- From Such Great Heights
We are the queer / We are the whore / Ammunition / In the class war– nofx, "The Decline"
The great theme of our current cultural moment seems, unavoidably, to be the lurking spectre of "decline." The long, sad, fasco-populist screeching of "Make America Great Again" assumes exactly this scenario: Once, America was the mighty eagle bestriding the world; today, it sulks in line to use the public pay toilet with, say, Turkey or Brazil. Once-jaunty Britain is in line, too, squawking insistently that is it is really very different from Europeans and inexplicably demanding that it owns all the stalls. Brooding France has joined the back of the line, muttering about Western civilization, fanaticism, and laïcité. Back in America, the top 1 per cent own everything, nobody's vote [End Page 237] matters, the government spies on you all the time, and higher education has become a pyramid scheme. Even the cops are getting killed.
Of all intellectual types, historians are perhaps most receptive to – and most responsible for shaping – narratives of national or cultural decline. The legendary example is, of course, Edward Gibbon (as Will Rogers once joked, Rome declined because it had a Senate; how can America survive with a Senate and a House?). For those who worry that right-wing nationalism may be collapsing the Euro-American dream of global liberalism, perhaps Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West – written in the chastened wake of World War I, decried in its own time, and retrospectively seen as a harbinger of the fascist worldview – is the historical work of the moment. In truth, both Gibbons and Spengler were latecomers in the decline business; stories about the past have fixated on declension since at least the time when ancient Greeks juxtaposed their own shabby era with an earlier "age of gold" (poor Greeks – they had to settle for a world inhabited by Aristotle and Pericles). Even in the relatively brief history of the United States, the country has "risen" and "fallen" many times since its origin, depending on when you start and end the story and on what theme you hold aloft.
"Decline" is a powerful concept for historians because it provides many of the narrative and analytical elements necessary for meaningfully interpreting the past. Any account of "decline" opens up a clear, linear chronology: we start in the sunny light of moment X and descend to the abyss of moment Y. Decline demands causal explanations, which remain most historians' favourite form of argument. As Sophocles and Shakespeare knew, "decline" is propelled by psychologically rich characters and makes for compelling drama (and, however postmodern our analyses have become – which may be a "decline" in its own right – most historians still want to tell an engaging story). Perhaps there is even a residue of St. Augustine's eschatological spirit in our secular tales of "decline": Who hasn't wondered whether "making America great again" heralds the end of time, the moment of reckoning, the ultimate decline?
Labour historians have not been immune to this framing. On the contrary, much of the best writing on working-class history has taken "decline" as its organizing principle and chief problem to be explained (the only obvious alternative seems to be the "rise" narrative, which also has its champions). Indeed, scholars have outlined a rather depressing series of working-class "declines": during the "enclosure" movement, when semi-independent rural folk were twisted into either factory servitude, prison, or the workhouse; during the rise of industrialism in the early 19th century, when proud...