Eternal Recurrence: The Rise and Fall of Civilizations and the Populist Solution?
History Repeats Itself?
Most people have heard the cliché, “history repeats itself” but how many have considered what it really means or even if it is valid? Surely, whoever first coined the phrase did not mean that events and people from the past reemerge or even reincarnate themselves in the present or future, but that discernible patterns can be detected in the numerous human societies that have risen and fallen throughout history. Whoever first stated that “history repeats itself” took the perspective that humans are predictable in their behaviour and the societies that they build are even more so, which enables those in the present to view history from the long durée by establishing certain patterns and ultimately to make reasonable deductions as to where present day societies are headed.
The idea of viewing patterns in history is known as “cyclical history” and is actually quite ancient, although it acquired more popularity in intellectual and academic circles in the early twentieth century where it eventually became a sub-discipline within historical studies. Applying cyclical history to past cultures can be a useful tool for modern scholars and lay people alike to understand how and why some of the greatest human societies collapsed; but many argue that it can also be used to comprehend the trajectory of modern Western society’s path, as well as possibly uncovering methods to stop its potential decline. The concept of cyclical history must first be examined before exploring if the modern West in general and the United States in particular are doomed to repeat some of the same follies that the Egyptians, Romans, and Aztecs – to name just three – did before them. The following report will show that based on current events and compared to previous civilizations, there is clear evidence of decline in the West and the United States of America. The report will also examine the recent surge of populist political ideas around the world, especially in the West, and if those ideas can arrest or even reverse the decline of Western civilization.
The Pre-scientific Origins of the Cyclical History Theory
As stated above, the idea of cyclical history can be traced back thousands of years and was apparent in many different, totally unrelated, religions, cultures, and civilizations. Most of the early theories that concerned cyclical history were articulated in myth and theology and while some were quite simple, others were very detailed and complex. One of the earliest known writers who formulated an idea that can be described as proto-cyclical history was the eighth century Greek poet, Hesiod.
Hesiod lived in a period when Greece was still far from the glories of later centuries, but it was men like him and Homer – who may have been one of his contemporaries – who laid some of the foundations for early Greek culture. Among Hesiod’s most influential works was Theogony, which was essentially a cosmogony and genealogy of the Greek gods. Hesiod wrote that there were three distinct ages of gods, whereby one generation would be replaced by the next until the Olympian gods – Zeus, Poseidon, Hera etc. – were the final and dominant deities in the world. Each generation of gods usually ended in some type of tragedy before the next cycle began. Humans played little role in Hesiod’s divine cycles, but his Theogony no doubt influenced a later Egyptian writer who used similar themes in his works.
Manetho was a third century BC Egyptian high priest who was knowledgeable of both Egyptian and Greek historical, religious, and literary traditions, as he was employed by the Greek Ptolemy rulers who reigned over Egypt during his life. The Egyptian priest had full access to Egyptian temple libraries as well as the newly built Library of Alexandria, which is where he was probably first introduced to Hesiod. At some point during his life, Manetho used his knowledge of both cultures to write a history of Egypt, today called the Aegyptiaca, which divided Egyptian history into thirty one dynasties. Manetho’s influence on the modern world is apparent as the divisions of Egyptian history he employed are the same ones that modern Egyptologists still use. Unfortunately, Manetho’s writings have only been transmitted to the modern world through other ancient and medieval translations, but the fragments that do exist demonstrate a cyclical view of history that may have been influenced by Hesiod.
Manetho’s history gives a list of gods, then demi-gods, and finally historical kings that ruled Egypt. Similarly, also from the ancient Near East, the Sumerian King-list also listed a number of mythical and semi-historical Sumerian kings who ruled in the Mesopotamian kingdom of Sumer before the great flood described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, which of course bears remarkable similarities to the biblical flood in the book of Genesis. The ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, and Hebrews all believed a perfect, or near perfect, age, or ages, existed where gods and humans lived on the earth together, before human hubris became too much and a new cycle of imperfection began. Further to the east, around the same time, even more complex ideas of cyclical history were being formulated by ancient Indian scholars and holy men.
According to Hindu tradition, which comes from the older Vedic tradition, the world goes through four successive ages, or yugas, every 1,000 years. The first yuga is the Satya, where the gods and humans live together in harmony. After the 1,000 year Satya yuga the world then moves into the Treta, Davapra, and finally the Kali yuga, which most Hindu scholars believe is the current age. The Kali yuga is marked by a lack of divine involvement in human affairs and an Earth that is consumed with lust, greed, vice, and violence. Everything that was once considered evil is now good, but before long the god Kali will bring forth a final act of destruction that will end his yuga and bring forth the golden age of the Satya yuga once more. The Vedic/Hindu tradition of cyclical history was mirrored thousands of miles away in the snow caped mountains and frigid fjords of Scandinavia.
The Norse people, often referred to simply as Vikings, developed an interesting and intricate set of myths before they converted to Christianity in the Middle Ages. Actually, as Indo-Europeans, the Norse followed a religion that had many similarities to that of the people who developed the idea of the yugas in India, so it perhaps should be no surprise that they also established a similar view of world history. Perhaps reflecting the Norse culture’s sanctification of warfare, the ages were described as the following: Axe age, Sword age, Wind age, and the Wolf age. The Norse believed that at the end of the Wolf age, a great battle called Ragnarok would commence between the gods and giants, with man on the side of the gods, which would ultimately result in a three year long winter that would extinguish most life on Earth. Once the Wolf age was over, the survivors would gather before the god Balder and a new golden age would begin.
Cyclical History in the Twentieth Century
The myths surrounding cyclical history that were first formulated in the ancient and medieval worlds gave way to a more scientific understanding of world history in the nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, scholars, especially in Western countries, were influenced by the rationale thinking of the eighteenth century Enlightenment as well as the advances in science made during the nineteenth century. The result was that many historians began to view the world through a more cynical and less romantic lens that was also decidedly biological in nature. Historians began to view past states, societies, and even civilizations as living entities that had finite lifespans, which could be compared with each other in order to determine visible historical patterns. Some nineteenth century German writers who employed aspects of cyclical history in their writings were Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, who borrowed, some would say “stole,” heavily from Hegel. As Marx and Hegel’s ideas were being discussed, debated, and dissected by a plethora of scholars across the Western world throughout the nineteenth century, a young German schoolteacher produced a tome that would become the standard for many works of cyclical world history.
Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) was a philosopher, historian, and schoolteacher who began his magnum opus, Der Untergang des Abenlander (The Decline of the West) in 1918 and finished it in 1922. The focus of Spengler’s work was civilizations, of which he identified the following: Indian, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Classical, Arabian/Magian, Western, Chinese, and Meso-American. Spengler argued that most nation-states and kingdoms were constituent parts of a larger civilization; for instance Germany and the United States were part of the Western, while Japan was an offshoot of Chinese civilization. Egypt was the only civilization that was also a nation-state, in the modern sense of the word, in Spengler’s taxonomy of civilizations. Spengler’s thesis was that each civilization had a life cycle like a plant: the “spring” is when a civilization is born and begins its vibrancy and growth; the “summer” is a civilization’s greatest creative era; the “autumn” is when a civilization begins its decline and is marked by over rationalization of philosophies and concepts; and finally the “winter” is the ultimate demise of a civilization, which manifests in tendencies towards dictatorships and “wars of annihilation.” Spengler’s thesis was decidedly deterministic; humans could do little to nothing to stop the decline of a civilization, even when the hallmarks of decline were recognized. The German historian’s theory of world history became quite popular in the decades leading up to World War II, where they were debated in the halls of academia across the Western world and then expanded and modified by a British historian.
Arnold J. Toynbee (1889-1975) was the quintessential British answer to Spengler’s view on cyclical world history. Toynbee was a more classically trained historian who respected and was influenced by Spengler’s work, but saw inherent flaws in the German’s book that he believed could be improved. Like Spengler, Toynbee believed that in order to understand world history one must look at civilizations instead of kingdoms and nation-states, which he concurred, were merely constituent parts of larger civilizations. Unlike Spengler, Toynbee identified more civilizations, both past and present, which consisted of the following: Egyptiac, Andean, Sinic, Minoan, Sumeric, Mayan, Yucatec, Mexic, Hittite, Syriac, Babylonic, Iranic, Arabic, Far Eastern, Far Eastern: Japanese offshoot, Indic, Hindu, Hellenic, Orthodox, Orthodox Russian, and Western. Toynbee’s taxonomy of civilizations was much more detailed than Spengler’s and identified affiliated civilizations – for instance, Hellenic civilization was loosely affiliated with the Minoan and apparented to Orthodox, Orthodox Russian, and Western civilizations.
Toynbee’s central thesis was that before a culture becomes a civilization, it is challenged either physically (for instance by the desert as in the case of the Egyptiac and Sumeric civilizations) or socially (such as establishing order after a civilization collapsed as in the case of the Orthodox after the collapse of Hellenic civilization), or a combination of both. Once the culture successfully overcomes the challenge then it enters the civilization stage where it encounters new challenges that it overcomes through creativity in art, religion, science, etc. When a civilization is in its most creative phase it is usually fairly peaceful, yet at the highpoint of its culture. Once the creativity of a culture begins to be exhausted then the culture turns inwards and practices mimesis of early creative forms. Toynbee then identified a “time of troubles” where the various kingdoms and nation-states within a civilization begin to fight for supremacy of the entire civilization. The time of troubles is then resolved when the winner establishes a “universal state” and the arts of war and economics become the last bastions of creativity. The key difference between Spengler and Toynbee’s theories was that Toynbee was much less deterministic; he believed that civilization declines could be halted and even reversed if the proper leaders were in power. Of the two, Toynbee was much more influential on later scholars, which can be seen in two more recent works.
In the early 1990s, after the termination of the Eastern bloc and the Soviet Union, many people thought the world had entered a new ecumenical phase, where major conflicts were a thing of the past. Political scientist Samuel Huntington (1927-2008) argued in The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order that to the contrary, modern societies had just reformed and realigned along civilizational lines and that in the coming decades most conflicts would be intra-civilizational in nature. Huntington identified nine current civilizations in the world – Western, Latin American, Orthodox Christian, African, Islamic, Buddhist, Sinic, Japanese, and Hindu – that either clashed or peacefully interacted with each other along fracture lines. He argued that some civilizations were inherently hostile towards each other due to cultural reasons – the Hindu and Islamic for instance – while others that shared some of the same cultural history – Western, Latin American, and Orthodox Christian – were less so, but the differences ultimately shaped the foreign policies of the constituent nation-states. Huntington was clearly influenced by Spengler and Toynbee as he gave precedence to civilizations over nation-states, but he placed little emphasis on the cyclical philosophy of history, which was a departure in his methodology from the two earlier historians.
More recently, Paul Kennedy wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, which clearly channels some of the ideas of Spengler and Toynbee in regards to cyclical history, but places more emphasis on the fortunes of individual nation-states in the West. Kennedy argues that part of the West’s success vis á vis medieval China and the Islamic world was due to the lack of central authority, which allowed for greater economic development in Western Europe. The economic boom that took place in Western Europe in the late 1400s into the 1500s allowed for the various nation-states to invest in armies that later conquered much of the world. Ultimately, Kennedy argued that the fate of the West was/is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of individual states such as Hapsburg Austria, the British Empire, Imperial Germany, and more recently the United States.
Cyclical History, Western Civilization, and the United States
So what do all of these ideas concerning cyclical history mean for the current states of affairs in the world and what does the future hold for Western civilization in general and the United States specifically? First, if one takes the stance of historians such as Spengler and Toynbee that history is cyclical, then certain patterns can be discerned and a potential decline can be identified. The question then remains: if those patterns are identified, can they be halted or reversed as Toynbee argued?
One of the primary problems that is currently affecting the United States and other Western countries is a potentially declining and definitely unstable world economy. The recession in 2007 brought to light a plethora of economic problems that still remain unresolved. Government spending has increased, while the amount of debt the U.S. government owes to other governments and private individuals and companies has also grown, which has sent worrisome shockwaves throughout the world markets. Perhaps more troubling than anything, economically speaking, is the decreasing value of the dollar, which has been compounded by more paper money being printed. Excess printing of paper money inherently leads to inflation, which was best exemplified in modern times during the 1920s Weimar Republic Germany in what is now known as “hyper-inflation”. A severe inflationary cycle could be extremely catastrophic to the American economy as the prices on essential goods and services will continue to climb, while wages will stagnate, as they have essentially done for some time now. Excessive printing of currency also leads to a lack of consumer confidence in the currency and eventually in the overall economic system, which could result in the dollar no longer being used as the reserve currency in the world. If/when the dollar is no longer the reserve currency, the United States’ influence in world affairs, especially in the sphere of economics, will be further diminished. Closely linked to the economic situation in the United States and Western Europe are demographic and cultural concerns.
Currently, nearly every Western nation has severe generational imbalances, which has the potential to be an economic bomb to the social and welfare systems of those countries. The Baby Boomer generation is now at the retirement age and is quickly claiming its rightful government pensions, but many question if those same benefits will be available for future generations. In the United States in particular, the Social Security system has been described at various times as a “slush fund” and “Ponzi scheme” whereby the government uses money stored in it for other programs and projects, which would be fine if the system continued to record a surplus, but it has not for some time. Part of the problem is the result of low birth rates by the Baby Boom generation, which various Western leaders believed they could augment in the 1970s and ‘80s with increased immigration quotas and “guest worker” programs. The result was a steady increase in the overall population of most Western nations, but the Social Security and pension problems were only exacerbated as more and more people began to receive government benefits before retirement age. The result is that in many Western nations there is a consistently narrowing pool of tax payers and a growing pool of benefit recipients that is in the long-term unsustainable. Although the current world economic system is for the most part unique to Western civilization and therefore difficult to compare with previous civilizations, the Hellenic civilization offers some analogous behavior.
Hellenic civilization came to be dominated by the Romans in the second century BC and for at least three centuries everything went relatively well – there was peace throughout the Roman Empire, trade was brisk, and the monetary system was fairly strong. By the third century AD, for a number of reasons, the Roman economy began to falter and so Roman leaders introduced new methods to keep the economy alive. The Roman economy operated under a gold based currency where the silver coin, known as the denarius, was the standard and can be compared to the dollar in many ways. As government expenses for the military and social programs grew in Rome, much like today in the United States and Europe, Roman leaders devised a way that they believed would compensate for the diminishing gold and silver reserves in the imperial mints – they would add impurities to the coins. The impurities that were added to the coins had the same effect that printing excess money has had in modern times, it devalued the currency. Before long, a host of other problems manifested in Rome that were tied directly to the devaluation of the currency including some of the following: labor riots, housing shortages, exorbitant tax rates, and a greater concentration of wealth into the hands of a few. Surely one does not have to be an economist to see some parallels between the state of the current U.S. and Western economies and that of Rome.
One of the hallmarks of civilization decline that both Toynbee and Spengler wrote about was the tendency towards warfare and eventual consolidation of all kingdoms and nation-states under one leader. This has not yet happened in the West, but there have been several attempts to do so, most notably by the Hapsburgs in the eighteenth century, Napoleon in the nineteenth century, and Hitler in the twentieth century. Some would argue that since there has never been an ecumenical “Western Empire” similar to that of Rome for the Hellenic civilization, the New Kingdom for Egypt, and Hammurabi’s Empire for the Sumeric that the United States and the West has yet to enter this critical phase of decline, but that may be a false assumption. Although there has been no outright military dictatorship that has consolidated all of the Western states as was done in previous civilizations, a number of intra-governmental organizations exist that may fill the modern role of Toynbee’s “universal state.” For instance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was ostensibly formed to protect the West from the Eastern bloc during the Cold War; but the organization still not only exists even though the communist threat is gone, it continues to add members in central and eastern Europe. Non-Western nation-states see NATO’s expansion and NATO itself as aggressive and a threat, as can be evidenced by saber rattling by Russia and that nation’s outright occupation of sections of perspective NATO member, Ukraine.
One of the salient features in most civilizations’ declines was the emergence of aggressive war-bands from the marches of the civilizations, which Toynbee termed the “external proletariat.” In the Hellenic civilization, these were the Germanic tribes that invaded Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries AD, while in Egypt it was the sea borne raiders known collectively as the “Sea Peoples” who raided the Egyptian coast and helped topple the Hittite civilization around 1200 BC. The Sumeric civilization had to contend with various desert tribes known as the Gutians and the ancient Chinese civilization fought unsuccessfully against the Mongol hoards from the north.
Today, the United States and Western Europe is in the midst of an immigration crisis that has brought millions of people from the Latin American and Islamic worlds into the West, which threatens to further destabilize Western economies and will no doubt bring more cultural/civilizational clashes in the future. Huntington noted that as of the 1990s the Islamic world was in the midst of its own baby boom that threatened to destabilize the already unstable Middle East. Young, angry, jobless men are perhaps more susceptible to extremist and Jihadist brands of Islam, which they then bring with them to Europe. Britain, Spain, Germany, and France have all witnessed major Islamic terrorist attacks over the last fifteen years and many neighborhoods in the major cities of those countries often resemble Lahore, Algiers, and Tunis more than London, Madrid, and Paris. A slightly different, yet similar, situation exists in North America where violent Mexican drug cartels and multi-national street gangs like MS-13 have taken advantage of illegal immigration by smuggling immigrants and their members across the U.S.-Mexico border. Today, nearly every major American city and some major Canadian cities have a presence of these groups in their midst.
Finally, both Spengler and Toynbee also argued that the decline of a society is most visible in a lack of overall creativity and creative output. Toynbee especially concentrated on this idea and wrote that civilizations in decline often focus their creative energies on mimesis. One does not have to look far in either high or pop culture in the current West to see that this is the case to a certain extent: “musicians” routinely steal ideas and even whole songs from others; most works of high art are devoid of any spiritual significance, event those that are copied from earlier periods; and forgettable films are habitually made based on television shows from prior decades that were equally forgettable. The lack of creativity apparent in modern society is also demonstrated in modern politics and economics – it appears that everyone is afraid to make the wrong choice, which has inhibited the boldness often needed to formulate solutions to major problems.
More recently, anthropologist Joseph Tainter has arrived at a more materialistic view of decline that can perhaps be used as an auxiliary to Spengler and Toynbee’s more spiritually based ideas. Tainter posits that what he terms “complexity” – which is often manifested in the form of government bureaucracies, highly detailed economies, and multi-layered scientific innovations – is what leads to civilization, but consequently it is also the source of decline. He argues that too much organization and in particular excessive regulation, stifles creativity and as an example he points out some of the great scientific and medical advances made during the nineteenth century. Most of those advances were made by individuals and had the result of advancing human knowledge exponentially, while today scientific research is made by teams who usually just manage to add to existing technologies. Tainter also points out that as societies become more complex they require more resources, which eventually results in diminishing returns.
The Rise of Populism and the Future of Geo-politics and Cyclical History
Although a number of the trends outlined above seem to suggest that Western culture is on a downward trajectory, a new wave of political activism has arisen that is attempting to reverse or at least halt the process. Recently, a number of politicians, such as Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump in the United States, have ridden the populist wave of sentiment and railed against the status quo in their prospective countries. Although not all politicians from this new breed share the same beliefs, many uphold opposition to massive immigration, increases in debt ceilings, and a general disdain of multi-culturalism and political correctness as some of the cornerstones of their political platforms.
The problem with tracking the progress of this new wave of populism is defining what exactly populism is. In its most basic definition, populism can be any political movement that attacks the elite power structure and status quo. In recent years, populism has been closely associated with the right-wing of the political spectrum, although some on the left, such as the now deceased former President of Venezuela Hugo Chavez, employ populist tactics to attain and hold power. Populism is also not confined to Western or even predominately white countries. Rodrigo Duterte, the President of the Philippines, used populist rhetoric to get elected and has since used his presidential powers to go after corrupt politicians and drug dealers. Many in the press are critical of Duterte’s tactics, but he remains popular with his supporters. Populism can also be difficult to track because few leaders or political parties ever openly state that they are in fact populist, but an examination of the first major wave of populism can help put the present wave into perspective and then make judgements of the future trajectory of Western civilization.
Ray Dalio recently wrote an article that compares the current world-wide surge in populism with the wave that took place during the 1920s and peaked in the 1930s just before World War II. Dalio argues that most countries at the time, including the United States, adopted populist policies to varying degrees. The most visible and important populist policies concerning geo-political events was the protection of national borders and trade protectionism. In terms of border security, stricter immigration requirements became the norm. In the United States, calls for immigration reduction resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924 – which became known colloquially as the “Asian Exclusion Act” – which resulted in a nearly complete ban on all immigrants from Asia as well as Muslims, although Christians from Muslim majority countries were given visas after strict vetting. Along with an emphasis on border security and immigration control was the practice of following populist trade policies, sometimes referred to as “economic nationalism.” During the 1920s and ‘30s, the industrialized nations of the world initiated populist trade policies in the form of tariffs, currency wars, and the economic “Third Position.” The economic Third Position was particularly popular with fascist parties and organizations as it was “neither capitalist nor communist,” but instead favored an economic system that employed elements of free enterprise and socialism. The first great wave of populism ended after World War II when the world entered a bi-polar order that was dominated by the political and economic ideas of the United States and the Soviet Union. Populist sentiment remained dormant until the 2010s when it once more rose up in the form of various political movements first in Europe and then throughout the world.
Brexit, Donald Trump, and Populist Sentiments in the West
Although it is difficult to precisely identify the origins of the current surge of populism in the West, the first major populist victory took place in the summer of 2016 with the British referendum to leave the European Union (EU), which has become known as “Brexit” for “British exit” from the Union. When the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, it sent political and cultural shockwaves throughout the world that some say helped propel Donald Trump to the United States presidency and continues to help other populists, such as French leader Marine Le Pen, in their bids to take more seats in their respective parliaments. In many ways the Brexit situation is unique, but its realization clearly represents the first major victory for populists in the West.
The Brexit situation is unique compared to the other examples examined in this article because it was a referendum instead of the election of one leader or a majority party. With that said, the most was most definitely populist in nature because it was essentially a vote against the status quo and largely supported by Britain’s working class. The referendum, though, was just the final part of a long process whereby the United Kingdom rather tepidly joined the European Union and then decided that its own best interests were better served alone. The United Kingdom’s unenthusiastic approach to membership in the European Union can be seen in its refusal to switch its currency from the pound to the euro and when it did not join the Schengen travel zone with most of the other EU countries.
The idea of a united Europe can be traced back to ancient times when the Romans attempted to do so but were thwarted by Germanic tribes east of the Rhine and north of the Danube Rivers. The Emperor Charlemagne once more endeavored to unite Europe under his rule in the late eight and early ninth centuries and although he was successful in uniting most of western Europe, his empire crumbled after his death in AD 814. Modern efforts to unify Europe took place under Napoleon in the early nineteenth century and again during World War II by Adolf Hitler. Ironically, the devastation wrought by German efforts to create a unified Europe through force during World War II led many European elites to believe that some type of united western Europe was the only chance the world could avoid another costly war on the European continent. They believed that the unification could happen peacefully if a consensus was built within in European country for such a union. American leaders saw a united western Europe, at least economically and militarily, as a bulwark against the Soviet Union so they too supported the idea. It was out of these sentiments that the NATO and the European Economic Community (ECC) formed in the 1950s to present a united front against the communist Warsaw Pact nations and to provide an organization that would facilitate trade and travel among its members. The United Kingdom joined the ECC in 1973, which eventually became the European Union in 1993.
As mentioned above, British sentiment was never very strongly in favor of membership in the ECC or the EU for a number of reasons. The United Kingdom was not hit nearly as hard as many other European nations were during World War II so the threat of another European war was never as encompassing in the British psyche as it was in other European countries. The British people also tend to be more conservative than their continental counterparts. Although the British Empire effectively ended after World War II, the British people still revel in their glorious imperial history and the monarchy is highly respected by all classes. To be a member of the EU – which assumed many more supra-governmental powers than its predecessor, the ECC – meant that the British would have to relegate some of their sovereignty, which was an idea that many in the United Kingdom could never reconcile. The negative attitude felt by many in the United Kingdom toward the idea of unification with Europe finally coalesced into a political movement the year the British joined the EU.
The primary vehicle by which the British people have opposed the United Kingdom’s membership in the EU has been the political organization known as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Although UKIP originally developed as a one position “Eurosceptic” party, it quickly gained ground as a legitimate right-wing, populist party opposed to multiculturalism and mass immigration. Its leaders argued that the UK was paying for a disproportionate amount of the EU’s funding and that in the process British identity was slowly being eroded. With a message that appealed to a significant segment of British society and led by charismatic leader Nigel Farage, UKIP gained several seats in the EU parliament, but has only gained one seat in the UK’s House of Commons. UKIP consistently polls as the third most popular party in the UK, but its supporters are evenly spread out across the country, which makes it difficult for the party to gain more seats in the House of Commons. But ultimately UKIP’s mission was to take the UK out of the EU, which it successfully did in June 2016.
In the early 2010s, Farage looked beyond the UKIP leadership for allies in the Conservative and Labour parties who supported the idea of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union. Farage’s efforts eventually payed off as the question was put into a formal plebiscite scheduled for June 23, 2016. On that day the legal voters of the UK were able to vote to remain or leave the EU. The “leave” movement, which was spearheaded by UKIP, had strong support in Britain’s rural areas, especially in the northern counties. Older, working-class, and ethnic English citizens heavily supported leaving the EU, while the “remain” side was supported by most of London, Scotland, and the millions of non-English immigrants and their descendants who had come to the UK since World War II. The remain campaign was also heavily supported by the financial and political elites of the UK, who poured millions into the campaign for print, television, and digital advertisements. Despite being out spent and the polls showing a heavy lead for the remain side, the people of the UK voted fifty-one to forty-eight percent to leave. Exit polls showed that the UK was heavily fractured over the vote: London, Scotland, and most of Northern Ireland voted to remain, while the rest of the UK voted to leave. The heavily divided nature of the vote along with the inaccurate polling data was replayed less than six months later in the American presidential election.
Coming on the heels of the seemingly improbable Brexit victory, American billionaire turned Republican Party presidential candidate, Donald J. Trump, rode the wave of populism right into the White House. Most political pundits gave Trump little chance to win his own party’s nomination, never mind the presidency, but those same pundits failed to recognize the wave of populism that had been slowly building around the world over the last several years. The pundits argued that Trump’s ideas were too radical and that they would not resonate with the heartland. They also thought that some of his ideas, especially concerning immigration, would lead to a major backlash by non-white Americans who would vote for Hillary Clinton just to keep Trump out of office. The pundits miscalculated on both of those counts.
As soon as Trump announced his candidacy is the summer of 2015, he articulated a platform of economic and civic/cultural nationalism. In numerous campaign speeches throughout the Midwest, Trump railed against free trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), as bad for American business and job growth. He argued that the answer is a new program of protectionism and tariffs, similar to those championed by American congressman Henry Clay in the nineteenth century, and that the U.S. should stay out of multi-national trade deals such as NAFTA. Although the elite of his own party have demonstrated resistance to these ideas, polls show that Trump’s base continues to support economic protectionism. Most polls also indicate that a majority of the public support most of Trump’s ideas concerning civic nationalism.
As important as Trump’s campaign ideas were about economic nationalism, they were secondary to his policy of civic nationalism. The ubiquitous slogan of Trump’s campaign – “Make America Great Again” – clearly stated his message to put American first. Besides economic nationalism, putting America first meant the creation of a wall on the United States’ southern border, crackdowns on the ten to twenty million illegal aliens currently in the U.S., and an overhaul of the legal immigration system, namely the H1-B visa program. Despite coming from a wealthy background, Trump was able to use his nationalist platform to fashion himself into a populist candidate – candidate Trump promised to fight both parties in order to bring jobs back to the United States. Despite what the pundits predicted, Trump’s populist rhetoric resonated with a large number of somewhat disparate groups who coalesced to create a victorious coalition.
One of the most interesting aspects of Trump’s campaign was its ability to draw together different interest groups into a single coalition. The new Trump coalition drew from both the Republican and Democrat parties, appealing to both traditional conservatives in the south and the inter-mountain west and blue-collar whites in the Midwest and Great Lakes states. Trump’s stances on immigration, trade, and the economy, along with the fact that a potential President Trump would nominate a new Supreme Court justice, enticed both groups to support the billionaire turned politician. But perhaps the most interesting and important group in the Trump coalition was the emergence of the so-called “Alternative-Right,” often abbreviated as “Alt-right.”
The Alt-right is an amorphous coalition of tech-savvy Millennials and Generation X’ers who cover a wide-range of different and sometimes conflicting backgrounds including some of the following: libertarians, white nationalists, masculinity and men’s rights activists, and computer hackers who frequent the 4Chan message board. There is no single leader of the Alt-right – Mike Cernovich, Richard Spencer, and Milo Yiannopoulos are three who have developed large followings, but they do not speak for all who identify as part of the movement. If there was unifying factor of the Alt-right, it was the desire to see Trump elected president and for him to make good on his pledge to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption. Trump’s recent move to moderate his views and what appears to be the relegation of advisor Steve Bannon to a lesser role – who many in the Alt-right consider to be their representative in the White House – has only seemed to add fuel to the Alt-right’s activities and American populism in general. Alt-right websites and activists have recently stated that their ideas are bigger than Trump and that he was merely a vehicle for their movement. The Alt-right will clearly be a force within the American populist movement in the years to come, especially if the Left continues to promote its policies in academia, the halls of government, and on the streets of American cities.
The recent populist surge in the West has actually been percolating for several decades. In the years directly after World War II, elites throughout the world were searching for a way to make sure another devastating war never took place. As discussed above, a unified Europe was one such idea to emerge in the post-World War II period, but a plethora of other theories and philosophies began to be formulated that sought to change the very nature of Western society. Elites within Western academia, such as Herbert Marcuse, formulated the idea known as “Critical Theory.” Critical Theory was essentially an updated version of Marxism – which was itself borrowed, or some would say stolen, from the writings of the late eighteenth/early nineteenth German philosopher Georg Hegel – which claimed to be opposed to the existing order, including but not limited to such ideas as capitalism, organized religion, especially Christianity, and most “traditional” values. The idea of Critical Theory was first promoted by professors at the famed Frankfurt School and then spread throughout the world. The current variant of Critical Theory essentially opposes anything that is considered Western, white, Christian, and patriarchal. Theories that vaguely define abstract theories such as “white privilege” and the benefits of a multi-cultural society all fall within the category of ideas influenced by Critical Theory. Today, these ideas are most apparent in academia, but they pervade all levels of society including the government and media. Since these ideas directly oppose what are considered traditional values, populism and the modern populist movement has provided an outlet for those opposed to Critical Theory and all of its related philosophies. It seems as though the more Critical Theory and its variants are promoted in the educational systems and in the media, the bigger the push against those ideas has come from populist corners.
Populism and the Rest of Europe
Besides the Brexit campaign discussed above, populism has experienced a major surge in Europe in the last few years. Many of the same issues that have brought about the recent populist surge in the United States – immigration from the Third World, terrorism, government corruption, and unfettered multi-culturalism and other ideas spawned from the Frankfurt School – have led to the recent populist revival in Europe, although there are some notable differences. One of the primary differences is the nature of European republics – most countries are multi-party systems that allow for a diversity of opinions to take hold, including populism.
One of the first countries where the latest surge of populism in Europe began to take hold was in a seemingly unlikely place: the Netherlands. The Netherlands is generally considered one of, if not the most, liberal countries in Europe. It was among the first to legalize gay marriage and its tolerance of illicit drug use has been known around the world for decades. Perhaps somewhat ironically, because of these ideas, which fundamentalist Muslims consider anathema, the right-wing, populist Party for Freedom has picked up a number of seats in the Dutch parliament over the last few elections. Led by Geert Wilders, the Party for Freedom has called for a complete ban on Islam within the Netherlands and the possible Dutch exit from the EU. Although Wilders’ party did not gain a majority in the 2017 Dutch parliamentary elections, it did pick up seats and will no doubt influence the course of Dutch politics in the years to come. The traditionally liberal Dutch are growing weary of high numbers of immigrants in their country who do not share their values, but they are fortunate enough not to have been hit by any major terrorist attacks in recent years. Western Europe’s two largest and most powerful countries – Germany and France – have been hit by a spate of recent Islamic terrorist attacks and both of those countries have upcoming elections that could determine Europe’s future.
The world is now closely watching France, which will hold its presidential election on April 23, 2107. Like in the United States, the French vote directly for their head of state, but unlike in the U.S., several parties field candidates, making it difficult for a candidate to win more than fifty percent of the electorate. Because of that, a run-off election is often held between the two top candidates. Political scientists, journalists, and economists are watching the French presidential election closely to see if the populist candidate, Marine Le Pen of the right-wing Nationalist Front (FN), can ride the coattails of Brexit and Trump to a similar shocking victory in France. Due to the nature of the run-off system, a Le Pen victory may be difficult, but if the populist firebrand does win it will be because of a monumental change in the attitudes of the French in recent year towards immigration, the EU, and multi-culturalism. Le Pen has advocated a similar Eurosceptic program that was successful in the UK for Farage and UKIP by arguing that France pays for more than its fair share of the EU and has taken in far more refugees than most other members. The populist platform of Le Pen has also been bolstered by a spate of especially deadly attacks by Islamic terrorists in recent years around France including some of the following: the Charlie Hedbo newspaper shootings in Paris on January 7, 2015; the Batclan Theater shootings and bombings in Paris on November 13, 2015; and the Bastille Day truck and shooting rampage on July 14, 2016. Currently, the polls are tight and a run-off is likely.
The situation in Germany is similar to France’s, but the demographic change has happened much quicker. Encouraged by Germany’s liberal refugee services and a lack of willingness or inability by the current German government to deport refugee criminal offenders, over one million “refugees” have come to Germany in the last five years alone. Many claim to be escaping from war zones, but most claimants are young men of fighting age and many are from countries that are simply poor, but not gripped by war. The sudden demographic change has resulted in the creation of Islamic enclaves across Germany and numerous acts of violence and terrorism directed at the German population such as the mass rapes of German women during New Year’s 2015-2016 festivities in Cologne and the Berlin truck attack on December 19, 2016. Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood by her efforts to make Germany a multi-cultural country, which will be challenged when federal elections are held in September 2017. Experts believe that the populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party will pick up seats in the Bundestag, but like in the Netherlands, it will probably not be enough to wrest control of the government. Party leaders point out that it takes time for a new party to gain seats but time may be running out in Germany. The recent populist surge that has been making its way across North America and western Europe seems to have found the most fertile ground in central Europe.
Poland and Hungary face the same primary problem as France and Germany – a large wave of immigrants that pose an existential threat – but due to their different recent histories, they have a profoundly different perspective on the situation. During the Cold War, Poland and Hungary were communist states and members of the Warsaw Pact military alliance that was led by the Soviet Union. Although both countries were closely aligned with the Soviets, the reality was that most of their citizens were adamant in their opposition to communism. The Hungarians launched a failed revolution against their communist government in 1956 and the Polish Solidarity movement of the 1980s is credited by historians as one of the factors that precipitated the fall of communism in Europe. Hungary and Poland are two of the most traditional EU member nations – membership in the Catholic Church is still relatively high and the average Pole and Hungarian is much more aware of his people’s history than is the case in other western European countries. Truly, the traditional values of the Hungarian and Polish peoples has contributed to their reluctance to accept millions of immigrants as their neighbors to the west have done, but ironically, decades of communist rule has also contributed to that attitude.
Today, few Hungarians or Poles look back on the decades of communist rule with nostalgia. Poverty was endemic, the government was oppressive, and Warsaw and Budapest had to take their marching orders from Moscow. With that said, communist rule shielded the Poles and Hungarians from the Frankfurt School, Critical Theory, and multi-culturalism. Even the most strident Polish and Hungarian communists never thought to propose plans that would introduce millions or even hundreds of thousands of young men from the Middle East and Africa into their countries. When the Iron Curtain over Europe was lifted in the early 1990s, both Poland and Hungary – who have historically been more closely associated with the West due to the dominance of the Catholic Church among their peoples – quickly made efforts to join the EU, which became a reality for both countries in 2004. But soon there was trouble in paradise. Due to the combination of their strong traditional values and the lack of influence by cultural Marxists, Poland and Hungary have refused to admit more than what the EU considers their fair share of refugees and immigrants into their lands. The EU has recently threatened to expel both nations, which has had little effect because there are large-scale populist movements in both countries, especially Hungary, that advocate leaving the EU.
Hungary’s current Prime Minister and leader of the conservative Fidesz Party, Viktor Orbann, has pledged to take few if any migrants into his country. Orban’s rhetoric has infuriated some of the EU’s elites, but the populist prime minister has taken things a step further by erecting a high-security border fence on Hungary’s southern border. Orban continues to follow through with similar populist polices and is not afraid to work with the even further right-wing Jobbik Party. It remains to be seen what will happen in Hungary and Poland. If they choose to leave the EU, they could re-orientate their foreign policies to favor better relations with Russia. If that happens, then the EU will be living on borrowed time.
Ultimately no one can say for sure what the future holds, but many of the patterns Spengler and Toynbee identified as indicative of decline appear to be at work in the West in general and the United States in particular. Also, Huntington’s idea of civilizational clashes appears to be on display in a number of regions throughout the world: the West is clashing with the Orthodox Christian civilization over Ukraine and both of those civilizations are currently clashing with Islamic civilization in the Middle East. When the contemporary United States and western Europe are viewed from the perspective of cyclical history there can be no doubt that they exhibit many signs of decline; but if the leaders of the constituent nation-states have the courage to halt and even reverse the decline remains to be seen. The recent populist political surge may have the ability to halt or even reverse the trend toward decline, but it could also have the effect of changing the geo-political map. New alliances could form bringing with it new perspectives on geo-politics, which the world has not seen in over seventy years. One person may not be able to stop the decline, but knowledge of the situation can definitely help one prepare for the future.
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