In his short, provocative book Has the West Lost It?, the Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani identifies a curious paradox. In many respects, the world has never been in better shape than today. People live longer, healthier, more peaceful, and safer lives than at any previous time in history. According to Mahbubani, this enormous improvement in the human condition is a result of Western ideas and practices—modern science, liberal democracy, free markets—spreading to other societies. And yet, surveys show that nowhere on Earth do people have such a bleak view of the future as in the West. Has the West indeed lost it?
Westerners today are pessimistic about a whole panoply of things: overpopulation, global warming (or “global heating”), the ravages of neoliberalism, rapid deforestation and species extinction, soaring inequality, the rise of far-Right populism, mass immigration, the epidemic of depressions and burn-outs, the creeping “Islamization” of Western societies, robots taking over the world, or perhaps just the terminal ennui awaiting us all at the End of History. Looking beyond their specific concerns, it is possible to identify four prototypical kinds of pessimism. Each has a different take on the course of human history, but all share a general skepticism about the idea of progress. Thinking about these four basic types reveals non-obvious connections between pessimists from widely divergent ideological backgrounds, and makes apparent the shortcomings and pitfalls of each type.
The Nostalgic Pessimist
In the good old days, everything was better. Where once the world was whole and beautiful, now everything has gone to ruin. Different nostalgic thinkers locate their favorite Golden Age in different historical periods. Some yearn for a past that they were lucky enough to experience in their youth, while others locate utopia at a point farther back in time, such as the belle époque before the two World Wars, or the simple agrarian life and closely-knit communities of the Middle Ages, or perhaps the distant past of our hunter-gatherer ancestors who lived “in harmony with nature.”
The glorification of a past golden age is generally thought to be a hallmark of political conservatism, but it can be found across the classical Left–Right divide. What is determined by the observer’s ideological beliefs, however, is the nature of that idealized past. Right-wing declinists romanticize a time when people (especially the young) were still obedient towards authority and tradition, while their left-wing counterparts imagine a time in which solidarity and mutual trust were still widely cherished values.
The trouble with nostalgic pessimism is that sooner or later people start to wonder where things went wrong, and who is to blame for despoiling paradise. Typically, some scapegoat or other will be identified: the venal “globalist” elite, or hostile invaders, or perhaps just The System itself. Once upon a time our civilization was beautiful, but then a cabal of cultural Marxists or Friedmanite neoliberals took over and ruined everything. We once lived in peaceful harmony with nature, but then came the coal mines, factories, mechanical tractors and synthetic fertilizers, and the natural order was brutally disrupted. The nostalgic belief that we can simply turn back the clock fosters a desire for revolutionary upheaval—smash the institutions; blow up international agreements; overthrow the economic system. Exit polls in 2016 indicated that the best predictor of a vote for Donald Trump was a pessimistic worldview. Among those who believed that life would be worse for the next generation, 63 percent voted for Trump, while only 31 percent for Clinton.
The “Just You Wait” Pessimist
Some are prepared to admit, unlike the nostalgists, that the world has improved considerably over the past two centuries. But, they maintain, this cannot possibly last. The hubris of modern man, with his naïve belief in progress, must be punished sooner or later. I call this the “Just You Wait” school of pessimism. For now, everything seems to be going smoothly, but soon we will cross some critical threshold, after which we’ll plunge inexorably into the abyss. Pessimists of this school often suffer from what the writer Matt Ridley has dubbed “turning-point-itis”—the tendency to believe that history has reached a decisive moment and we just happen to be living right in the middle of it. “Just You Wait” pessimists come in different guises and, although they may emerge from a variety of points on the ideological spectrum, they actually have a lot in common.
In Europe today, the most important prophecies preoccupying catastrophists are the threat of climate change and the fear that Islamic immigration is transforming Europe into “Eurabia.” Interestingly, from a sociological point of view these two forms of catastrophism are almost always mutually exclusive: the more fervently someone believes in one of them, the less likely they are to worry about the other. Right-wing populists who harbor dark forebodings about mass migration tend to be immune to concerns about climate change. To the extent they believe in the reality of global warming at all, they scoff at climate activists as “green hysterics” and “alarmists.” In turn, those who preach the coming climate catastrophe are often equally insensitive to fears about Islamization and migration, which they dismiss as nothing more than conspiratorial fantasies of xenophobic bigots.
“Just You Wait” pessimism can lead otherwise sensible people to take actions that seem perfectly rational from their perspective, but which cause far more harm than the problems they are intended to solve. If you believe that the world is going to hell in a handcart unless we take immediate and drastic action, you have a rational justification for extreme, even inhuman, measures that you would never normally consider. Bad people can do bad things, but an apocalyptic mindset can encourage even good people to do bad things. In his manifesto Technological Slavery, Ted Kaczynski—better known as the Unabomber—argued that the destruction of modern technological civilization would surely be a disaster, but it would still be less disastrous than the continuation of that technological civilization. Likewise, prophets of Eurabian doom like the Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders are now openly calling for banning mosques and for government crackdowns on Muslims. The logic is the same: we must violate some of our cherished liberal principles now to prevent their utter destruction later on.
In this respect, “Just You Wait” pessimism can be understood as the mirror image of utopian thinking, except that what shimmers on the horizon is not a perfect world, but an all-consuming disaster. Both kinds of thinking are dangerous for the same reason—they imply a utilitarian calculus about the future in which the stakes are infinitely high. In 2018, the German historian Philipp Blom published What is at Stake?, an extremely gloomy book about the impending climate cataclysm. In the book’s final sentence, Blom offers his own one-word answer to the question in the title: “What is at stake? Everything.”
On the other hand, the infinite stakes implied by “Just You Wait” catastrophism can easily have the opposite effect to that intended: paralysis. If society is racing towards total disaster unless we take immediate, drastic measures that are either impossible or ethically unacceptable, then we may as well resign ourselves to the inevitable. The French sociologist Bruno Latour, a former postmodern critic of science who has found a second calling in climate alarmism, sounds this note of despair in his book Down to Earth: The war is over, and we have probably lost it. If that were true, we might as well burn through our remaining fossil fuel reserves and make the most of the time we have left. Similar attitudes of resignation and defeatism can be found among the prophets of Eurabia. Some believe that the demographic prospects for Western Europe are so bleak that we should pin our hopes on the countries in the former Eastern bloc as the last remaining bulwarks against the swelling tide of Islamization.
The Cyclical Pessimist
This kind of pessimist will agree that things are going pretty well at the moment, but he doesn’t think our current run of luck is historically exceptional. Humankind has experienced periods of relative prosperity and peace before, but all have come to an end sooner or later. The course of history, for the cyclical pessimist, comes and goes like the tides or the seasons. If we seem to be doing pretty well at the moment, that’s just a temporary upswing, the flow before the ebb. The prototypical cyclical pessimist was the German historian Oswald Spengler. In his notorious 1918 book The Decline of the West, Spengler described civilizations as living organisms which grow, reach adulthood, and then wither away, just like animals and plants. According to Spengler, the lifespan of the average civilization is a few thousand years. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Western civilization was entering its winter time, the final stage before its inevitable collapse.
Cyclical pessimism can also be found in the economic sphere. In his 2016 book The Invisible Hand?, the historian Bas van Bavel argues that market economies rise and fall according to inexorable laws of economic history. Van Bavel’s account of the rise and fall of earlier golden ages, from the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad to the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century, naturally foresees an ominous future for our current economic system, as well. Just like all the booming market economies that went before, ours is doomed to perish once it has run its course. Indeed, according to Van Bavel, the first signs of decay, such as rising inequality and increasing concentration of wealth, are already apparent.
In terms of material prosperity or levels of peace, however, no earlier period in history comes even close to what we’re experiencing today. In any event, even though it is true that progress is not guaranteed to continue indefinitely, the main danger of cyclical thinking is that it can quickly descend into cynical thinking. If all those fancy upward-pointing graphs must come crashing down sooner or later, there is little point in trying to avert the inevitable.
The Treadmill Pessimist
The treadmill pessimist accepts the reality of some objective measures of progress (more wealth, less violence, longer and healthier lives), but maintains that—despite everything—we haven’t really made advances where it truly matters. Like Alice and the Red Queen in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, we have been running ourselves ragged only to find, when we take a breath and look around, that we are still in the same place where we started. Perhaps the best-known example of treadmill thinking is the Easterlin paradox, named after the economist Richard Easterlin. During the 1970s, Easterlin found that people in rich countries do not appear to be happier than people in poor countries, while reported levels of happiness in Western societies have remained more or less flat for decades. If this is true, then all our efforts to improve the miserable lives of the vast majority of humanity have been in vain. In fact, we now know that Easterlin got it (mostly) wrong. A wealth of later studies with richer data sets and better measurements have shown that people in rich countries are indeed happier than people in poorer countries, and that people in industrialized nations have become happier over time.
Another domain in which treadmill pessimism abounds is that of social justice movements. In activist circles, claims about moral progress are often dismissed as facile triumphalism designed to entrench privilege and oppression, and to maintain the status quo. Such skepticism about moral progress is often maintained by systematically expanding the definition of a given problem (such as racism or sexism), or to subscribe to some sort of “substitution theory” of evil: if one manifestation of evil disappears, it will be replaced by another that is equally pernicious. Perhaps it is true that incidents of explicit and overt racism are in decline, they will admit, but these have now been replaced by implicit, institutional, or covert racism. Some have even coined the term “cultural racism,” which supposedly signifies antipathy to foreign cultures rather than a person’s unalterable characteristics. Such treadmill thinking leads to what I call the Law of Conservation of Outrage: no matter how much progress our society makes, the amount of moral outrage always remains the same.
Just like the cyclical variety, treadmill pessimism can undermine our motivation to create a better world. If we become convinced that one evil (racism, oppression, violence) is always going to be replaced by another, or is bound to resurface in another guise, we might as well give up trying to address it. It would imply, as Steven Pinker observed in Enlightenment Now, that “progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.” Defeatism is also the natural corollary of belief in the Easterlin paradox. If all that wealth hasn’t made us any happier, then it makes little sense for us to support economic development and growth in poorer countries, and to create a world in which everyone can enjoy our level of prosperity. People might just as well be poor and (un)happy instead of rich and (un)happy (which, by the way, would be better for the planet too).
The very concept of progress—of the continual betterment of the human condition through the application of science and the spread of freedom—was a product of the European Enlightenment, as Kishore Mahbubani reminds us. These thinkers were among the first to advance the idea that humanity’s problems are soluble, and that we are not condemned to misery and misfortune. The spectacular progress that ensued, first for the West and then increasingly also for the rest, was a matter not of historical necessity, but of diligent human effort and struggle. Pessimism is not just factually wrong, it is also harmful because it undermines our confidence in our ability to bring about further progress. The best argument that progress is possible is that it has been achieved in the past.
Of course, we are not living in the “best of all possible worlds,” as Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss believed, but we may well be living in the best of all hitherto available worlds. If we want to create a better one, thus proving Dr. Pangloss wrong once again, the methods of science, free markets, and liberal democracy provide our best hope of succeeding. When will Westerners regain their belief in progress?
Maarten Boudry is a philosopher of science based in Ghent, Belgium, who studied in Vienna, Boston, and New York. His most recent book is Science Unlimited? The Challenges of Scientism, co-edited with Massimo Pigliucci. He has published around 40 academic papers on human irrationality, pseudoscience, supernatural belief, and cultural evolution. He has also published three popular books in Dutch, the latest of which examines fashionable pessimism. You can follow him on Twitter @mboudry