Why the Right Constantly Panics Over Societal ‘Decadence’

No, ‘Western society’ has not fallen from some mythic elevated past. But such right-wing views are appealing, and the left needs an answer to them if we want to avoid being pushed back into traditional hierarchies.

About a century ago, a German schoolteacher published a book that reshaped European intellectual history. The schoolteacher’s name was Oswald Spengler, and the book was his magnum opus: The Decline of the West.

Spengler’s thesis was that Western civilization is the victim of its own success. Most Western countries had achieved unprecedented political freedom due to representative democracy and immense material prosperity thanks to free-market capitalism. But according to Spengler, the price of these achievements was the loss of key values that define Western culture—things like spirituality, individual responsibility, and aesthetic creativity. In their stead, money had become the sole defining value in the Western world. Spengler predicted that this state of decadence would give rise to a period of authoritarianism, heralding a final collapse of Western civilization.

Nowadays, the word “decadence” suggests luxury, empty pleasure-seeking, and/or sexual libertinism. But “decadence”—which derives from the Latin verb decadere, meaning “to fall”—originally meant only a state of degradation as compared to an earlier state. For Spengler, a decadent culture was one which had strayed from its founding ideals and degenerated into something lesser, and it is in that sense that I use “decadence” in this analysis.

For a left-wing reader, The Decline of the West is a provocative and challenging text. On one hand, Spengler’s politics were vociferously right wing and his approach to history was consciously unscientific. That makes it easy to dismiss the book as reactionary nonsense. On the other hand, some of Spengler’s projections about the future of Western society were remarkably accurate. Writing in 1918, Spengler anticipated the growing influence of money in the political systems of liberal democracies; the dominion of capital over the supposedly free press; urban sprawl and declining birthrates in industrialized countries; and the rise of populist authoritarianism. The events of the past century have borne out many of these predictions.

In fact, Spengler’s gloomy view of the future—a view founded on the notion that Western culture has become decadent and is in its last stage—fits today’s pessimistic cultural moment quite well. Many folks on the left and the right share a mounting sense of doom, a feeling that there’s something very wrong with our political, economic, and cultural systems. So it’s no surprise that the contemporary right-wing intelligentsia has begun to revive Spengler’s notion of decadence (or something very similar) as part of their broader critique of liberal culture. Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who’s become a right-wing icon thanks to his public opposition to feminism and trans rights, has railed about “the manner in which liberalism is decadent” by undermining “traditional relationships” and “the family.” (Peterson even won a dubious honor called the Spengler Prize for his “ruthless analysis of the decay of our civilisation.”) Podcaster and provocateur Ben Shapiro has lamented the decline of “Judeo-Christian values,” which, he claims, underlie American democracy. Ross Douthat, a rising conservative star, wrote a book called The Decadent Society arguing that the U.S. and Europe are stuck in a cycle of “economic stagnation, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition at a high stage of wealth and technological proficiency.” Florida Senator Marco Rubio wrote a similar book aimed at a more lowbrow audience called Decades of Decadence, which, he claims, “exposes the elites’ attacks on the four key elements of American strength: good local jobs, stable families, geographical communities, and a sovereign nation that serves as a beacon of freedom and prosperity.” Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, parroting the sentiments of reactionary philosopher Alexander Dugin, portrays Russia as a last bastion of Christianity and claims that atheistic elites plot the “overthrow of faith and traditional values.” Each of these claims echoes Spengler’s thesis that civilization has become decadent.

Decadence is a plausible-sounding theory with dangerous implications. As a narrative, it can seem plausible because it appears to explain some of the dystopian aspects of our world, like the emptiness of public discourse and the perception that the political system is rigged. But the disease to which decadence attributes these symptoms—the unverifiable decline of a nebulously defined culture—has enormous potential to justify oppression and discrimination. If Western culture is in decline, the easiest explanation is to point the finger of blame at an “other,” insurgent culture threatening to replace it. Modern reactionaries have identified many such villains—“radical Islam,” “cultural Marxism,” “critical race theory,” “wokeness,” and plenty of other flavor-of-the-month boogeymen.

From there, it’s a short leap to the conclusion that we must defend ‘our’ culture by subduing the encroaching one. And because decadence contrasts the degraded present with a mythical past, proponents of decadence discourse invariably argue that we must return to traditional, oppressive norms and hierarchies. In the United States, we’re witnessing the fruits of these conclusions: a resurgent right-wing movement that burns books, restructures curricula, and suppresses speech in the name of protecting Western culture. To counter this resurgence, the left must understand the underpinnings of decadence and develop a response.

The life-cycle of cultures

Decadence posits that the present is a degraded version of the past. Arguments about decadence therefore implicitly rest on a theory of history, a method of understanding the flow of large-scale events and the trajectory of the world.

But decadence assumes an unscientific, pre-modern theory of history that is counterintuitive to most leftists. Liberal and leftist theories of history tend to assume that systems drive events, although different theories situate different systems as the primary moving force. Orthodox Marxists, for instance, view economic systems as the primary factor in history. In his 1880 book Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Friedrich Engels summarized this view: “the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure.” Most liberals, by contrast, adopt some version of institutionalism. They think history is a product of political and economic institutions like the nation-state, the military, the legislature, the judiciary, the market, and so on. Some sociological theorists—among them Max Weber and Erich Fromm—posit ideologies or mass psychology as a key driving force. But all of these theories assume that the interplay between human systems explains historical events.

Spengler and most of his intellectual successors rely on a fundamentally different understanding of history. As Spengler argues in The Decline of the West, the salient focus when analyzing history is not great men or economics or institutions, but cultures—which are more akin to living beings than impersonal systems:

“Mankind,” however, has no aim, no idea, no plan, any more than the family of butterflies or orchids… I see, in place of that empty figment of one linear history which can only be kept up by shutting one’s eyes to the overwhelming multitude of the facts, the drama of a number of mighty Cultures, each springing with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound throughout its whole life-cycle; each stamping its material, its mankind, in its own image; each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death… Each Culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay, and never return… I see world history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. 

For Spengler, the history of the world is a history of cultures, which follow the life cycle of living things. Each culture emerges with a central “idea” and share of “creative power,” reaches an apex as it embodies its central idea “in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts, states, [and] sciences,” and then declines toward death when its life force is exhausted. 

The “idea” of “the West,” in Spengler’s view, is a quest for “universal validity,” “‘unshakeable’ truths and ‘eternal’ views.” This notion takes many forms, from the Christian belief in an omnipotent god, to scientific and mathematical ontologies under which “rationalism becomes omnipotent,” to political theories that posit that “actuality can be ameliorated by a system of concepts.” Spengler described these tendencies as “Faustian,” a reference to the mythological figure who sold his soul to the devil in exchange for endless knowledge.

According to Spengler, the Faustian qualities of the West contain the seeds for its downfall. This is because the thirst for universal principles leads to democracy, a system where (in theory) everyone has equal and inviolable rights under the law and the government embodies the will of the people. But like any system, democracy falls prey to ways to game the system—namely, partisan politics and money. This, in turn, causes decadence, as the founding ideal of the culture degenerates into a naked struggle for power. “The sentiments, the popular aim, the abstract ideals… dissolve and are supplanted by private politics, the unchecked will-to-power of the race-strong few.” Eventually, decadent democracies give way to authoritarianism before the culture finally collapses.

Spengler’s thought is worth studying because most right-wing theories of decadence—and indeed, most right-wing theories writ large—share his fundamental assumptions. Although these theories operate at varying levels of sophistication, all rest on the same basic premises: (1) there is a cohesive entity called “the West” which (2) has distinct traits that set it apart from other cultures of the past and present, and (3) the West is in “decline” due to some form of decadence. Where these theories differ is the form of decadence they identify, the axis along which they believe the West is declining.

The most simplistic and mainstream variant of decadence imagines the West as an intellectual tradition comprising a set of values which are slowly eroding. Dennis Prager—the guy who created the ubiquitous “PragerU” videos advocating conservative positions on hot-button issues—has written that “the current civil war in the United States and the rest of the West is essentially a battle between [Judeo-Christian] values and the left.” The “Judeo-Christian values” Prager highlights include the existence of “objective moral standards” and a natural order to the world, the understanding that human beings are “not basically good,” and the expression of God-given free will through political liberty. According to Prager, Judeo-Christian values are eroding thanks to “assaults on personal liberty” by leftists who “reject the Bible as their moral guide.” Ben Shapiro, another mainstream conservative propagandist, has similarly claimed that the West became great because “Judeo-Christian values” laid the foundation for social order and that leftist efforts to “undermine” this “basis for Western civilization” will cause a “return to the chaos that proceeded [sic] them.” But while Prager and Shapiro root their understanding of the “West” in the concept of Judeo-Christian values, their perspective is not religious per se. Prager writes that “one doesn’t have to be a believer to acknowledge” the social importance of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and Shapiro says that principles from religious thought “undergird the secular Enlightenment worldview” that produced American democracy.

The more overtly religious—and more sinister—version of this way of thinking is a doctrine called “Traditionalism.” Traditionalism finds adherents in such diverse figures as former Trump advisor Steve Bannon and Alexander Dugin, the Russian political theorist who’s sometimes referred to as “Putin’s brain.” Like other theories of decadence, Traditionalism claims that the modern world is degraded compared to a prior, more vibrant age. But the axis along which Traditionalists measure the degradation is religious tradition. As Benjamin Teitelbaum explains in an interview with Jacobin, “Traditionalists believe that there was a true religion once upon a time—the Tradition with a capital T—that’s been lost as the ages have moved forward.” Due to the loss of this foundational insight, “time is cycling in a downward trajectory or downward motion wherein, as time goes forward, things get worse.”

Unsurprisingly, Traditionalists are pretty vague about the nature of the lost Tradition. But almost all of them emphasize the primacy of hierarchy, borders, and national or ethnic identity. Bannon, for example, viewed Trump’s presidency as an opportunity to “control three things”: “borders, currency, and military and national identity.” Dugin says the world is in a struggle between the forces of good, which encompass “God, tradition, community, ethnicity, empires and kingdoms,” and modernity, embodied by “human rights, anti-hierarchy, and political correctness.” Both figures perceive modernity, with its “globalization,” “cosmopolitanism,” and “borderlessness,” as the source of decadence in the modern world.

As nasty as Traditionalism is, there are many still cruder understandings of decadence that measure the purported decline of civilization in biological, rather than ideological, terms. Two variants are of particular concern. First, a growing chorus of right-wing thinkers attribute social problems in the West to a crisis of masculinity. Jordan Peterson is perhaps the most famous exponent of this view. Like Shapiro, Peterson thinks Western civilization is sustained by an ordering principle which modernity has eroded, threatening a descent into chaos. But for Peterson, the principle is not Judeo-Christian values, but the “masculine spirit.” That spirit is “under assault,” according to Peterson, because of efforts to “feminize” men by condemning traditionally masculine behavior. This assault threatens to bring chaos—which Peterson says is “represented by the feminine”—by undermining the gender-based hierarchy on which civilization was built.

Peterson’s thought is so muddled that it’s often unclear whether he means masculinity as an abstract concept or as the sum of all dudes in the world. Some of his ideas are distressingly literal; he’s advocated for “enforced monogamy” to ensure that all men have a chance to get laid (as opposed to the current arrangement, where a “small percentage of the guys have hyper-access to women”). A few less sophisticated figures take this idea a step further and advocate for actual government suppression of women. Nick Fuentes, a far-right online personality and self-described incel, has called for “something like Taliban rule in America” where contraceptives are banned and women lose the right to vote. Fuentes is, of course, an extreme case even among the most deranged right-wing figures—but a shocking number of people adhere to his benighted worldview. He has over 100,000 followers on Gab and over 40,000 subscribers on Telegram, and his followers—known as “Groypers” for reasons too stupid to explain—played a substantial role in the “stop the steal” movement that culminated in the January 6 insurrection. And if Fuentes and his followers are fringe, Missouri’s horrible Senator Josh Hawley recently brought the “crisis of masculinity” narrative to the mainstream. In a bizarre book called Manhood, Hawley argued that all men have a sacred responsibility to take wives and become kings, warning against a “collapse of masculine strength” in the United States. In other words, a form of decadence.   

Many of these same folks also attribute decadence to the growing acceptance of non-heteronormative gender identities and sexualities. Michael Liccione, nominally a professor of theology, has written that “gender ideology is decadent” because it erodes traditional notions of what it means to be male or female. Rod Dreher, writing for The American Conservative, has argued that “transgenderism [is] a mark of a civilization deep into decadence, nearing collapse,” because it is a symptom of “the total deconstruction of the relational bases of society and its refashioning to serve the needs of the sovereign Self.” But although Liccione and Dreher identify trans people, rather than emancipated cisgender women, as the symptom of decadence, they join Peterson, Hawley, and Fuentes in fixing the root cause as a lack of “heroic masculinity.” 

The second biological take on decadence identifies whiteness, rather than masculinity, as the foundation of Western culture. A critical idea in most white supremacist ideologies is that the white race is in decline and under attack by insurgent, nonwhite populations. One version of this idea is the white genocide conspiracy theory, which posits that falling birthrates among white people, mass immigration, and the promotion of “multiculturalism” by leftists are eroding the white population. The “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory similarly claims that “replacist” elites in Western governments are coordinating the mass migration of nonwhite people into the United States and Europe for some sinister purpose. According to white supremacists, these trends threaten “to extinguish Western culture” through the literal elimination of white westerners.

Although the “Great Replacement” theory is overtly Islamophobic, in the sense that it often imagines a sinister tide of Muslim immigrants, many embodiments of the theory also have an antisemitic angle. David Lane, an avowed white supremacist and proponent of the theory, wrote that the “Great Replacement” was the product of a “Zionist conspiracy [that] above all things wants to exterminate the White Aryan race.” Of course, viewing decadence in racial terms is nothing new. Proponents of the first eugenics movement in the United States, like influential zoologist and avowed racist S.J. Holmes, argued that forced sterilization of undesirables was necessary to prevent “the possible decadence of the human stock.”

Compared to these nutjobs, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is the sanest preacher of decadence—and at times, quite compelling. His book The Decadent Society is a solemn litany of the many ways in which the United States is in decline. Douthat measures decadence in material terms and mostly ascribes it to material forces. He paints a picture of an aging population that controls most of the country’s wealth and a disaffected youth that’s less likely to start businesses, move across the country, save money, and have kids than any previous generation. This causes a “feedback loop—in which sterility feeds stagnation, which further discourages childbearing, which sinks society ever-deeper into old age,” crushing dynamism and stifling innovation and growth. To escape the resulting despair, people turn to hysterical and unproductive mass politics, which occasionally escalates into “flares of nihilistic violence.” Whether or not Douthat is right about the cause of these phenomena, his description of contemporary American life rings disturbingly true.


I have tried to classify theories of decadence according to the main culprit each theory identifies as the cause of cultural decline. But neither the theories nor their adherents separate neatly into categories. Jordan Peterson, for instance, has advanced positions that could be described as Traditionalist, while Nick Fuentes has advocated white supremacist views in addition to his rabid misogyny. The lack of clear lines confirms that these theories are somewhat interchangeable. That’s because they all share the same logical structure, a structure inherited from Spengler. Each theory begins by defining Western culture using a certain criterion—be it a set of values, a religious tradition, masculinity, or whiteness—and then claims that modernity is eroding that central characteristic, threatening extinction and chaos. And beyond this structure, all of these theories rest on a central feeling: an anxious notion that we live in a crumbling world, that our best days are behind us, and that our only hope is a return to hierarchy and tradition.

Toward a future-oriented discourse

It would be easy to dismiss the thinkers we’ve discussed so far as isolated extremists whose worldviews are unlikely to affect larger political trends. But their ideas are rapidly infiltrating the mainstream. Steve Bannon and Alexander Dugin have both advised world leaders, made a tangible impact on right-wing politics, and injected some of their Traditionalist tenets into mainstream discourse. Bannon, of course, ran Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and was responsible for many of Trump’s anti-establishment, anti-globalist positions, though he later described Trump as a “blunt instrument” for spreading his views. And although Dugin has never held an official position in Vladimir Putin’s administration, Putin has adopted Dugin’s vocabulary contrasting Russia as a bastion of traditional values with the decadence of Western Europe. Meanwhile the ranks of so-called “incels” like Nick Fuentes, who blame cultural decline on women breaking traditional gender norms, are swelling, and their misogynistic rhetoric is growing more extreme. And although the white genocide/Great Replacement version of decadence sounds laughable on its face, it has directly inspired at least four mass shootings since 2018. Tucker Carlson, who was the most watched cable news host in America before he got sacked from Fox, even endorsed the Great Replacement theory on air, saying that “it’s not a conspiracy. It’s [the left’s] electoral strategy.” Former presidential hopeful Vivek Ramaswamy recently became another unlikely proponent of the conspiracy theory, claiming at a debate that the “great replacement theory is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory, but a basic statement of the Democratic Party’s platform.” (This is especially baffling, since Ramaswamy himself is the nonwhite son of parents who immigrated from India.) Nor are these ideas confined to a small, sinister elite. There’s a popular meme, which—perhaps not coincidentally—underwent a spike in interest last year. The meme depicts the text “Hard times create strong men. Strong men create good times. Good times create weak men. Weak men create hard times,” usually overlaying images of aggressively masculine fellows. It’s hard to imagine a clearer distillation of Spengler’s thesis.

One reason theories of decadence are spreading is that their first premise—things are getting worse in the industrialized West—is measurably true. In the United States, wealth inequality is growing rapidly, and economic mobility for poor and middle-class people is declining. Students’ test scores, especially in science and math, are stagnating. The average American household has about $104,000 in debt (roughly twice the average annual salary), and similar figures exist in much of Western Europe. Speaking of Europe, when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022, the continent experienced its first land war between major countries since World War II. Political polarization in the United States is at an all-time high as the Republican party spirals into fascism, and many European countries are experiencing a similar right-wing resurgence. Life expectancy has plateaued in the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, in Western Europe. Polls reveal that in both the United States and Europe, most people feel pretty hopeless about the future. Along with economic hardship, that partly explains why birthrates in the Western world are in free fall. In short, we are undoubtedly experiencing the symptoms often attributed to decadence—which makes it easy to point to decadence as the root cause. Because decadence discourse is popular and seems plausible, it’s critical for the left to develop a response.

A typical Scooby-Doo episode goes like this. An apparently supernatural entity presents itself, terrifying the local populace. Perhaps it’s an empty suit of armor that moves on its own, or a phantom inhabiting a deserted mansion. Scooby and his friends must then chase, trap, and unmask the entity. Invariably, the unmasking reveals not a ghost, but an opportunistic human villain with some tangible motive for pretending to be one.

Like a Scooby-Doo villain, decadence discourse works by conjuring a nebulous specter and blaming it for cultural dysfunction. Maybe that specter is the decline of Judeo-Christian values. Or maybe it’s the erosion of religious tradition, or a crisis of masculinity, or growing nonwhite populations. These specters, like all ghostly figures, play on a very basic human fear—the fear that one’s religion, community, or bloodline will die out.

To beat decadence discourse, the left must play the role of the Scooby gang, tearing the mask off these specters to reveal the opportunists beneath. The first step is to advance a view of history rooted in material reality rather than metaphysical theorizing. As scores of thinkers from anarchist academic David Graeber to Daniel Walden have explained, “the West” is an incoherent concept. Graeber writes that efforts to define the West by listing concepts or values that are distinctively “Western” is an arbitrary exercise, because for any given list, “one [could] equally well assemble a completely different list” of “any number of concepts [that] were adrift in Western Europe over the years.” Indeed, as Graeber points out, Western Europe has been home to a number of competing ethnic groups and nation-states, each of which certainly didn’t view themselves as part of one big Western family. 

It’s equally incoherent to situate “Judeo-Christian values” as the central Western ideology. Those values derive, as the name suggests, from both the Jewish and Christian traditions—which were actively suppressed by the Greek and Roman cultures to which we Westerners supposedly trace our lineage. As Walden argues, “[e]ven the very Christianity held so dear by so many avowedly secular right-wing intellectuals is the product of a contact between a heretical Jewish sect and the Hellenistic culture that pervaded the Mediterranean in that era.” Thus, Walden aptly explains, folks who talk about “the West” use it as a sort of stand-in for some form of hierarchy they want to sustain—typically, a hierarchy in which the white male European Christian occupies the top spot.

More broadly, conceiving any culture, Western or otherwise, as a unified and organic whole is simply unsupported by history. Spengler claimed that each culture “ha[s] its own idea, its own passions, its own life, will and feeling, its own death.” But how many people within a purported culture must share an idea for that idea to become the driving force for the culture? If a culture changes its “idea”—like, for example, when much of the Roman empire converted to Christianity under Emperor Constantine—is it still the same culture? Spengler wrote that each culture “spring[s] with primitive strength from the soil of a mother-region to which it remains firmly bound.” If “the West” includes the United States—and it would be hard to argue that it doesn’t—how the heck is the United States “firmly bound” to the European soil where “the West” was born?

You get the idea. The notion of culture that underlies decadence discourse falls apart at the most cursory glance. The driving forces of history are not amorphous cultures with predefined destinies. The biological rhetoric that preachers of decadence use—“decline,” “aging,” “life-cycle,” “disease”—bears no relation to the very real problems they identify as symptoms of decadence.

Instead, the left must emphasize that concrete material factors underlie our social problems. The rich keep getting richer not because we “value” money more than in the past, but because they’ve rigged the economy in their favor. A broken tax code, poorly enforced antitrust laws, the exploitation of cheap foreign labor, advances in automation, and a host of other trends enable rich people to keep more and more of their wealth while shattering labor’s power to do anything about it. The same factors explain why so many people are trapped in a cycle of poverty. It’s not cultural decline, but tangible barriers to economic mobility. In the same vein, test scores are stagnating primarily thanks to a decades-long struggle by the right to undermine public education and replace it with for-profit charter schools. Europe is at war not due to a conflict of values between Traditionalist Russia and the decadent West, but because the viability of Putin’s regime—and the enormous personal wealth it has allowed him to amass—depends on constant military success. Political polarization and widespread misinformation in Western countries are direct products of the economics of the news media, which has made increasingly extreme content on right-wing outlets enormously profitable for shareholders. As Scooby-Doo taught us, behind every ghost is a guy trying to make money.

The left has been reasonably successful at spreading the narrative that capitalism (or, at least, some entrenched power structure) is to blame for social problems. But unmasking the villain is just the first step. The idea of decadence, at its core, is a politics of despair. Theories of decadence assert that things have gone horribly wrong, that we can’t right the ship through incremental measures, and that the only fix is to revert to traditional hierarchies and ways of being. Prager and Shapiro want us to return to conventional values; Bannon and Dugin want us to resurrect the true, lost religion; Peterson and Fuentes want us to restore older sex and gender norms; and of course, white supremacists want to revive state-sanctioned white supremacy. Inherent in their arguments is a nostalgia for a mythic past where the world was strong, orderly, and prosperous.

To counteract decadence’s fixation with the past, the left needs to offer a positive vision of the future—a vision that entails not merely eliminating existing problems, but building or achieving something tangible. That, I think, is what the contemporary left has failed to do. The most prominent leftist and progressive positions—universal healthcare, reducing police violence against Black people, ending punitive drug policies, cutting greenhouse gas emissions, taxing the rich—all center on ameliorating specific harms. Of course, everyone should care deeply about ameliorating those harms. Privatized healthcare, racist police violence, the drug war, climate change, and billionaires are all moral travesties. But the left must do more than play whack-a-mole against social problems. We need to offer something inspiring to strive for.

I won’t pretend to know what that “something” is. But I’ll make two observations that will hopefully provoke further thought. First, the contemporary left is hampered in its efforts to set forth an inspiring vision by the lack of a strong, consistent aesthetic. Successful leftist movements in the 20th century were effective in part because they deployed aesthetics that blended struggling against oppression with optimism about the future. For instance, Thomas Sankara’s brilliant (albeit tragically short) leadership of Burkina Faso was characterized by vast public works and infrastructure projects and an aesthetic that blended futurism with pre-colonial traditionalism. Sankara promoted traditional clothing and music to cast off the trappings of French imperialism but simultaneously lauded “the courage to invent the future” and fomented an ethos of self-reliance and egalitarianism. For all its flaws, the early Soviet Union produced a fertile and provocative assemblage of leftist aesthetics. The final sequence of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin, where a showdown between mutineers and soldiers diffuses into mutual solidarity, remains one of the most inspiring pieces of leftist art ever produced. In the United States, both the civil rights movement and the various countercultural movements in the ’60s and ’70s relied heavily on aesthetics in building popular support. Close your eyes and think of images from that era: pictures of cops using attack dogs on peaceful protesters, or flower-clad hippies staring down armed soldiers will spring to mind. Contemporary leftism has no unifying aesthetic, and the aesthetics we have don’t inspire optimism about the future.

Second, when I think of contemporary leftist efforts to foment some sort of vision of the future, they fall curiously flat. This is partly because, like more tangible leftist positions, the vision of the future leftists offer is characterized by the absence of some existing bad rather than the development of some exciting good. The most optimistic leftist vision I can think of is Fully Automated Luxury Communism (which, in meme culture, has morphed into the even more optimistic Fully Automated Luxury Gay Space Communism). The concept, championed by British media personality Aaron Bastani, is a future where all work is automated and everyone enjoys endless luxury, a vision made possible by increasing our “mastery” of natural resources through technology. Although that sounds pretty nice after a long week at work, Fully Automated Luxury Communism is merely the absence of labor and scarcity. 

In contrast, David Graeber offered a much more promising discussion of technology in his essay “Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit.” Graeber argued that almost all the new technological developments since the 1970s are “technologies of simulation,” like the digital revolution and the internet, which “made it easier to create, transfer, and rearrange virtual projections of things that either already existed, or… never would.” Technologies of simulation exist in contrast to “poetic technologies” which use “rational and technical means to bring wild fantasies to reality”—wondrous innovations like the pyramids, space stations, and the elusive flying car. Because poetic technologies are by definition not profitable, capitalism has stymied their development. This, according to Graeber, has produced “a sense of disappointment, a broken promise we were given as children about what our adult world was supposed to be like.” Graeber concluded the essay with an exhortation to fight “to let our imaginations once again become a material force in human history.” 

To be clear, I don’t think promising technological wonders is, by itself, a good or complete strategy. My point is that developing an antidote to widespread despair must begin with dreaming about something we want—not merely envisioning the absence of something we don’t.

We conclude where we began: with Spengler. Whatever the merits of The Decline of the West as a work of history, Spengler captured the pervasive sense of despair in a Europe torn apart by war—a sense of despair that lingered in the conquered countries long after the war ended. About a decade after the book’s publication, the Nazi Party—whose founders read and admired Spengler—capitalized on that sense of despair by blaming a set of scapegoats for Germany’s problems and by conjuring an image of a triumphant future using art, propaganda, and public works projects. In the United States and Europe, right-wing opportunists are similarly capitalizing on widespread despair by pointing the finger of blame at imaginary boogeymen like “cultural Marxism,” “radical Islam,” “transgenderism,” secularism, or immigrants. Many of these folks simultaneously offer promises—however flimsy—of a brighter future. That strategy is paying them dividends. If the left wants to win, we need an answer.

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