Friday Philosophy

The Non-Austrian Theory of the Nonbusiness Cycle

The Prophets of Doom
by Neema Parvini
Imprint Academic, 2023; 227 pp.

It was to be expected that Neema Parvini would give us an excellent book, and he has not disappointed us. Parvini is an outstanding Shakespeare critic and has written an important book on property rights, The Defenders of Liberty. In The Prophets of Doom, he discusses with marvelous concision a number of thinkers who have rejected the notion of universal historical progress, advocating instead a cyclical view, according to which separate cultures arise, grow, flourish, and decline. Further, these thinkers see our own civilization as in the stage of decline, beset by forces it cannot withstand.

Why do they think so? Many of them, not all, criticize the free market from a right-wing point of view: it subjects all social bonds to the “cash nexus,” a phrase coined by Thomas Carlyle, one of Parvini’s subjects. In doing so, the market displaces the virtues of courage and honor. Ludwig von Mises famously defends the free market for enabling people to achieve peace and prosperity through social cooperation. Evidently for our prophets, these goals are not desirable, at least if they are not carefully qualified. In what follows, I’ll examine some of the considerations these thinkers raise against the free market. I say “considerations” rather than “arguments” because, as Parvini makes abundantly clear, they rely on intuitive insights rather than rigorous reasoning, a procedure which he applauds but I deplore.

Before going into these matters, though, we should look at the contents of the book. Parvini covers eleven writers: Giambattista Vico, Thomas Carlyle, Arthur de Gobineau, Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, Arnold Toynbee, Julius Evola, John Bagot Glubb, Joseph Tainter, and Peter Turchin. There is also an introductory chapter titled “Linear and Cyclical History” and a conclusion in which Parvini summarizes the main points to be learned from his thinkers. Of the twentieth-century thinkers, Parvini rightly considers Spengler the most important.

Spengler, Parvini notes, compared cultures to flowers, in that each had a natural lifespan not subject to alteration. “From this description of flowers, gnats, and plants, Spengler advances his argument, by way of metaphor and analogy, to consider human cultures and civilisations in similar terms. But also note Spengler’s use of elevated language and his elegiac tone, which has a ‘poetic’ style of its own.” The style and mode of thought owed much to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whom Spengler recognized as one of his masters, along with Friedrich Nietzsche. (By the way, Parvini emphasizes the closeness of Toynbee’s conception of history to Spengler’s, and to the points of similarity Parvini has adduced between the two writers, one might add that Toynbee frequently quotes Goethe.)

Spengler viewed capitalism with marked disfavor:

The Decline paints a picture of the transition of a largely rural pre-state society, as seen during the Gothic feudal era when “the spirit of the countryside” reigned, to the dominance of the city and the state and the prevalence of the mass man. During the Winter phase, the “money power” comes to dominate everything. Spengler was “particularly critical of what he calls [following Werner Sombart] the ‘department-store ethics’ of Herbert Spencer . . . from the perspective of the ‘heroic’ worldview, ‘life is not the highest value’. . . . [The Decline of the West] appears to advocate the heroic soldierly acceptance of death over the ‘merchant’ ethos of wanting to live forever.” Spengler foresaw the rise of Caesarism as an antidote to the dominance of the merchants who use liberal democracy to mask their dominance. (bracketed glosses by Parvini)

Do the considerations that Spengler advances, and the parallel considerations by the other writers Parvini discusses, give us sufficient cause to question our commitment to the free market? I do not think so. One may admire Spengler’s immense imaginative gift for historical analogy and laud him for the accuracy of some of his predictions, as Parvini does, without being convinced of the validity of his condemnation of the free market.

Why not? The argument that the free market is the only viable system of production for a complex economy rests on universal principles established by praxeology, the science of human action. These arguments cannot be overthrown by appeals to “think with the blood.” Parvini insightfully says that a “distinctive feature of Spengler [is] his absolute insistence on cultural relativism, which is curiously close to [Arthur de] Gobineau’s idea that ‘civilisation is incommunicable,’” but he does deal with the basic difficulty of this position. If in fact reasoning, the conception of space and time, etc. are distinct for each culture, incapable of being grasped by those living in another culture, how is Spengler himself able to describe these differences?

In his great work Theory and History, Mises points out another flaw in Spengler’s system, and this strikes at the root of his thought. To speak of cultures as if they were organic entities acting in history violates the praxeological law that only individuals act. Mises says,

But what the Spengler doctrine means is something entirely different. In its context a civilization is a Gestalt, a whole, an individuality of a distinct nature. What determines its origin, changes, and extinction stems from its own nature. It is not the ideas and actions of the individuals that constitute the historical process. There is in fact no historical process. On the earth civilizations come into being, live for some time, and then die, just as various specimens of every plant species are born, live, and wither away. Whatever men may do is irrelevant to the final outcome. Every civilization must decay and die. . . .

History is the record of human action. Human action is the conscious effort of man to substitute more satisfactory conditions for less satisfactory ones. Ideas determine what are to be considered more and less satisfactory conditions and what means are to be resorted to alter them. Thus ideas are the main theme of the study of history. Ideas are not an invariable stock that existed from the very beginning of things and that does not change. Every idea originated at a definite point of time and space in the head of an individual.

The arguments for the free market do not rest on a naively optimistic belief in progress but rather on economic law. Though I do not think Parvini adequately takes note of this point, he deserves our thanks for calling to our attention an important strand of thinking about history.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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