A review of How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too), by David P. Goldman

In The Decline of the West (1918-1923), Oswald Spengler predicted that the Western countries would depopulate and decay. The European nations had become too urbane to sustain what he called (in pop-Nietzschean fashion) the "organic logic" of life. "Children do not happen," he wrote, "because intelligence at the peak of intensity can find no longer any reason for their existence." The West, according to Spengler, was dying of civilization.

The massive growth of the world's population, including the population of the West, over the second half of the 20th century put something of a dent in Spengler's reputation and put to rest for the moment concerns about population decline. Worrying about demographics became mostly the province of environmentalists and others fearing various "population bombs."

In recent years, however, demographic questions have risen again to urgent importance—for almost Spenglerian reasons. Current data do point to demographic decline. America has a children-to-women "total fertility rate" just barely at replacement level (2.1), and countries as diverse as South Korea, Italy, and Germany all have birthrates at or below 1.5. The "demographic argument" has been pressed by Mark Steyn, Melanie Phillips, and many of conservatism's brightest lights (even David Brooks in the New York Times!) but it owes its resurgence to a series of articles that began in the mid-1990s in the Asia Times under the pseudonym "Spengler."

Since 1999, the prolific "Spengler" has published more than 400 columns with titles as varied as "Zombinomics and Volatility," "The World isn't flat—but flattened," "Putin for President…of the United States," and "Why you pretend to like modern art." These online columns are said to have received hits measured in the millions, and among those millions are many smart, influential people. Online readers speculated that the mysterious "Spengler" could be anyone from a rogue philo-semitic Leo Strauss—reading Chinese Communist Party economist to a Russian plant. In 2009 he finally identified himself as David P. Goldman, a top-ranked bond strategist at Credit Suisse, Bear Stearns, and Bank of America, classically trained musician, and erstwhile follower of Lyndon Larouche.

How Civilizations Die is a general synthesis of the ideas that Goldman developed in his Spengler columns. It offers a brilliant and highly idiosyncratic analysis of contemporary demographic collapse and civilizational decline. Its chapters focus on resilient American and Israeli birthrates, European sterility, and the dramatic decline in Muslim birthrates, subjects about which Goldman has been writing since the tech bubble burst in 1999—at least half a decade ahead of the now well-established civilizational collapse punditry.

Like the Spengler columns, How Civilizations Die has the tone of an exceptionally well-written investment or intelligence report, featuring very frank qualitative assessments illustrated with telling empirical proofs drawn from statistics, science, and history. But just as interesting as the book's argument is Goldman's arch-modern German-Jewish or "Yekke" set of interests, which color the text: high Wilhelmian culture, classical music, late 19th-century theology, geopolitical and economic strategy, financial recommendations. I am not qualified to judge this last interest, but a friend who works in the financial services industry reports that "analysts who are that good usually sell their ideas to people or, if they're crazy enough, try to invest on the basis of them." Goldman, in contrast, spent the years of the financial crisis offering free advice at a separate Asia Times Online blog called Inner Workings.

* * *

His book offers both a predictive account of the demographics of the Muslim Countries, Europe, America, Israel, Japan, and others, and a political theory explaining the ultimate cause of the various demographic winters and springs he sees and predicts. He combines a social scientific "how civilizations die" with a philosophic "why civilizations die." He is more convincing with the how than the why.

Goldman's financial background comes in handy in his explanation of current demographic trends, and he has produced a far more robust account than any of the others who have tackled this subject. All honor to Mark Steyn, whose influence over a generation of younger conservatives, especially in Canada, will be felt in the years ahead, but Goldman actually runs the numbers himself. Other writers have seen current European demographics as a prelude to "Eurabia," and Goldman shares the mostly gloomy view of Europe. He believes that, by 2050, women in childbearing years in Europe will be one third of today's number. In Japan there will be half as many as today. By 2090, 50% of Japanese and 40% of Europeans will be over 60.

* * *

Goldman does not envision a Muslim takeover of Europe, not because he has any particular faith in European governments (although he suggests that Britain and France are better than others), but because Islam itself is in the process of implosion. Across ethnicities and regions Muslim birthrates have been falling precipitously. Since 1950 Iran's fertility rate has fallen by six children per woman, Turkey's by five, Egypt's by four, Pakistan's by three. He predicts that the average age in Europe by 2050 will increase slightly from 40 to 46 years. The average ages in many Muslim countries, today ranging from the late teens to the late twenties, will rise to 40 or more, and, unlike the Europeans, these countries lack the resources to manage this sudden inversion in the population structure.

Goldman attributes the decreasing fertility rates in Muslim countries to what he considers their loss of "connection to the past and their confidence in the future." Traditional Islamic societies exhibit extremely high birth rates when they first encounter modern nutrition and medicine, but once modern life intervenes, measured by literacy rates, the birth rate does not merely edge downwards (as it did in Western countries) but "collapses" within a generation or two. He sees signs of extreme decay everywhere in the Muslim world, including Turkey, often touted as a model for other Islamic countries, and, most jarringly, Iran, whose birthrate is now just 1.7 children per woman (1.5 for Tehran). Iran is in extreme social decay: Goldman says that 12% of the non-elderly adult population use hard drugs and that highly educated women often prostitute themselves, hoping to share in some of the country's still significant oil windfalls. The mullahs have managed to kill off much of the faith of Iranians; mosque attendance has plunged to as low as 2% (though this is hard to measure because any street corner can serve for Islamic worship).

Goldman's view surely conflicts with the "realist" take on Iran, dominant among American pundits since at least the myopic 2006 Iraq Study Group Report described it as a large, stable Shiite country with lots of oil, governed by clerics who might wish America ill but who will ultimately restrain themselves through "rational calculations." Goldman helps us see that, to recognize Iran's instability, one need not believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to hasten his tête-à-tête with the hidden Imam. In the face of social decay, imploding demographics, and perhaps an impending decline in oil revenues, the mullahs might actually have very good reason to engage in risky belligerent activity that complacent Western political analysts would call irrational.

* * *

How Civilizations Die attributes the failure of Islamic societies to Islam itself. Islam, he argues, is an "all or nothing" proposition. Seemingly so strong when contained in pre-modern circumstances, Islam crumbles when it brushes up against a modern world built on a doctrine of individual rights, along with the science, technology, and globalization that this world has produced.

According to Goldman, Judaism and Christianity are premised on a covenant that limits God's power within the framework of promises He has made, leaving the individual sovereign over what God omits. Christianity and Judaism render to God what is God's and to Caesar what is Caesar's. Islam, in contrast, has no concept of individual rights because this would imply a limit on Allah's power: there is no god like Allah, no prophet like Mohammed, and nothing that Allah cannot do. Late modernity is hard on religion, but at least modernity's stress on freedom is compatible with those faiths that focus on the free individual's relation with God.

The collapse of Islamic birthrates is not historically unique. "Spengler" claims that when other "national religions" have confronted modernity, the nation decayed once the religion was forsaken. For example, Quebec had a de facto and almostde jure national church throughout Canadian history. During the "Quiet Revolution" of the 1960s, the fertile paysans of Quebec were educated, moved to the cities, ultimately left their beloved Church—and their fertility dropped by two-thirds to 1.5 by the mid 1980s (slightly higher now due to immigration).

In one of the more surprising parts of the book, Goldman tells a similar story about the death of Christianity in Europe. He makes much of Cardinal Richelieu and the Thirty Years' War. Richelieu's support of German Protestants even as he suppressed French ones allegedly started a "re-paganization of Europe" during which nations came to worship themselves in the guise of Christianity. This argument ignores the fact that the Christian religion grew in Europe and even perpetuated itself abroad with great ardor for hundreds of subsequent years. European Christianity retained its strength in the face of modernity at least until the 20th century.

The author's judgment of why civilizations decline ultimately depends on his interpretation of political theologies. Civilizations of our day die because their religions die, he argues, unable to sustain themselves or adapt in the face of the upheavals produced by modernity. How does his account measure up? In the first instance, one must be grateful to him for getting us beyond the type of saccharine discussions of "Religion and Politics" found in most contemporary academic and political discourse—as if all religions, by virtue of receiving this common name of Latin origin, would have the same or even similar influence in the political sphere.

As interested as some students of political philosophy may be in the more general theologico-political problem, Goldman reminds us that theologies are not all alike; some contain wiser and more durable philosophical content than others and beget different politics. The character of a state animated by Jewish ideas would be entirely different from a Mayan state, because the religions of the Mayans and of the Jews are so very unlike. The most "theocratic" Jews in Israel are often compared to Iranian mullahs, but though the historian Josephus invented the term theocracy to explain ancient Israel to Romans, it has virtually no applicability to post bronze-age Judaism. The laws of Judaism have governed a political community since the fall of the Second Temple. The kratia in Jewish "theocracy" rests in laws that are not in the hands of any particular leader, can be revised by any of his contemporaries, and deliberately avoid commanding political action. Discussions of "religion and politics" ought to be premised on the histories and doctrines of the religions being discussed—and not generic ideas.

* * *

The problem with Goldman's analysis is that, however ingeniously he sets out the issue, he does not seem to possess the kind of in-depth knowledge required to characterize the religions he is studying. For instance, his speculation that the absence of a covenant in Islam is the fault line between it on the one hand, and Judaism and Christianity on the other, is provocative and interesting—but incomplete. Though it is true that the Koran does not possess any explicit notion of a covenant, it's not the case that Islamic thinkers did not wrestle with this issue over the history of Islam, beginning with the Mutazallites in the 9th century. If this attempt failed, one would need to show it not only by looking at a few passages of the Koran and al-Ghazali but via an examination of the whole religious and political history of Arabia and Islam (à la Bernard Lewis), an especially daunting linguistic task. Goldman is out of his element here.

Goldman likewise attributes the perpetuity of the Jews to the yearning for eternal life that the religion imbues in its practitioners. This relies on a very selective interpretation of Judaism. He follows the lead of Franz Rosenzweig, author ofThe Star of Redemption (1922), who came to Judaism by way of Christianity, and other 19th- and 20th-century Jewish scholars who had to contend with "theology," which had hitherto been viewed by Jews as a characteristically Christian activity. He fails to mention the efforts of medieval scholars, most strikingly Maimonides, to downplay the significance of messianic ideas in Judaism and redirect attention towards God's gift to mankind, the creation of the world in time, and the perpetual call to return to the beginning. Goldman writes movingly about the mysterious, indeed miraculous, survival of the Jews. But this is a mystery (as he himself would probably acknowledge) that is by no means easily solved.

In many respects David Goldman's project must be considered incomplete, but it has already offered up many gems, as can be seen in what he calls "Spengler's universal laws." Favorites: #7 "Political models are like automobile models: you can't have them unless you can pay for them"; #11 "At all times and in all places, the men and women of every culture deserve each other"; #14 "Stick around long enough, and you turn into a theme park"; and #15 "When we worship ourselves, eventually we become the God that failed."