In Decadence: Decline of the Western World (trailer here) Australian journalist and television presenter Pria Viswalingam does an excellent job at identifying the symptoms of Western decline. The breakdown of the family unit, the degradation of public debate and national service, declining standards in education and collapsing faith in previously vital public institutions like the church are all illustrations of civilisational decline that few would disagree with.
Decadence and Viswalingam are on weaker ground when they attempt to identify the causes of this decline. The film’s central thesis is that “rampant individualism” and consumer capitalism are largely to blame for the West’s impending collapse. Whilst acknowledging that capitalism and the protestant ethic are largely responsible for the West’s unparalleled wealth today, the film suggests that modern capitalism is insufficiently regulated and has many negative consequences.
For example, politicians can be bought and sold, according to one of the experts interviewed for the film, Noam Chomsky. But businessmen don’t focus on politics and lobbying because capitalism motivates them to do so – quite the opposite, it is government regulation and intervention into the private economy which incentivises political donations. Government subsidies and favourable regulation can be hugely lucrative to some industries, but they are an anathema to the free market, not a product of it.
Decadence also laments that politicians are underpaid compared to company CEOs, and this has led to a dearth of talent in government and bad policies. Maybe. But politics is rarely about smart people versus dumb people – it is a battle of values, not IQs. Politicians are forced to make trade-offs between competing visions – for example the choice between equality and liberty. There’s no reason to think that people with higher IQs would necessarily be any better at making these value judgements than others. If they were, why bother entrusting ordinary people with democracy?
Perhaps the most concerning aspect of the film is how the massively positive influence of capitalism on the third world is glossed over. Instead, Decadence argues that people living in the third world who manufacture products to export to the West are being exploited. But it is thanks to export-focused manufacturing and capitalism that we have seen the largest reductions in poverty in human history over the past few decades. The hundreds of millions of Chinese lifted above the poverty line now have higher standards of living largely thanks to globalisation and domestic economic liberalisation, not despite it.
Like some conservatives, Viswalingam identifies the 1960s and 1970s as a key turning point in the West’s recent history, arguing that Western Civilisation peaked in the 1960s. But unlike conservatives, who argue that the West’s failure to remain in Vietnam signalled a weakness in its core, and that the social movements which emancipated women and others during this time were ultimately destructive, the film sees both the anti-war movements and progressive social change as positive. Instead Decadence blames the commodification social movements, such as the liberation of women after the sexual revolution, by capitalist forces for being responsible for planting the seeds of decline.
Here the rise of pornography is much lamented, in an increasingly familiar tune from commentators on the left such as Clive Hamilton (who features prominently in the film) who struggle to reconcile their positive feelings about the social liberation movements of the 1960s with some of their less palatable consequences.
The film makes a series of awkward attempts to tie its central thesis about the damage wrought by unrestricted capitalism to disparate issues such as this one. But it is nevertheless a positive development to see non-conservatives discussing the threats to Western Civilisation. This movie is important because it will allow many on the left to recognise that real threats to exist to Western Civilisation, even if it has identified the wrong culprits.
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