Wojciech Roszkowski is a Polish economic historian, professor and former member of the European Parliament. His latest book, published in 2018 (in Polish), is called: Roztrzaskane lustro. Upadek cywilizacji zachodniej (“Broken mirror: the decline of Western civilization”). You can find the book here.
East & West: Dear Prof. Roszkowski, to many people in Europe and the US, members of the so-called intellectual elite and simple citizens alike, the claim that Western civilization is in decline would come off as unexpected and more than a little overblown. Why do you think that in our era of globalization, which many see as a tendency for every country on earth to “become like the West” and adopt Western values, the West as a civilization is in decline?
Wojciech Roszkowski: Very briefly. The basic question here is what the “Western values” are. In my book I tried to define as best as I could the foundations of Western civilization and I found very little help in recent basic college textbooks. The House of European History in Brussels failed in this respect altogether. In my mind the basic concepts of objective truth and justice, as well as a specific understanding of freedom and efficacy result from Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Christianity. Each of these pillars of Western identity needs to be analyzed in detail, since Greek hedonism or skepticism contributed only a little, rather as a challenge and not as a constructive contribution. Also the legal practice of the Roman Empire or the complicated history of Christianity include episodes destructive to the Western civilization. But the basic foundation of the West has been based on “limited anthropology” in which human beings dispose of free will and conscience to be used for the sake of moral good. The “Enlightenment” removed the Absolute as the source of moral values (e.g. Rousseau), Marx reduced a man to an economic creature, Darwin to a biological one, and Freud to a sexual machinery. In the 20th century the human nature was reduced to a null and men began to “create themselves”. What is left is Western efficacy and comfort – the only attractive force for outsiders but not for the Westerners themselves who bear less and less children and lose their competitive abilities when confronted with East Asia or their common sense in inviting Muslims to work in sophisticated Western economies. The result is the declining share of Western population in the world population and the declining share of Western GNP in the world GNP.
E&W: To put in bluntly, in a country like Germany, which in many respects counts as the leader of Europe and not only in economic terms, a book like yours would be almost impossible to publish. Many of the things that you consider signs of decline, for example gay parades, abortions on demand and immigration, are on the contrary celebrated by many in the West as signs of liberation, freedom, women’s rights, tolerance and openness. These are regarded as the supreme values of a progressive civilization. What’s wrong in your opinion with being open, free and tolerant?
WR: Contemporary Western “liberalism” is not liberal at all. It rather looks like anarchism. Liberal freedom was limited by the freedom of others. Now it seems not limited by any standards. The right of everybody to do anything is absurd. Without a stable guidelines of the Decalogue and “limited anthropology”, humans lose any sense of life and even turn to be less happy. This may be illustrated by public opinion research on subjective happiness. “Progress”, “freedom”, “tolerance”, “openness” and “modernity” are catchwords deprived of their real meaning and used to terrorize those who think along the lines of their original meaning. Freedom of thought becomes a fiction when you cannot “discriminate” any idea (European Union’s Charter of Fundemental Rights) with the exception of Christian values. See the case of Rocco Buttiglione’s failure to become EU Commissioner. Democracy is also increasingly a fiction since the public opinion is largely manipulated by the media. See the case of President Macron’s rise and fall. You are right: perhaps a book such as mine could not be published in Germany or France. This is because people there do not want to see themselves from a forgotten perspective (thence “The Broken Mirror”). But I think it is worth to issue a sign of alarm.
E&W: Why did the West take the path that it did and how did it happen? Was the process natural and an inevitable consequence of the historic events Europe and America experienced over the last 200 years? Aren’t there in civilizations, like in every living organism, self-preservation mechanisms that allow a civilization to choose the path of survival over self-destruction?
WR: The self-preservation mechanisms still exist in the West but they are increasingly feeble. I have already briefly described the destructive mechanisms in the Western history. Whether they can be reversed is a good question. So far there is very little serious reflection on this matter.
E&W: If the West does not represent a viable model for the future of a civilization, then why were and are so many countries, in Eastern Europe for example, so eager to become part of the West, as if there was no alternative to the West, as if the only way a nation and a country could develop and prosper was to become more like the West? Take Poland, for instance. Or Ukraine, the most recent example, where according to what has become the grand narrative, people were ready to die for European values and to join Europe?
WR: Countries such as Poland have been deprived the access to Western economic and cultural turnover for a very long time, a time in which the West began to rapidly wind down (from the 1960s). Therefore the economic and cultural patterns that were pursued in Eastern Europe were already largely outdated in the West. The life and experience of the Polish Pope provides a very good explanation of this development.
E&W: Over the last couple of years we have seen the tendency to dismiss any sort of criticism of the grand liberal project as Russian propaganda. Conservative, traditionalist and antiliberal messages are supposed to be all part of a Russian effort to undermine the liberal world order, with Russia posing as the leader of a resurgent global traditionalist movement. On the other hand, for many reasons, Russia is seen by the vast majority of people in the West as an unpalatable partner, with her image dominated by past and more recent horrors. What do you make of that? Could Russia’s traditionalist project become an alternative to the Western civilization model or is that outright impossible?
WR: You have described a masterpiece of Russian propaganda. The Russian tradition is not conservative but despotic and imperialist. Russia is not a reliable partner (see Crimea or the rearmament) so it cannot be a pattern for the restoration of “Western values”, since the Russian tradition is contrary to the Western identity in most respects.
E&W: And finally, do you see the possibility of a Renaissance in Europe and in the West in general, or is the West destined for decline?
WR: Very briefly: any Western Renaissance should be based on the return to the assumption of the Decalogue or the “natural law”, if you will. The English have a brilliant term for this: “facts of life”.