A little over a year after Brexit and the Trump election, the decay of Western civilization appears to have slowed (only time can tell us for sure) as resistance has mounted. But the fundamental question – what’s going on? Why is the dominant world culture collapsing at arguably the height of its success? – still hasn’t been adequately addressed.
This is vital, not just for it’s own sake – although it really is nice to know why the world seems to be collapsing all around you – but because correctly understanding the problem is the first step in developing an understanding of the potential solutions.
It was clear even at the outset that the victories of Trump and Brexit represented a massive veto of Western culture in the modern period. As I wrote at the time, what connects these things is their fundamental rejection of the modern world view — of modernity (and yes, post-modernity) itself. Such a rejection is not, in and of itself, irrational. On the one hand, yes, modernity has brought unprecedented prosperity and individual freedom into the world, a rising quality of life on a global scale that is simply unprecedented. But at the same time it has, especially in the last 50-odd years, brought a dizzying array of changes to every factor of life, often without warning or buy-in from those affected. This includes some things that are easily regarded as positives, advances in:
- Racial justice
- Women’s emancipation
- The development of a truly global economy with low barriers to entry
- Mass movements of people across boarders without fear of persecution
- Technological advances in medicine, forensics, manufacturing, and entertainment
- Mass education, again on a simply unprecedented level
But all of these good things also represented a significant change — again often never agreed upon — in people’s lives and the culture surrounding them. And then you add in the many downsides of modernity:
- Massive income inequality
- Global climate change
- Huge economic uncertainty
- Moral relativism
- Mass consumption
- First privatization, and then automation, of what were once key human tasks
- Information overload
- Weapons of Mass Destruction
And so on. With the sexual revolution being good, bad, and really confusing all at once.
We can argue, probably will argue, about whether the same modernity that made enormous strides in racial tolerance and creates global climate change, that educates the masses and then gives them no way to earn a living, is a “good thing” or a “bad thing” at its core. But the pace and degree of change have been unprecedented in human history, disruption follows disruption ever more quickly, and even the winners of each new round find themselves uncertain about the future, struggling to keep up, with no clear signposts about how to live with one another. The losers of each new round are utterly terrified … and often forgotten. Rinse and repeat.
The point, above and beyond the substantive arguments about whether each particular change is good, bad, or so-so, is that the totality of the modern experience for much of the world has become one of constant disruption and an inability to hold together either their lives or their communities.
Those rejecting modernity may focus on any particular point — income inequality, racial equality, women’s empowerment, climate change — but the ultimate effect is a veto of modernity, and the desire for something else, that crosses demographic and political boundaries. The far right may want to undo modernity because it believes minorities have made too many gains; the far left may want to undo modernity because it believes that liberal democracy is hopeless racist and can’t move fast enough. Either way, the outcome is a rejection of modernity and the liberal-democratic consumer-capitalist structures that goes with it.
This analysis still holds up, but it doesn’t answer specific questions. Why Donald Trump? Why Brexit? Why does a veto of Western modernity raise the Nazi ideology from the grave? Why does it encourage such administrative ineptitude and corruption, instead of holding the oligarch’s feet to the fire, as a populist revolt might be expected to do?
This could be pure historical contingency – sometimes shit just happens – but I believe there is in fact a specific rhyme and reason for the direction this veto of modernity has taken. In the next installment of the Apocalypse Cabaret Manifesto, we'll look for that pattern.
This post is part of a series. You can read all the entries here.