Technocrats review the work of other Technocrats: Adam Tooze on Jed Esty’s ‘The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits’: Beware the thinker/writer with a theory, or a grudge!

Philosophical Apprentice ask the question : Wasn’t ‘Theory’ once the province of the Post-Modernists? who were purged for political/argumentative incoherence: Derrida?

December 20, 2022

Beware of the Technocrat with a Theory: ‘The Closing of The American Mind’ by Allan Bloom, ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ by Samuel P. Huntington, ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ by Francis Fukuyama… moving into the near present ‘The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?’ by Graham Allison and ‘The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris’ by Peter Beinart. In a crowded field, what to name it? Mr. Tooze ‘reviews’ ‘English literature professor Jed Esty book, The Future of Decline: Anglo-American Culture at its Limits.’

Beware Reader! this essay is 2,196 words long, so plenty of breathing room for Mr. Tooze to expatiate… In this paragraph Mr. Tooze presents Mr. Etsy as the shade of a latter day Parker Tyler? Or is James Agee the more respectable choice?

As Esty puts it, it isn’t just data that matters, but the story you tell with it. It is in deciphering this complex weave of reality and narrative that Esty’s expertise as a literature professor takes effect. Ranging widely across genres, he reads cinema, TV shows and literature, from The West Wing to the Yale historian Paul Kennedy and Marvel’s Black Panther, as examples of a culture of decline. 

This sentence fails to address the toxic effect that a transgenerational Neo-Liberalism, and its twin Globalism, have destroyed America’s indigenous Manufacturing superiority.

As far as America’s relative standing is concerned, there are some uncontroversial facts. In 1945 the US share of global GDP was almost 50 per cent. By 2020 its share had fallen to 16 per cent.

Mr. Tooze evaluates Esty in two paragraphs:

For Esty, the swirling dialectic of national exceptionalism, fear of decline and the promise of national revival delivers a cockeyed view of the world, which will be painfully familiar to British readers. The preoccupation with great power status results in too much military spending and not enough money for education and infrastructure. Global posturing distracts from sensibly-scaled civic initiatives to make the US a more liveable place for the vast majority of its population.

Like many American reformers before him, Esty proposes that to break out of this cycle of power-obsessed thinking, US political culture needs a new sense of proportion. And as Esty sees it, that would be best instilled by a suitably redesigned programme of humanities education. A proper appreciation of the West’s entangled and violent history will deflate the exceptionalist balloon and invite more sobriety and realism. Reversing the priorities that once motivated British critics of decline, Esty argues that America’s contemporary focus on tech solutionism and Stem education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is both a symptom and a cause of the malaise.

Mr. Tooze’s book review becomes aggressive, even hostile to Esty:

Esty, however, proposes to break with America’s national traditions. His suggestion is that in crafting a new curriculum for an age beyond great power hubris, US educators and intellectuals should take inspiration, of all places, from Britain. What he has in mind is not the Kiplingesque punditry of the likes of the historian Niall Ferguson, but its opposite. Esty’s inspiration is the British New Left, which he sees as exemplary in its efforts to come to terms with the end of imperial greatness.

It is a charming, if implausible suggestion. No one could disagree with the need to revisit classics such as Policing the Crisis (1978), a landmark work headed by Stuart Hall that used the moral panic over mugging in 1970s Britain to decipher a power structure under threat. But the suggestion that a curriculum drawn from 1970s cultural studies and back issues of the New Left Review can offer an antidote to Maga ideology is far-fetched. Apart from anything else Esty’s basic conceit, that the US’s imperial decline is analogous to that of the UK’s, does not stand up to close scrutiny. The British empire never wielded the firepower commanded by Washington today. The UK never confronted a nuclear armed Soviet Union or the rise of modern China. On the other hand, America’s domestic problems are far more severe, violent and entrenched than anything confronting postwar Britain in the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s, or today. Though they may share a common history in Atlantic slavery, Britain is a post-colonial not a post-emancipation society. There is no British equivalent to mass incarceration, Jim Crow or the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of declinism, the UK was building a welfare state. Half a century later, as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, the US still lacks a decent public healthcare system. Life expectancy in America lags significantly behind that in Britain.

But The Reader now confronts the root of Tooze’s miss-directed anger at Esty:

Still today, Perry Anderson, the power behind the New Left Review and repeatedly invoked by Esty, writes as if from the Olympian heights. Recently he has concentrated most of his attention on the logics of American power. If the aim is to propose a more democratic and modest approach to history would it not make more sense to draw inspiration from grassroots efforts such as the History Workshop Journal or Raphael Samuel’s remarkably capacious understanding of popular history?

The Reader need only explore Anderson’s essay on Tooze, in the ‘The New Left Review’ of September/October 2019


Mr. Tooze seems to have regained, at least a part of his composure, in this last paragraph:

In historical terms it is quite hard to think of any analogy to this moment. The Soviet Union was never as entangled with the Western economies as China is today. For all its commitment to the economic weapon and blockade, the British empire never pursued a policy as deliberately destructive of any particular commercial competitor as the one that the US has pursued against China’s Huawei. Read against the current mood in Washington, Esty’s critique of declinism and his well-meaning appeal for common sense and realism feel almost escapist. It would be comforting to imagine that America today is in a situation analogous to that of Britain in the 1950s or the 1960s, where the worst that could be unleashed is a bloody but localised postcolonial expedition. In its unipolar moment, the United States created havoc enough, in Iraq and Libya. But today the stakes are higher even than that. Rather than the Suez debacle of 1956 the relevant historical example today is the Cuban missile crisis. As tension with Russia mounts over Ukraine and with China over Taiwan, the question that overshadows our time is not American national decline, but the risk that a second Cold War might unleash a Third World War.

Philosophical Apprentice

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.'
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