Spengler’s Winter


The next few posts are on the work and ideas of Oswald Spengler. He’s not a very warm or optimistic guy.

Some of this may be written awkwardly- if so, sorry. I wanted to let this post go early and get moving on this topic.
A summary of this post:

  • Social reality is as real to humans as physical reality is.
  • Hyperrealities are being sculpted continuously in our culture by rational institutions.
  • Oswald Spengler had a cyclic theory about how cultures grow and die, and we are in the Winter phase of his cycle.
  • Spengler’s Winter, the phase of Civilization, outlines how he believes our culture will die- along lines analogous to the death of cultures that preceded us.
  • Spengler would likely see kludge and media-manufactured [popularly approved!] hyperreal as the zenith of a particular phase of Winter politics.

 Optimism is cowardice.

-Oswald Spengler

Social Reality

For six years of my life, until I was 18, I fell asleep to the buzzing of conservative talk radio.

For the last few of those years I can say specifically that most nights it was 750am WSB out of Atlanta. I’d catch the tail end of the angry evening voices commenting on the day’s events, and on nights when I didn’t sleep easily (through no fault of the radio, I’m sure) I’d listen into the early morning, where lesser known voices and best-of programs would chat me to sleep instead.

Even then, I didn’t like many of the personalities I heard, or their politics (Hannity was especially grating; Michael Savage was always on the verge of stroke), but there was something about the medium that I really did like and could never articulate. Something about the energy of it. Some speakers were casual and laid back commentators, and others were driving, raving polemicists – they all did something different to the atmosphere of my room.

At the time, like a lot of people of my disposition (oversimply: young and INTP) and in my region (the South) I considered myself a sort of Libertarian (the old catchphrase being “economically conservative, socially liberal”). It’s very easy to be a Libertarian in the abstract, of course. I’m still very sympathetic to some of that tribe’s broad concerns but the label can’t really apply to me anymore for tribal reasons even more than ideological ones. Mine was a technological libertarianism, rooted in the same tendencies that would have guided me towards singularitarian thought: optimism about social and technological progress, strict individualistic “rationalism”, skepticism of bureaucracy, a vague sense of a higher order of “self-organization”.

Everywhere I looked I saw confirmation of my own political beliefs. As with most people and their religions or personal convictions, my politics were not mere information, it was in the air all around me. It was not “politics”, it was just another thing about the world that was true. When I slowly started shedding the more intense political assumptions, my beliefs still somehow maintained that air of self-evidence. And my beliefs now are presumably the same way, even as I feign awareness of my own fallibility.

Social reality is every bit as real to a person as physical reality.


The Hyperreal

We have used our wealth, our literacy, our technology, and our progress, to create the thicket of unreality which stands between us and the facts of life

-Daniel Boorstin, “The Image”


Hyperreality refers to a replica of something that never actually existed, or an image that is more real than the thing it’s supposed to represent. The hyperreal suggests stories and images curated to be “ideal”, which elicit even more from a person than their supposed source material would in nature. Pseudo-events are staged occurrences built to create press coverage for public interest reasons. As I’ve said before, “Pseudo-events ‘tend to be more interesting and more attractive than spontaneous events’ specifically because they are so much more controlled. The hyperreal is much more engaging than the real can ever be.” Pornography and professional sports are populated by superhumans. Curated lawns parody nature. The mundane is histrionic in reality tv programming. Retail stores employ “facing” to look perpetually full. Our world is full of deliberate, curated signals that signify half-truths and non-truths about the actual physical reality of supposedly readable situations.

[The pseudo-event’s] relation to the underlying reality of the situation is ambiguous. Its interest arises largely from this very ambiguity. Concerning a pseudo-event the question, ‘What does it mean?’ has a new dimension. While the news interest in a train wreck is in what happened and in the real consequences, the interest in an interview is always, in a sense, in whether it really happened and in what might have been the motives. Did the statement really mean what it said? Without some of this ambiguity a pseudo-event cannot be very interesting.

Boorstin wrote at length about “the menace of unreality” shaping American culture.

In nineteenth-century America the most extreme modernism held that man was made by his environment. In twentieth-century America, without abandoning belief that we are made by our environment, we also believe our environment can be made almost wholly by us. This is the appealing contradiction in the heart of our passion for pseudo-events: for made news, synthetic heroes, prefabricated tourist attractions, homogenized interchangeable forms of art and literature (where there are no ‘originals,’ but only the shadows we make of other shadows). We believe we can fill our experience with new-fangled content. Almost everything we see and hear and do persuades us that this power is ours. The life in America which I have described is a spectator sport in which we ourselves make the props and are the sole performers.

In United States politics, “our national politics has become a competition for images or between images, rather than between ideals” as pseudo-events spawn pseudo-events: sponsored, pre-polled and prepackaged conferences are followed by post-game analysis and discussion. Planned and sponsored protest groups bus people in and hand them signs designed by the sponsoring entity’s interns, and crowd’s positioning is worked out by a professional designer. Released documents beforehand give news organizations the information they need to prepackage a story and shoot footage.

The American Political environment creates a politics that is exciting and contentious even though not (usually [directly]) dangerous- policy is seemingly an accidental byproduct; the main product of American hyperreal politics appears to be media content [reasonably, since media can influence voters directly and powerfully]. By contrast, the Chinese Political environment focuses on the lack of contention- all real dissent is either extinguished or carefully deliberated internally. Instead, highly publicized responses to the public’s policy concerns keep the focus off of divisive and unflattering political realities in the country.


Notes on “Decline of the West”

Quoting myself:

Oswald Spengler is Toynbee’s evil twin, using a morphological methodology to present a tragic life cycle of cultures that caught the world’s attention in 1918′s The Decline of the West. Epochs are not meaningful units for historical study, but whole cultures are. Cultures are organisms with thousand-year natural life cycles, ending in spiritually empty Civilizations. Spengler is one of the Archdruid’s favorite sources so I’ve been considering reading more about him. Toynbee, whom I’ve heard of, was apparently responding in part to Spengler.

As Spengler sees it, eight High Cultures have been manifested over time: Egyptian, Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, Meso-American, Classical (Greek/Roman), “Magian” (Arabian), and “Faustian” (Western- I’ll get into the name in a later post). Each High Culture is roughly isomorphic in that they share common stages and life cycles, building through ages of faith, “modernity”, and a baroque phase where creative energy is expended. They all have a special religious essence, from which they produce their own philosophies, sciences, architecture, art, and political style until they exhaust themselves. Meaning and senses of the sacred only make sense from within a culture.

Like organisms, High Cultures die. Their final centuries are as Civilizations, which fossilize and canonize their special arts/sciences/other forms with high intellect but no soul, or creative essence. Fossils will survive High Cultures but they cannot carry the Culture’s nuance or aesthetic sense or sense of the sacred with them. Artifacts are not the only way High Cultures communicate: When two cultures are present at the same time, the more mature culture has a tendency to press its forms into the younger culture, causing social distress and distorting the lesser culture’s expression of its own form in what Spengler calls Pseudomorphosis (another topic for later).

Spengler argued, in his post-World War I book, that the constraints of other High Cultures also apply to Western culture. Over the course of only a few hundred more years, money and democracy(!) would hollow out and fossilize the Western world, killing its essence as it spins out its final cultural forms. Only blood is stronger than money: Power politics will emerge more blatantly and finally the High Culture will collapse, leaving behind its artifacts for future cultures to appropriate (although not to deeply appreciate). This is the fate of all High Cultures who live out natural lifespans (the Meso-American Culture was effectively eliminated, ending its life unnaturally early).

The temporal quantum in the life of Spengler’s High Cultures is the generation, a measure that changes little over time, so Spengler believed that cultures go through life cycles of about the same duration, and that each goes through similar phases.

  • A precultural period, when people are essentially barbarians, as in the Dark Ages of Europe;
  • Spring, an age of construction and faith like the High Middle Ages;
  • Summer, like the Renaissance and early Baroque, when the culture develops its distinctive arts and sciences;
  • Autumn, when the fundamental insights of the culture reach full maturity if not necessarily final form, as in late seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe;
  • Winter, when the creations of the past in art and science and spiritual life are perfected and elaborated, but not fundamentally extended. Technology flourishes rather than new science. For Spengler the science of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was not new, but continued the characteristically Western style of science established by people like Newton and Leibnitz. This final age is the time of increase in quantity, not quality.

Spengler called spring, summer and autumn “Culture”, and winter “Civilization”. That mankind is an active, fighting, progressing whole is a Western hypothesis, living and valid only for a season. Cultures with Civilizations, the late phase of a High Culture, have existed for only a small fraction of the time that man has existed zoologically. Spengler does not explain how High Cultures arose or what they have to do with each other. Each High Culture is equivalent to all the rest.


Living in Winter

Western civilization entered the long Winter, Civilization phase, at the beginning of the 19th century. The late period of culture ends with “the victory of the city over countryside, the intelligencia over tradition, of money over politics” in every High Culture at this phase. The American and French revolutions epitomized that late period of Western culture; in Classical culture the equivalent event was Alexander and political Hellenism. From the 19th until the early 21st century, Spengler argues that democracy is the mask under which money will dominate the body politic in a way that it hadn’t been able to before. [Gilded Age billionaire-pushed politics, “machine” politics, and “truthiness”-era media might be seen as variants of this process?] The 19th century great powers and their constitutions will yield to the informal sway of individuals and their money, perhaps in the ways I outlined in Kludge.

The 20th century has and will continue to be (remember the 1918 publishing date) a period of imperialism and annihilation wars. Science will stop reaching certainties (although technology continues to accelerate, Spengler notes). The people reject common goals. Art is reduced to fashion, and innovation as a concept is cheapened and trivialized.

Between the 21st and 23rd centuries, Caesarism rises again. The politics of brute force returns to break the stranglehold of money. In words I’d recognize, it seems that tribal strength surges and ‘impersonal’ institutions decay. Weak ties and complex bureaucracies (fueled by “money”) are severed in favor of strong ties and absolutism (fueled by “blood”). Nuance and  the essence of the high culture decays gently into the dirt.

Below I quote science fiction writer James Blish on Spengler, who influenced his sweeping fictional works. I don’t find Blish to be very careful with Spengler’s ideas, but he does make the gist of it concrete:

Civilizations may last for centuries and be extremely eventful; Imperial Rome is a prime example.

But autumn ends, and a civilization becomes a culture gone frozen in its brains and heart, and its finale is anything but grand. We are now far into what the Chinese called the period of contending states, and the collapse of Caesarism.

In such a period, politics becomes an arena of competing generals and plutocrats, under a dummy ruler chosen for low intelligence and complete moral plasticity, who amuses himself and keeps the masses distracted from their troubles with bread, circuses, and brushfire-wars. (This is the time of all times when a culture should unite — and the time when such a thing has become impossible.) Technology flourishes (the late Romans were first-class engineers) but science disintegrates into a welter of competing, grandiosely trivial hypotheses which supersede each other almost weekly and veer more and more markedly toward the occult.

Among the masses there arises a “second religiousness” in which nobody actually believes; an attempt is made to buttress this by syncretism, the wrenching out of context of religious forms from other cultures, such as the Indian, without the faintest hope of knowing what they mean. This process, too, leads inevitably towards a revival of the occult, and here science and religion overlap, to the benefit of neither. Economic inequity, instability and wretchedness become endemic on a hitherto unprecedented scale; the highest buildings ever erected by the Classical culture were the tenements of the Imperial Roman slums, crammed to bursting point with freed and runaway slaves, bankrupts, and deposed petty kings and other political refugees.

-From “Probapossible Prolegomena to Ideareal History”


These ideas are quintessentially Conservative. Daniel Boorstin was speaking about the dangers of the hyperreal during the period of the initial success of the television in propelling John F. Kennedy into the Presidency. Spengler wrote in Germany, living in the shadow of WWI. His ideas did, in fact, influence early Nazism but he was soon ostracized for his refusal to accept the racial superiority argument and for his overall pessimism/fatalism regarding what happens once a [German] Caesar rises for the Western culture after all. He was apparently unimpressed with Hitler personally. His later works would be banned.

Spengler sees rationalism and cold intelligence, atheism and materialism, as forces that will choke a high culture to death. The coming of a Caesar is not a messianic event.

Spengler argues that the era of money-dominance is scheduled to end, curtailed by a new era of power politics- but his view of civilizational decay isn’t meant to be Nostradamic- think of it instead as an actuary.

Tribes and institutions are complicit in constructing social realities for individuals. Institutions have the resources to create hyperreal objects and events. As Dewey might argue, Democracy can be subverted easily be disrupting the feedback loop of information to citizens. What he might not have known [though I’m taking liberties with presuming this] is that otherwise intelligent people can receive good information and still reject it summarily.

Engineered hyperreality can sculpt social realities that are more convincing, more engaging, than physical reality. It can drive adherent communities to pursue dangerous and un-useful symbolic goals, for example. A tribe with enough social momentum, spurred by (say) a constantly reinforced, hyperreal image of apocalypse, will continue to reinforce these social realities on their own. They won’t want incremental policy victories- they want their collective nightmare to end.


Concepts I’m sketching out for the next few posts:

-Why does Spengler start Decline with four dozen pages about numbers?

-Why is “Western culture” called “Faustian”?

-What’s the big idea behind Pseudomorphosis?