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Book Review: How Civilizations Die (David Goldman)

I have read David Goldman for a long time, under his alter ego, Spengler, a columnist for the Asia Times.  His columns are invariably excellent—pithy, insightful, and a pleasure to read.  But the talent set required to be a columnist is very different than that required of a book author.  Many columnists are unable to write a book that is other than either a set of compiled columns or a padded out column.  The late Joseph Sobran, who wrote for National Review when it was more than a forum for third-rate neoconservatives angling for jobs under Republican politicians, was one such.  David Goldman is another, and it shows in the many defects of this 2011 book, How Civilizations Die.

Goldman does have an argument to offer.  Extracted from the book’s rambling text, it is basically this.  First, the real demographic problem, in every country around the world, is inadequate birth rates, which will definitely lead to the population collapse of certain nations, and will likely lead to global population collapse.  Second, contrary to received opinion, Muslim countries are also facing population collapses because of cratering birth rates.  Third, contrary to what seems like the obvious honest reaction to this second point, namely relief, we should fear this, because it is likely to increase terrorism and violence in the short- and medium-term.  Fourth, the only solution to declining birth rates in the West, and the consequent destruction of Western culture, is a reinvigorated Christianity and Judaism that sustains high birth rates among the superior subcultures of the West’s superior culture.

My complaint is not that this argument is wrong.  It is certainly right to at least some extent.  My complaint is that the argument is presented in a staccato, meandering and superficial fashion suited to a columnist’s weekly work.  It would be more powerful if written as a book of this type should be—foundation stone laid upon foundation stone, building sturdy walls and roof on those foundations, topped with crenellations, surrounded by spiked defenses, and, over it all, a golden dome with a laser projecting the brilliant light of an unanswerable conclusion.  As it is, the book is easy for the hostile, or even neutral, reader to dismiss because of its disjointed and conclusory, yet highly polemical, presentation.

Part I, “The Decline of the East, “ is taken up with demographic analysis, with a focus on the Muslim world.  Goldman demonstrates convincingly that as of 2011, essentially the entire Muslim world is in the middle of a demographic catastrophe.  Statistically, nearly all of this decline is correlated with female literacy and religious fervor.  More of the former and less of the latter mean fewer children.  Thus, the sole exceptions to the decline, so far, are some African countries with majority Muslim populations.  But across the Muslim world, female literacy is going up, and religious fervor is going down (whatever may be the impression from the news), so the demographic future is decrease, not increase.

More generally, Goldman ascribes the global phenomenon of decreasing willingness to have children to the loss of transcendent faith—if God is dead, we should maximize our pleasure in the here and now.  This phenomenon is most obvious in the West—but it is happening in the East, just much more under the surface.  And where children are a cost, as in the modern world, rather than a benefit, to their parents, and the highest good is self-actualization, it necessarily follows that having lots of them is not in the best interests of the parents.  He points out something often forgotten—that each person in the modern world produces vastly more than he consumes, and thus the most common arguments against alleged overpopulation fail before they get started.  Humans are not antelopes, eating a static grass supply.  But such production benefits society as a whole, or the individual producing, not the parents, so those who could produce more children are incentivized not to do so, even though society as a whole would benefit.

So, for example, the leaders of Iran constantly harangue their citizens about the need to have more children.  Iran’s birth rate in 2011 was 1.76 (now it is 1.68).  Replacement, the bare minimum needed, is 2.1.  Now, “there are nine Iranians of working age for every elderly dependent.  By 2050 . . . there will be seven elderly dependents for every ten working Iranians.”  That’s bad enough, but making it worse is that there is going to be less, rather than more, money to pay for those dependents.  “The country produces just $4,400 per capita, about a tenth of America’s GDP, and most of that comes directly or indirectly from oil and natural gas reserves—which are running out.”

Implicit in this argument is that no Muslim country, at least not one of any significance, will increase its wealth, and many will find their wealth diminishing.  It is certainly true that no country outside the West, with the exception of a few East Asian countries, has reached the economic takeoff achieved by the West two hundred years ago.  And in this case, past performance probably is an indication of future results.   This, the Great Divergence, is not a focus of the book, but it is a necessary part of its argument.  A related point that Goldman does not make is that all other things being equal, economic growth is increasingly unlikely as a country’s population ages, since it is always the young who make dynamism and growth possible—though only when ensconced in a larger culture that rewards individual excellence and achievement.

Goldman also touches on the non-Muslim world, but mostly for contrast in and in relation to the Muslim world.  “By the end of the century, under the assumption of constant fertility, the economically active population (aged 15 to 59 years) of Western Europe will fall by two-fifths, and of Eastern Europe and East Asia by about two-thirds. . . . The least fertile European countries will see their total populations drop by 40 to 60 percent in the course of our present century.  This is the great underreported story of our time.”  Actually, it’s not really underreported—conservatives have been saying this for at least thirty years.  Now it is going mainstream—just a few weeks ago Elon Musk, who is a weird blend of genius and con-man, but who has a nose for the future like few others, noted on Twitter that “The world’s population is accelerating towards collapse, but few seem to notice or care.”  I predict that it will soon be a topic of common discussion and alarm, camouflaged under disclaimers that no harm is meant to the primacy of individual choice.  But it will be far too little, too late.

As far as Europe specifically, Goldman criticizes the so-called “Eurabia thesis,” that Muslim immigrants will effectively conquer Europe by having vastly greater birthrates than actual Europeans.  He points out that Muslim immigrants to Europe face the same plunge in birthrates as actual Europeans within a generation of arrival (although not one as great as for actual Europeans, and with the exception of Britain, where Pakistani immigrants dominate and have maintained their birthrates).  His conclusion, though, relies on Muslim immigration being relatively modest, and reproduction in the host countries the relevant issue.  And there his data are wrong, because the world of 2011 is not the world of 2017.  The reader is told “Europe’s biggest worry in 2011 is not colonization by Muslim immigrants but inundation by Muslim refugees fleeting the chaos in Arab North Africa. . . . On April 17, [2011], France stopped train traffic from Italy to repel an influx of North African refugees after Italy gave temporary residence visas to five thousand Tunisians, allowing them to travel outside Italy and become a burden on other European countries.”  The reader suppresses a bitter chuckle, knowing that in 2016 Germany alone imposed more than a million such aliens on Europe, mostly young, rootless men looking for economic opportunity or handouts.  So, whether or not immigrant birthrates drop over time, if within a decade tens of millions of Muslims move to Europe and the Europeans have no children, the result, the end of the superior Western culture, is a foregone conclusion.  On the other hand, the Europeans have done an outstanding job of destroying what is superior in their culture totally aside from inviting alien cultures to dominate them, so maybe all roads lead to the same bad end.

Again, though, it’s hard to pick out Goldman’s actual arguments.  I’m just imposing a coherent framework on a not-very-coherent Part I.  Chapters and subchapters fly by, many interesting in their own right.  Iran’s massive drug and prostitution problem.  The Arab world’s economic problems.  All about Turkey.  Dubious practices common in traditional Muslim societies, such as female genital mutilation, honor killings, and cousin marriages.  The taboo on examining the actual origins of the Q’uran.  And much more, all of which is, or seems to be, tangentially related to what the book seems to be about, but is not presented in any coherent fashion, much less with a coherent thrust.

Part II, “Theopolitics,” does not improve things.  This Part focuses on the perceived consequences of global demographic failure.  But again, more chapters flit by, and what exactly the point is seems to get lost.  We learn about the national extinctions of the Bronze Age, the Hellenistic world, the distinctions among small and large civilizations, the connections of Greek pederasty to the desire for immortality, Roman population decline, the Muslim theology of occasionalism, the “neo-paganism of national idolatry” to which Goldman ascribes the death of European Christianity, and how that relates to anti-Semitism.  Quite a lot of topics for a short book with a focused topic—but such surface eclecticism is a common characteristic of erudite columnists, and tolerated in that short form, where the reader is expected to follow up with further reading on interesting-sounding topics.  But here, it merely exhausts the reader and detracts from the thrust of the main argument.

There are plenty of interesting, if disconnected, thoughts.  Goldman rejects the common trope that terrorism is somehow inherent to Islam.  Rather, he thinks terrorism is driven by the realization that demographic decline means no future—and thus, demographic decline creates and exacerbates terrorism.  “Today’s suicidal terrorism is not a Muslim problem as such, but a manifestation in the Muslim world of a general principle:  there is no such thing as rational self-interest for people who believe that they have nothing to lose.”  Goldman draws a parallel to early-20th Century political terrorism in Russia, which killed tens of thousands prior to the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks.  Goldman’s claim is that those facing certain defeat are often more willing to die, from Athens in the last days of the Peloponnesian War, to Confederates at the end of the Civil War, to Germans at the end of World War I.  This is, as I say, interesting, but it is not at all wholly convincing.   Sure, it could be true, but it is more of an educated guess, a surmise, than a compelling argument.

Goldman’s point here, I think, is that the collapse of fertility everywhere is closely tied to the collapse of religious belief.  Thus, in Part III, “Why It Won’t Be A Post-American World,” Goldman lays out his claim that “American fertility has stabilized at replacement,” because Americans still have relatively vigorous religious faith, and as a result America will endure while Western civilization dies everywhere else and the world as a whole spirals into demographic collapse.  The only country joining America in this pullout from the demographic plunge is Israel, where the birth rate is still well above replacement, driven in part (but only in part) by the Orthodox birth rate of an incredible 8.5 children per women.

But the rub with a book of predictions is that, sooner or later, the future arrives.  Goldman picked the 2010 high for America’s birth rate, at 2.1, or replacement.  It is now 1.84 (though Israel’s has gone up slightly).  Moreover, Goldman’s premise is that continued religious faith will power America’s somewhat higher birth rate.  This is a false premise—the reality, more visible even in the past six years, is that that vigorous religious belief in America is dying faster and faster.  Thus, there is more reason to conclude that the birth rate will continue to decline in America than to conclude it will recover and America will thrive as a result.

In any case, this basic conclusion is interesting enough, but only material for a column.  Nonetheless, as with the earlier Parts of the book, we are then treated to some more not-very-coherent thoughts:  on the arc of American religious belief; global Christianity and its growth; the philosophy of mortality; the export of democracy and its likelihood of failure; the morality of self-interest in the context of Augustinian realism; the superiority of individualism to collectivism; and more.  Somewhere in here, maybe, is the core of is a stripped-down, focused argument and discussion, but it is very hard to find.  So I gave up trying to find it.

Finally, How Civilizations Die also does not address, in any way, counter-arguments, from any direction.  Time spent by the author rambling about tangential topics would have been better spent building defenses against those who oppose the author’s premises and conclusions.  The reader would have benefited.  The author’s failure to do so is, sad to say, a sign of vanity and another sign of his being a columnist, who does not typically engage in debate, but rather in one-sided projection of conclusions supported by a loose framework.  Oswald Spengler, the prophet of civilizational decline, from whom Goldman took his pen name, knew how to write a book of power.  I am sad to say that the same is not true of the new Spengler.

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Published in Book Reviews Charles Ethnography & Race European History Great Divergence Islam & The Islamic World Political Discussion & Analysis Political Economy Religion The Orient


  1. Daphne Patai Daphne Patai

    This is one of the most interesting, intelligent,and well-written blogs I’ve come across,and I’m reading Charles’s reviews of books in fields I normally don’t follow simply because of the quality of his writing and thinking.
    I’m curious as to how many subscribers TheWorthyHouse now has, and why the types of discussions Charles’s wished to encourage have not unfolded. Perhaps few people can match Charles’s energy and skill on such a regular basis?

    • Charles Charles

      Thank you! Well, I’ve only been posting this since January, so only a few score subscribers, with gradually accelerating viewership. As I say elsewhere, I write largely for own purposes: to fix things in my head, because otherwise I forget what I read; and to work out my own relatively coherent system of thought. At the same time, I am hopeful this will grow into something more–I have a few other possible authors, but most simply don’t have the time to spend on this that I do. And short of that, I am hopeful that I can get more colloquies going.

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