The thesis that Western civilization is in decline is one which has been increasingly posited in recent times.
Centred on the fortunes of the nations comprising North America and Western Europe, such discourse has typically been framed under deconstructions based on alternate predictive models of history such as prescribed by the German philosopher Oswald Spengler or based on eschatological ideologies of religion.
Others have sought explanation by exploring specific issues and their correlation to certain symptoms of degeneration and dysfunction in regard to the institutions and the social fabric of these countries or in relation to their relative power, influence and vitality. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the Soviet writer and dissident, asserted that the supplanting of religion by proof-based science which has irresistibly continued to erode morality and traditions was an error “at the very foundation of thought in modern times.”
For some, references to the diminution of the racial stock of Caucasian populations caused by falling birth rates and increased levels of immigration are central while others cite the rise of the economies of nations such as China, Brazil and India. In all cases evidence of such malaise is built around arguments identifying progressive decline in economic power, cultural practices, the codes of social morality operating within the countries as well as in the unethical policies of Western-dominated international financial institutions and the malign effects of the post-Cold War conflicts sponsored by the US-led military alliance of NATO.
Much argument has centered on the fortunes of the United States of America, a global superpower beset by economic ails represented by a trillion-dollar national debt as well as a marked diminution in its prestige and moral leadership owing to its conduct in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and arguably prior to that; in the policy of militarism adopted in the aftermath of collapse of the Soviet bloc and the creation of a unipolar world.
Henry Kissinger may have appropriated Spenglar’s model of analogizing the cycles of human civilizations to the four seasons when in the 1970s he claimed that the United States had “passed its historic high point like so many earlier civilizations.” For Kissinger, the decline of the United States is an historical inevitability: “Every civilization that has ever existed has ultimately collapsed. History is a tale of efforts that failed.”
The intellectual context of such discourse encompasses a range of schools of thought including those that subscribe to race-based explanations of the process of history and civilization such as was given exposition by Lothrop Stoddard in his 1920 work The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and those who adhere to Marxist thinking which posits the inevitable collapse of capitalist institutions and the culture on which it is based.
While some thinkers have constructed theoretical models they claim as offering a universal explanation of the rise and fall of civilizations, others have focused on developing critiques of the dominant civilizational power. It may also be helpful to add that the fall of a powerful empire is not necessarily synonymous with the fall of a civilization.
For instance, the decline and end of empire for Britain was accompanied by the rise of the United States of America, itself an Anglo-Saxon nation which had been created as part of the idea of constructing a new society as a modern off-shoot of the ‘Old World’ of Western European civilization.
Old Europe was of course the location of empires built up on the ideologies of racial hierarchy and capitalism. These two issues formed the basis of the relationship between the West and the non-white peoples who were colonized and arguably continues to inform the relations between the West and the so-called developing world in the post-colonial era.
The establishment and maintenance of an ascendancy over non-Western people was facilitated by the creation of appropriate institutions and the adoption of policies and techniques through which political, economic and social control could be exercised over colonial and later nominally independent post-colonial states.
The institutions and their methods of operating ensured the economic exploitation of colonies and former colonies as well as the instituting, when necessary, of brutal measures aimed at maintaining the status quo.
But it came at the cost of contradicting the values on which Western civilization was predicated. And as time has progressed it can be observed that these techniques of colonization and imperialism have been corrupting to the extent that they have been directed inwardly and key elements have been applied to Western and other European countries.
An argument can be made that they have effectively served to undermine Western civilizational values and provided at least part of the framework for its own ruination.
A useful starting point would be to refer to Aime Cesaire, the Martinique-born writer whose work Discours sur le Colonialisme (Discourse on Colonialism), a critique of the relationship between coloniser and colonised, presented rationales which drew from Marxist theory and the philosophy of Negritude. Cesaire asserted that one of the major criticisms of Hitlerism by Europeans was the harshness and the brutality of the implementation of race-based National Socialist policies which they believed were akin to the methods devised by European colonial powers in dealing with their colonial subjects.
The methods adopted by Adolf Hitler in his quest to create a new order on the European continent, namely of establishing a new basis for the relations between the German people and other ethnic groups as well as in realising Lebensraum in the eastern part of the continent owed a great deal to German state policy and practice during the imperial era of the Kaiser. In other words, the policies associated with racial hygiene, the Nuremberg system of racial laws, the merciless war against racial enemies as executed by the Einsatzgruppen and the infrastructure of racial extermination had a prelude under the circumstances of colonial rule.
The management of German-controlled territories on the African continent was predicated on the idea of the racial supremacy of those of German lineage. Laws were passed forbidding intermarriage between those of German stock and African indigenes.
These laws, the forerunner of the Nuremberg Laws which criminalised miscegenation between Germans and those considered as ‘racial inferiors’ on the European continent such as Jews and Romanis, had been influenced by the writings of Eugen Fisher, an anthropologist and eugenicist.
In the early part of the 20th century, Fisher had conducted field research and unethical experiments on the Herero and Namaqua peoples of South West Africa. His racially-motivated study of the bones and skulls of Africans pre-figured the human experimentation conducted by Josef Mengele, to whom he served as mentor, during the Third Reich.
German policies of racial extermination as applied to Jews and Romani in death and labour camps and the mobile death squads of the Einsatzgruppen had their basis in an earlier programme applied against the Herero and Namaqua who were punished for the sin of resisting colonisation via death marches, mass starvation and concentration camps. This was the first genocide of the 20th century and preceded the Ottoman programme against the Armenian people.
The methods of resisting rebellion in European colonies have at various junctures also been transplanted to Western countries. Officers among the British and French armies who battled various anti-colonial insurrections devised and refined various brands of counter-insurgency doctrines. These have involved the strategic use of collective punishment, preventative detention, torture and death squads.
The French experience in Indochina and Algeria produced ideas by the likes of David Galula, Roger Trinquier and Jean Gardes. Trinquier advocated the use of terror and torture in the war with the guerillas of the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN). Gardes, who fled to Argentinian exile after the failed rebellion of the anti-de Gaulle Organisation de L’Armee Secrete (OAS), was one of a group of former French officers who trained and advised members of the Argentinian military in the ‘dirty war’ waged against Marxist guerillas in the 1970s and 1980s.
British counter-insurgency doctrine was also shaped in the waning days of empire in places such as Mandate-era Palestine, Malaya and Kenya. Again, the practice of employing torture was integrated into operations aimed at putting down insurrection. Although torture has been contrary to the English common law for several centuries, it was part and parcel of the range of extraordinary measures built into breaking the Mau Mau rebellion of the 1950s.
British army methods of what euphemistically came to be known as enhanced interrogation techniques became a highly valued ingredient in another Latin American ‘dirty war’, this time in Brazil. The military Junta which seized power in 1964 also waged a war against Leftists using the panoply of state-sanctioned violence including death squads and torture.
But the crude methods of torture initially employed by the Brazilian military while efficient in the homicidal elimination of state enemies was not as efficient in gathering of intelligence data. British Army advisors, with newly acquired experience of refined techniques of torture from a counter-insurgency in Northern Ireland, were able to provide the necessary expertise in the use of psychological torture which their Brazilian counterparts found to be more effective. Using the ‘Five Techniques’, a strategy which combines the use of sensory deprivation with high stress, information was obtained at a higher rate than was previously the case with dissident prisoners.
The Brazilians even began referring to the new interrogation methods as the ‘English System’.
The British Army, which had been deployed in Northern Ireland to keep the peace between Roman Catholic and Protestant communities soon became embroiled in an insurgency conducted by the Irish Republican Army (IRA).
The employment of a counterinsurgency strategy influenced by the army theoretician Frank Kitson, a brigadier commanding an infantry brigade in the early part of ‘The Troubles’ in the early 1970s, is argued by many republicans to have worsened a situation that had began as a peaceful civil rights protest movement seeking to end anti-Catholic discrimination.
Fuelled by to an extent by longstanding anti-Irish racism and ancient anti-Catholic sectarian sentiments, Britain, the argument goes, had transferred intact the brutal techniques of suppression fashioned in colonial destinations to a province of the United Kingdom which diehard republicans ruefully refer to as “England’s first colony and its last”.
Britain’s own ‘dirty war’ involved the use of the harshest measures and techniques as had been employed in its recent colonies: Death squads were represented by special military units such as the Military Reaction Force (MRF) and successor creations of British Army intelligence. These units formed the fulcrum through which a vicious war of attrition ensued with the use of loyalist paramilitary proxies from the Protestant community.
Population control techniques such as internment and the surveillance of working class Roman Catholic communities were employed and a system of torture notably at venues such as East Belfast’s Castlereagh interrogation centre was formalised. The use of the ‘Five techniques’ was ruled to amount to torture by the European Commission of Human Rights in 1976. Two years later, the European Court for Human Rights held that that while they did not amount to torture, they still breached the European Convention on Human Rights because they constituted “inhuman and degrading” treatment.
The resistance to introducing the use of plastic bullets to the British mainland despite its decades-long use in Northern Ireland offers confirmation to those Irish who perceive more than a whiff of the colonial master’s mentality in British attitudes to the people its province. The methods utilised for containing the serious breakdown of law and order in the early years of the ‘Troubles’ were not applied in the United Kingdom even though the military theorist Frank Kitson did envisage that they likely would be.
However in the United States where state and local police forces have become more militarised, the increasingly brutish manner employed by officers in dealing with members of the public can be attributed to the training they receive and the doctrine being inculcated from a part of the world involved in an ongoing colonial enterprise. This is the state of Israel.
Many police departments receive training on crowd control, the use of force and surveillance from Israel’s national police, military and intelligence services. The training is not focused on community policing in conventional circumstances but is given in the context of maintaining order in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
The United States Department State has backed up the findings of international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International who have cited extrajudicial executions, the use of torture and excessive force against peaceful protesters by Israeli security organisations.
For many American police forces, the emphasis is not on community policing but acting as an occupation force. It is a mindset which owes a great deal to being trained within the framework of the tactics used to suppress Palestinians.
It is no surprise therefore to discover what a US Department of Justice report published in August of 2016 found to be “widespread constitutional violations, discriminatory enforcement and culture of retaliation” in regard to the policing of the American city of Baltimore. The quality of training led to the use of excessive force against juveniles, homeless persons and those with mental health issues.
This form of policing is not restricted to the troubled inner cities of poor African American and Latino communities. The statistics show that incidents involving the shooting of unarmed citizens have shot up by over 500% since the Bush era. The number of civil action claims and settlements have also increased.
The passage of the National Defence Authorization Act and other draconian legislation in the post-9/11 era provides the basis for future government actions that would enable the colonial-like treatment of US citizens. The extensive powers granted to law enforcement bodies tasked with surveillance as well as the potential creation of camps under the auspices of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides ample scope for this.
The rise of the United States as a power on a global scale has meant that it has acquired the characteristics of an empire dictating and controlling other countries. The acquisition of Spanish-speaking territories after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish-American War meant that it inherited an empire including Cuba and the Philippines.
But even before this, the Monroe Doctrine which formalised a fundamental policy of hemispherical domination meant it thought and acted less as a first nation among equals than as an empire controlling a dominion of states. Numerous interventions in Latin American states consolidated the reputation of the United States as a purveyor of ‘Yanqui Imperialism’; a bully state concerned only about economically exploiting its smaller neighbours. Many of the interventions in South and Central America as well as in the Caribbean, were done at the behest of corporations and banks.
General Smedley Butler considered himself to be a racketeer and enforcer for the banks and corporations on Wall Street. He had been he claimed a “gangster for capitalism”.
This continued after its official ascendency to the status of a global superpower in the aftermath of the Second World War. The Cold War era with interventions in Iran, Guatemala and Chile as well as waging a counter-insurgency effort in Vietnam which regardless of its ideological rationale, bore the trappings of a neo-colonial war in Vietnam.
The imperious hand of the United States intervened in the affairs of a number of its Western European allies in order to ensure that they did not fall under the influence of the Soviet camp. The fear of communism meant that these countries were effectively treated as vassal states and in a manner redolent of the methods used by European colonial powers.
The attitude is perhaps best encapsulated by a diatribe of US President Lyndon Johnson. A complaint by Greece’s ambassador to the United States over American meddling in the affairs of his country met with the following harangue from Johnson:
Listen to me, Mr. ambassador. Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk. Whacked good...We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your prime minister gives me talk about democracy, parliaments and constitutions, he, his parliament, and his constitution may not last long.
They were sentiments echoed later on by the CIA station chief in Athens at the time of the military coup staged with United States backing against the democratically elected socialist government of Greece. When the US ambassador expressed disapproval by stating that the coup represented a “rape of democracy”, the station chief retorted: “How can you rape a whore?”
American modes of intervention were not at all dissimilar to those still utilised by Western European countries to keep their former colonies in line once they were nominally independent. The post-colonial policy of Francafrique which sought to bind France politically, economically and diplomatically with its former African colonies effectively maintained French hegemony.
Jacques Foccart, the chief adviser on African policy to the governments respectively of Charles de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou, was for a long period of time, the dominant force behind the management of this relationship. It was one which was decidedly paternalistic in nature and which also undertook a sometimes sinister form. In 1959 Foccart co-founded Service d’Action Civique (SAC), a Gaullist militia that specialized in covert operations in Francophone Africa. Recruited from the ranks of political toughs as well as from the underworld, SAC undertook armed operations in the continent from a base in Gabon.
The strategies employed by the United States in relation to the Western European nations it had liberated from Nazi domination and formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), an anti-communist military alliance, were no less underhand. It is worth reminding that the first successful operation undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after its establishment under the US National Security Act of 1947 was to fix the Italian general elections held the following year against the popular communist party.
The irony of French insistence on continued hegemony over its previous African dominions may have been lost on de Gaulle who came to view NATO’s presence on French soil as an affront and a threat to French national sovereignty. When four of his generals staged a coup in French Algeria in 1961 as a prelude to an attempt to overthrow his government, de Gaulle was aware of CIA support for the putschists. He also came to understand that US intelligence was supporting the OAS which was attempting to assassinate him for what they considered to be his betrayal over the issue of Algerian independence.
The OAS was linked to the stay-behind secret armies controlled by NATO. While these cells were ostensibly tasked with the role of preparing to serve as guerrillas sabotaging occupying armies of the Warsaw Pact in the event of an invasion of Western Europe, evidence points to their having morphed into something sinister.
Today known generically as Gladio, the name of the Italian branch, NATO’s secret armies are claimed to have fomented military coups and facilitated acts of terrorism, both with the aim of forestalling communist influence in the governments of Western Europe. Thus the United States sanctioned the overthrow of governments in Turkey and Greece, events helped by the input respectively of Counter-Guerrilla and LOK, the Turkish and Greek versions of Gladio.
In Italy, Germany and Belgium, terror attacks directed at the public and officially blamed on Left-wing groups were in fact carried out by fascist and neo-Nazi groups with the aid of the intelligence branches of state who were influenced by the CIA and NATO intelligence. In Italy, the anni di piombo or ‘years of lead’, featured numerous bombings most notably in Milan, Peteano and Bologna which were part of la strategia della tensione or strategy of tension designed to influence a fearful public to seek protection from politically Right-wing governments.
The revelations of the former neo-fascist Vincenzio Vinciguerra and General Vito Miceli point to American-led NATO involvement in acts of terror and coup plotting. It was a less obvious form of involvement in the affairs of purportedly sovereign nations but no less insidious than its lengthy experience in shaping the political direction of many states through numerous American interventions in Latin America.
There is perhaps no better illustration of how the methods of neo-colonial behaviour in the West has been appropriated and applied to certain European countries than in the manner in which countries are put into spiralling debt before being plundered of their national treasures and resources while effectively losing national sovereignty.
The techniques employed by the World Bank in creating indebtedness in nation states through arrangements made with the leaders and the elites of such countries was given detailed airing by John Perkins in his book Confessions of an Economic Hitman. According to Perkins who worked as a strategic consultant advising institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the role of professionals such as him was to:
...cheat countries around the globe out of trillions of dollars. They funnel money from the World Bank, the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and other foreign “aid” organisations into the coffers of huge corporations and the pockets of a few wealthy families who control the planet’s natural resources. Their tools include fraudulent financial reports, rigged elections, payoffs, extortion, sex and murder. They play a game as old as empire, but one that has taken on new and terrifying dimensions during this time of globalization.
The result of indebtedness (i.e. when the country is unable to service the development loan) is that the affected developing country would be obliged to enter into a structural adjustment programme. The terms typically mandate that the country consent to privatizing and deregulating its economy. It also entails lifting trade barriers and imposing an economic regime of austerity. The implications for national sovereignty are all too apparent. And where the level of debt is particularly high, it creates the circumstances through which national assets and resources can be taken over by foreign, inevitably Western corporations.
As the economic plight of nations such as Greece and Portugal demonstrate, such economic colonization appears to be applicable to certain European nations. For it appears that the longstanding principle of re-adjusting terms when a debt becomes unserviceable has been abrogated and substituted by one that is insistent that social services and benefits must be slashed and national resources sold.
Thus it has been the case that successive governments in Greece have signed memorandum agreements which have imposed a particularly stringent austerity regime that forces Greece to sell off important public assets. The fact that European Union (EU) and a troika consisting of the European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have to approve relevant legislation brought before the Greek Parliament is taken by many Greeks as evidence of the forfeiture of their national sovereignty.
There is a belief among some eastern European commentators that the absorption of former Soviet Bloc nations into the European Union has merely created an opportunity for the West to replace presently indebted southern European states such as Greece with new markets to plunder. The fate of central and eastern European members of the EU has, they argue, been one of indebtedness and general economic malaise caused by the sale of national industries to foreign corporations who engage in large-scale asset stripping.
Certainly the experience of post-Soviet Russia at the hands of Western bankers and economists hired to oversee the transition from a centralised, planned economy to one operating according to laissez faire principles, was a hard one tinged with scandal and tragedy. Incomes fell as did life expectancy as social services became near to extinct. The nation’s industry and resources were permitted to be bought up at rock-bottom prices enabling a few individuals to rise within a short period of time to form an infamous group of oligarchs. Russia was plundered.
Meditating over the the causes of the presumed decline of a civilization is an inherently weary endeavour. And any attempt at constructing a universally accepted paradigm based on a range of criteria ranging from the scientific to the eschatological will never achieve universal acceptance.
But the evidence from trends which are retrogressive and trajectories that are harmful are all too apparent. The path taken toward militarism, the importation of a police state culture and evolving oligarchic capitalism all have dire implications for social justice, economic fairness and democratic values.
It is also clear to those with an understanding of history and the contemporary world that the attitudes and the practices of the West towards the non-western world have a bearing both on elevating its civilizational values as well as diminishing such values. And it is with regard to the latter that a substantial part of any discourse on the decline of the West should necessarily focus.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England