There is often in Conservative circles a peculiar discussion, not to say a quarrel, surrounding the idea of decline. This is the idea that as a nation or civilization we are making progress, not in enlightenment and prosperity, but in debasement and penury. Or it is the idea that our will to survive is spent, issuing in ennui and despair. Or it is merely the rational estimate of measurable psychology: time to short-sell US credit. And can I do it sight-unseen?
(As an aside, a very interesting question would be, Who are major sellers of CDS on American debt right now? Or, put another way, more whimsically, What if Apple, right now carrying essentially no debt, were to issue 30-year bonds? What extraordinary demand for this security there would be! Maybe high grade corporate paper could replace Treasury debt as the price signal.)
Anyway, decline. Well, many times the Conservative movement has appeared to relish its prediction of decline; and been accordingly pilloried for its embrace of despair. This is the common accusation against Conservatism, that it is full of despair and nostalgia.
But the rational estimate has changed. Changed drastically.
What is emphatically new and stark today is the realization that in America, and indeed the world over, finance capitalism is breaking down. A lower standard of living and persistent problems of poverty lie in the foreseeable future for most countries.
Thus decline becomes less a matter of prediction than of measurable reality.
The quarrel endures. Some Conservatives predict decline and other Conservatives censure them for it. The dude abides.
I wonder if this issue of decline, indeed, might explain the division between the Conservative and the Right-winger, a distinction worth preserving lest confusions proliferate.
One definition might be that the former has an emotional reaction to decline while the latter a rational one. Whittaker Chambers was a Right-winger not a Conservative (as he himself emphasized), because he put his decline in his estimate of the facts of the world. His prudential calculus of political fortune saw a small window for the West to survive the marching minions of Communism. He accepted decline as the trajectory instructed by his experience and observation; but never for a moment committed the error of supposing that decline equated with boring monotony. He was never tempted by quietism. He saw many avenues for practical action. He maintained his political alertness, despite his expectation of failure in most gambits.
He approached politics in a rationalistic way that most true Conservatives do not dare to emulate. There are hints in Witness, but really it is in his letters the reader perceives the powerful intelligence at work scoping the prospects for the Right in America. He shaped Buckley profoundly.
Whittaker Chambers is, in my judgment, among the most underestimated strategists of the American Conservative movement. Christopher Caldwell and others have said that had he never been a Communist, America would remember him as among her great literary artists. (This is probably true: I would rate only Willmoore Kendall as his superior with the pen from that NR age.) Nonetheless, what we lost in literary output we gained in Chambers’ profound contact with the inner workings of the fever-mind of modern totalitarian politics. We lost a great writer and we gained an great illuminator of the Machiavellian machinations of the Modern Age in arms.
But Chambers was proven wrong in his prudential estimate of America versus Communism. Rapid decline at the expense of Communism was not largely a feature of the post Second World War decades. America was, most of the time, pretty impressive in standing against the marching militants of the Socialist Left.
And then the Wall fell.
(As another aside, it is very interesting to discover that, despite liberal embarrassment, America has regularly used force of law to outlaw Leftist doctrines. This country has many times stood strong on the principle that some political movements are too wicked and reckless to tolerate, that force of law must proscribe them. That America stood pretty strong is evidenced by the blind fury, exceeded only by the asininity of the liberal treatment of the Red Scares, which I would date not from 1918, but from 1798.)
So what we can say with some confidence is that Chambers underestimated the resolve of America in resisting Communism. But we can also say that despite his “declinist” estimate, he thought very clearly and rationally about various political events, providing sound counsel and perspective.
What we cannot say with much confidence right now is what will happen next. The unpredictable fragility of our world is impressive.
The Conservative response to the crisis of finance capitalism should be something on the order of a lament, whether vigorous or mild. The Conservative might stand in denial of the crisis; pretend it unreal; or he might preach resignation and quietism. Decline will shake him, because the Conservative puts great stock in conserving even this dying thing.
On the other hand, the Right-winger’s response is plain enough: he will accept decline as fact and adjudge his political prospects accordingly. He may, of course, like Chambers, misjudge those prospects.
So which one are you, dear reader: Conservative or Right-winger?