The Prophets of Doom
Neema Parvini, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2023, pb., 230pps., £14.95
BENJAMIN AFER welcomes a book about neglected thinkers, but wishes it was more systematic
The self-styled ‘reactionary’ Colombian philosopher Nicolás Gómez ‘Don Colacho’ Dávila once characterised periods of civilisational greatness as “the summer noise of insects between two winters” – an especially apt comparison when we realise that there is no set guidebook or sure path to making a civilisation great, or even to making or maintaining a civilisation at all.
‘Golden ages’ are mostly noticed only in comparison to a seemingly inferior present, long after they have ended, which makes every reactionary or conservative action a rear-guard one in defiance of overpowering forces. In his new book The Prophets of Doom, Dr. Neema Parvini (known better online as ‘Academic Agent’ – the name of his YouTube Channel – or ‘A.A.’, gives us eleven such rear-guardists, perhaps more accurately termed ‘seers’ than prophets. Their gift is the ability to get a complete understanding of not just their own societies and times, but the very concept of civilisation and the entropic forces that affect it.
The story of how Dr. Parvini came to discourse on such a topic could itself be a multi-volume book. What began as a series of YouTube videos and livestreams in 2017, dealing mostly with libertarian economics but also partly with the week’s headlines, took a dramatic turn in 2020 when Dr. Parvini found himself suspended from his day-job as an English lecturer at the University of Surrey – apparently as part of a hit-job by left-wing students and faculty. Since then, his focus has been increasingly on the decline of Western power, prestige and self-confidence under the rule of a simultaneously negligent, incompetent and malicious internationalist elite. This book marks the beginning of what we might call the ‘mature’ phase of that trajectory. Despite my reservations about the content of this book (dealt with below), there is no doubt that Dr. Parvini is among the best-read living academics on the subject of civilisational decline.
That breadth of reading is apparent with a mere glance at the cover (a quality edition thanks to Imprint Academic). The thinkers proffered here are pleasingly diverse and idiosyncratic – a necessity when dealing with a topic as broad and monumental as the decline of civilisations. The roster is made up of 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. From this book alone a relative newcomer to reactionary ideas can gather that there are moral, metaphysical, economic, racial, mystical, religious and purely entropic aspects to the process, and as such, Prophets of Doom shows us that the thinkers of a yet-to-be-assembled reactionary canon are among the most sophisticate and keen-eyed of men to have ever undergone the intense intellectual disquiet that comes with witnessing decline.
That sense of genteel panic is evident throughout the work of all eleven thinkers and conveyed in miniature, but without loss of effect, by Dr. Parvini. The brief biographies provided are, for the most part, both interesting and useful, without straying as so many such books do into mere historical clutter. There is pathos to be found in some of these simple revelations about a particular ‘prophet’or his work, such as the fact that Brooks Adams awoke each morning and sang a tune of his own making to the words “God damn it, God damn it, God damn it,” or that Count de Gobineau’s work was always basically an attempt to find out why the French aristocracy had been reduced to the lamentable status of bourgeois clerks with titles. The reactionary is always a man driven by his instincts and investigations to warn everybody else, but whose words seem (to borrow again from Gómez Dávila) “absurd when he says them and obvious in retrospect.”
As is to be expected, many of the figures of the book are either ignored by the mainstream Western academies (Adams, Glubb, Evola) or dealt with reluctantly as unfashionable but necessary curiosities of the past (Carlyle, Spengler). It is a genuine delight then, to see Giambattista Vico, a central figure of Renaissance humanist literature, given proper due as a man far ahead of his own time, and in this way perhaps the most literally prophetic figure the book has to offer. Quoting an American thinker, Parvini tells us that Vico:
[M]akes it possible to give a rationalist defence of man’s basic irrationality. He gives a non-religious defence of religion. He gives a non-traditional defence of tradition, and an unconventional defence of convention. He’s a non-historical defender of historical life, particularity, and identity.
Indeed, Vico has been too much ignored by intellectuals. Many reactionaries would date the most general entropic decline to have begun around 1789, but inversion and subversion of hierarchies and the rise of the cult of Man have roots in the absolutist trends of the early 1600s, which coincided with the popularity of scientific humanism and the growing domination of Europe by its merchant class.
Dr. Parvini deserves great praise for his condensing of Oswald Spengler’s central thesis of decline into what stands out as the finest chapter of the book – albeit one heavy on first-hand quotation to do a lot of the legwork. Though his name is famous, Spengler remains broadly ignored by the English-speaking academies; at least, his thesis is not given anything like as much attention as it ought to be. This is of course because Spengler is not an author that flatters the liberal-bourgeois delusions of many academics, and as such is indigestible.
There are both formalist and anti-formalist traditions in reactionary writing. The formalist would generally balk at comparisons to politics du jour, but as someone usually more sympathetic to the formalist side of things, I must break ranks and praise the deftness with which Dr. Parvini takes us from the considerations of, say, fin-de-siècle East Coast elites to the general stupidities of our own internationalist masters. It is a sobering moment when, having given the conclusion of Henry Adams’ summation of his brother’s Law (“The world tends to economic centralisation. Therefore Asia tends to survive, and Europe tends to perish.”) Dr. Parvini remarks:
At the present time, when many political commentators track the machinations of ‘globalist’ elites who gather at the World Economic Forum at Davos to plan new and ingenuous ways to ration our energy consumption during an ‘energy crisis’, while rising powers such as Russia, China, and India become ever more non-compliant to the increasingly absurd demands of a West that has lost all moral authority, these prophetic lines will not provide much comfort.
It is a shame then, that aside from the odd comparative remark to highlight the more obvious shared fixations, Dr. Parvini has done very little to give a sense of continuum between these men. A “world class scholar,” as he calls himself, should see the metapolitical necessity of building up a shared wisdom between these names, to build up a cohesive corpus of thought.
I feel bound to remark that this is a strikingly dispassionate work, perhaps a consequence of the author’s rather managerial insistence on value-free analysis. None of the authors featured in Prophets produced great work because they were stolidly neutral and ‘value-free’, and this would be a more spectacular book had Dr. Parvini understood this at the outset. Wherever his talent for droll comparative humour does appear (“Won’t someone think of the curry houses?”) it does a remarkable job of hammering home the lessons to be learned, but always leaves us wishing for more.
Most readers would expect The Academic Agent to have given this work the full force of his rather unique rhetorical powers, especially so if they followed his Twitter account (@OGRolandRat) during the period of composition. A great wealth of literature by and about most of the Prophets was being consumed in what looked like a fit of scholarly passion – as evidenced by the impressive bulk of endnotes at the conclusion of each chapter. The rather brief nature of those chapters though, leaves us wondering if this was not actually something like a fit of deadline anxiety. In any case, the summations of each figure are engaging, and helpful to the newcomer in that they spell out exactly what should make the subject of interest to the reader.
Perhaps the best rule of thumb for this kind of reading is that the more pregnant the silence of the mainstream academies when it comes to a certain author, the sharper and more troublesome their analysis. Names like Carlyle and Spengler are obviously too grand to be ignored, even if the attention they get is mainly of a dismissive nature, but it quickly becomes apparent why the weakly dogmatic, gelatinous minds of some present-day lecturers and intellectuals are incapable of grasping the analysis given to us by some of the Prophets.
How on earth could a progressive ideologue, convinced that we are only a few less racists away from world utopia, comprehend Lt. Gen. Glubb’s End of Empires thesis (publicly available online)? John Bagot Glubb (1897-1986) or ‘Glubb Pasha’, as he was known to his Jordanian colonial soldiery whom he trained and led into the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, compared the average lifespans of great empires and discovered that they usually last for no more than 250 years. In such a thesis, our own times are merely the confused, decadent and foolish coda to a cycle all peoples are doomed to repeat ad nauseam, as opposed to the overture to a liberal-progressive stasis-world.
Brooks Adams (1848-1927), a cyclical thinker like Glubb, but one far more concerned with economy and the laws of mercantilism, offers little to sate the progressive ego, which always demands self-confirmation. His excellent and resonant criticism of industrial capitalism might be well received, but his preoccupation with Asiatic races as a looming threat to Western civilisation would surely condemn him as political undesirable. Indeed, I think it is because his warnings about the rise of Asia as a more-than-unfriendly power towards the west seems so terrifyingly prescient that he remains forgotten as “the last and least worthy of the captious Adams tribe.”
The thinker least familiar to me was Pitirim Sorokin, a Russian émigré sociologist who spent much of his life as a professor in Minnesota. Sorokin takes a highly complex and nuanced view of Western civilisation as a whole, developing a theory of “cultural mentality,” in which he described modern western nations as “sensate” – lacking in absolute truth and living in a state of chaotic flux.
It is never wholly fair to critique something for not being something else, but one does wish that Prophets took a more ambitious approach to its subject matter. I was put in mind of the Very Short Introductions series by the Oxford University Press, books of which unusually hover around the 200-page mark, as Prophets does; but the Very Short Introductions typically concern one author, school or concept. If a clear brevity was the aim of Prophets then it has been well achieved, but when we use the term brevity as a positive descriptor we do so in the context that a good poem or aphorism is brief, i.e. that it feels no longer or shorter than it needs to be. Packed with detail though each chapter is, the length and depth to which the ideas are discussed seems arbitrarily limited. I felt the jarring lurch of a sudden stop every time the vast lattice of endnotes came hauling into view. A subject such as this, addressed by a man as capable as Dr Parvini, could have led to a truly remarkable book. Prophets of Doom is in many ways an admirable work with memorable moments, but ultimately only serves as the briefest beginner’s guide to the decline of civilisations.
Nevertheless, if one remains unfamiliar with the theories of cyclical history but would stop short of diving straight into Spengler, then this book is most worthwhile. Even an initiate will doubtless find something new in the discourses on little-known writers like Glubb and Adams. Personally speaking, Prophets of Doom was worth reading purely for the chapter on Vico. If there is one lesson to be learned from The Prophets of Doom, it is the root of ‘Don Colacho’s’ remark that being a reactionary is not about believing in certain solutions, but about having an acute sense of the complexity of the problems.
BENJAMIN AFER is a British poet and essayist. His X/Twitter account is @VersebyHat, and his YouTube channel is “Panama Hat”