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The Decline of the West

Washington's moment as the globe's sole superpower barely outlasted Andy Warhol's notorious 15 minutes of fame. What went wrong?

| Mon Sep. 26, 2011 2:57 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

More than 10 years ago, before 9/11, Goldman Sachs was predicting that the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) would make the world economy's top ten—but not until 2040. Skip a decade and the Chinese economy already has the number two spot all to itself, Brazil is number seven, India 10, and even Russia is creeping closer. In purchasing power parity, or PPP, things look even better. There, China is in second place, India is now fourth, Russia sixth, and Brazil seventh.

No wonder Jim O'Neill, who coined the neologism BRIC and is now chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, has been stressing that "the world is no longer dependent on the leadership of the US and Europe." After all, since 2007, China's economy has grown by 45 percent, the American economy by less than 1 percent—figures startling enough to make anyone take back their predictions. American anxiety and puzzlement reached new heights when the latest International Monetary Fund projections indicated that, at least by certain measurements, the Chinese economy would overtake the US by 2016. (Until recently, Goldman Sachs was pointing towards 2050 for that first-place exchange.)

Within the next 30 years, the top five will, according to Goldman Sachs, likely be China, the US, India, Brazil, and Mexico. Western Europe? Bye-bye!

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A System Stripped to Its Essence

Increasing numbers of experts agree that Asia is now leading the way for the world, even as it lays bare glaring gaps in the West's narrative of civilization. Yet to talk about "the decline of the West" is a dangerous proposition. A key historical reference is Oswald Spengler's 1918 essay with that title. Spengler, a man of his times, thought that humanity functioned through unique cultural systems, and that Western ideas would not be pertinent for, or transferable to, other regions of the planet. (Tell that howler to the young Egyptians in Tahrir Square.)

Spengler, of course, captured the Western-dominated zeitgeist of another century. He saw cultures as living and dying organisms, each with a unique soul. The East or Orient was "magical," while the West was "Faustian." A reactionary misanthrope, he was convinced that the West had already reached the supreme status available to a democratic civilization—and so was destined to experience the "decline" of his title.

If you're thinking that this sounds like an avant-la-lettre Huntingtonesque "clash of civilizations," you can be excused, because that's exactly what it was.

Speaking of civilizational clashes, did anyone notice that "maybe" in a recent TIME cover story picking up on Spenglerian themes and headlined "The Decline and Fall of Europe (and Maybe the West)"? In our post-Spenglerian moment, the "West" is surely the United States, and how could that magazine get it so wrong? Maybe? After all, a Europe now in deep financial crisis will be "in decline" as long as it remains inextricably intertwined with and continues to defer to "the West"—that is, Washington—even as it witnesses the simultaneous economic ascent of what's sometimes derisively referred to as "the South."

Think of the present global capitalist moment not as a "clash," but a "cash of civilizations."

If Washington is now stunned and operating on autopilot, that's in part because, historically speaking, its moment as the globe's "sole superpower" or even "hyperpower" barely outlasted Andy Warhol's notorious 15 minutes of fame—from the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union to 9/11 and the Bush doctrine. The new American century was swiftly throttled in three hubris-filled stages: 9/11 (blowback); the invasion of Iraq (preemptive war); and the 2008 Wall Street meltdown (casino capitalism).

Meanwhile, one may argue that Europe still has its non-Western opportunities, that, in fact, the periphery increasingly dreams with European—not American—subtitles. The Arab Spring, for instance, was focused on European-style parliamentary democracies, not an American presidential system. In addition, however financially anxious it may be, Europe remains the world's largest market. In an array of technological fields, it now rivals or outpaces the US, while regressive Persian Gulf monarchies splurge on euros (and prime real estate in Paris and London) to diversify their portfolios.

Yet, with "leaders" like the neo-Napoleonic Nicolas Sarkozy, David (of Arabia) Cameron, Silvio ("bunga bunga") Berlusconi, and Angela ("Dear Prudence") Merkel largely lacking imagination or striking competence, Europe certainly doesn't need enemies. Decline or not, it might find a whole new lease on life by sidelining its Atlanticism and boldly betting on its Euro-Asian destiny. It could open up its societies, economies, and cultures to China, India, and Russia, while pushing southern Europe to connect far more deeply with a rising Turkey, the rest of the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa (and not via further NATO "humanitarian" bombings either).

Otherwise, the facts on the ground spell out something that goes well beyond the decline of the West: it's the decline of a system in the West that, in these last years, is being stripped to its grim essence. Historian Eric Hobsbawm caught the mood of the moment when he wrote in his book How to Change the World that "the world transformed by capitalism," which Karl Marx described in 1848 "in passages of dark, laconic eloquence is recognisably the world of the early twenty-first century."

In a landscape in which politics is being reduced to a (broken) mirror reflecting finance, and in which producing and saving have been superseded by consuming, something systemic comes into view. As in the famous line of poet William Butler Yeats, "the center cannot hold"—and it won't either.

If the West ceases to be the center, what exactly went wrong?

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