The Coming Break-Up of the Nation-State
by Gary North: The
Paterno Affair and Western Liberty
ends at some point. The world of classical Greece ended with the
rise of Macedon. The empire of Alexander ended the Greek city-state
forever. Rome replaced Alexander's empire three centuries later.
Rome broke apart over the next four centuries. The medieval world
lasted for at least 800 years in the West a decentralized
social order. In the eastern Roman empire, Byzantium was a separate
civilization. We can date its end: 1453. It fell to Islam.
In the West,
the Renaissance grew out of the ashes of the Black Death. "Ashes,
ashes, all fall down" surely applied to Western Christendom.
The Renaissance was a self-conscious break with the medieval world.
We call it medieval because the Renaissance named it: the world
in between Rome and modernity. The Renaissance was a self-conscious
attempt to resurrect the classical world.
In 1492, Columbus
opened up a new world geographically. This opening westward marked
the transition to the modern world. This world has belonged to Western
science, technology, philosophy, and culture. It has eclipsed Islam.
The fall of the Ottoman Empire after 1875 clearly seemed to end
the Islamic alternative. This had not been clear in 1800, when Barbary
pirates looted Western ships in the Mediterranean.
and unexplained advent of 2% per annum per capita economic growth
in 1800 changed the old world forever. A new civilization appeared,
one which was clearly radically different in 1875. As I have said
before, all this has happened in just three generations: John Tyler
(b. 1790), his son Lyon (b. 1853), and his grandsons Lyon, Jr. (b.
1924) and Harrison (b. 1928), both of whom are still alive.
In 1989, the
year the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama, a then-unknown scholar,
wrote an essay: "The End of History?" It was published
in the neoconservative journal, The National Interest. He
argued that Western democracy has triumphed, and no rival political
system is likely to displace it. This article was a frontal assault
He was surely
right about Marxism. It is dead. It will never be revived. It had
been abandoned by Communist China a decade before Fukuyama's article.
The symbol of Soviet Communism's demise was the fall of the Berlin
Wall. On December 31, 1991, the USSR was voted out of existence
by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which disbanded. That
was the most remarkable collapse of an empire in history. It was
Yet, for all
this, there are signs that the social and intellectual world created
by the Renaissance and extended by the Enlightenment right
wing and left wing is nearing its own final days. This is
marked by the crisis of the democratic nation-state. It faces these
1. The bankruptcy
of its welfare programs for the aged
2. Rising rates of violent crime
3. The failure in the United States of tax-funded education, K-12
4. The bankruptcy of the American empire
5. The loss of legitimacy of the democratic nation-state
6. The break-up of the European federation and euro
7. The failure of the United Nations Organization
8. The rapid extension of Islam in Western Europe
9. Falling white birthrates in the West: below replacement rate
10. The decline of historical knowledge among the West's elite
11. Loss of faith in the idea of progress
12. No replacements for the church and the nation-state
There is economic
growth, but Asia seems to be the wave of the future. Asia will have
its demographic day of judgment in 20 to 30 years an aging
population without either state funding or family funding
but this is not evident now. Also, Asians kill female infants in
the womb. Westerners do, too, but on an equal opportunity basis:
males are killed at the same rate.
are known individually by hundreds of millions of people, but there
is no widespread alarm that anything fundamental is at stake. There
is little sense that these trends are part of a package deal.
a bell toll to mark the end of a civilization. The demise of the
USSR in 1991 was the greatest exception in human history. Nothing
else matches it. But the bells are tolling, one by one.
In this report,
I am going to give you a brief survey of five chapters in three
books that have shaped my thinking over the last three decades.
I do not expect you to read any of these three books cover to cover.
Of course, it would hardly hurt you to do this. If you read the
five chapters, and decide that they are important enough in your
own thinking to justify reading the books, I recommend that you
do so. But I want to save you time. I want to introduce you to some
ideas that I find compelling, and which I think you should consider
very carefully in making your own plans.
of the Idea of Progress
This was published
in 1980 by Basic Books, the neoconservative book publisher. It was
written by the professor who had the greatest influence on my thinking.
Officially, he was a sociologist. In fact, he was a social philosopher
and brilliant social commentator. (He once wrote an essay on the
misuse of the word "brilliant.")
He became one
of the most famous conservative thinkers in the world after 1965.
This was because of the social changes that disrupted the United
States and many other Western nations, 1965-1970. He had given a
lot of thought to the kinds of changes that were taking place. So,
when he began to write systematically about these changes, beginning
in 1965, his influence grew extensively.
There was another
factor, which he once mentioned to me in private conversation. He
became one of the favorite sociologists of the neoconservative movement.
He did not regard himself as a neoconservative. He did not use the
phrase. But a group of formerly left-wing Jewish intellectuals,
most of whom were atheists, who had been influential in intellectual
circles for decades, began to pay attention to him after they began
their switch from leftism sometime around 1965. Some of them had
been Marxists in the 1930s, whether Stalinists or Trotskyites. They
had made a transition from Marxism to Democratic leftism in the
1950s. Then, in the middle of the 1960s, it made the next transition,
and the results of that transition has become known as neoconservatism.
I have written about this development
me that the greatest boost to his career had been the fact that
Jewish intellectuals in New York City began to publish his articles
and then his books. As he said to me, Jews read a lot of books.
That was certainly accurate. When Nisbet began to be published in
the Jewish periodical Commentary, and in the neoconservative quarterly
publication, The Public Interest, his reputation grew. This enabled
them to begin finding a market for the books which he was ready
to write, beginning in 1965 or 1966. Scholars dream of such opportunities
in their lives, but it rarely happens in the second half of the
scholar's career. In Nisbet's case, it was the final third of his
studied at the University of California, Berkeley, in the late 1930s
and early 1940s. He was highly influenced by a social thinker and
remarkable historian, Frederick J. Teggart. Teggart was a philosopher
of history. Nisbet was his graduate assistant, and one of his important
tasks was to go to the library and get books for Teggart. He told
me about carrying piles of books to Teggart's office, which was
piled high with books. The University of California had the best
library in the West Coast. Teggart read widely, and this introduced
Nisbet to a vast array of academic materials that most of his peers
had never heard of. Teggart was eclectic and not widely known, then
or now. He is known today mainly because Nisbet has written about
his influence in his own academic career.
as his doctoral dissertation French conservative thought in the
1820s and 1830s. This topic had gone down the academic memory hole
decades earlier. It was virtually unknown to the academic community.
This gave Nisbet a real advantage. There was no one out there to
tell him his thesis was wrong.
War II, he returned from the military and became a professor of
sociology at Berkeley. This was during the phase of the enormous
growth of higher education in the USA, because of the G.I. Bill.
Millions of young men who would not otherwise been able to go to
college returned to college because of the federal government's
subsidy. This vastly expanded the number of colleges, and Nisbet
was in the right university at the right time. Nisbet wrote a book
on this change, The
Degradation of the Academic Dogma (1972).
In 1953, his
Quest for Community, was published by Oxford University
Press. It received some attention, mostly favorable, but it was
hardly a bestseller. He asked these questions: "Why was it
that the modern world had turned to totalitarianism in the middle
of the 20th century? What had taken place in the societies that
gave birth to totalitarianism?" He concluded that it had to
do with the breakdown of social order. Those institutions to which
men had given allegiance throughout history, such as the family,
the church, the guild, the fraternal order, and similar voluntary
institutions, had faded in importance in the twentieth century.
This left only the isolated individual and the modern nation-state.
Men gained a sense of belonging through their participation in mass-movement
politics. Totalitarian leaders began to attract individuals who
were isolated, even though they were living in large cities. These
leaders were able to offer a sense of brotherhood to millions of
people who felt alone in the midst of cities. The modern totalitarian
state functioned as a substitute for the family, church, and voluntary
associations that for millennia had given people a sense of purpose
and participation. So, totalitarianism was born out of radical individualism,
institutionally speaking, even though as a philosophy, totalitarianism
is completely opposed to individualism.
In the second
phase of his career, he served as an academic administrator at the
newly launched undergraduate-only university, the University of
California, Riverside, from 1954 to 1965. Then he took a sabbatical
to teach at the University of Bologna, the very first university.
When he returned, he went back into full-time teaching remarkable
for an administrator. That was when the third and most productive
phase of his career began also remarkable for a scholar.
He wrote a series of books that were widely praised and widely read,
Sociological Tradition (1966), Social
Change and History (1969), The
Social Philosophers (1973), and The
Twilight of Authority (1975).
Then came The
History of the Idea of Progress, which is his most profound
book. For some reason, he included no footnotes a pity for
those of us who collect footnotes.
that societies need faith. If he was a practicing Christian, I did
not hear about it. In his book, he traces the history of Western
man's faith in progress from the Greeks to the late 20th century.
I think he was wrong about the Greeks. I think they believed in
cyclical history, just as J. B. Bury said in 1920. Nisbet was self-consciously
reacting against Bury. I think Stanley Jaki was correct: the absence
of a concept of linear time kept the Greeks and the Romans from
moving beyond technology to science.
In the Introduction,
he writes the following about the idea of progress:
. . . I
remain convinced that this idea has done more good over a twenty-five-hundred
year period, led to more creativeness in more spheres, and given
more strength to human hope and to individual desire for improvement
than any other single idea in Western history. . . . The springs
of human action, will, and ambition lie for the most part in beliefs
about universe, world, society, and man which defy rational calculations
and differ greatly from physio-psychological instincts. These
springs lie in what we call dogmas. . . . Everything now suggests,
however, that Western faith in the dogma of progress is waning
rapidly in all levels and spheres in this final part of the 20th
century. The reasons, as I attempt to show in the final chapter,
have much less to do with the unprecedented world wars, the totalitarianisms,
the economic depressions, and other major political, military,
and economic afflictions which are peculiar to the 20th century
than they do with the fateful if less dramatic erosion of all
the fundamental intellectual and spiritual premises upon which
the idea of progress has rested throughout its long history (pp.
Chapter 9 of
his book, Progress at Bay, discusses the evidence for the
loss of faith in the West regarding the future. He writes:
spreading atmosphere of guilt and loss of meaning or purpose in
the West and its heritage lies a constant erosion of faith in
Western institutions; not just political but social, cultural,
and religious institutions. Hardly a week passes without some
fresh poll or survey indicating still greater loss of respect
by Americans and Europeans for government, church, school, profession,
industry, the media, and other once respected institutions
and, naturally, those who in one or other degree preside over
or represent that these institutions (p. 332).
indicates something that I regard as fundamental in our understanding
of the decline of faith in the idea of progress. Nisbet touches
on it, but he does not sufficiently emphasize it. The issue of progress
is intimately tied to the idea of morality. The loss of a sense
of moral purpose is at the heart of the loss of faith in the idea
of progress. It is not just that people have lost faith in progress;
they have lost faith in a moral universe of cause-and-effect, which
once governed the thinking of the West. We cannot separate the doctrine
of the idea of progress from morality, which in turn is established
through faith in God, who provides both purpose and meaning for
If there was
a single source of this loss of faith it was Charles Darwin. His
concept of unplanned biological change rested on his denial of any
purpose in the universe prior to man. This is the heart of his system,
and he knew it. He was reacting against teleology: cosmic purpose
latched onto the idea of man as the highest evolutionary being in
the universe. Without man, Darwinists say, there is no purpose in
the universe unless there is a higher evolutionary species out there
is space, whose sense of purpose trumps ours. (The idea of "higher"
implies a hierarchy, which is a hierarchy of power: the survival
of the fittest, as Herbert Spencer summarized it.) This places the
origin of meaning and purpose in mankind: collective mankind. But
who speaks for mankind? On what basis?
The heart of
Darwin's theory is that nature has no autonomous purpose.
It has no end in mind. It has no mind. It is not structured to benefit
man, and man must struggle against the forces of nature in order
to retain his dominance in nature. There is nothing outside of man
that gives support to man, and there is nothing outside of man that
guarantees man's success in extending his rule over nature in history.
There is no natural law in Darwinism in the sense that was believed
in Western history from the Greeks to Darwin. There is also no sovereign
God who oversees the affairs of men, which has been the belief of
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from the beginning.
Man is cut
off from any source of positive or negative sanctions in response
to a transcendent system of morals. So, with the triumph of Darwinism
and secularism, faith in transcendental morality has disappeared
among the intellectuals. This in turn has undermined their faith
in progress. There is no way to define progress unless there is
a universal scale of values, meaning good, bad, and worst: the guides
for mankind. The god of any society is the source of its laws and
the enforcer of these laws. In the Darwinian universe, this means
collective mankind. The trouble is, mankind cannot be trusted, precisely
because mankind is afflicted with moral perversity.
In the Epilogue
to his book, Nisbet warns that, without faith in the future, no
society can be maintained for long. The Greeks, he argues, never
did lose faith in their gods. The same holds true for the Romans.
Obviously, this was true of Christianity. Even during the Enlightenment,
most of the promoters of Enlightenment rationalism were Deists or
theists of some kind. He contrasts this with the present situation.
In our day,
however, religion is a spent force. If God is not dead, he is
ebbing away, and has been since the early part of the century.
We have, in Jonathan Swift's coruscating words, "just enough
religion to make us hate but not enough to make us love one another"
or, enough to make us see the flaws and cankers of the
society around us but not enough to generate hope for the future.
Just as religion has seriously waned, so have most of the systems
of thought which for a time served intellectuals as surrogates.
There are many today who find either Spencer's first cause or
Marx's dialectic convincing (p. 353).
He then surveys
the loss of faith within academic disciplines. He says that philosophy
is a spent force. Nobody pays any attention or has any interest
in what a professional philosopher thinks today. But who has succeeded
the philosophers? "There is no ready answer. We appear to be
destitute of any reigning intellectual class. Intellectuals and
artists have gone the way of business and political titans, of clergy
and philosophers, of scholars and scientists. When has literature
been held in as low estate as it is today in the West? Never has
the gulf between creative writer and the public been as wide as
it is now" (p. 354).
He gets to
for this condition, this debasement of literature and estrangement
of writer and public, is our lack of a true culture. And fundamental
to this lack is the disappearance of the sacred, always at the
heart of any genuine culture from ancient Athens to Victorian
England. For some time we thought we could live off the yield
of the sacred, even though it was gone or passing away. Then it
was easy to maintain belief in progress and, so believing, to
seek to add what a cherished past had contributed. It is no longer
easy, for behind the death of the past, the displacement of Western
pride of civilization, the waning faith in economic growth in
the works of reason lies the moribundity of religious conviction,
of belief and faith in something greater than the life immediately
around us (p. 354).
He quotes Alexis
de Tocqueville. "When men have once allowed themselves to think
of no more of what is to befall them afterlife, they lapse readily
into that complete and brutal indifference to futurity which is
but to conformable to some propensities of mankind." Nisbet
the basis of confidence in the existence of the divine power was
confidence possible with respect to design or pattern in the world
and in the history of the world. . . . But it is absent now, whether
ever to be recovered, we cannot know. And with the absence of
the sense of sacredness of knowledge there is now to be seen in
more and more areas absence of respect for or confidence in knowledge
that is, the kind of knowledge that proceeds from reason
and its intrinsic disciplines" (p. 355).
Then he asks
the crucial question:
But is this
contemporary Western culture likely to continue for long? The
answer, it seems to me, must be in the negative if we take
any stock in the lessons of the human past. . . . I believe, first
from the fact that never in history have periods of culture such
as our own lasted for a very long. They are destroyed by all the
forces which constitute their essence. How can any society or
age last very long if it lacks or is steadily losing the minimal
requirements for a society such requirements being the
very opposite of the egocentric and hedonistic elements which
dominate Western culture today?" (p. 356).
Then he raises
a crucial issue. This is the issue of what he calls religious renewal.
"Whatever their future, the signs are present visible
in the currents of fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, even millennialism
found in certain sectors of Judaism and Christianity. Even the spread
of the occult and the cult of the West could well be one of the
signs of a religious renascence, for, as it is well known, the birth
of Christianity or rather its genesis as a world religion in Rome
during and after the preaching of Paul was surrounded by a myriad
of bizarre face and devotions." There are also other signs.
"By every serious reckoning the spell of politics and the political,
strong since at least the seventeenth century, is fading. It is
not simply a matter of growing disillusionment with government bureaucracy;
fundamentally, it is declining faith in politics as a way of mind
and life" (p. 356). With politics fading as a religion, there
could be a revival of supernatural religion. That, too, was basic
to the replacement of Roman empire by Christendom, although Nisbet
never said this explicitly.
religion and politics as inevitably at war with each other. I think
he was wrong. Every religion is manifested in some kind of legal
order. Every legal order for society rests on some system of morality,
and every system of morality rests in turn on fundamental presuppositions
that are accepted on faith. This is the heart of every society's
religion. So, rather than seeing politics and religion is antithetical,
I see certain kinds of religion at war with other kinds of religion.
One of these battlefields is politics. This is why Christian homeschooling
parents pull their children out of the tax-funded schools.
was talking about was a loss of faith in politics as a source of
healing. He was talking about the loss of faith in messianic
politics. It was clear by 1980 that what he had described three
decades earlier in The Quest for Community was dying. The
old totalitarianism was fading. The Soviet Union no longer had faith
in the Communist future. By the time this book was published, China
was going through the transformation that was begun in 1978 by Deng
Xiaoping. The Chinese economy was being freed up in terms of individual
ownership of the means of production: a most unMarxist concept.
It is worth
noting that 1980 was the moment of truth for Soviet Communism. The
Moscow Olympics brought rich Western people to Moscow. There, the
leaders of the Soviet empire saw the suits and watches and shoes
of the West. They saw that the highest positions of power in the
USSR enabled you to look like a Russian bureaucrat. The Soviet leaders
never recovered from that realization. At exactly the same time,
the Solidarity movement began in Poland, launched by the chance
discovery in a railroad yard that cans labeled "fish"
being sent to Moscow were in fact cans
of Polish ham. That marked the beginning of the Polish revolt.
A year before, a Pole had become Pope Paul II. I like to think of
all this as providential. Rival systems of religion and politics
went to war against each other.
What was fading
in 1980 was messianic politics. The idea that political change will
produce some sort of social regeneration was no longer taken seriously
by people in the West. Political campaigns invoke the word "hope,"
as Bill Clinton's campaign and Barack Obama's campaign showed us.
But the hope was not fulfilled. Political hope around the world
has not been fulfilled. As this confidence in politics fades, something
is going to replace it. That was what Nisbet saw as a real possibility
in the West. More than this, he believed that, if this religious
renewal does not take place in the West, then Western civilization
This had also
been the view of Pitirim Sorokin a generation before Nisbet's book
was published. Sorokin was the founder of the Department of Sociology
at Harvard. In 1941, Sorokin's book appeared, The
Crisis of Our Age. He called the worldview of modern man
"sensate." If something cannot be touched and measured,
it is thought to have no validity. Like Nisbet, he believed that
it is not possible to maintain such an outlook without undermining
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North [send him mail]
is the author of Mises
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2011 Gary North
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