Four mega-trends that condemn the West to irreversible decline
We are hobbling ourselves with net zero and wokery, as our rivals grow rich while rejecting our values
Allister Heath 25 August 2021 • 9:30pm
So that’s it, then: British troops will be out within days, and the Americans shortly after. There will be no delay, no extra time to fly out more citizens or refugees, no pity. Why? Because the Taliban say so, and they, rather than Joe Biden, are now in charge of Afghanistan, free to terrorise it back to the stone age.
The West’s Kabul moment, unlike the Fall of Saigon in 1975 or Jimmy Carter’s Tehran hostage crisis in 1979, scenes of previous humiliations, is no false alarm. There will be no bounce-back, no miraculous renaissance: this time the North American-European-Australasian model really is in trouble, as the next stage of the 21st century’s great geopolitical and civilisational realignment begins in earnest.
In the coming years, there will be more Afghanistans: America may still boast the world’s most powerful army, but the West’s 320-year hegemony, which began when English GDP per capita finally overtook that of China’s Yangtze Delta in around 1700, is over. Other civilisations will become as rich and powerful, and sometimes more so, than ours, just as they were throughout recorded history. They too will want their spheres of influence; they too will want their values to prevail.
At least four mega-trends are conspiring to break the West’s grip on the world: the emergence of non-democratic capitalism; the misuse of technology; the net zero revolution; and America’s and Europe’s ideological decadence.
It used to be believed that the entire world would converge voluntarily on a Western model. We would wear the same clothes, drive the same cars and eat at McDonald’s. Capitalism would lead to the universal adoption of democracy, human rights and secularism, buttressed by institutions such as the UN: this Hegelian version of history was as deluded as the Marxist nonsense it replaced.
It was based on a series of intellectual errors, not least a denial of the West’s particular Jewish and Christian history, the latter recounted so brilliantly in Tom Holland’s Dominion, and a narcissistic, arrogant, ahistorical downplaying of other traditions. A corollary to this was the erroneous belief that adopting capitalism – a technology to deliver economic growth – had to mean also adopting individual liberty: one couldn’t pick and choose, because both emerged together in England and the Netherlands.
Terrifyingly for libertarian conservatives such as myself, this was wrong. The Western model can be disaggregated, as the Chinese have proved. Capitalism can easily coexist with tyranny; free markets don’t imply free speech. This means that the 21st century will be defined by a range of clashing civilisational models. There will be China, of course, and India, but also Indonesia, Pakistan, Brazil and Nigeria as regional powers. Thanks to capitalism, they will become rich; but they won’t be Western. Some may be democracies, but in a very different sense to what we understand by it: India, for example, may well become far more explicitly Hindu nationalist.
The next big change is that the West is no longer putting economic growth first, while the emerging empires are still desperate to get rich. America and Europe’s embrace of net zero is largely driven by altruism: its proponents believe that poorer countries will suffer greater harm from climate change than wealthier nations. Yet many of these same nations are planning to make the most of the West’s green turn to reinforce their own rise.
China’s real agenda is to pick up new, clean technologies developed at great cost by the West on the cheap, allowing it to leap-frog America and Europe without crippling its own economy. Net zero will also unleash geopolitical chaos: how will Putin respond to the collapse in demand for gas? Could he push Nato and an unprepared, semi-pacifist EU beyond destruction? The Gulf States are also likely to implode, creating a series of additional Afghanistan-like scenarios for America. Last but not least,by bolstering the importance of the rare earth metals such as lithium and cobalt required for new technologies, net zero will give China a dramatic boost. It has cleverly been seeking to corner the supply of these key 21st resources and is hoping to grab Afghanistan’s plentiful supplies.
Technology, and its misuse, represents the third great paradigm shift. In the West, social media in particular has had a catastrophic, corrosive impact on attention spans, the quality of discourse and, paradoxically, the ability to think freely. Bullying and hate are the norm, squeezing out reason, kindness and support for free speech. It has dramatically exacerbated tribalism and extremism.
At the same time, states now have more tools than ever before at their disposal to control their populations. Privacy, the best protection of the dissident, is dying. Everything we buy, read and every trip we make can be logged. For China, this is a dream come true. When all cars are electric and networked, the state could simply shut down the vehicles of opponents. When all currency is digital, dictators can track, control, tax and confiscate as they please. Combine all of that with massive progress in facial recognition and AI, and the outcome will be nightmarish. Authoritarian states will become ever harder to overthrow, further tipping the balance of power in their favour.
What of the West? Will we embrace a Chinese-style social credit system in the guise of fighting obesity or saving the planet, and in effect converge with our authoritarian rivals?
All of this takes us to the fourth mega-trend driving the West’s decline: we are turning our backs on the values that made us great. Support for capitalism is dwindling at the very time when every other society has embraced it, and many would rather see mob rule than the rule of law. In the US, the young are less likely to support democratic values than the old. There is growing scepticism about reason and the pursuit of truth. Universities are going back to their obscurantist roots, putting identity politics before knowledge. Many believe meritocracy has gone too far. We are even seeing a resurgence of neo-Lysenkoism, whereby politics trumps science.
The woke ideology is the greatest threat to freedom since communism, and it is gaining ground by the day, fragmenting and dividing society, and pitting group against group better to undermine the West. As Afghanistan burns, the rest of the world is looking on, and laughing at our stupidity.