Africa Will Not Save Spengler’s West

Pope Francis greets children as he visits a refugee camp in Bangui, Central African Republic, Nov. 29. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) See POPE-BANGUI-UNITY Nov. 30, 2015.

Originally Posted on Thermidor Magazine

The subject of “Africa” is one that is it is almost impossible to breach without the rancid stench of sentimentality choking out the critical faculties of any potential interlocutor. A perfect case in point can be found, unsurprisingly, in one of Ross Douthat’s recent columns, “The West and What Come After.” Against the backdrop of Trump’s speech in Poland, Douthat writes:

This nationalist argument comes in racist forms, but it need not be the white nationalism that Trump’s liberal critics read into his speech. It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.

As such, it’s a view I endorse. But in the European case I don’t necessarily believe that it will prevail. I certainly don’t believe in Trump as its paladin — not when his entire career makes a mockery of faith, family, tradition, virtue. Nor do I have much confidence that the present burst of European nationalism is more than a spasm, a reflex — not when religious practice is so weak, patriotism so attenuated, the continent’s birthrate so staggeringly low.

What’s more, I can read the population projections for Europe versus the Middle East and Africa, which make ideas like “managed migration” and “careful cultural exchange” seem like pretty conceits that 21st-century realities will eventually explode.

Which brings me back to Césaire and Senghor, men who loved their African heritage and yet also knew European civilization better than most educated Europeans do today. Their fantasy of a post-imperial union between north and south, white and black, was in their times just that.

But as a striking sort of African-European hybrid, as prophets of a world where the colonized and the colonizers had no choice but to find a way to live together, the West’s future may belong to them in some altogether unexpected way.

The thinly veiled conceit here is that Africa will somehow develop over the next half century or so, with its burgeoning population (much of it Christian), and through the inevitable logic of mass migration somehow revitalize a dying “Western Civilization” (whose center for Douthat is, of course, the Roman Catholic Church).

Douthat elucidated this train of thought more precisely in a series of tweets:

Whenever one reads any of Douthat’s columns it is important to note that, whenever they veer into prognostication, he has a terrible habit of indulging in transparent “wishcasting.” The most famous and amusing example of this was his slew of anti-Trump pronouncements during the primaries, all of which turned out to be horribly wrong.

What we can conclude from this history of bad takes is that these predictions serve primarily as an expression of particular fantasies. The modern Catholic conservative fetish with the “Africa as savior of the West” narrative is one such fantasy.

In his brilliant and funny review of James Cameron’s genuinely awful film “Avatar” the fat Slovenian Marxist and friend of Thermidor Slavoj Zizek observed the following:

Cameron’s superficial Hollywood Marxism (his crude privileging of the lower classes and caricatural depiction of the cruel egotism of the rich) should not deceive us. Beneath this sympathy for the poor lies a reactionary myth, first fully deployed by Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous. It concerns a young rich person in crisis who gets his (or her) vitality restored through brief intimate contact with the full-blooded life of the poor. What lurks behind the compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation.

Interestingly, the narrative crux which Zizek exposes at work in Cameron’s sloppy moralizing is exactly the same as the one employed by Douthat in his own mythmaking.

For Douthat and his ilk, Africa represents a font of primitive vitalism which is, more or less, untouched by the decay and decadence of modern European Civilization. Douthat’s fantasy is that deeper contact between the virulent tribesmen of Sub-Saharan Africa and the effete bohemian bourgeois of Europe will somehow restore the West’s vigor and spiritual health. With Africans playing the part of the “Magical Negro” who exists within a narrative for the sole purpose of helping the white protagonist realize his potential.

There are several other, more practical problems with this as well, however, even beyond the patently obvious ones i.e. that such fantasies show a genuinely pathetic lack of self-confidence and are also inherently vampiric in nature etc.

Let us consider them. But first, we will attempt to define exactly what we mean when we talk about “The West.”

What is the West?

Writing from his new perch at National review, Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote the following about what constitutes “the West” after Trump’s Poland Speech:

Now my own definition of “the West” is wider than Samuel Huntington’s, and includes most of Christendom outside the Islamic world, including territories and nations he classifies as Orthodox, Latin American, and African. All of these now benefit from the same inheritance and strive, in Trump’s words, to “value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.”

Even as someone who believes that the pace of migration into Western Europe must slow down, I’m delighted to live in a civilization that people want to enter rather than leave, and I’m delighted that its great conversations and its inner turmoil are understood and shared by people from Puerto Santa Cruz to Minsk, from California to Kinshasa to Auckland.

Doughtery’s absurdly grandiose claim can only be explained as a kind of ecumenical Catholic power fantasy. Where any civilization which has ever been in major contact with the West (through colonization, war, commerce etc.) and has a significant Christian population somehow becomes, through some kind of osmosis, a part of “the West.” And thus, conveniently, also under the authority and jurisdiction of the West’s spiritual leader: the Pope, even if they don’t know it yet.

Such a claim is amusingly presumptuous and ignores almost all the serious thinkers who have examined the subject in any depth. Opting instead to indulge in that particular brand of sentimentality which has long been the specialty of professional ecumenists. The sentimentality which simply refuses to make hard distinctions between civilizations and cultures and instead chooses only to emphasize superficial similarities in the vain hopes of forging a universal brotherhood of man.

We should not be fooled by such seemingly kindhearted gestures of ecumenical good will, generously christening so much of the world as “Western.” For hidden within such apparent acts of altruism, as all good Nietzscheans know, is a deep-seated and frustrated will to power which seeks to accomplish through diplomacy and guile what it historically could not through brute force alone. The reforms of Vatican Two, for example, can be properly understood through such a lens. Here it is appropriate that we refer to Spengler’s remarks on what he called “Ethical Socialism,” a similarly deceptive phenomenon:

In spite of its foreground appearances, ethical Socialism is not a system of compassion, humanity, peace and kindly care, but one of will-to-power. Any other reading of it is illusory. The Stoic takes the world as he finds it, but the Socialist wants to organize and recast it in form and substance, to fill it with his own spirit. The Stoic adapts himself, the Socialist commands. He would have the whole would take the shape he desires, thus transferring the idea of the Critique of Pure Reason into the ethical field. This is the ultimate meaning of the Categorical Imperative, which he brings to bear in political, social and economic matters alike—act as though the maxims that you practice were to become by your will the law for all.

Thus, in a very peculiar sense, there is a serious case to be made that the purest Nietzschean alive today may be none other than the very Argentine Eunuch who presently serves as the bishop of Rome. Who seeks, along with his fellow travelers, to universally impose, by whatever means available, concepts that Dougherty approvingly refers to as: “the dignity of every human life,” “the rights of every person,” and “the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” The irony of Dougherty’s entire exercise here is, of course, that there is nothing more truly Western (and thus parochial) than attempting to Universalize a particular. And this is precisely what Dougherty does when he claims Kinshasa, Minsk and Puerto Santa Cruz for the West, as though he were some kind of latter day conquistador claiming the new world for Spain. But again, this instinct, as Spengler explains in a preceding chapter, is the purest possible manifestation of the Faustian Soul:

WESTERN mankind, without exception, is under the influence of an immense optical illusion. Everyone demands something of the rest. We say “thou shalt” in the conviction that so-and-so in fact will, can and must be changed or fashioned or arranged conformably to the order, and our belief both in the efficacy of, and in our title to give, such orders is unshakable. That, and nothing short of it, is, for us, morale. In the ethics of the West everything is direction, claim to power, will to affect the distant. Here Luther is completely at one with Nietzsche, Popes with Darwinians, Socialists with Jesuits; for one and all, the beginning of morale is a claim to general and permanent validity

The moral imperative as the form of morale is Faustian and only Faustian. It is quite wrong to associate Christianity with the moral imperative. It was not Christianity that transformed Faustian man, but Faustian man who transformed Christianity—and he not only made it a new religion but also gave it a new moral direction. The “it” became “I,” the passion-charged centre of the world, the foundation of the great Sacrament of personal contrition. Will-to-power even in ethics, the passionate striving to set up a proper morale as a universal truth, and to enforce it upon humanity, to reinterpret or overcome or destroy everything otherwise constituted—nothing is more characteristically our own than this is.

From its origins in scholastic rationalism and natural law theories on through the rise of Deism, the Kantian Imperative, The Rights of Man, Universal Class Struggle, on down to the “Universal Human Rights” of our contemporary Neoliberals, nothing has been more exclusively Western than this drive for power which is hidden beneath the pretense of “Universal Reason.”

The point here, however, is not to condemn this Western Impulse, but simply to recognize it. For both good and ill what Spengler deemed the “Faustian Spirit” is an intrinsic part of the Western soul and has been responsible for both its wonders and horrors.

African Dreams

Now that we have at least scratched the surface of what we mean (or should mean) when we speak of “The West”, we can return to the question of what, if any, role Africa will play in the West’s future.

No one, of course, can predict the future with any certitude. However, there are several outcomes which, according to the present observable trends, are likely to manifest in the coming decades.

The first and most obvious of these is Africa’s incredible projected population growth. Unlike populations in Asia, such as China and India where birth rates have declined dramatically from their 1970’s highs, Africa’s birth rates have actually somehow slightly increased. It is currently estimated that if present trends continue Africa’s overall population could quadruple from its current 1 billion to over 4 billion by 2100, with the population of Subsaharan Africa alone swelling from its present 900 million to over 2.2 billion. From the Economist:

The prospect of so rapid a rise has triggered a host of Malthusian fears, on the continent and elsewhere. If Africa is struggling to feed a billion people, it is hard to see how it could feed 4 billion in future. Though the past decade has been relatively peaceful, perhaps a population boom will fuel civil strife. And surely, some fear, the expanding masses will destroy what is left of Africa’s flora and fauna, wiping out endangered species and pouring concrete on primal forest and grassland.

Such pessimism is probably overdone. Though fertility has not fallen as much in Africa as elsewhere, it has declined. So far, Central Africa’s tropical forests have not felt the chainsaws. And Africa remains a relatively empty continent. It covers a quarter of the globe’s land mass but hosts only 15% of its population. Asia, the most densely populated as well as most populous continent, has 137 people per square kilometre. Africa has 39. There should be room for more Africans.

Although it is certainly the case that Malthusian fears have been historically overblown by decadent first-worlders, who fail to understand the seemingly limitless ability of global capitalism to innovate its way past all natural limits, it is hard to believe that such a massive population boom in such a volatile and dysfunctional part of the world could happen without serious negative consequences.

These negative consequences will have far less to do with a Malthusian crisis of scarcity, since, after all, Africa is a quite a large landmass with significant deposits of natural wealth. Rather these consequences will spring, almost exclusively, from the cultural dysfunction inherent in so many African societies.

Most of Sub-Sahara African societies still operate, much like Afghanistan, on a tribal model. With the current “nations”, whose names and boundaries presently appear on Google Maps, being mostly artificial creations of Post-colonialism and the Cold War.

It is an Iron Age mindset and thus, again, much like Afghanistan, we should not be surprised when it results in Iron Age outcomes. As has been quite evident for decades in the continent’s seemingly endless series of Civil Wars and small (and large) scale genocides.

Even when a country has managed to escape the worst possible outcomes, such as the anarchy and nightmarish violence which regularly happens in places like Somalia, Sierra Leone, The Congo and South Sudan, it does so almost entirely due to the actions of a Mugabesque strong man who operates as little more than a petty warlord. While he may provide some semblance of order, he still ultimately only leaves corruption and stagnation in his wake.

The few exceptions, such as Ghana, end up proving the rule.

This level of social organization, which can objectively be termed primitive, is surely one of the reasons why Samuel Huntington did not recognize any Non-Islamic section of Africa (with the notable exception of Ethiopia, which was a thriving and vibrant civilization when many Europeans were still living in hovels) as constituting a legitimate “Civilization.”

The Great Migration

All of these realities of African Societies, for most Europeans, would be only of passing or, at best, humanitarian interest if it wasn’t for the events of the past several years. Recent events—in particular, the destruction of the Government of Lybia—have completely altered the dynamics of the relationship between Africa and “The West.”

African migrants are now flowing, en masse, from the shores of a lawless Lybia and straight into the underbelly of a spiritually exhausted but otherwise still prosperous Europe.

This trend will only continue in the coming decades as Africa’s population exponentially expands and the Economic overlords of the West’s great Neoliberal metropolises seek out ever more inexpensive sources of labor to staff their servant classes with.

Sentimental columnists like Douthat believe the silver lining to this phenomenon will be African vitalism giving new life to an exhausted West by bringing in a revitalized Christianity. This is a profound mistake, but not just for the obvious reasons that were previously stated.

Douthat and Dougherty’s primary sin is their implicit assumption, revealed by the substance of their rhetoric, that, in the words of Hilaire Belloc, “Europe is the faith, the faith is Europe.”

While it may be legitimate to recognize the inherently Christian characteristics of Western European Civilization, it is utterly illegitimate to claim that Western European Civilization somehow defines Christianity. This latter idea seems to be the driving force behind Michael Brendan Dougherty’s inane assertion that the West spans from “Minsk to Kinshasa.” Since if “the West” is really just Christianity itself then all nations who embrace Christianity in any significant way instantly become part of the West.

The only problem is that this assertion is completely ahistorical and ignores massive parts of Christian history and theology.

The Christian Church, while it can inhabit the symbolic imaginaries of particular cultures, also simultaneously transcends these particular forms without negating them. But it certainly isn’t bound to any one particular form, as was the Delusion of the Roman Catholic Latinizers of the 18th and 19th centuries who, in classic Faustian fashion, attempted to will their particular into a universal.

Christianity started in Asia and experienced its theological golden age in North Africa, Egypt, and Asia Minor. The first Nations to declare Christianity the official faith were Armenia and Ethiopia. Nations where they have been continuously practiced down to the present day.

Western Christianity, while notable for many reasons, is not representative of the Christian tradition as a whole and shouldn’t be mistaken for it. Western Christianity is a peculiar and parochial phenomenon which emerged out of particular conditions.

The notion that one can revitalize such a particular phenomenon by importing foreign elements which are utterly culturally alien is worse than naive and flirting with open deception. This isn’t to say that a massive influx of African Christians in the next 100 years wouldn’t potentially make Europe more “Christian”; it very well may. But it is worth noting that this “Christianity,” as it is mostly an interesting mixture of shopping mall evangelicalism and African Animism, would in no sense revitalize “Western Civilization” but rather usher in its replacement.

To be fair, this grand replacement of Western Civilization may be all but inevitable at this late stage in its lifecycle. Spengler certainly thought so, as he presciently articulated in “Man and Technics” where he described the inevitable eclipse of Western Civilization by its civilizational rivals:

Today more or less everywhere — in the Far East, India, South America, South Africa — industrial regions are in being, or coming into being, which, owing to their low scales of wages, will face us with a deadly competition. The unassailable privileges of the white races have been thrown away, squandered, betrayed. The others have caught up with their instructors. Possibly — with their combination of “native” cunning and the over-ripe intelligence of their ancient civilizations — they have surpassed them…The innumerable hands of the coloured races — at least as clever, and far less exigent — will shatter the economic organization of the whites at its foundations.

For these “coloured” peoples (including, in this context, the Russians) the Faustian technics are in no wise an inward necessity. It is only Faustian man that thinks, feels, and lives in this form. To him it is a spiritual need, not on account of its economic consequences, but on account of its victories — “navigare necesse est, vivere non
est necesse.” For the coloured races, on the contrary, it is but a weapon in their fight against the Faustian civilization, a weapon like a tree from the woods that one uses as house timber, but discards as soon as it has served its purpose. This machine-technics will end with the Faustian civilization and one day will lie in fragments, forgotten — our railways and steamships as dead as the Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities and skyscrapers in ruins like old Memphis and Babylon. The history of this technics is fast drawing to its inevitable close.. It will be eaten up from within, like the grand forms of any and every Culture. When, and in what fashion, we know not.

Whether we or our descendants will live to see Spengler’s infamous pessimism borne out remains to be seen. The future, after all, is still unwritten. However, the very least we can do is maintain a certain intellectual honesty, as a doctor is expected to be honest with a cancer patient about his realistic chances for survival and treatment options. And not retreat to oriental herbal remedies or wax poetic about the amazing healing properties of crystals, in order to hide what may be an unpleasant truth.

If Africans do end up making the trip and begin “colonizing” Europe, for better or worse, they may indeed bring a newfound spiritual and civilizational vigor (in time perhaps establishing their own unique civilization) but it won’t be a Western one. As they remain part of a unique cultural and civilizational framework which, while it deserves respect on its own terms, will always remain irreducibly distinct from the West’s. Thus, no spiritual blood transfusion, of the kind dreamt of by the Opinion page Catholics, will ever succeed in fomenting anything but catastrophe.

The solution to Europe’s crisis, if there is one, is something she will have to find within herself.

There died a myriad,

And of the best, among them,

For an old bitch gone in the teeth,

For a botched civilization