What I Learned From Reading Spengler
I wrote this in May 2022, after nearly finishing Spengler's masterwork, The Decline of the West
"I am a slow reader, and I am only now finishing the Decline of the West, a substantial two-volume work that turns out to be very influential on my thinking, just as Marx’s was for my youthful self.
Paradoxically, in many ways, Spengler, generally thought as a conservative, was a postmodern thinker ‘avant la lettre’, strongly rejecting Eurocentric views. His basic insight is this: civilizations exist, and they are in fact ‘organic beings’ with their own ‘soulful’ development. So they are born, grow and mature, get old and die. There are therefore structural similarities in their evolution, which you can only see if you don’t compare them ‘at the same time’ in world time, but at similar moments in their comparative stages. Then, one sees quite extraordinary recurrences at similar stages, even though the events may be thousands of years apart.
Very broadly, Spengler’s civilizational sequence is the following (I am of course simplifying):
- Some post-nomadic tribe or set of tribes settles down in a particular territory. This is the pre-culture period, in which there is no ‘capital’, only moving fortresses, as was the case for Charlemagne in Europe for example.
- But then, slowly but surely, as the people settle in their territory, there is the development of Estates, the nobility and the priesthood. These Estates are ‘in form’, and follow particular spiritual and civilizational intuitions, that are unique to the Civilization. Spengler calls these their prime symbols.
- As they are successful and expand, cities will form, with a Third Estate, the ‘burghers’, and they will ally with the monarchy, and create ‘nations’ and the Estates will dissolve, making place for classes. The third estate hates ‘form’, and creates more ‘informal’ ways of living, and rationalistic philosophies, which are gradually disconnecting from the prime symbols of the Culture phase. When these become Empires, they reproduce the basic forms at scale, and they are now run by pragmatists, generals, engineers, and merchants. This is the phase of Civilization.
- When these imperial forms reach maturity, and form ‘megalopolitan’ world cities, the fourth estate, the working classes, demand democracy, first animated by ideologies, but when they die out, they form empty party apparatuses, that end up for the taking by strong individuals with a will to make history. This is the age of the Caesars.
- At some point, the creative juice, already minimal in the Civilization phase, dies out, and civilizations outlive themselves in what he calls the ‘fellaheen’ phase, with mostly empty forms that hark back to the early Culture period, but have lost their meaning. While Culture is highly spiritual, and Civilization ‘rational’, the fellaheen period is marked by a Second Religiousness, a kind of residue as well, that the majority adheres to because they have lost faith in the power of rationality.
What becomes extraordinary following this approach is that many developments we may think as unique to the West, or linked to global modernity, are in fact recurring phenomena. Many examples in Spengler challenge a basic Marxist understanding for example.
Just a few examples:
- In each Civilization, the Estates die out and are replaced by intellect and money, the former controlled by the latter
- In each Civilization, the land will become commodified, and feudality dies; a money economy starts dominating, eventually destroying agricultural productivity
- Each civilization creates its own rational age, which ends up disintegrating their societies
- Each civilization ends up with a population crisis, and a demographic implosion
So why is this important ?
Because many of the patterns we see today are typical of the Decline periods. They happened before. In 198, a Roman Emperor desperately tried to force Romans to marry and have children, it failed, and Western Europe depopulated, even giving free land to farmers failed to find any takers. When the German invaders started coming in, Western Rome had lost the inner capacity to resist, largely because of the lack of numbers, but Eastern Rome, experiencing a demographic explosion and a new civilizational form in the Middle East, lasted for another 1,000 years.
On the ‘Western front’, Spengler distinguishes the Classic civilization of the Polis, which peaked in the 4th cy BC; the Magian civilizations of the Middle East, with their post-territorial creed-based nations, the basis of Imperial Rome; and the Faustian Western Civilization, spurred on by the German mentality, and started only in 980, with Otto II in Germany, ushered in by the Gothic. So, what appears to be one ‘evolution’ for most historians, especially the Eurocentric vision of Antiquity-Medieval-Modernity, is for Spengler the history of 3 civilizations, that are quite unrelated to each other. The same form, say Christianity or Roman ‘state and legal’ forms, may be used, and utterly changed, by different civilizations. Spengler calls this Pseudomorphosis. Now of course, there would be a lot of challenges to Spengler’s hypotheses, and I may write them down in a later short piece. But it remains a very generative work, and it has created a long list of reactions. Did you know that both Campbell and Gebser’s work were reactions to Spengler, as were those of Toynbee, Quigley, William Irwin Thompson, Sorokin, and so many other macrohistorians ?
I’ll just mention the most serious challenge to Spengler, which I tend to agree with. Spengler claims that there is no real world history, and that civilizations do not evolve and do not learn from each other. Toynbee points out that there is a deposit of knowledge and technology that keeps growing, and that therefore, there are 3 generations of civilizations. The third generation is now exhausted, and calls for a fourth, potentially called a ‘Second Axial Age’ since the changes are world encompassing. Civilization is for Spengler a particular relationship between city and countryside, a spatio-temporal arrangement. It seems obvious to me that the digital is a profound transformative element that will change precisely this. Thus again, a reason to accept that there is also some kind of evolution at work, across civilizations and on a world scale. Planetarisation is a fact. So I believe the metaphor of the spiral is the most realistic, yes there are cycles, the ups and downs of particular civilizations, but the collapses and dark ages go only so far down, there is a residue, that is higher and higher, that propels something that is not purely local, but also global.
Spengler induces a possible cynicism and fatalism. I believe that while it is important to take that in, yes, we are now in decline, and we will see inevitable patterns that have happened before, such as the return of Caesarism. At the same time, a longer planetary view can also focus our attention on the seeds of the future. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is unlikely that it is the light of another incoming train. Most likely, it is the sun shining through from the other side.
Although Spengler gave the West, which is now also the basis for the current world system, another 2 centuries, it does seem to me, both because of the cultural implosion of identity politics, and because of the climate crisis, that we are in a phase of quite more accelerated decline than anticipated.
What complicates the current transitional thinking, is the accumulation of cyclic crises, something Spengler did not anticipate:
- Capitalism is undergoing a Kondratief phase change (a 60 to 80 year cycle)
- The Western world is undergoing a 500-year cyclic change (end of Western Roman Empire, 500; first european revolution, 1000; reformation 1500
- The whole world is moving to a new ‘fourth generation’ civilizational form
But most importantly: the post-neolithic revolution, the agriculturisation and sedentarization, then the industrialization (modernity) and the informatization/planetarization (postmodernity), are hitting hard ecological limits
The Second Axial Age has to create a new relation between humanity and other biotic communities, for long term survival. This is of course where our work of the P2P Foundation, and our proposals for a cosmo-local order, come in. The cyclic pulsation between extravism and regeneration, that has been local and regional until now, has become planetary, hence the need for a fundamental re-organization, around Magisteria of the Commons, that can protect the continued existence of life and humanity.