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How deep is the decline of the West?

Douglas Murray’s bestseller The Strange Death of Europe claims mass immigration is to blame for the continent’s “suicide”. But it is hubris, not Islam, that is dismantling the liberal world order.

In the last chapter of his autobiography The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European (1942), Stefan Zweig lamented a lost world of freedom:

“Before 1914, the earth had belonged to all. People went where they wished and stayed as long as they pleased. There were no permits, no visas, and it always gives me pleasure to astonish the young by telling them that before 1914 I travelled to India and to America without passport and without ever having seen one. One embarked and alighted without questioning or being questioned… The frontiers which, with their customs officers, police and militia, have become wire barriers thanks to the pathological suspicion of everybody against everybody else, were nothing but symbolic lines which one crossed with as little thought as one crosses the Meridian of Greenwich… I, a case-hardened creature of an age of freedom and a citizen of the world-republic of my dreams, count every impression of a rubber stamp in my passport a stigma…”

Zweig’s lamentation evokes a sympathetic echo in many liberals today, when borders are springing back into view across the world. For Zweig, freedom meant the Hapsburg empire, where people could live securely without needing any particular national identity. This was the world in which he grew up, and without it he was homeless. When he became convinced that the liberal Europe represented by the Hapsburg empire had “committed suicide”, as he put it in letters to friends, it was too much to bear. On 22 February 1942, the day after he posted the manuscript of his memoirs to his New York publisher from Brazil, where his flight from Nazi Europe had ended, Zweig and his wife, Lotte, killed themselves.

Three quarters of a century later, Douglas Murray also thinks Europe is destroying itself. In the first sentence of his best-selling The Strange Death of Europe, published in 2017 and now reissued in an updated paperback edition, he declares: “Europe is committing suicide.” But whereas for Zweig it was nationalism that destroyed Europe, for Murray it is Europe’s loss of belief in itself. Murray – associate editor of the Spectator and founder of the right-leaning Centre for Social Cohesion think tankcriticises liberals for denying or diminishing the problems that come with sudden large increases in immigration, when the migrants come from other cultures. But the real problem, he is convinced, is an influx of Muslims.

Discussing the public response to the migrant crisis, he writes: “What very few people saw or mentioned was that the racial background of the incomers was an insignificant matter alongside the far greater issue of creed.” The most important fact about the crisis, Murray asserts repeatedly, is that it involves the encounter of Islam with a hollowed-out, guilt-ridden, faithless Europe. The consequence will be the Islamisation of the continent and the end of European civilisation. Citing the work of the French novelist Michel Houellebecq approvingly, he comments that when the protagonist of his novel Submission (2015) finally converts to Islam “he will be part of a community of meaning for the first time… the logic of Islam is practical, and, in a society ripe for submission, irrefutable”.

Murray’s evident admiration for Houellebecq is telling. Much of The Strange Death of Europe reads more like a sensational novel than an exercise in analysis. The book has the form of a narrative, comprising a succession of arresting vignettes – migrants burning down a camp in Lesbos, sexual assaults by immigrants on women and children in Germany, racism among migrant groups in Lampedusa, terrorist atrocities in France – and concluding with a dramatic denouement. The story is necessarily selective, and misses out a number of salient facts.

One of them is that the migrant crisis is global in its reach. It is not only Europe that shuts out Muslims. So do many Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia has built a 600-mile-long fence along its border with Iraq, and there are similar barriers between Turkey and Syria, and Iran and Pakistan. Beyond the Muslim world, Mexico deports larger numbers of migrants back to Central and Latin America than the Trump administration does. Elsewhere war and environmental collapse are powerful factors in population flows. Worldwide, large flows of people are a by-product of globalisation. Rapid movements of capital and production continuously destroy livelihoods, and uneven economic development gives workers an incentive to seek opportunities in richer countries where they may not be welcome. These are not clashes of civilisations, and where Islam is involved the conflicts are often intra-Islamic.

In Murray’s defence it might be argued that his narrative has to do with immigration in Europe, not throughout the world. Even so, it passes over key facts. The Schengen treaty is barely mentioned but it is this agreement that has made the migrant crisis intractable by removing internal borders from much of the continent. Empty chatter about a Europe-wide solution only highlights Europe’s incapacity to act.

Migrant numbers have fallen over the past year. But for the Visegrád Group – Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia –the optimum number is zero, while Austria and Italy are bent on deporting migrants that have already arrived. In Germany, the interior minister’s threat to close the country’s borders produced a compromise in which tighter controls will be instituted. Merkel’s coalition has survived for the time being, but it cannot be too long before the far-right AfD (Alternative for Germany) – whose mounting electoral threat triggered the political upheaval – enters government. Macron in France is holding out against the trend, but he is alone. In a paradox that Murray does not explore, the result of pursuing the stupendous liberal project of Europe-wide freedom of movement is the illiberal Europe we have today.

Writing in this magazine two years ago (“The age of hyper-terrorism”), I suggested that European institutions faced a trilemma they could not resolve: “Open borders, liberal democracy and highly developed welfare states are not simultaneously sustainable… A continent-wide process of Orbánisation is under way.” Pre-1914 Europe was able to be borderless because democracy was limited and the welfare state only beginning. Once they are enfranchised, popular majorities resist open borders because they fear the effects on welfare provision and wage levels and demand some say in the overall direction of society. When their protests are ignored by mainstream politicians, they turn to authoritarian leaders. The success of Viktor Orbán in Hungary, where he secured a “super-majority” in parliamentary elections in April, is only an incident in the march across Europe of what the Hungarian leader has described as illiberal democracy. The trilemma that has defeated European institutions is being resolved by events. Borders are being reinstated in a disorderly scramble. Liberal Europe is fading from memory.

As part of this process the European social democratic model is becoming extinct. Writing in the New York Review of Books in 2009, the historian Tony Judt – an impassioned social democrat – noted:

It is not by chance that social democracy and welfare states have worked best in small, homogeneous countries, where issues of trust and mutual suspicion do not arise so acutely. A willingness to pay for other people’s services and benefits rests on the understanding that they in turn will do likewise for you and your children: because they are like you and see the world as you do. Conversely, where immigration and visible minorities have altered the demography of a country, we typically find suspicion of others and a loss of enthusiasm for the institutions of the welfare state.

The force of Judt’s analysis will only be strengthened if, as could possibly happen, Sweden proves to be the next domino to fall to the far right.

There is nothing accidental in the demise of social democracy. It was always at odds with continent-wide labour mobility – a neoliberal project that presupposes the rollback of national welfare states and downward flexibility in wages. What is unexpected – at least for unthinking liberals – is that the far right has benefited most from social democracy’s demise. With the centre left shrunken and moribund, voters have flocked to fringe parties, many of which have links with interwar fascism.

Murray thinks there is little to fear from the rise of the far right. Indeed, except in a few fringe cases, he denies that anything of the sort is occurring. He admits that “truly fascist” parties have re-emerged – Golden Dawn in Greece and Jobbik in Hungary, for example – but takes a benign view of parties such as France’s Front National and Germany’s AfD. These “thoughtful and clearly non-fascist parties once described as ‘far right’” are simply instances of democracy in action. It is difficult to share his complacency. Marine Le Pen’s mask of moderation slipped when, in the closing stages of last year’s presidential election, she deployed her father’s hate-filled rhetoric in an attempt to rally her core supporters. The AfD may have begun as an association of Eurosceptic economists, but it has evolved into a party a sizeable number of whose members seem sympathetic to “revisionist” views of Germany’s 20th-century history, including the Nazi period.

There is a temptation – which Murray shares, curiously, with many bien pensant liberals – to regard the advance of the far right as a passing episode in the evolution of European politics. Far-right parties will become more moderate, or else the centre will reassert itself. Either way, politics will soon revert to normal. Such reasoning is delusional. The illiberal Europe of today may not be the prelude to a full-scale rerun of the Thirties. Economic dislocation has so far been on a smaller scale, and its social effects blunted by what remains of the welfare state. But when far-right parties take power they tend to do more than reverse the policies of previous governments. As has been demonstrated in Hungary, Poland and Turkey, they aim to make their power secure by changing the constitution, neutering the judiciary and controlling the media. (As shown in Venezuela, the same is true of far-left parties.) The outright dictatorships of the interwar period may not have reappeared, but illiberal democracy is becoming the European norm.

Where does Islam figure in all of this? An Islamised Europe – the denouement of Murray’s story – is fantasy. In a new afterword, he tells the reader that “none of the many facts in this book were able to be refuted and no one of any consequence has even tried to contest or deny them”. Yet none of Murray’s figures suggests that Europe will have a Muslim majority in any realistically imaginable future.

Moreover, like other religions Islam contains many strands. What are commonly described as Islamist movements contain significant borrowings from anti-liberal western ideologies such as Leninism and fascism. There are ancient eclectic traditions such as Sufism as well as modern fundamentalist currents like Wahhabism and Salafism. Portraying Islam as essentially hostile to what used to be called the liberal West passes over such differences and risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In some European countries semi-closed communities of Islamic immigrants have emerged in which anti-Semitism and homophobia are more prevalent than in the general population. But a revulsion from liberal values is gathering pace in European societies themselves. Far-right parties stigmatise Jews and Muslims alike, as well as gay people, Roma and immigrants. At the other end of the political spectrum a new tribe of alt-liberals is bent on shutting down freedom of thought and expression by imposing a hyperbolic version of the latest progressive orthodoxy in universities and workplaces.

The largest threat to liberal values comes from the ongoing break-up of the international order, which Murray does not discuss. Donald Trump hardly appears in his story, though Trump’s hostility to the institutions put in place after the Second World War must have been clear when Murray was writing the book. In a nostalgic paragraph he recalls how during Western military intervention in Iraq and Libya “it seemed for a moment that European ennui” might be replaced by a “muscular liberalism” that was ready to project its values around the globe. Sadly, “the moment of muscular liberalism came and went”.

The part played by these adventures in fuelling the migrant crisis – and, by turning Libya into a zone of anarchy fought over by dozens of jihadist groups and criminal gangs, making the crisis harder to solve – is not mentioned. Nor is the financial crisis, though there can be no doubt that the crash and years of stagnant or falling incomes helped propel authoritarian leaders into power. It is not a death wish but hubris that has destroyed the liberal world order.

Zweig’s lost world without passports was sustainable only because globalisation developed in the absence of democratic control. Add democracy, and you have a world of borders and fences. Yet the combination of untrammelled freedom of capital and production with immobilised workers is inherently unstable. So globalisation starts to fragment, as leaders who have risen to power on the back of popular anger and despair start trade wars they are unable to control. While this disaster unfolds, liberals insist that all will be well if only the world returns to the conditions that produced the current breakdown.

Sensational stories of Europe committing suicide only add to the febrile climate of the time. The Hapsburg satirist Karl Kraus wrote of psychoanalysis that it was the disease of which it purported to be the cure. Murray’s book is a symptom of the disease it pretends to diagnose. 

John Gray’s most recent book is “Seven Types of Atheism” (Allen Lane)

The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam
Douglas Murray
Bloomsbury Continuum, 384pp, £9.99

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article appears in the 27 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Summer special