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The Gospel According to Goldberg

2,037 words

Jonah Goldberg
Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy
New York: Crown Forum, 2018

Anyone expecting Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West to be a new meditation on James Burnham’s 1964 classic[1] about the moral degeneracy of liberal democracy is in for a laugh. Having borrowed Burnham’s tasty title, Goldberg goes off in another direction entirely, often inverting Burnham’s argument.

James Burnham thought the ideology of materialism and moral permissiveness was destroying the West’s ability to defend itself and survive. (He was thinking in Cold War terms, but his basic thesis is still applicable today.) Jonah Goldberg thinks egalitarian ideas and amoral acquisitiveness are just swell, and we need to appreciate them more.

“Don’t put the miracle of liberal-democratic capitalism at risk,” Goldberg summarized his thesis in National Review.[2] For Burnham, the spurious, unworkable ideas of “liberal-democratic capitalism” were precisely the problem.

Goldberg also tempts the reader with an intriguing subtitle, How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy – but never really illustrates this point. The casual book-browser is invited to think Goldberg is going to say something about the New Right, the Alt Right, or maybe White Nationalism. But Goldberg’s theorizing about the origins of identitarianism is just so much tendentious fluff.

Here’s his explanation of the new “tribalism”: it’s all because social media, online porn, and videogames aren’t fulfilling enough.

The young Muslim men who left Europe and America to go fight for ISIS had every form of entertainment and distraction available to them, but they find it unsatisfying. The same goes for the alienated and numb cadres who swell the ranks of neo-Nazis, antifa, and countless other groups. They crave meaning that our leading institutions no longer feel compelled to provide, or are even capable of providing, at least for those who need it most.

Of course he avoids the question of what these radicalized “young Muslim men” were doing in Europe and America in the first place, and how they came to be there, or why they react as they do. Surely, being transplanted to an alien culture must be disturbing enough. It is an actual, objective situation. There is no need to spin theories about why their lives might be “unsatisfying.” And as for Goldberg’s “neo-Nazis” and “antifa” (presumably he means Western identitarians and their opponents, most of whom do not wear those titles), surely they too have some real-life concerns beyond being bored with videogames.

On occasion he names the Alt Right, without saying much about it other than that it formed part of Trump’s base in 2016. “Consider the emergence of the so-called alt-right,” he writes (implying that there is another, genuine one out there someplace):

The reason to fret about the growth and (relative) popularity of the alt-right is not that its adherents will somehow gain the power to implement their fantasies. No, the reason to be dismayed by them is that these intellectual weeds could find any purchase at all. They should have been buried beneath layers and layers of bedrock-like dogma with no hope of finding air or sunlight. But such is the plight we face. The bedrock is cracked. The soil of our civil society is exhausted, and the roots of our institutions strain to hold what remains in place.

Just as any civilization that was created by ideas can be destroyed by ideas, so can the conservative movement. That is why the cure for what ails us is dogma . . . (pp. 343-344)

Yes, the cure is dogma.

But rather than dismissing this all as something like the babbling of a street-corner crazy, let’s take a little tour of Goldberg’s basic theses.

Basically, Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is a religious tract. He believes in miracles. Or rather, the Miracle. The Miracle is capitalism, which according to Goldberg is responsible for nearly all technological and social advancement in the past three hundred years.

Alas, Goldberg isn’t clear in his own head on what he means by capitalism. In political parlance it often gets confused with the idea of a “free-market economy.” And that free-market ideal is probably what Goldberg mainly intends. You are free to run your lemonade stand where and however you want. The trouble is that, quickly and inevitably, your free-market movement intersects with government power. If your zoning board (controlled by financial interests, perhaps Snapple) doesn’t want you to have a lemonade stand in front of your house, then you don’t have a lemonade stand anymore. You’ve been out-maneuvered. And this truly is capitalism at work. (Goldberg wouldn’t necessarily be fazed by this. He’d tell you it’s okay if you don’t make your five bucks per day at your defunct lemonade stand, because you can buy a bottle of Snapple for two bucks.)

Goldberg wants to equate free markets and free enterprise with capitalism, but they are distinctly different. Capitalism is a political system whereby private economic interests get to control not only their means of production and sales, but the government itself, by means of cartels, political funding, and lobbying. This is how the term was understood a hundred and more years ago, and it is because of such abusive behavior that we had things like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It is why Teddy Roosevelt prided himself on being a trust-buster. Theodore Roosevelt did not consider himself “pro-capitalist”; quite the contrary. Nor did most American politicians prior to the 1950s, when, in response to Communist propaganda, some conservatives embraced the term and deliberately confused finance capitalism with the ideal of an efficient, smooth-running market economy. “Conservatives” like Goldberg are now so married to their ideal of “free-market” capitalism that they’ve put old-style conservative values – e.g., social stability, traditional morality – in the wind.

In Goldberg’s world, capitalism, free enterprise, and globalism are all interchangeable concepts; different names for his Miracle, and responsible for the Improved Standard of Living he claims to see throughout the world in recent centuries. If you demur that technology and innovation were really responsible, Goldberg will tell you technology and innovation are merely by-products. They would not have come into being or spread around the world without the capitalist Miracle.

Goldberg presents his thesis in a glib, chirrupy style, like a college freshman debater of several decades back, who came to campus armed with the more practical works of Ayn Rand (Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal). He shows his intellectual prowess by sprinkling his talk with survey-course summaries of Great Thinkers. Two favorites are John Locke, with his Treatises on Government in support of the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688; and Max Weber, of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Goldberg offers those works as seminal capitalistic texts. That point is arguable, but their relevance to Goldberg’s Miracle is hazy. Locke, to Goldberg, is a promoter of religious tolerance and economic freedom, as well as an opponent of royal absolutism in the person of King James II. In reality, it was James who was the apostle of tolerance, specifically for Protestant dissenters, nonconformists, and his fellow Catholics. Such liberality enraged the “tolerant” Locke. Furthermore, James’ “absolutism” was mainly his insistence that the Crown should have supreme authority in restraint of financial manipulators. As a political propagandist for those financial interests, Locke necessarily favored a weak, tractable monarch and a free rein for the money-men. And so the Glorious Revolution was born, with weak, tractable William of Orange supplanting James Stuart and chartering the Bank of England. Even at its birth, capitalism was less a system of economics than a type of government.

As for Max Weber, Goldberg accepts unquestioningly the dubious theory that fatalistic Calvinism invested “Protestantism” (a broad category) with a recondite doctrine or ethos that enabled Protestant businessmen to outperform Catholics. Politics, geography, and quasi-secular organizations probably had at least as much to do with this phenomenon. But since Goldberg is taking us on a magical Miracle tour, an occult belief in a “Protestant Spirit” is as good an explanation as any other.

Overall, Goldberg’s historical vision is pure Whig School of History: We once dwelt in darkness, in poverty and ignorance, our lifespans short, our existences nasty and brutish; helplessly in thrall to absolute monarchs and the obfuscatory mumbo-jumbo of prelates who told us to suffer now and get pie in the sky later. But then we threw off royal pomps and wicked priestcraft, embraced the ballot box and the cash ledger, and moved into the broad, sunlit uplands of progress, freedom, and liberal democracy for all.

Except, Goldberg warns – and this is ostensibly the point of his book – the sunlit uplands are darkening. The Miracle worked so well that we have forgotten it, or no longer believe in it. Or perhaps we see right through it. Anyway, we are moving backwards into tribalism, darkness, and filth.

To give the book quantitative heft, Goldberg includes a long Appendix full of charts and statistics, to prove that we’ve never had it so good. I’ll give just a couple of snippets here, since the examples are tiresomely repetitive:

World per capita GDP rose from $467 in A.D. 1 to a mere $666 in 1820. Deirdre McCloskey estimates that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, pretty much everybody lived on $3 a day. [My comment: But whatever did they buy that cost $3 a day, anyway – that they didn’t make or grow themselves?]

Global GDP has soared, from an estimated $150 billion in A.D. 1 to more than $50 trillion as of 2008. Observed macroscopically, we are closer to Eden than Eden ever was. (p. 357)

A moment’s thought suggests all sorts of objections to this hallelujah-nonsense. What does one hundred fifty billion dollars even mean for the time of Caesar Augustus, an age when nearly all wealth was in the form of real property (generally inherited) and livestock? This estimate is no more than an economist’s game, like measuring eighteenth-century income in Big Macs. Let’s say John Q. Publius, goatherd, could buy only three new goats per year for his herd in 1 AD; but now, thanks to the Miracle of capitalism, his descendant can buy a thousand goats, thereby providing us with plenty of good, cheap goat meat for our daily lunchbox. Except the descendant probably isn’t raising goats, we’re not slavering over goat meat, and these GDP numbers are essentially meaningless. You cannot translate monetary and intangible values from a long-ago age to the present day.

Inevitably, Goldberg drags out the old saw about how we all live longer lives now. Another triumph of the Miracle! Except that life expectancy really hasn’t risen substantially in recent decades, once you factor out reduced infant mortality, factor in its modern substitute, abortion, and subtract artificial end-of-life support apparatus. Surely, if rising life expectancy were a real thing, we should be living to 140 nowadays, instead of barely surpassing our great-great-grandparents’ three-score-and-ten.

The fact that most people don’t live into their second century probably has a lot to do with why people like Goldberg can push their Progress cult with little fear of contradiction. Offhand, I can think of a dozen ways in which the America of a hundred years ago was a better place than what we have now. Look at school textbooks and graduation requirements, for one thing. (Could today’s average graduate student even pass a standard high school exam from 1918?) For another, look at basic transportation. The hollowed-out communities you see in Upstate New York and elsewhere – once thriving, now practically ghost towns – were served by cheap, reliable, efficient networks of railroads and light-rail tramways that could take you from Saratoga Springs to Schenectady, or Hornell to Meadville, in a half-hour. (Privately-owned transport, too; not that it strictly matters.) People liked their trains and trolleys, but the Miracle of capitalism decreed that we must all buy motorcars instead, and make the automobile and gasoline and insurance companies rich. So the legislators and town fathers were paid off, tracks were ripped up, and nowadays you can’t get there from here.

Notes

[1] James Burnham, Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism (New York: John Day, 1964). Later editions were published by Regnery and Encounter Books. A good online summary from the Claremont Institute is here

[2] Jonah Goldberg, “Suicide of the West,” book excerpt. National Review, April 30, 2018.

Related

19 Comments

  1. Moltas
    Posted May 22, 2018 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

    The difference between our capitalism and theirs, as I see it, is simply the difference between wealth creating industry and geschäft, i.e, buying cheap and selling expensive. Industry needs the european nation state and needs to be protected, while merchants don´t have to care who makes the products or where they come from.

    It´s not a left/right issue, its divided between (jewish) internationalist marxist/neoliberal vs. a common sense socialism/liberalism/conservatism. A conservative nationalist, like Pat Buchanan, has more in common with a traditional leftist like Ralph Nader than with the Ayn Rand libertarians.

    In the end its all about white homogeneity. The difference between a socialist and conservative government on all-white Iceland is almost irrelevant to common icelanders – unless one of the parties is changing the demographics through immigration (or shifting the economy from industry to usury and geschäft).

  2. Bigbrain88
    Posted May 19, 2018 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    Great article, thanks!

  3. Comtaose
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    What a brilliant article! Crystal clear and persuasive reasoning and powerful rebuking to the shabby, flabby and seriously flawed and fallible, specious and sophistical pseudo-arguments of JG.

    “Goldberg wants to equate free markets and free enterprise with capitalism, but they are distinctly different. Capitalism is a political system whereby private economic interests get to control not only their means of production and sales, but the government itself, by means of cartels, political funding, and lobbying. This is how the term was understood a hundred and more years ago, and it is because of such abusive behavior that we had things like the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. It is why Teddy Roosevelt prided himself on being a trust-buster. Theodore Roosevelt did not consider himself “pro-capitalist”; quite the contrary. Nor did most American politicians prior to the 1950s, when, in response to Communist propaganda, some conservatives embraced the term and deliberately confused finance capitalism with the ideal of an efficient, smooth-running market economy. “Conservatives” like Goldberg are now so married to their ideal of “free-market” capitalism that they’ve put old-style conservative values – e.g., social stability, traditional morality – in the wind.”

    I especially love and admire the paragraph above and the one dissecting the “Glorious Revolution”. Shining like gem and simply priceless!

    The ending of the article seems a bit to tapers out and feels unfinished for me, but it might just be me and it could well be a certain style of writing sought by the author.

    All in all, a very perceptual, insightful, trenchant and convincing essay. Thank you Mr. MM!

  4. Proofreader
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 3:18 am | Permalink

    A Jonah Goldberg book is as contrived, as silly, and as superfluous as a Rube Goldberg machine.

  5. nineofclubs
    Posted May 18, 2018 at 1:22 am | Permalink

    Yes, yes. The ‘miracle of liberal-democratic capitalism’. We’re living longer and richer than ever before – and it’s all down to free markets, open borders, gay marriage and fractional reserve banking.

    Or not.

    The vast improvements in material living standards and productivity achieved since 1800 are the result of technological advances. Technology, not capitalism. Technology does not need capitalism, as evidenced by the USSR putting the first man into space, the first artificial satellite into orbit and multiple Nobel winners in physics and chemistry.
    Yes, capitalist societies also produce technology, but capitalism is not an essential ingredient in tech development. So what is, then?

    Culture. And culture is based in – and derived along with – ethnicity. When we look at the broad improvements in material living standards achieved over the last 200 years, we should consider that ethno-cultural factors have been far more relevant than any political or economic position.

    .

    • margot metroland
      Posted May 20, 2018 at 11:47 am | Permalink

      Indeed. A planned, or “demand” economy can be at least as efficient as Goldberg’s Miracle ideal. The Red Chinese build their bullet trains overnight, Hitler did the Autobahn in a year or two, the USSR would have surpassed Levittown by the time of Nixon’s 1959 Kitchen Debate if they hadn’t spent most of their national income putting dogs in space and garrisoning Slobbovia.

      The moral issues are another matter, of course, but since we’re already living in a soft totalitarianism we may as well drop the hoodoo that American Capitalism is the finest Miracle in the world.

    • Johan
      Posted May 21, 2018 at 1:17 am | Permalink

      //Technology does not need capitalism, as evidenced by the USSR putting the first man into space, the first artificial satellite into orbit//

      To be fair, much of this was made possible by the fact that the Soviets captured large numbers of German engineers following the fall of Berlin, the first soviet-built ballistic missile (R-1) was an exact replica of the German v2 rocket . Granted, later the soviets were able to produce much bigger rockets.

      Regards

      • Greg Johnson
        Posted May 21, 2018 at 7:02 am | Permalink

        National Socialist Germany was not capitalism, either.

        • Johan Swart
          Posted May 22, 2018 at 12:33 am | Permalink

          Greg, I think it can be argued that Nazi Germany was capitalist *relative to the Soviet Union*, Mises’ criticism aside, I confess, I am no expert on Nazi Economics, the issue seems at least to be complicated with people arguing for both, this is from an abstract on the subject:

          “The Great Depression spurred State ownership in Western capitalist countries. Germany was no
          exception; the last governments of the Weimar Republic took over firms in diverse sectors. Later,
          the Nazi regime transferred public ownership and public services to the private sector. In doing
          so, they went against the mainstream trends in the Western capitalist countries, none of which
          systematically reprivatized firms during the 1930s”

          Germà Bel, Against the mainstream: Nazi privatization in 1930s Germany

  6. Irmin
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    So I guess Margot doesn’t agree with David Brooks that Goldberg’s book is “epic and debate-shifting.”

    My dislike for Goldberg is pretty intense, but I’m probably closer to some of the ideas he discusses than Margot Metroland is. CC-readers who look at his “Suicide of the West” essay, which is linked to above, may also find a few sentences to agree with.

    You have to be an anti-Semite to understand why Goldberg treats Trump as a villain in the narrative he is telling.

    Is Trump opposed to free-market economics? No, he is not. He is busily destroying large swathes of the regulatory regime of the Obama years. That’s good, in my opinion. It should be good in Jonah Goldberg’s opinion too.

    Is Trump opposed to what some call the Protestant ethic of thrift and hard work? Obviously not. Does Trump believe in lowering taxes, a perennial NR issue? Yes, he does. Is Trump anti-capitalist, however we define the term? No, he isn’t.

    So why is he bad? Why is he a threat to Western civilization, as Goldberg describes it?

    The answer, to borrow from Anglin, is that Trump isn’t in favor of infinity Muslims and infinity Mexicans. He also is — at least verbally and perhaps in reality too — opposed to deranged mideast regime changes and spreading democracy to Israel’s enemies through bombing.

    Those are the only issues that most American Jews really care about. If you are on the wrong side (i.e. the right side) of either of the two, you become an enemy.

    In Goldberg’s case, that means writing an NR-style defense of the West in which Trump appears as a villain. A non-Jewish conservative could have written the same book and, with a few changes, made Trump its hero.

    For Jews like Goldberg, “Western values” are just a system for keeping whites calm, domesticated, and raceless.

    ==

    In a February 2005 online debate with historian/blogger Juan Cole, Goldberg offered his enthusiastic support for that war, including this memorable flourish: “Let’s make a bet. I predict that Iraq won’t have a civil war, that it will have a viable constitution, and that a majority of Iraqis and Americans will, in two years time, agree that the war was worth it. I’ll bet $1,000 (which I can hardly spare right now).” There is no word on whether he paid the debt from the bet.

    http://www.nndb.com/people/614/000092338/

    • Pietas
      Posted May 18, 2018 at 1:00 am | Permalink

      Right on the trump opposition. And notice they(or their fellow travelers) always attack trump on a moral basis, ie womanizing or business practices. I first noticed that strategy in the pages of Commentary, which is no doubt where the marching orders are issued(pun alert). They use this approach because they can’t bring up the real issues—immigration, out of Middle East—because those will get approval and traction of rational Americans. Stealth is needed.

      But compare the minor allegations against trump(I don’t keep track of them)with those against bill Clinton. He had been accused of sexual assault and actual rape before he won the presidency. Yet no one seemed to think that disqualified him from the presidency. It’s all about impression and what’s being repeated in the media.

  7. James O'Meara
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    “these intellectual weeds could find any purchase at all. They should have been buried beneath layers and layers of bedrock-like dogma with no hope of finding air or sunlight. But such is the plight we face. The bedrock is cracked. The soil of our civil society is exhausted, and the roots of our institutions strain to hold what remains in place.”

    Fascinating. Usually, plucky little plants forcing their way up through concrete and finding the sun is a POSITIVE trope. That JG seems to find it troubling is a clue to how profoundly inhuman the neocon mind is. Not unlike the sociopath. it would seem.

  8. Phillip Richardson
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Brilliant article.

    ‘Offhand, I can think of a dozen ways in which the America of a hundred years ago was a better place than what we have now. Look at school textbooks and graduation requirements, for one thing. (Could today’s average graduate student even pass a standard high school exam from 1918?)’

    It is estimated that a high scool diploma from 1955 earns the same amount (i.e is of the same value) as a bachelors degree today. This is without taking into acoount grade inflation, college degree glut e.t.c.

    ‘Goldberg wants to equate free markets and free enterprise with capitalism, but they are distinctly different.’

    Yes they are not synonymous.This is why you can have capitalism in third world countries but in a perverted form where a backward population lacks
    the social capital to actually have true free markets (social trust,a non zero sum culture,property rights e.t.c)

  9. British nationalist
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    Since the Glorious Revolution and Bank of England ensured England and Englishmen a much higher standard of living, freedom from foreign invasion and dominance of much of the world for 200 years, Goldberg isn’t wrong in thanking Locke.

    • Phillip Richardson
      Posted May 17, 2018 at 9:45 am | Permalink

      in the last Calender year more people settled in Britain than all immigrants from 1066-1960 combined. Hows that freedom from foreign invasion working out?

      Oh by the way the British people were healthier and wealthier before the rise of the financiers. The industrial proletariat in England descended mainly from smallholders and yeomen who were put out of business and forced off thier land after the old lady of threadneadle street was founded. While alot of the British population hated Catholics, King Williams army (really they were dutch mercenaries) was seen as an occupying force and people hated them too.

    • margot metroland
      Posted May 17, 2018 at 10:45 am | Permalink

      Provided one accepts your post hoc ergo propter hoc proposition, which is speculative and unprovable. Cobbett disagreed, and so would modern economic historians. The height of the average British soldier shrank by two inches between 1730 and 1850. Was this because they kept recruiting more shorties for the ranks, or does it reflect a declining quality of life, particularly nutrition?
      https://www.economist.com/free-exchange/2013/09/13/did-living-standards-improve-during-the-industrial-revolution

    • Vehmgericht
      Posted May 17, 2018 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Oh dear, what an ignorant complacent perspective! Irish Catholics view ‘King Billy’ askance, to put it very mildly.

  10. Wand
    Posted May 17, 2018 at 6:53 am | Permalink

    Someone named Goldberg takes whatever is true and turns it on its head. Who would have thought?

    • James O'Meara
      Posted May 17, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

      It’s like it’s genetic or sumthin.

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