Book Review: Suicide of the West

Jonah Goldberg | Photo by  Gage Skidmore

Jonah Goldberg | Photo by Gage Skidmore

In the year 3018, the next Edward Gibbons may be writing The Rise and Fall of Western Civilization. Or he might not. That’s the point of Jonah Goldberg’s latest work, Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy. If Jonah wins the day, as he hopes, the collapse of the West will be long postponed.

Goldberg drills deep into the underpinnings of civilization, generally, and the West, specifically. To do so, he begins with human nature, and how some things (more on those “things” later) can be combated but never eradicated, hence the challenge of maintaining civilization. He explains that the “stationary bandit,” a cross between a strongman who extracted tribute and a geographically confined protector against other strongmen, was the first iteration of a state. Combined with the agricultural revolution, growing populations, and the development of language, laws, and customs, civilization as we recognize it gradually came into being.

Where the history really gets interesting, and where the book finally finds its feet, is the discussion on the foundations of “the Miracle,” or the liberal democratic capitalist world we inherited from the Enlightenment. “Liberal democratic capitalist” is a loaded term, but Suicide of the West sticks closely to the principles espoused by John Locke and enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution: a representative democracy, free economy, inalienable rights, the rule of law, and a stripping of historically significant aristocracies in favor of a merit-based government.

The Miracle was not invented in a vacuum; it was not handed down from God, who is purposely missing from this book; it was something that humanity stumbled backwards into and, as Goldberg contends, is tasked with maintaining. The Miracle is the culmination of a lot of factors, most of which came out of Medieval England. As Goldberg puts it, England was a “petri dish” that for one reason or another eventually germinated.

But why does the Miracle require special attention, careful maintenance, and gratitude? In other words, why write this book at all?

According to Goldberg, the Miracle is under attack on one side by the natural forces of entropy that are trying to return humanity to its state of nature. On the other side, the Miracle is being degraded by “ingratitude,” as Goldberg puts it, or the active failure to remember and be thankful for the principles that created Western civilization. He argues at length that humans are naturally tribal and loyal to those who they most identify with, that the Miracle introduced a new relationship between governed and governor, that it restructured the foundations of society and our relationship to each other, and that human nature is always lurking in the background.

He also spends a significant amount of pages arguing against the growth of the American administrative state and the harms of what he calls “the new aristocracy.” “As we’ve seen,” he writes to begin his argument, “the American founders believed that the enemy of liberty was arbitrary power.” The next three chapters revolve around the harms of aristocracy, the arbitrary power it contains, and how for the past century in America, despite being preemptively dismantled by the Constitution, “aristocracy” has been re-establishing itself through the administrative state, or the multitude of unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats that legislate in place of Congress. (Conservatives have argued against big government since FDR birthed the New Deal, but Goldberg’s argument is more compelling than most because it attacks the philosophical foundation of “big government,” not just misbehaving agencies and un-fireable bureaucrats.)

In short, the argument Suicide of the West presents can be summarized as, simply, “the principles of the West need to be defended.” The liberal democratic order requires an intellectual explanation and a re-commitment to the concepts that created the Miracle in the first place. At this, Goldberg exceeds himself and offers one of the most robust defenses of the West in recent memory.

Suicide of the West is an excellent diagnosis for the issues facing the foundations of Western civilization, but it stops short of providing much direction for the way forward. Goldberg endorses the idea of “earned success,” or finding fulfillment because an individual’s contributions to civil society are valued by civil society. Civil society, too — that web of institutions between the individual and the state — is also endorsed as a way to reinforce underlying first principles. But as Goldberg notes, civil society is itself in a frayed state and will need to be resuscitated if it is to serve its purpose. The conclusion that ingratitude is at the heart of the “suicide of the West” is also not entirely convincing, although not entirely wrong either. Gratitude does not guarantee stability, as he argues, but it does make the defense of civilization an easier task.

Ultimately, the liberal democratic capitalist order only works if the people are virtuous, because virtue more than any other factor can stave off the entropy inherent in human nature. This is a point that Goldberg largely skips but also (implicitly) rejects with his ingratitude-based conclusion.

“There is no God in this book,” he declares on page one, and for the most part that holds true. Organized religion, the engine of most virtues, is mentioned in passing, as he writes much, much later: “If you believe that man has a strong religious instinct, if I’ve convinced you that nature — including human nature — abhors a vacuum, then you have to believe that God’s absence creates an opening for all manner of ideas to flood in.”

This point, that the absence of widespread belief in God creates chaos, seems to explain more of the decline of the West than ingratitude does. The hollowing out of institutional values is one of the worst self-inflicted wounds that could have been committed, and one of the most difficult to reverse. Rebuilding civil society and creating a process that helps people earn success are goals with difficult but clear-cut methods of achieving. But how does the Catholic Church, for example, get people back into the pews? How does it rebuild its credibility after almost 20 years of sexual abuse scandals? And what are the consequences if it can’t find the answers? Because fixing that is not quite as clear-cut, and yet the ramifications will be just as large.

Contra Goldberg’s points about civil society and earned success, organizations like bowling leagues, Meals on Wheels, and fraternal clubs don’t create virtue. They can reinforce it, but creating virtue takes two institutions: the family, and organized religion. Goldberg goes into detail on the role of the family and how it is under attack by certain political and cultural forces. But organized religion is just as important at forming values that will create a healthy, even grateful, society, and it deserved more space than it received in the book.

Is the West truly committing slow-motion suicide, as the title of the book suggests? The answer is yes and no: the institutions that created the world we inherited still exist. But like a long-neglected garden, they are beginning to be overrun by nature. “There are no permanent victories,” Goldberg writes. Preserving what we have requires an effort we have long neglected.