In his signature 2001 general election speech, Conservative party leader William Hague argued that four more years under Tony Blair would turn Britain into “a foreign land” governed from Brussels and overrun with asylum seekers. Labour “thinks Britain would be alright if only we had a different people,” he claimed. The implication was that a liberal elite was trying to replace the British population with immigrants in an effort to destroy a culture it despised. Hague’s speech drew on Peter Hitchens’ 1999 book The Abolition of Britain, which claimed a liberal elite was rendering the British “foreigners in their own land”.
Hague was defeated, suggesting his attempt to introduce a new Powellism had not worked. British voters, it appeared, were no longer receptive to anti-immigrant populism. Two decades later, it’s clear that Hague’s speech was a harbinger of what conservatism would look like in the twenty-first century. In the 1970s, Enoch Powell had held that “skin-colour is like a uniform,” the outer sign of a fixed cultural heritage; to introduce a racially different culture into Britain was tantamount to suicide. In the twenty-first century, the explicit reference to colour is downplayed but the underlying cultural argument has burst the dams of public censure and flowed into a hundred tributaries of reaction.
The narrative of a culture destroying itself comes in a variety of formulations but they share a common structure. The story might be told in terms of a single nation, Europe or the west, but the lead character in the story is always a liberal elite that is weak, out of touch and captured by an abstract, cosmopolitan idealism. Immigration and ethnic difference are the weapons this elite wields against the native people. Of necessity, demographics is central to the politics that flows from this narrative: statistics on the ethnic make-up of the population serve as markers of cultural decline, from Powell to Martin Amis (in his 2008 book of essays The Second Plane, Amis worried about western Europeans having too few children compared to Muslims). The family becomes a frontline in this demographic war with the assumption that, unlike elsewhere, women’s rights in the west have reduced the rate of population replacement to perilously low levels.
This demographic focus is explicit in Renaud Camus’s 2012 book The Great Replacement, which claimed that France is facing erasure by birthrate. Essentially the same argument is made in Thilo Sarrazin’s Germany is Abolishing Itself; it sold 1.5 million copies after it was published in 2010. “The civilisation we know as Europe is in the process of committing suicide,” writes Douglas Murray in his 2017 bestseller The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, and Islam. This has happened for two reasons, he says. First, “mass immigration” means “the replacement of large parts of the European populations by other people”. Second, Europeans are losing faith in their “beliefs, traditions and legitimacy”. Thus, the Europe of “Judaeo-Christian culture, the Ancient Greeks and Romans, and the discoveries of the Enlightenment” has been almost entirely lost to the world.
Another version comes from Bat Ye’or’s 2005 book Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axis, which holds that the EU is involved in a secret plan to substitute Europeans with Arab immigrants. Meanwhile, Austrian activist Markus Willinger adds a generational dimension to demographic decline. In his 2013 book Generation Identity: A Declaration of War Against the 68ers, he writes: “We young Europeans grew up on a continent that doesn’t belong to us anymore. We have only known a culture in collapse, our peoples at the ends of their lives. … We are the too-few generation of the single children.”
Paul Weyrich, probably the most influential US conservative political organiser of the last fifty years, had already introduced the theme of cultural decline in 1999 when he wrote: “We are not in the dawn of a new civilization, but the twilight of an old one. We will be lucky if we escape with any remnants of the great Judeo-Christian civilization that we have known down through the ages.” Weyrich circulated the term “cultural Marxism”, which pins on the liberal elite a hidden Marxist plot to weaken western culture. Today, the phrase appears everywhere from speeches by Conservative MPs and Trump White House memos to the manifesto of Norwegian racist mass murderer Anders Breivik – an indication of the fluidity with which different versions of the decline narrative circulate between the mainstream of bestselling authors and the uglier marshes of digitally mediated conservatism. In whatever form, these narratives of cultural decline do their political work by moving discussion away from questions of what we need to questions of who we are. This has been central to the steady electoral progress of the far right in Europe since the 1990s and is the key to understanding Brexit and the elections of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
It might at first seem odd that narratives of western cultural decline emerged at the end of the 1990s, less than a decade after the west achieved an unprecedented global hegemony with the end of the Cold War. Yet a hundred years earlier, in the heyday of European imperialism, the same sequence played out. The very concept of the west as a heritage and object of study was first circulated in the 1890s by writers like Jan Helenus Ferguson, a colonial administrator of the Dutch Caribbean. His The Philosophy of Civilization: A Sociological Study, published in 1889, is one of the first books to use the term “the west” to refer to a shared culture originating in western Europe and embodying values of individual reason and private property.
What was distinctive was Ferguson’s way of understanding culture as quasi-biological. For him, the west was the culmination of a process of cultural evolution that follows Darwinian principles of natural selection but applied to moral progress rather than the development of species. “The glaring contrast between the western civilisation in its unrelenting activity and the stagnation in development of the social organisms of Eastern Nations is a matter of intense interest to science, and the doctrine of the universality of the Christian standard of civilisation is greatly enhanced when instituting a comparison between Eastern and western progress,” he wrote. The west is “the aristocracy of nature”; it alone is “ever-progressing” while other cultures have reached their limits. Crucially, Ferguson thought the west’s superiority could be scientifically demonstrated and its principles compelled by reason, not by force alone. Thus the alchemy of European colonial ideology: mass violence transformed into moral uplift.
Three decades later, this mood of western triumphalism had turned to despondency. Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West – which sold a hundred thousand copies – also deployed a concept of cultures as organisms but now characterised the west as reaching an inevitable exhaustion. “Every culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man,” he wrote. “Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age”. Whereas for Ferguson, the west was a universal measure and aspiration, Spengler de-universalised. The west’s achievements were of a local character and matched in quality by works of other civilisations. Spengler rejected the idea of a single scale of cultural evolution and argued it was the west, not the east, that had stagnated. The global expansion of the west – personified for Spengler in the imperialism of Cecil Rhodes – was actually a sign of spiritual degeneration.
In the years between the appearance of Ferguson and Spengler’s books, two key events had forced on ideologues of the west a deep reckoning. First, Japan’s defeat of Russia in the war of 1905 was the first time in the modern era that an Asian country had fought off a European power, sending shockwaves around the world and prompting revolution in Russia. Second, the immense destruction of the first world war signalled a barbarism at the heart of western civilisation. In particular, Germany was defeated by armies that included African and Asian soldiers, adding a racial component to its national humiliation and feeding an upsurge in anti-colonial agitation across Europe’s empires. Faced with these challenges, Spengler recommended we simply recognise the inevitability of our cultural decline.
Like the 1890s, the 1990s were marked by the west’s global hegemony, built this time on neocolonialism and neoliberalism rather than the high imperialism of the late nineteenth century. Two decades on, that hegemony has been disarticulated. A century of struggle by the rest of the world to challenge western dominance has produced a transformed world system. Capitalism continues to mediate social life around the world but its universalism has rendered it multicultural and no longer a signifier of western expansion. A growing Asian middle class contrasts with the hollowing of middle-class life in the west and the rendering economically surplus of huge swathes of its populations, especially in the Anglo-American heartlands. The west is ageing demographically and is dependent on immigrant workers from poorer parts of the world to sustain its social reproduction. Geopolitically, western states are less able to assert their will. In this context, conservatives have once again turned to the particularity and vulnerability of the west. Their narratives of decline and replacement are not conjured out of nothing but are displaced reactions to economic and political realities.
But today’s conservative project is quite different from Spengler’s. Rather than come to terms with cultural decline as he proposed, conservatives want to uphold the expansive impetus that was central to notions of the west for writers like Ferguson. But, because capitalism has already been globalised and, in other respects, western expansion has been blocked, that impetus has had to turn inwards. In doing so, it adopts the form of an internal expansion against minority cultures accused of pursuing a reverse colonialism. A superficially transgressive anti-elitism appropriates the language of anti-colonialism and provides the basis for a populist conservative mobilisation. Thus, the conservative diagnosis of degeneration is coupled with a call to arms for regeneration – which in practice implies ethnic cleansing through the mass deportation of Black and brown people. Border violence becomes the final act of European colonialism. The narcissism of western colonialism is preserved in this turn inwards: other cultures are no longer less evolved versions of ourselves, as they were for Ferguson, but instead contaminations of our purity.
Douglas Murray’s Strange Death of Europe is illustrative. He describes immigrant neighbourhoods in Europe as “colonies” where life exactly resembles the countries of origin. Whereas “the empires of Europe had been thrown off, these new colonies were obviously intended to be for good”. In presenting immigration as colonisation, he legitimises a native insurgency against immigrants. But it’s just false to claim, as he does, that “places dominated by Pakistani immigrants resembled Pakistan in everything but their location”. He simply ignores the complex cultural tapestry that Pakistanis in Britain weave, and its quite specific relationship with the British labour market, education system, political structures, and so on. Instead, he offers the cliché of a fixed cultural identity transmitted unchanged from Mirpur to Manningham. Murray does not actually bother to explore in any depth the topic he’s ostensibly writing about: the cultural processes surrounding immigration. This reluctance to pursue the truth of the matter is all the more embarrassing for someone who acts as if he has a boy scout badge in Enlightenment values.
Another of Murray’s misrepresentations is equally revealing. Seeking to convey an impression of Britishness as an island culture that changed little prior to the late twentieth century, he writes that, throughout its history, “Britain had retained an extraordinarily static population”. Irrespective of whether this is a plausible account of Britain in terms of immigration, it erases the fact of emigration. There has been nothing static about the British population since the middle of the nineteenth century. In the eight decades after 1850, just under 17 million people emigrated from the British Isles, about 41% of the 1900 population. Many took up positions in the expanding tentacles of empire in Africa, the Caribbean and Asia; the rest went to the settler colonies of North America and Australia. Murray has to avoid this history, not to hide the injustices of colonialism but to hide the fact that colonialism, not immigration, made Britishness into a global, multi-ethnic entity. The settlement of people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean in Britain cannot be understood unless one first recognises the colonial settlement of Britons in those parts of the world. “We are here because you were there,” as A. Sivanandan put it.
It is a mistake to think these cultural narratives are superficial distractions from “real” economic issues. Conservatives are engaged in a political contest of ideas and they need to be countered on that level. The left should not shy away from labelling racist arguments as racist. Historical contextualisation is also a necessary part of the response. But, above all, we need to layout why conservative ideas about culture are flawed as ideas. Conservatives are right that the conceptual frameworks of the west, of Europe, of Britain even, are dying. But they are wrong to think a rejuvenation can be brought about by mass deportations and more white babies.
The left should offer an alternative story of cultural decline and a more compelling account of how the peoples of western Europe can find new ways to define themselves. The banalities of official multiculturalism or progressive patriotism are of no use here – both assume cultures can be constrained to solid boundaries. But culture is not a fixed identity that somehow undergirds our politics and needs to be defended for its own sake. Instead, the left’s tradition is one of making and renewing culture through our struggles for working people. Because our struggles are unbounded, so is our sense of who we might be. And, we know that, as individuals and as peoples, we grow through our encounters with others. It is that reciprocity that every genuine liberation struggle has embodied. Conservative narratives of decline, on the other hand, seek to preserve a narcissism of the west that prevents that reciprocity from emerging. In pursuing a purification of the west, conservatives foster the very cultural death they claim to fear.
Arun Kundnani is the author of The Muslims are Coming! Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror (Verso, 2014)
- The Demographics Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).