century. Then these nihilistic tendencies were activated ideologically by prophets of extremism like Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, and then exploited by Foucault, Derrida and their abject and unoriginal followers. Politically, they were activated by Lenin, Stalin and the Bolsheviks, and by Hitler and the Nazis, who realized that liberalism could be exploited to mobilize hate-filled collective rage, especially where it was state sponsored or condoned, as we see on a presently smaller scale in Victoria under the Socialist-Left government of Dan Andrews.  

These renegade thinkers of the Western tradition (almost all of whom were unhappy in their own lives) have launched attacks on a wide front against a world they have contrived to hate and resent. In myriad works they denounced the legitimacy of liberal democracy; the value of universalism in its various forms; the authority of rational thought; the parallel pursuit of affluence, justice, equality, and human happiness; the role of science in society; the relationship between reason and revelation; and the legitimacy of humanity’s utilization of nature in the pursuit of its interests. This onslaught expresses the tendency of elements of the Western tradition, once it is deprived of its empowering belief in the rationality and universal value of its historical project, to degenerate into moral nihilism, intellectual sloth, and self-righteous cultural philistinism – as we increasingly see in the universities.

The great lesson of the 20th Century is that the constructive strands of the Western tradition, which empowered its ascendancy for over half a millennium, may now be too enfeebled and weak to withstand this nihilistic onslaught.

Consequently, in Australia, the parliamentary system is being de-valued and debauched, free speech is being criminalized, and special interest groups lobby to have preferential treatment for themselves embedded in the constitution on racial lines. Throughout the universities and the intelligentsia there is contempt for liberal democracy, which is dismissed as the cause of every form of social injustice, while the crisis of the West corrodes all belief in reason, objectivity, and universal values. In the schools the legitimacy of liberal democracy is being systematically undermined by allegedly ‘progressive’ educational policy; the vigorous promotion of cultural relativism; the denial of a basic history education; the relentless denunciation of Australian society; the pervasive notion that rights and entitlements can be enjoyed without responsibilities; the systematic grooming of vulnerable students disguised as ‘a safe schools’ program; all accompanied by a campaign of terror designed to convince children that they are living in the End-Times. Ignorant of the historical forces that have providentially shaped their lives, students exit schools as civic infants, happily dependent on a paternalistic state.

As it turned out, the triumph of 1989 was fleeting. Released from the Soviet embrace, the Eastern bloc disintegrated economically, while Russia witnessed a rampaging campaign of asset striping unprecedented in history, as enterprising apparatchiks became opportunist entrepreneurs. Politically, some functional democratic regimes emerged, positioning themselves for admission to the European Union with the massive financial benefits this would bring, but other new states declined into corruption and violence. Even as Fukuyama’s book was appearing in 1992, Serbian forces were shelling Sarajevo, killing 12,000 people in a 1200 day siege. As the West basked in its supposed triumph, the Yugoslavian civil wars killed some 300,000 people, while 50,000 women were systematically raped and two million people were ‘ethnic cleansed’ – setting a precedent for Rwanda in 1994, where 800,000 people were murdered and another systematic campaign of rape rapidly accelerated the AIDS epidemic in Africa.

In the shadow of such hate-filled conflicts the pendulum swung from unrealistic optimism to pessimistic realism, and prompted one of Fukuyama’s earliest critics, Samuel P. Huntington, to offer a competing thesis about the dynamics of global history. In another influential article and then a best-selling book, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), Huntington argued that world politics was entering a new phase, “in which the great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of international conflict will be cultural”, involving the great civilizations of the world, identified in terms of their distinctive religions, histories, languages, and traditions. Huntington identified nine of these, including the West, Islam, Hindu, and Chinese civilizations, and he argued that the divisions that exist between them are historically “deep and increasing in importance”, and will find their most tumultuous expression along a series of ‘civilizational fault-lines’ and within ‘torn countries’ – areas where civilizations come into tension with each other (e.g., the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle-East, Eastern Europe, Chechnya, Central Asia, India and Pakistan, Iberia, North Asia, etc.). These will be “the international battle lines of the future”.

Huntington’s thesis attracted hostile criticism, especially from the left. Leftists predictably rejected the idea of a clash of civilizations as somehow inherently ‘Eurocentric’; however, their greatest fear was a Western victory if such a clash occurred. Ironically, the conviction that Islam and the West are locked in an inevitable civilizational fight to the death was revealed to be a fundamental belief of the Islamist forces that announced their arrival on the global scene with the 9/11 attacks, apparently confirming Huntington’s view of global politics.

And indeed, it has become clear that there are many powerful, militant, and well-resourced anti-democratic ideologies and political forces operating on a global scale. These form a broad neo-fascist continuum encompassing ethno-nationalism, Islamism, authoritarian statism, technocracy, and environmentalism, all of which target and disparage liberal democracy in various ways. Mention can be made of authoritarian states like Russia and China, whose systems are based on exploitation, oppression, and corruption, and which nurture hegemonic intentions; but also of Europe, where centripetal forces are rapidly stripping political power from bankrupt but sovereign democracies and concentrating it in the hands of unelected technocrats, as politicians wash their hands of the culture of entitlement embedded in their societies, even as it attracts millions of illegal migrants into what will soon become a demographic maelstrom. Similarly, the environmental movement now makes explicit demands for a suspension of democracy and the establishment of a gargantuan world government, not only to combat alleged global ‘climate change’ but to carry out a massive redistribution of wealth from productive economies to the numerous dysfunctional states of the world. ‘People power’ seems to have been merely a way of mobilizing the masses in the ongoing process of regime change which installs new theocratic regimes, military juntas, and/or new kleptocracies to replace the ones being overthrown.

Consequently, it appears that, in terms of external threats, Huntington’s realist conception of a clash of civilizations is presently more pertinent than Fukuyama’s idealist vision of the end of history – Western societies like Australia (and Britain, depending on the outcome of the Brexit process) must be prepared vigorously to defend themselves. However, this realism must be augmented by awareness that the civilization of the West has itself been enfeebled by the exploitation by ideologues of its own inherent weaknesses. As Sheridan and Murray presently observe – following Strauss and others – ours is an internal crisis of a cultural, metaphysical and transcendent nature, and it is in this realm that the future will be determined.

So, 30 years on, what can be said? Overall, it seems a grim outlook. However, while Fukuyama did come to relinquish the optimistic vision that made him famous, it is difficult to forget that carpe diem moment some three decades ago when an historical portal suddenly opened and it was possible for oppressed people to glimpse “the broad, sunlit uplands of freedom”. These must still remain a great ideal. Equally there remains much of value in the liberal democratic tradition and a steadily growing desire to defend it, especially in the continual battle within the West over the nature and legitimacy of the world-historical project it seems fated to pursue.

6 thoughts on “After the Wall, Three Decades of Cultural Despair

  • padraic says:

    “Consequently, in Australia, the parliamentary system is being de-valued and debauched, free speech is being criminalized, and special interest groups lobby to have preferential treatment for themselves embedded in the constitution on racial lines. Throughout the universities and the intelligentsia there is contempt for liberal democracy, which is dismissed as the cause of every form of social injustice…” Those sentences from the article pretty well sum up the situation. The universities and intelligentsia are making the bullets of “social injustice” but it is some in the legal profession who are firing the bullets.

  • Biggles says:

    It was Yeltsin’s withdrawal of Russia from the Soviet Union that caused the Union’s collapse.

    Prof. Rudolph of the University of Hawaii in his book Death by Government puts the murder of people by the socialist states during the 20th Century at about 200 million. This figure excludes those killed in war.

  • ianl says:

    From the essay:

    >” However, the West had been betrayed by its intellectual elites who had torn this vision apart in the name of totalitarian ideologies to which they had mindlessly committed themselves.”

    Self-evidently true. The reasons for this mindlessness remain obscure to me, however. It cannot be powerlust in these “elites”, as they are amongst the first to be brutally shoved aside by realpolitik. This leads to contemplation of the sick, sociopathic abyss such destructive mindlessness probably emanates from.

  • Matt says:

    Very sound and helpful diagnosis and prognosis, all very clearly communicated. What we desperately need more of though is a similar level of depth given to treatment strategies. Yes, there are many brilliant analysts who have helped us understand the problem. What we need now is brilliant strategists and advisers who will lay out the strategies for reversing the course of the battle. Having carefully studied the enemy, what is the game plan for defeating it? I look forward to those articles.

  • Biggles says:

    Apologies: It was Prof Rudolph RUMMEL of the U of H to whose book I referred.

  • pgang says:

    Humanists will forever ignore the stark choice we face. Either God is the ultimate deity, or the State/Caesar is.

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