This book is worth reading because it provides a profound analysis of Europe's capacity to grow and to play on the global political and economic stage. The author gets it right on many key issues, with the notable exception of its judgment of Marxism. (Hence only 4 stars.)
Forget going-down-the drain image on the cover, which Mr. Thornton himself does not feel comfortable. As an economist, I advise readers not to treat this book as a prophecy of Europe's economic future. Largely ignoring the fact Europe is a complex entity with a vibrant business sector that's exposed to the competitive global markets, the prediction of a permanent economic decline in absolute terms is most likely to be proven wrong. I believe Europe is destined to slowly lose its relative political and economic power while maintaining a comfortable, if increasingly anxiety-filled, standard of living.
That said, Mr. Thornton's central point is correct: the modern European civilization is intellectually and morally bankrupt. Post-war Europe has not found a unifying belief and transcendent value to fill the void left by an abandoned Christianity. Secular humanism offers an illusionary "EUtopia" in complete contrast to what made the West great. By committing to cultural relativism, social welfare entitlement, anti-religion, and anti-Americanism, the continent is committing a "slow motion" suicide. Economically, Europe is destined to increasing irrelevance because of its demographic crisis, social welfare system, and ethnic tensions associated with immigration.
Written largely for an American audience, Mr. Thornton's book is a frontal attack on the romantic notion that Europe represents a progressive future that all advanced nations should emulate. The liberal left, such as Jeremy Rifkin, have argued that the American Dream of individualism, cultural exceptionalism, materialistic growth, private property rights and political realism toward the rivals of the West should be replaced by an European Dream of collectivism, cultural relativism, "sustainable" development, leisure, "rights of nature," and political appeasement. As an expert in classics and humanities, Thornton makes a powerful case that this European vision is rooted in the bankrupt Enlightenment Romanticism and the socialist dream of human perfectibility. The European dolce vita lifestyle is not a more humane and fulfilling way to live compared to workaholic, money-grubbing Americans. Without a higher purpose, the ultimate future for Europe could be H.G. Wells's Eloi, a delicate, youthful, vegetarian species that seems to live in a paradise but actually represents the retrogression of the human race.
A staunch defender of religion, Mr. Thornton could have made a stronger case about the central human paradox: first, maximum human happiness and minimum pain are what we want, but we must transcend our own well-being; second, given human nature, our transcendence must be achieved through none other than pursuing our self-interests. In critiquing communist socialism that underpin the European social welfare system, he falls into the common trap of discrediting Marx's theory based on how much misery and how many deaths that the communists have caused. One could easily use his criterion to argue against his beloved Christianity. Furthermore, he seems to contradict himself by advocating religion on one hand, and discrediting Marxism as a mere pseudo religion on the other.
In fact, there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. As Thornton correctly pointed out, Marx's philosophical thought bears a deep imprint of Christianity, while the failure of USSR and other socialist countries is rooted in the Romantic notion of human perfectibility and the superiority of central planning over markets. Marx's idea that History is progressive, that it is up to us to find its direction, that we can make a difference in this universe is as powerful and attractive as ever. The failure of Marxism is the unfortunate result of its inability to adapt to changing economic, social, and cultural realities that falsified many of its precepts (ruthless persecution of the first "deviationist" to maintain Marxism's purity actually killed it), while the Christian theology managed to evolve (certainly beyond The Old Testament), discarding unworkable ideas such as the Utopian commune and adapting to new social environments. As Marx reacted to the French "Marxists" of the late 1870s, "All I know is that I am not a Marxist."
Due to its unique experience of suffering greatly in God's hand for centuries, many European people remain wary of organized religion and lofty ideologies. Rightly so. But it is also a mistake to discard higher purpose altogether. Like Thornton, I am pessimistic about Europe's future, but hold out hope that somehow it will respond to various geopolitical, demographic, economic and social pressures and rediscover its spiritual roots.