Matthew Price, writer and book critic
The End Was Nigh
Richard Overy’s comprehensive account of the fear of “civilisational decline” that gripped Britain between the world wars poses more than a few challenges for the doomsayers of today.
By Matthew Price. The National, August 20, 2009

The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, by Richard OveryThe West, it seems, is living through a golden age of civilisational anxiety, marked by endless agonising about the uncertain future: its loss of power, the climate crisis, terrorism, rogue nuclear weapons, economic collapse, the unchecked flow of immigrants across borders. Whether the calamities envisioned by today’s Cassandras will come to pass cannot be determined, but our vivid imagination for disaster has long and deep roots. Indeed, the story of the West might be seen as tale of progress married to peril. Advances in technology, governance, and standards of living have been accompanied by new anxieties and an uneasy self-consciousness about the fragility of such gains. Technology appears as wonder and horror alike, both panacea and mortal threat. We twitter blissfully away on our laptops, worrying all the while about the collapse of the electronic infrastructure on which we now depend — or the malignant ends to which it could so easily be turned. One law of civilisation might be cast as follows: Every strength needs to be opposed by a perceived existential threat.

The sum of these fears — or their apotheosis — is the belief that civilisation (read: “the West”) is fated to decline, to be subdued from without or collapse from within. This too, is not a new idea. History, it is true, has often been narrated as a Whiggish tale of continual progress — that “It’s getting better all the time”, as Sir Paul McCartney put it. But this uplifting Enlightenment sentiment has always been opposed by a darker view, one that stresses the cycles of history, the tendency for what has risen to fall again — a physics of decline with its own martial undertones, including the unmistakable implication that the West, fat and happy with the fruits of its technological and cultural sophistication, is blithely tottering on the brink of oblivion.

Few thinkers savaged Europe’s faith in progress with the ferocity of Friedrich Nietzsche, who thought that anything called “progress” was a mere illusion — if there was even such a thing, he suggested, its flowering could only give way to dissolution. Nietzsche’s ideas were carried into the 20th century by Oswald Spengler, whose book The Decline of the West became the ur-text of declinism in the 1920s. About history, Spengler concluded: “I see no progress, no goal no path for humanity.”

Spengler’s pessimism squared nicely with the gloomy mood of Europe after the First World War. If his book appears now as a curious artefact of its time, it helped to establish a template of decline — and a rhetoric to evoke its inevitability — that endures today, a kind of civilisational pessimism that exists at all points among the ideological spectrum; the declinists of the left and right obsess over very different threats, but the essential dynamic transcends politics.

In his suggestive new book The Morbid Age: Britain Between the Wars, the distinguished historian Richard Overy looks back to the time of Spengler to explore how the paradox of progress and peril consumed almost every aspect of British society in the two decades between the First and Second World Wars. His subject matter, Overy writes, “is in no sense an insular history”. As America does today, Britain then considered itself the hub of western civilisation — and its putative crisis was cast by intellectuals, writers, artists, politicians and scientists as a “crisis of civilisation”, tout court. Fear and doubt, then as now, were pervasive — over the resilience of capitalism, the health of the population, the direction of society and, above all, about whether Europe would soon destroy itself in another violent conflagration. The discourse Overy surveys was widespread: “There were few areas of intellectual endeavour, artistic, literary, scientific, philosophical, that were not affected in some form or other by the prevailing paradigms of impending decline and collapse,” he writes. “The sense of crisis was not specific to any one generation… nor was it confined to one political or social outlook.”

Overy has gathered a rich harvest of material — pamphlets, broadsides, books, lectures, newsreels and radio broadcasts — from a diverse assortment of English writers and thinkers, among them EM Forster, the brothers Aldous and Julian Huxley, HG Wells, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Stephen Spender, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw and the historian Arnold Toynbee. If the world was indeed ending, there was as much eloquence from these figures as there was gloom about their predicament. (After a health crisis in 1936, Forster mused that he was being nursed “with so much kindness and sense,” despite living in a “civilisation which has neither kindness or sense.”)

Few did more to establish the tenor of the era than Arnold Toynbee, Britain’s own Spengler. In Toynbee’s view, all civilisations hewed to the same pattern, which Overy describes as “creative expansion, mechanistic consolidation, internal decay prompted by cultural stagnation, social division, and a final universal Caesarism”. Just as past civilisations — Mayan, Roman, Greek — had seen glory and then disappeared from the face of the earth, the West would meet a similar fate. His ideas found a receptive audience in the inter-war years. Lecture halls featured talks on topics like “The Decay of Moral Culture” and the poetic if overwrought “The Smoke of Our Burning”. Death was on everyone’s minds — in 1924, one lecturer asked “Why not Commit Suicide?” (Overy does not say how the question was answered). In the mid-1930s, John Boulting (of the famed filmmaking duo the Boulting Brothers), recoiled after a trip to London, where he found only “dirt, disorder and a terrifying din”, another sign of a society plunging “headlong, blindly and almost eagerly towards a gigantic carnival of self-extermination”.

Today, this erudite hysteria may seem unintentionally funny, the hyper-articulate ravings of terrified intellectuals. But Overy notes that these views were hardly outside the mainstream: Britain had been overcome by a tidal wave of despair, and as the 1920s gave way to the years of the Slump, the agitation only increased. Writers fed the public’s appetite for the literature of crisis — The Intelligent Man’s Guide Through the World Chaos, by the socialist writer GDH Cole, sold some 50,000 copies in 1932. (Whatever the state of British civilisation, these years proved a boon to the publishers like Allen Lane, the founder of Penguin Books, and Victor Gollancz, the proprietor of the Left Book Club.)

Overy contends that this was not merely a time of escalating and overheated rhetoric: the prophets of decline were deadly sincere, looking to science, economics, medicine and history to construct elaborate proofs of the nearing of the end. If, as has been suggested, this was primarily the discourse of an educated elite, whose views “reflected the prejudices and the expectations of the educated classes”, the theories of decline found a wide and eager audience — they flourished, Overy writes, “in the first real age of mass communication”.

The Morbid Age is a showcase for the brightest minds of the era, yet the fruits of all this fevered fretting were often less than palatable. The discourse of crisis was extreme in tone; the terms used to describe the state of Britain were invariably apocalyptic and millennial. Moderate voices were drowned by a series of emotive keywords that recur again and again in the literature Overy surveys: decay, menace, disease, barbarism, chaos, descent, sick. Even among some of the most progressive thinkers of the age, as Overy shows, the diagnosis that British civilisation was approaching collapse bore a deeply reactionary tint.

Perhaps the most sinister manifestation of this current was the intellectual vogue for eugenics. The rise and fall of civilisations could, in part, be explained by theories of racial purity. In Britain, many concluded that the wrong people — the poor and the mentally handicapped — were giving birth at a rate that threatened to engulf society in a wave of mediocrity. “We are getting larger and larger dregs at the bottom of our national vats,” concluded one biologist. To counter the trend, the British Eugenics Society, whose members included Julian Huxley and Keynes, promoted a campaign of sterilisation that looked very much like a similar programme implemented in Nazi Germany.

This ugly esteem for eugenics was but one manifestation of the great faith laid at the feet of science, whose advances were widely believed to represent the only possible hope for salvation. “Confidence in the power of science to deliver what was appropriate for modern society was widespread” writes Overy. “In turn science enjoyed an exceptional power of suggestion among the widespread public, which followed the debates on issues of real contemporary significance closely.”

But the sword of science cut two ways: for Toynbee, in fact, it was “scientific technique” that allowed him to verify the impending decline of the West, while others turned to the new protocols of psychoanalysis in an attempt to pinpoint society’s weaknesses. If patients could be put on the couch, why not entire civilisations? Used properly, Freud’s innovation might be used to cure “the insanity of nations”, as one psychoanalyst said, and even put an end to war. But psychoanalytic discourse, with its emphasis on irrational desire and aggression, only seemed to confirm that nations would act recklessly.

Science, alas, ratified the fears it was meant to assuage: in the end, Overy suggests, it endorsed the view that was already becoming widespread, in which war was an inevitable feature of modern life. Conflict was no longer to be explained as the result of “ambitions or miscalculations of a handful of politicians and generals.” Instead, war came to be seen as “something alien and external, endowed with an inexorable force which seemed to obey its own natural laws”—ones beyond the control of human agency.

“Words, as is well known, are the great foes of reality,” wrote Joseph Conrad. It’s a sentiment that Overy almost certainly shares. His book, he says, is a warning, and it tells us to be wary of men and women who come bearing theories about the end of civilisation. A society’s obsession with its own destruction, he suggests, can actually hasten the outcome it seeks to avoid: Britain, of course, soon got the very war that it had for so long dreaded. The obsession with preventing war paradoxically made war more possible: “the more war was discussed and the more lurid the imagery invoked to describes its effects, the more war itself seemed to assume a solid shape in the popular mind and the narrower and more extreme became the options between an unattainable state of peace and an all-too attainable state of catastrophic war.” (It was enough for one critic to protest: “Stop talking about war. If we talk about war much longer we may talk it into existence.)

For Overy, narratives of civilisational decline, in 1930s Britain or 2000s America, cannot but be overblown. “The constant theme of civilisation in crisis,” he concludes, “if repeated often enough and in different contexts, develops an explanatory power that does not have to take account of any existing disjuncture between historical reality and the language of threat.” Much of the material Overy surveys in The Morbid Age had a risibly short shelf life. But the language of threat, alas, is for all time.


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