The uses of declinism

The title of Josef Joffe’s new book tells you the argument: [amazon_link id=”0871404494″ target=”_blank” ]The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics and a Half Century of False Prophecies[/amazon_link].

[amazon_image id=”0871404494″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Myth of America’s Decline: Politics, Economics, and a Half Century of False Prophecies[/amazon_image]

The first part of the book sets the scene with an entertaining history of American declinism through the decades, starting with the Sputnik shock and fear of the Communists in the 1950s, through the upheavals of the 60s, the impact of Vietnam and dire economic situation in the 70s, the Japan-bashing of the 1980s, a 1990s hiatus thanks to the end of the Cold War and the New Economy (as Joffe writes, “It doesn’t take much to vault from declinism to triumphalism when the geopolitics is right”), and the 2000s angst about the rise of China culminating in what the Chinese call the North Atlantic crisis of 2008.

The most interesting aspect of this first section is Joffe’s analysis of the political uses of declinism. For he convincingly shows it is used as a prelude to the promise of redemption. Ronald Reagan for one, John F Kennedy for another, used the claim of present decline very effectively in election campaigns to promise a brighter future. Joffe writes that declinist prophecies are intended to be self-averting: “Declinism is a political programme even though it comes in the guise of an empirical exercise such as counting guns or measuring growth.” He contrasts the 20th century declinist political philosophy with the Enlightenment tradition of optimism about the possibility progress, noting how feted pessimistic pundits are these days. (Though there are some optimistic ones – Matt Ridley’s [amazon_link id=”0007267126″ target=”_blank” ]The Rational Optimist[/amazon_link] is one, Mark Steven’s [amazon_link id=”1846683572″ target=”_blank” ]An Optimist’s Tour of the Future[/amazon_link], Charles Kenny’s [amazon_link id=”0465020151″ target=”_blank” ]Getting Better[/amazon_link] – and his new one, [amazon_link id=”0465064736″ target=”_blank” ]Upside of Down[/amazon_link]).

The next section of Joffe’s book turns to the empirical matters when it comes to comparing the US now with the challengers, especially China. He argues that direction of travel is irrelevant – the BRICs have grown rapidly but from such a low base that there is no challenger to the US: “It is size and weight that count.” A lengthy section runs through all the by now well-known arguments about China’s prospects. He is dismissive of the BRICs concept, arguing that the countries are too dissimilar to be relevant to each other, and a neat acronym has had too much purchase. It’s true they are not at all alike but I think this greatly underestimates the impact the concept has had in drawing attention to a genuine shift in the world economy – as I noted here recently writing about Jim O’Neill’s [amazon_link id=”1907994130″ target=”_blank” ]The BRIC Road to Growth[/amazon_link] and Danny Quah’s work.

The final section considers America’s prospects and status in the world, especially vis a vis China. Joffe concludes that if America’s relative decline continues, it will be self-inflicted. America’s demography is in its favour, he argues, its military might is vastly ahead of its rivals, it is still the most innovative country with free and flexible markets to bring innovations to fruition. He seems to think this will outweigh problems such as the disintegrating infrastructure, inequality and social problems and so on, but is it possible to predict how relative global growth rates will play out when there are such uncertainties on both sides of the Pacific? Writing in a country which did have the world’s leading empire and then did decline (the flavour so well captured in Corelli Barnett’s books such as [amazon_link id=”033034790X” target=”_blank” ]The Audit of War[/amazon_link] and [amazon_link id=”0330346393″ target=”_blank” ]The Lost Victory[/amazon_link]), but I’m not sure.

Inevitably, Joffe is selective in his evidence and fails to address the kind of questions many people have now about the American model. The gross inequality of income and wealth, and consequent accumulation and abuse of power, is just one aspect of it. There are questions about the US tradition of freedom, post-NSA revelations. In a time of generally polarised party politics, American politics stands out as particularly grotesque. Many people would also challenge’s Joffe’s rather positive view of how America is currently exerting its military power overseas.

It is interesting to hear his rather contrarian view. I would have preferred, though, more on the politics and philosophy of declinism, and the use to which it is being put, which is the best part of this book.

One thought on “The uses of declinism

  1. Pingback: Reasons to be cheerful – even if American | The Enlightened Economist

Comments are closed.