Like many, I have an interest in the question of why cultural-political entities “decline” — call them states (or proto-states), cultures, or, most-grand of all, civilizations. (This includes “lost civilizations.”)
This interest has informed some of the writing on these pages over the 2010s, most usually indirectly but sometimes pretty directly. Post-252, Western Civilization’s long-forgotten collapse, circa 1200 BC, is an example of the latter.
I recall once being put on a team of three and given ten minutes to come up with something that made sense on the following question: “Was the the French Revolution inevitable?“
This is a classic question, or maybe better stated is a variant on the classic question, Why did the French Revolution occur. Many, many volumes have been published on this.
This question was posed to be by a Dr. C. Ch., in a course in my first semester at graduate school, fall 2016. The course had an elaborate name but was effectively on European political history from 1648 to 1945.
I think the team was split between Yes, No, and Unsure. At my suggestion, our team finally agreed on a ‘No’ general response. It was not inevitable. The single critical element was poor leadership. This not only at the level of the king or royal court alone, who definitely are guilty of mismanagement, but all throughout the leadership classes in France and they didn’t seem to “want it” anymore, had stopped trying. Phrased another way is, there was a crisis of confidence in the mid-late 18th century in France.
When states (etc.) do decline, back to pre-history and up through the present, I think the crisis of confidence idea is key to many, or even most, cases. The top x% (say, top 20%) no longer believe in their own system, and are either ostentatiously strong critics of it themselves, or at least hesitant-to-unwilling to defend it, when any kind of little problem comes over the horizon. (Even so, in many cases, the state/culture/etc. can still skate along on political-cultural inertia for some amount of time.)
I was reminded of this when I recently heard James Howard Kunstler say the following (July 2019 interview; thematically similar to much of his writing and speaking in the 2000s and 2010s era):
[Two] of the most remarkable things that we’re seeing in the United States, and to some degree in Europe: […] One is that the collapse of the thinking class into a kind of idiocy and absurdity. The other one is the notable and bizarre, mysterious, and strange lack of any kind of good leadership on the scene, just about anywhere these days. But mostly I’m speaking of the West.
[T]here’s a decline of apparently capable, sensible, confident people who know what they’re doing. It may be that the West, being in such a generalized crisis of confidence, has seen…insecurity spread through its thinking classes and its leadership so pervasively that it’s reached an alarming stage. I do think that these things happen periodically in history…
I have followed Kunstler, occasionally, since high school, after first seeing a book he wrote, I think Geography of Nowhere, in about 2004. I later majored in Geography, I think partly inspired by his work. (It was also around this time, the mid 2000s, that I first read into Peak Oil theory, with interest, a school of thought that Kunstler has long been associated with.)
I consider Kunstler an excellent commentator. He is not the type that is sortable at all into any red-team-blue-team cheerleading squad setup, one reason he is lower profile than he might otherwise be.
In any case, his phrase “crisis of confidence,” as used there to mean a driver of decline, is the kind of simple idea that is highly useful. At risk of being neglected for its simplicity, people like to come up with all kinds of more elaborate ideas for decline for historical states/cultures, and may gloss over this important one.
It is hardly a final answer, of course. The reasonable person might ask, Where does a leadership-class crisis of confidence come from?