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The myth of western decadence


A street scene in Barcelona with people draped in Ukrainian flags
A pro-Ukraine demonstration in Barcelona earlier this year © SOPA Images/LightRocket / Getty Images

Idealising his nation as only an immigrant could, Frank Capra was the natural pick. The brief: a series of propaganda films to shore up US public backing for the second world war. The “producer”: future saviour of immiserated western Europe, General George Marshall. The title? Why We Fight.

Think of the implicit insecurity here. The idea that western societies lack martial fibre is so beguiling that it gnaws at leaders of the west itself. And this is after Pearl Harbor had people queueing up to volunteer.

I am sure a contrarian finance bro will insist, if you look at the right geospatial data, from a certain angle, adjusting for media bias, that the invasion of Ukraine is going well. For now, though, it seems the Kremlin has put too much store in western decadence. Neither the resistance on the ground nor the staying power of its sponsors in the democratic world were bargained for. By way of consolation, Russia has plentiful historical company. Terrorist clerics, godless Marxists and other enemies of the west, or “Occidentalists”, share few beliefs. One is that free societies have an innate flakiness: a sort of will to impotence. Even as those enemies have failed to survive, the trope does.

I don’t pretend that the average westerner has read their Hume and Spinoza. I don’t even pretend they deal in such abstractions as “the west”. But there is a way of life — to do with personal autonomy — for which people have consistently endured hardship, up to and including a blood price. Believing otherwise is not just bad analysis. It leads to more conflict than might otherwise exist.

Kremlinologists report that Vladimir Putin saw the US exit from Afghanistan last year as proof of western dilettantism. From there, it was a short step to testing the will of the west in Ukraine. You would think that US forces had rolled up to Kabul in 2001, poked around for an afternoon, deplored the lack of a Bed Bath & Beyond, and flounced off. They were there for 20 years. Whatever the mission was — technically inept, culturally uncomprehending — it wasn’t decadent.

How much carnage has this misperception of the west triggered? The Empire of Japan couldn’t believe the hermit republic that America then was would send armed multitudes 5,000 miles away in response to one day of infamy. (And, remember, never leave.) The Kaiser in 1914 and Saddam Hussein in 1990 made similar assessments of the liberal temper. It is not out of vanity or machismo that the west should insist on recognition of its fighting spunk, then. It is to avert the fighting.

Last week, at a bar counter, I cycled through three small pours of white wine to find the right pairing for a mackerel and dill starter. I left in some pique at having failed to nail it. Don’t blame Occidentalists for questioning the mettle of a society of such risible comfort. We who live here don’t understand it either, which is why the decadence thesis haunts us with its intuitive plausibility. The culture that produced the Jazz Age shouldn’t have been able to take and hold Guadalcanal. Each month, I expect to see western exhaustion with Ukraine. Each month, the support persists. Seventy per cent of Germans tell pollsters that high gas prices won’t sap their will.

Why? The eternal error, I think, is to confuse the substance of liberalism (which is compromise-minded) with people’s attachment to it (which is far from compromising). Liberalism is sparse in content. It has no account of the good life, but rather allows competing ones to go at it within a framework of rules. If I say “socialist architecture”, for instance, you picture something concrete and rectilinear. What is liberal architecture? There are Islamic rules about sex and diet: a liberal can be celibate or wanton, a vegan or a regular at St Johns.

Occidentalists can’t believe that a creed that makes so few truth claims would inspire devotion. But here we still are, and here so many of them aren’t. The historical record is clear: it is possible to be committed to a political system that itself abjures commitment. Knowledge of the dire alternatives helps. In the end, rousing though it was, Capra’s work was squandered on a domestic audience. It is the other side that wonders why we fight.

Email Janan at janan.ganesh@ft.com

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