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Community and identity in late modernity: Part Two

By Mark Wegierski
web posted August 11, 2008

The traditionalist theorist would like to restate the argument (however impolitic it may be to make it in the public arena today) that what could be called "the West" (for lack of a better term) is truly in the throes of an enormous decadence (at least on the level of nation, spirituality, public/social morality, and genuine culture). It is ironic that this supposed cliché of Western decline and decadence has been given so little play in the last few decades. Ironically, when Spengler was writing his famous work (The Decline of the West) things might have subsequently developed in a better direction -- were it not for the monstrous excrescence of Hitler and the Nazis. Although very many traditionalists, conservatives, and nationalists in Europe, had ferociously opposed Nazi Germany, the entire "right-wing option" stood as discredited in the minds of most people in the Western democracies in 1945, because of its presumed affiliation with Nazism and Nazi Germany's ghastly crimes. At the same time, what became called Eastern Europe – which would have remained traditionalist by democratic choice – was given over to Stalin and his henchmen. In contrast to what the author sees as Buchanan's foolish and grotesque exercise in uchronia about "the unnecessary war" --  the most appealing type of alternative-history to genuine traditionalists would have been one where Hitler had been stopped earlier, and – should the need for it have arisen (as conceivably a decisive British and French response alone might have been sufficient) America had been engaged against Hitler earlier in Europe.

There is indeed a lack of a really good exposition and critique of contemporary decadence in current readings. Perhaps some traditionalist thinker should attempt a somewhat more solid revivification of this "discourse of decadence", avoiding some of the dated mistakes of Spenglerian and some overly moralistic approaches. One might think that today, a professedly conservative journal such as National Review, for example, would be screaming to the skies about "decadence". They could look, for example, at "obvious", empirically quantifiable measures of decline, e.g., an aging society, the epiphenomena surrounding the disintegration of the family, and so forth. Yet they seem to persist in being far too optimistic.

The traditionalist thinker believes that the study of the past can often be fruitful towards understanding our own predicament. Vico, for example, had elucidated an insightful, cyclical interpretation of history. Many traditionalist thinkers see a cyclical pattern where societies standardly arise, get organized, get physically wealthy, and then decline and disappear.

A traditionalist thinker could argue that "the West", having become the richest and most powerful society in world-history, is now entering the phase of its decline, derived from excessive wealth and comfort.

There is perhaps a law of civilizational entropy. Where the West might differ is that there seems nothing necessary about its decline -- the physical means and resources for its perpetuation are – at least in theory -- readily available, but "the spirit availeth not". It might be argued that it is this process of truly monumental decline (the higher you rise, the lower you will fall) that brings about the sharp contemporary challenge to traditionalism from the new social movements. It might be argued that the competing schools of political philosophy today have to be understood, at some point, in the context of their place in this enormous process of civilizational decline. Perhaps even Nietzsche's understanding of the end of horizons is part of the ongoing historical process.

An almost wholly sociological approach to the nature-nurture controversy could be seen as problematic. It would seem that major evolution in history would be impossible, if this were the case (i.e., the same society would simply replicate itself ad infinitum.) Do not some persons, through their idiosyncratic beliefs and actions, initiate change? One might also ask what is the exact ontological status of the various "discourses"? Perhaps the following formulation, a "language" = (equals) a discourse = (equals) a community would be fruitful. Could not a traditionally-minded thinker argue that there is a "discourse of humanity", or "a discourse of masculine and feminine", which underlies and pre-exists all the various branchings-out and overlayerings of discourses which occurred over thousands of years? One might also wonder, if these discourses precede the human person, to what extent can one be described to be only a product of immediate socialization? Is not a "discourse" some kind of imperative, which, although it certainly evolves slowly, is, from a human life's vantage point, frozen in time and space, and "commands" or presupposes certain behaviours in those who share in it?

One might also wonder if a full socialization position does not imply the meaninglessness of history? Is there not ultimately some kind of spark in humankind, some sort of spirit, which defies the idea that history is simply a long bloodbath, or "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing". Is the choice today inevitably between a return to various forms of violent tribalism vs. an enervating hyper-decadence eventually leading to the ultimate breakdown or physical extinction of the society?

Perhaps the most important part of sociopolitical analysis would be identifying, classifying, or grouping types of discourses/communities (the question of boundaries). This is often done by identifying genre/genus, and subgenre, etc. This can be applied to the most weighty and most trivial things.

The idea of a "global civil society" is a controversial one. First of all, the notion of "civil society" is often understood to be in some senses particular -- and therefore, the notion of a universal civil society appears prima facie questionable; and secondly, more controversially, one could express reservations about the more frequently encountered interpretations of the civil society/state paradigm itself (although this is a bedrock notion in political theory), as something in some ways loaded towards liberal perceptions, and perhaps overused as a construct in the discourse. For example, are the various sectoral groupings of the so-called "rainbow coalition" to be considered as part of the spontaneous flourishing of civil society -- or rather outgrowths of a state administrative and juridical system? On the other hand, can the massive trans-national corporations be properly considered as part of "civil society"? It seems unlikely. Also, the widely-cast use of the term "civil society" to embrace global consumerism, the pop-star Madonna, "Brangelina", and so forth, would seem inconsistent with the term's essential meanings, which focus on "small, local associations". There is arguably, however, more coherence to defining global civil society in terms of multifarious NGO's, rather than the global pop-culture...

To be continued. ESR

Mark Wegierski is a Canadian writer and historical researcher.

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