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The Future of Big Cities—as Predicted in 'The Decline of the West' (1922)
100 years ago, Oswald Spengler announced the 'Decline of the West' and made predictions about cities in the 21st Century. Was he correct?
“It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future” (attributed to Yogi Berra).
I’m a sucker for prognostications—whether concocted by scientists, professional oddsmakers, or even just storefront fortune tellers. I listen with rapt attention, although it’s hard to take their statements seriously. Our narratives about the future are usually driven by present-day hopes and anxieties, and tell us very little about the world to come. If you doubt it, just read the award-winning sci-fi books of the past, which typically miss the mark 99% of the time.
But I do sit up and take notice when a visionary somehow manages to get things right. I’ve written in the past about the insightful predictions of José Ortega y Gasset and J.G. Ballard—who both demonstrated an uncanny ability to anticipate major cultural and technological shifts decades before they happened. Today I turn my attention on the more complicated legacy of Oswald Spengler.
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The Future of Big Cities—as Predicted in ‘The Decline of the West’ (1922)
By Ted Gioia
Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of The Decline of the West, one of the most expansive and controversial books on social history ever written. This is a book that never loses its ability both to infuriate and inspire, although few nowadays are willing to work their way through the thousand pages of tiny print, as Spengler explains the past and predicts the future.
The title captures the paradoxical nature of the book’s appeal. Both Left and Right are attracted by its promise—for conservatives the idea that Western society is in irreversible decline confirms all their worst fears, while for progressives the promise that threadbare Western values will replaced by something new and different is cause for celebration.
Both sides probably underestimate the breadth and depth of Spengler’s approach, which is less focused on punitive or nostalgic attitudes, and more interested in repeating cycles, which he believes can serve as guides to the rise and fall of every dominant civilization.
I may write again on Spengler’s book for the centenary next year, so I will hold off on my big-picture assessment of The Decline of the West. Here I’ll look only at Spengler’s predictions for the future evolution of major cities in the final stages of the West’s decline—in other words, our current day, at least according to his schema.
The Future of Big Cities
A hundred years ago, the largest cities in Europe and the United States only had populations of around 5 million in 1920, but Spengler saw cities getting much larger—and stranger:
“I see, long after AD 2000, cities laid out for ten to twenty million inhabitants, spread over enormous areas of countryside, with buildings that will dwarf the biggest of today, and notions of traffic and communications that we should regard as fantastic to the the point of madness.”
In the final stages of the decline, the most significant conflict in society will be between the large cities and the rest of society. And even among cities, only 2 or 3 will really have genuine impact. Spengler writes:
“The provinces are now everything whatsoever — land, town, and city — except these two or three points. There are no longer noblesse and bourgeoisie, freemen and slaves, Hellenes and Barbarians, believers and unbelievers, but only cosmopolitans and provincials. All other contrasts pale before this one, which dominates all events, all habits of life, all views of the world.”
Even though he was writing in Munich, Spengler saw that the most powerful example of the new dominant city was 4,000 miles away. He writes:
“The rise of New York to the position of world-city during the Civil War of 1861-5 may perhaps prove to have been the most pregnant event of the nineteenth century.”
No matter how bad city life gets, the urban elite cannot imagine leaving:
“But no wretchedness, no compulsion, not even a clear vision of the madness of this development, avails to neutralize the attractive force of these daemonic creations. . . . . Once the full sinful beauty of this last marvel of all history has captured a victim, it never lets him go.”
People in the city will stop having children, Spengler predicted a century ago, and he foresaw a certain pathos or deathwish pervading the urban atmosphere.
“That which strikes the true peasant with a deep and inexplicable fear, the notion that the family and the name may be extinguished, has now lost its meaning [in the future cities]. The continuance of the blood-relation in the visible world is no longer a duty of the blood, and the destiny of being the last of the line is no longer felt as a doom. Children do not happen, not because children have become impossible, but principally because intelligence at the peak of intensity can no longer find any reason for their existence.”
Spengler anticipates people adopting a business-type analysis when deciding whether to have children—and this represents a significant turning point in the history of the Western city.
“When the ordinary thought of a highly cultivated people begins to regard 'having children' as a question of pro's and con's, the great turning point has come. . . . When reasons have to be put forward at all in a question of life, life itself has become questionable. . . . The father of many children is for the great city a subject for caricature.”
I’m not sure how Spengler came up with this concept. He was living in Munich at the time, which enjoyed steady population growth throughout the decade. As far back as 1903, experts were using the term “population explosion.” But Spengler anticipated not only an ongoing urban depopulation, but also its acceleration by pervasive sterility:
“There suddenly emerges into the bright light of history a phenomenon that has long been preparing itself underground and now steps forward to make an end of the drama—the sterility of civilized man. . . . At this level all civilizations enter upon a stage, which lasts for centuries, of appalling depopulation. The whole pyramid of cultural man vanishes. It crumbles from the summit, first the world-cities, then the provincial forms, and finally the land itself.”
The elites who inhabit the cities work with their brains, not their bodies—and their whole life takes on a disembodied quality because of its detachment from conventional markers of home and hearth. Spengler writes:
“These final cities are wholly intellect. . . . The mass of tenants and bed-occupiers in the sea of houses leads a vagrant existence from shelter to shelter like the hunters and pastors of the ‘pre-’ time, then the intellectual nomad is completely developed. This city is a world, is the world. Only as a whole, as a human dwelling-place, has it meaning, the houses being merely the stones of which it is assembled.”
In the midst of these enormous cities, free time is spent in the most mindless escapism, because genuine playfulness will be almost impossible. Spengler writes:
“Tension, when it has become intellectual, knows no form of recreation but that which is specific to the world-city — namely, detente, relaxation, distraction. Genuine play, joie de vivre, pleasure, inebriation, are products of the cosmic beat and as such no longer comprehensible in their essence. But the relief of hard, intensive brain-work by its opposite — conscious and practiced fooling — of intellectual tension by the bodily tension of sport, of bodily tension by the sensual straining after ‘pleasure’ and the spiritual straining after the ‘excitements’ of betting and competitions, of the pure logic of the day's work by a consciously enjoyed mysticism — all this is common to the world-cities of all the Civilizations.”
Residents of these huge cities have lost touch with religion, but that doesn’t mean they have no deeply-held values. These, however, are now regimes of fitness and nutrition. Spengler writes:
“Men now turn to philosophies of digestion, nutrition and hygiene. Alcohol questions and vegetarianism are treated with religious earnestness—such being the gravest problems.”
Much of this may sound depressing, but Spengler emphasizes that the leaders of society have the deepest emotional attachment to these huge mega-cities:
“Homesickness for the great city is keener than any other nostalgia. Home is for him any one of these giant cities, but even the nearest village is alien territory. He would sooner die upon the pavement than go ‘back’ to the land.”