As the West declines it reverts to its roots

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 11.04am

"I think the twenty-first century will be decided by how we handle the identity crisis." - Bill Clinton, November 2012

Few people when pressed are able to pin the genesis of Western Civilisation to a date; fewer still can name its father figures; and what it is “Western” in relation to seems to constitute an enigma on the scale of the Holy Grail.

So it must come as no surprise that even fewer people outside quirky historical circles have encountered the critiques of Spengler, Guenon, Evola and A. J. Toynbee that refer to its decline.

Decline is not terribly complicated. The idea of Rome, Jerusalem and the Rhine still loom large in the European imagination. Civilisation is at its heart an article of faith; so when Jerusalem was doubted, out of the equation a substitute had to be found. Faith was installed in Reason.

Nietzsche famously destroyed the hubris of this imposter in the late nineteenth century. Philosophy since can be quite accurately dismissed as a footnote to Nietzsche. Lurching French constitutions have reflected the philosophical listlessness. Ideologies, distorting life through various reductionist lenses and pummelling it into all-embracing systems, features as a despairing response to the Prussian; attempts to create new faiths on thin air.

The attempt at vertical distention in the Age of Ideology was aborted in favour of a rather less impressive horizontal extension. Globalisation, the civilisational equivalent of a belly-flop, coincides with post-modernity in much the same way that the Age of Imperialism coincided with the West’s last crisis of faith: the Reformation.

In the absence of metanarratives into which identities can be anchored, the West now experiences existentialism. This is a big word the French use for feeling depressed in nasty cafes.

These trends have huge political ramifications. States that could once assume loyalty on racial, historical and cultural grounds can no longer afford to do so. The old building blocks of nation, geography and family look to go the same way as fealty in the feudal system or membership to a parish. New networks, environments, images, identities, peoples; some superficial some not, are being connected, generated and subscribed to at a increasingly rapid rate.

The practical political responses have been twofold. The movement towards unity focuses less on constructing civilisational life than on decreasing discomfort, controlling the fallout, and managing material decline. It concentrates on subduing conflict and increasing wealth. Its means are technocratic and it is heavily reliant on the creation of an international bureaucratic class. Its systems are currently underdeveloped but already display tentative totalitarian tendencies. Identity is its weak card. Diversity is publicly applauded but in private internationalists would prefer that irrational identity were relegated to the same private sphere religion was consigned to in the Enlightenment period.

The atomistic movement, in contrast, places heavy emphasis on identity and homogeneity. Decentralisation, democracy, accountability and liberty all flow from the axiom of “us”. It is a return to the building blocks of Europe. The ghosts of feudalism return: Catalans, Basques, Scots, Sicilians, Venetians, Cornish, Walloons and Flemish all want their identity back. These centrifugal trends are exacerbated by poorly controlled immigration - a phenomenon symptomatic of a collapse in unifying faith. Immigrants, having displayed a tendency to vote en bloc for leftist parties in order to topple status quos perceived to be historically prejudicial, now seek to raise their own flags in the Western graveyard.

The end result is that at a time when national identities are becoming terminally fractured, international infrastructure remains rudimentary. At a time when homogeneity is emerging as important, identities are becoming more fluid. Perhaps the solution to the identity crisis Bill Clinton bewails is the berthing of a primary identity in micro-communities in which basic needs such as homogeneity, resources and security are established.

Yet there will be an extension of “self” into other plastic identities in the international arena. The polar extremes of localism and internationalism will be joined in the hyperconnectivity of the next age and Europe will be returned to its constituent parts.

Follow Henry on Twitter @byzantinepower

Is David Cameron jumping the Tory electoral gun on welfare reform?

David Cowan 10.16am

Occasionally, among the static noise of 24-hour news, there comes a speech that matters. Yesterday’s by David Cameron, on welfare reform, was one of them.

The Government has already made good progress towards a better welfare state with the Universal Credit, Work Programme and the £26,000 benefits cap. But we now know that the Prime Minister and Conservative ministers have only just begun.

David Cameron is hitting back against the “entitlement culture”, which has gravely undermined a sense of “collective responsibility” that used to be so strong. It is at the heart of the ‘big society’ project to rejuvenate civil society. It is also absolutely spot on. If the state constantly intervenes in our lives instead of allowing us to live as individuals and communities, taking responsibility for our own actions, then it creates a client state of automatons.

There is already a ‘welfare gap’ between those who choose not to work and those who work and save for their family’s future. This is not because everyone on benefits is workshy but because of the perverse incentives produced by an overcomplicated system which simply isn’t working.

David Cameron is entering a potentially transformative phase in his premiership. This is not the end of ‘compassionate conservatism’, rather it is a reaffirmation of it. Instead of the lazy assumption that poverty is a problem solved by income redistribution, we are offered a more nuanced understanding. Mr Cameron highlighted the real causes of poverty, such as drug addiction, family breakdown, poor education and debt. Most importantly, he articulated the most effective solution to the problem:

"Compassion isn’t measured out in benefit cheques - it’s in the chances you give people…the chance to get a job, to get on, to get that sense of achievement that only comes from doing a hard day’s work for a proper day’s pay.

That’s what our reforms are all about. Transforming lives. Helping people walk taller.”

Elsewhere in the speech, the ‘Wisconsin model’ established during President Clinton’s administration in the US offered some inspiration: it proposes a two-year time limit on benefits, and for people receiving benefits to carry out full-time community work.

Mr Cameron also spoke about how couples on benefits were having children they obviously could not afford without state support. He proposed that income support should be stopped and additional child benefit limited for families with more than three children. Tougher measures on housing were also mooted, such as lowering the housing benefit cap further and stopping it completely for under-25s.

Deeper cuts to welfare budgets should not come as a surprise. George Osborne has already announced, in last year’s Autumn Statement, two more years of cuts and, in his Budget speech this year, the need for £10 billion of further savings from welfare by 2016 (to be outlined in the next Spending Review).

Political considerations are crucial. Downing Street’s director of strategy, Andrew Cooper, is largely responsible for the policy - his polling research showing that the benefit cap was among the Government’s more popular policies. It can prove how welfare reform is a ‘wedge issue’ on which both the Lib Dems and Labour are viewed as out of touch with the ‘striving classes’. Tougher welfare reform has now become the centrepiece of Conservative differentiation.

David Cameron has crafted a long-term vision for welfare reform that extends beyond this Parliament and establishes the groundwork for the Conservative party’s general election campaign in 2015. Undoubtedly his thinking his correct and needed but it should be some cause for concern that the coalition partners are distancing themselves to such an extent three years out from that election. The coalition needs a renewed unifying mission that goes beyond deficit reduction. A new Coalition Agreement, formulated by people such as David Laws, is what is needed now, not ‘differentiation’.

Mr Cameron’s speech is precisely what the Conservatives need to help them win in 2015. But it may have come a bit too early.

Follow David on Twitter @david_cowan