It would be both silly and presumptuous to claim that our great, if underrated, philosopher R.G. Collingwood has agreed to appear as guest columnist in this space.
It would be silly because Collingwood died in 1943. It would be presumptuous because I have no reason to believe that, even if he were alive today, he’d agree to act as my co-author.
Yet the two long quotations I’m going to offer apply to our situation today so accurately and exhaustively that they can almost function as a complete article. All I can offer is some ornamental commentary, pointing out the specific relevance of Collingwood’s insights.
The first one was an observation of how civilisations perish. In a single paragraph Collingwood dismissed simplistic explanations, while at the same time almost making long tomes redundant:
“Civilisations sometimes perish because they are forcibly broken up by the armed attack of enemies without or revolutionaries within; but never from this cause alone. Such attacks never succeed unless the thing that is attacked is weakened by doubt as to whether the end which it sets before itself, the form of life which it tries to realise, is worth achieving. On the other hand, this doubt is quite capable of destroying a civilisation without any help whatever. If the people who share a civilisation are no longer on the whole convinced that the form of life which it tries to realise is worth realising, nothing can save it.”
Collingwood’s second insight points out one key cause of our collective enfeeblement:
“The critical moment was reached when Rome created an urban proletariat whose only function was to eat free bread and watch free shows. This meant the segregation of an entire class which had no work to do whatever; no positive function in society, whether economic or military or administrative or intellectual or religious; only the business of being supported and being amused. When that had been done, it was only a question of time until Plato’s nightmare of a consumers’ society came true; the drones set up their own king and the story of the hive came to an end.”
A resounding yes on both counts. Any physical assault on a great civilisation can only ever succeed if the civilisation has lost its metaphysical core, what’s fashionably called values.
It takes a powerful hurricane to break a healthy oak in half but, when the oak is rotten inside, even a slight push will suffice. Collingwood cites Rome, but the same observation applies to us as accurately.
Anywhere we look we can see every traditional strength crumbling away, every certitude of yesteryear inverted. Man has assumed God-like powers of judging good and bad, virtuous and sinful, right and wrong, only to find that, in human hands, such powers can corrupt more than any others.
The West has abandoned the framework of discipline that’s a prerequisite for the existence of real freedom, making every notion, no matter how idiotic and subversive, acceptable and worthy of a place at the intellectual table.
Predictably that has produced a culture of self-imposed despotism that, uniquely in history, needs little help from the state’s good offices. Such help, however, is always on offer whenever the self-despotism alone can’t pull the garrotte tight enough.
The real morality of Christendom has been replaced with a fake and ever-expanding code of tyrannical restrictions on every traditional Western freedom, each based on the Judaeo-Christian understanding of man as a creature made in the image of God and therefore possessing sovereign value.
Western economies are bending under the load of unbearable debt, which makes them susceptible to evil regimes ever ready to proffer investment that, upon closer examination, turns out to be economic sabotage.
Much is being written about the report showing that the British economy has become so addicted to Putin’s fiscal poison that going cold turkey may well prove fatal. It’s because of this medical condition that foreign gangsters, working on behalf of their evil governments, have found it so easy to buy British (and generally Western) politicians both retail and wholesale.
Western politicians are still residually accountable to their voters, who have systematically shed any metaphysical yearnings, having replaced them with a craving for physical comfort. They can accept any diminution of culture, social life, morality or civil liberties, but not that of physical well-being.
Hence it’s understandably hard for Western politicians to tell Putin’s agents to keep their trillions to themselves, what with the relative impoverishment that’s likely to follow such a principled stance. That’s why it took our (Conservative!) government almost a year to publish a tepid report on the Russian penetration denominated in political influence.
The report doesn’t go far enough, possessing as it does only some limited ad hoc value. To make a really devastating point the report would have had to reveal many shocking facts that have been coyly kept under wraps – and also put such facts in the context of the accelerating disintegration under way in all Western countries, emphatically including Britain.
It’s not just about a few politicians taking campaign contributions in soiled, and often blood-soaked, millions. It’s about a society growing so feeble, so lacking in self-confidence, so malignantly hedonistic that it’s no longer able to defend itself against its enemies – indeed so enfeebled that it even refuses to recognise its enemies for what they are.
The oak has become rotten inside, and the slightest push may well bring it down. When, say, Putin or one of his successors decides that the tottering has reached a wide enough amplitude, it wouldn’t take a massive assault to bring the tree down.
A little push into, say, Estonia would test the West’s resolve, only to find it non-existent. Dying for Narva would be as unthinkable as dying for Danzig was in 1938.
Our politicians and pundits wouldn’t miss a beat echoing Neville Chamberlain who spoke of “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. When we learned, it was too late to prevent oceans of blood from spilling.
Why, that choir has already started to rehearse, with Peter Hitchens singing the solo part: “They are a poor, under-populated country nearly 2,000 miles away… We have no border with Russia, nor any other territorial, naval or economic conflict… We hardly trade with them…”
Now, Hitchens wouldn’t acknowledge a Russian threat even if a Spetsnaz brigade landed in Kent. But here the Chamberlain resonance is unmistakable, as is a complete, if possibly put-on, ignorance of modern geopolitics.
As ever, Hitchens is self-refuting. He never tires of writing – correctly, as it happens – about the woeful decline of Britain in every conceivable sense, while pretending not to realise how light an external push it would therefore take to bring about a collapse.
Those feral bearded chaps clad in bearskins also looked puny compared to the mighty edifice of Rome, with its well-drilled legions, modern technologies, firmly entrenched economic and legal principles. And then…
And then don’t read Hitchens, ladies and gentlemen. Read Collingwood instead. He saw the signs with the eagle eye of a prophet – who’d nevertheless hate to see his prophesies come true.