Every era ends at some point. The world of classical Greece ended with the rise of Macedon. The empire of Alexander ended the Greek city-state forever. Rome replaced Alexander’s empire three centuries later. Rome broke apart over the next four centuries. The medieval world lasted for at least 800 years in the West — a decentralized social order. In the eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium was a separate civilization. We can date its end: 1453. It fell to Islam.
In the West, the Renaissance grew out of the ashes of the Black Death. “Ashes, ashes, all fall down” surely applied to Western Christendom. The Renaissance was a self-conscious break with the medieval world. We call it medieval because the Renaissance named it: the world in between Rome and modernity. The Renaissance was a self-conscious attempt to resurrect the classical world.
In 1492, Columbus opened up a new world geographically. This opening westward marked the transition to the modern world. This world has belonged to Western science, technology, philosophy, and culture. It has eclipsed Islam. The fall of the Ottoman Empire after 1875 clearly seemed to end the Islamic alternative. This had not been clear in 1800, when Barbary pirates looted Western ships in the Mediterranean.
The remarkable and unexplained advent of 2% per annum per capita economic growth in 1800 changed the old world forever. A new civilization appeared, one which was clearly radically different in 1875. As I have said before, all this has happened in just three generations: John Tyler (b. 1790), his son Lyon (b. 1853), and his grandsons Lyon, Jr. (b. 1924) and Harrison (b. 1928), both of whom are still alive.
In 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell, Francis Fukuyama, a then-unknown scholar, wrote an essay: “The End of History?” It was published in the neoconservative journal, The National Interest. He argued that Western democracy has triumphed, and no rival political system is likely to displace it. This article was a frontal assault against Marxism.
He was surely right about Marxism. It is dead. It will never be revived. It had been abandoned by Communist China a decade before Fukuyama’s article. The symbol of Soviet Communism’s demise was the fall of the Berlin Wall. On December 31, 1991, the USSR was voted out of existence by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which disbanded. That was the most remarkable collapse of an empire in history. It was bloodless.
Yet, for all this, there are signs that the social and intellectual world created by the Renaissance and extended by the Enlightenment — right wing and left wing — is nearing its own final days. This is marked by the crisis of the democratic nation-state. It faces these crises:
1. The bankruptcy of its welfare programs for the aged
2. Rising rates of violent crime
3. The failure in the United States of tax-funded education, K-12
4. The bankruptcy of the American empire
5. The loss of legitimacy of the democratic nation-state
6. The break-up of the European federation and euro
7. The failure of the United Nations Organization
8. The rapid extension of Islam in Western Europe
9. Falling white birthrates in the West: below replacement rate
10. The decline of historical knowledge among the West’s elite
11. Loss of faith in the idea of progress
12. No replacements for the church and the nation-state
There is economic growth, but Asia seems to be the wave of the future. Asia will have its demographic day of judgment in 20 to 30 years — an aging population without either state funding or family funding — but this is not evident now. Also, Asians kill female infants in the womb. Westerners do, too, but on an equal opportunity basis: males are killed at the same rate.
These trends are known individually by hundreds of millions of people, but there is no widespread alarm that anything fundamental is at stake. There is little sense that these trends are part of a package deal.
Rarely does a bell toll to mark the end of a civilization. The demise of the USSR in 1991 was the greatest exception in human history. Nothing else matches it. But the bells are tolling, one by one.