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To coincide with the launch of his book ‘How the West Was Lost’, Ben Ryan diagnoses the contemporary crisis in which we find ourselves. 03/10/2019
Next month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a moment engrained in the public consciousness as the end of the Cold War and the genesis of a new, confident, liberal, democratic world. The West had won, and the next era was going to be about the fruits of that success being spread benevolently across the world.
For a while, that confidence seemed well placed. The long–disparaged “dark continent” of Africa looked to be riding a wave of Western optimism, defined by Nelson Mandela’s presidency in the South and in the North, from the late ‘90s onwards, by Western powers’ rapprochement with Muammar Gaddafi’s formerly ostracized Libyan regime. Even Latin America, where every nation barring Costa Rica had had at least one dictator in power during the twentieth century, looked to be establishing a new—and increasingly left–wing—democratic culture. By the early 2000s, defying the gloomy predictions of political scientists and historians everywhere, not only had most of formerly communist Eastern Europe been rehabilitated, with respectable economic growth and a series of fair and free elections, but many of those states were well on their way to joining the European Union, itself an increasingly confident and assertive organization.
But if you stood now and surveyed the West, you might ask yourself, do you feel like a winner? The triumphal age seems to have shrunk away, buried under the war on terror, a decade of economic decline and chaos and an authoritarian backlash across the world, including a worrying return of far–right nationalists in Europe and the USA. The world, according to the respected Freedom House measures, has been getting less free for ten consecutive years. Support for liberal democracy is in freefall and, contrary to the happy assumptions of some liberals, the young are not coming to save it. On the contrary, the younger generations are among the ones feeling most betrayed and are statistically among the most likely to back a populist extreme party or to dispute the importance of living in a democracy.
There is a danger in seeming too negative about the world around us. Reports of the West’s imminent demise have been a feature of its intellectual life. Since Oswald Spengler’s seminal The Decline of the West in 1918, every decade has thrown up writers lamenting a crisis. Westerners do love a good sense of crisis, and almost all have proven woefully premature. Take one example from 2006, when the writers Richard Koch and Chris Smith, lamenting a declining West, were nevertheless confident that nationalism was a dead force: “In Europe, toxic nationalism is largely a relic, discredited by the horrors of the two ‘European civil wars’ and eroded by the success, even if often only grudgingly admitted, of European institutions and identity.” Not, it turned out, the most prescient of statements.
Nevertheless, it does feel like there is something particular in our contemporary crisis. My argument, in How the West was Lost, is that the economic, political, and social breakdowns we are seeing are intimately related. The crisis is not economic, or political, but social and cultural. The West is a cultural construction – a grouping together of ideals, all of which were forged in a very distinctively bonding together of classical, enlightenment, but most of all Christian, milieu. The identity and purpose that created a functioning West represent precisely what has gone wrong. We have lost something of ourselves, and in the loss of direction and of our moral underpinnings, we have undercut the foundations of our political, social and economic structures.
The challenge, of course, is not only to diagnose the sickness but to find the cure. That is far harder, but I hope that this book at least hints towards restoring a new story and myth for the West.
‘How the West Was Lost’ by Ben Ryan is available for purchase here.
Ben Ryan was Head of Research at Theos until late 2019. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 3 October 2019
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.