Okay, let’s recap.
So far we’ve established that:
1. A significant population across the Western world is trying to “veto” Western modernity as it has come to develop, not for a single reason that everyone shares but for a whole grab bag of reasons, their only connection being the fact that so much has changed so quickly that they no longer know how to live in the world we’ve made, and this makes then resentful and afraid. A group of people don’t need a common agenda to exercise a veto, they just need to all say “no.”
2. That far from being a sudden phenomenon, this has been a growing concern across the West since at least the 1990s, and that when it breaks through the surface into mainstream success, it is almost always under the leadership of a figure like Donald Trump – Silvio Berlusconi, Pim Fortuyn, Nigel Farange. Far from being contingent or idiosyncratic, these figures and their behavior are uniquely successful at channeling this “veto power.”
3. That the alarming rise in the most explicitly violent ideologies of this period – neo-Nazism and Islamic Terrorism – has very little to do with the content of these ideologies, and instead is about the image of these ideologies: the fact that calling yourself a “Nazi” or a “Radical Muslim” is one of the very few ways that you can genuinely frighten and offend people in a modern Western society.
Here’s where we put them all together.
Because what’s fascinating about both the kind of political figures that are leading the “veto” movement and the rush of angry young men towards Nazism is the fact that these are events happening all across the West – and yet, wouldn’t you expect the kind of political leadership the disaffected turn to, and the kind of ideologies that attract them, to be determined by the local culture?
I mean, why wouldn’t the Italians veto modernity in their own way, and the British in another, and the Dutch another? Of course they would. And yet they’re not.
That’s because people are not trying to veto their local cultures – on the contrary, those are the cultures they think they can understand and live with. What they are trying to veto is the impact on the of a hegemonic mono-culture being established by consumer capitalism (“McWorld,” to use Benjamin Barber’s term) that has become all-but indistinguishable from “modernity,” and which has infamously taken root in most of the developed world and bent local cultures to its needs. They’re not fighting their local versions of modernity – they’re trying to veto the hegemony.
And this hegemony has been so successful because … this really, is how it became a hegemony … it has been able to absorb and appropriate all prior forms of opposition to it.
Well we should ask: why Nazism? If your objection is the monoculture caused by consumer capitalism, then why not try socialism? And the answer is that it was tried. It failed. Not only have Russia and China become explicitly capitalist, but we sell t-shirts with Che Guevara on them. Marxist radicals get tenure at universities with rapacious marketing, admissions, and labor policies, and go on book tours. Despite the best efforts of the DSA, “socialism” is simply not frightening to the consumer capitalist hegemony. On the contrary: it loves to make money off of socialism. It is thrilled to market to the “I’m a socialist fighting consumer capitalism” dollar.
One used to be able to fight the consumer capitalist culture with what was once called “sexual deviancy.” A book, let alone a movie, like “50 Shades of Gray” was once unthinkable, back when consumer capitalism was not a hegemony. Now? It’s a movie, the movie’s a trilogy, and everybody in the industry is looking for “the next 50 shades.” Maybe it’ll have kinky zombies! Capitalism, it turns out, is sex positive. Pretty much only pedophilia and rape remain as genuinely transgressive acts, and many forms of rape were only recently added to that list. (Chastity isn’t transgressive, just pitied.)
Art and music used to be used as genuinely rebellious acts against capitalism. But they, too, have been entirely appropriated. There is not only an “art market,” but the market has speculators, and artists are encouraged to think of themselves as entrepreneurs. (The book about this to read is Suzi Gablik’s Has Modernism Failed?) The only people who art and music can still offend at this point are people who believe that some forms of culture should not be for sale … that is, people who are already trying not to participate in consumer capitalism’s hegemony.
Virtually all forms of religion have also been appropriated. Industry is happy to sell rosary beads, prayer matts, Kabballah workshops, meditation retreats … really, the only time capitalism comes into conflict with religion at this point is when religion tries to either give things away, or claims that certain kinds of people (like gays) shouldn’t be sold to. Every other aspect of religion can be packaged, marketed, and sold, as one more widget.
So all the forces that once held consumer capitalism at arms length have been appropriated – turned into a market-driven version of themselves.
But … but … most stores will still not stock Hitler merchandize. There are no LEGO concentration camp play sets. The western consumer capitalist hegemony still vomits Nazism out.
Likewise it will not touch “Radical Islam.” That it still treats that as a taboo. There will be no “Passion of Mohammed” shown as a cinematic blockbuster.
And … for various reasons … the guardians of the consumer capitalist hegemony go absolutely apeshit about politicians in the mold of Donald Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, and Pim Fortuyn. To the point where, for many people, being a Trump voter or a Fortuym supporter is/was seen as being equivalent to being a Nazi. (Fortuyn, let us remember, was in fact assassinated by a vegan animal rights activist on a bicycle, who said that Fortuyn was too offensive to be allowed to be in public office.)
I’m not saying that a Trump-like figure isn’t dangerous, or couldn’t bring Western culture crashing down – the perception that he could is exactly the point. And in this sense the obvious failings of a Trump-like figure become virtues to those who wish to destroy the system. His obvious lack of policy knowledge means he is not a technocrat, and his refusal to be educated means he isn’t beholden to the norms of technocrats. His unwavering narcissism means both that he knows how to play to the crowds and that he doesn’t know when to stop … and therefore he won’t stop. The fact that he is corrupt means that he is not invested in the legal norms that the hegemonic aspects of consumer capitalism require to stay in place. His deep and bitter resentment means he will never make peace – at least not for very long.
And the point isn’t that people actually find this attractive, or even have thought this through. I doubt there is a single Trump voter who ever thought “Ah, I like the way his deep and bitter resentment means he will never make peace – at least not for long.” But what they recognize – rightly – is that these qualities make him all-but impossible for the system to appropriate. Politicians in this mold are indigestible by the system, whereas more competent agents with greater self-control and a more coherent agenda can be co-opted. And so if you want to veto modernity, a politician in this mold is the best shot to carry your banner. Just like, if you really want to transform yourself into a true enemy of modernity, Nazism and “Radical Islam” are the only real choices you have right now, outside of pedophilia.
Hence, as the urge to veto modernity increased across the Western population, as more and more people tried to shout “stop!” to no avail – they started turning to the only things that they thought would make a difference, because everything else sells out.
From the standpoint of modernity, courting such evil and chaos is the height of irrationality – but from the standpoint of someone whose greatest fear is modernity, or at least some of its manifestations, this is actually a rational action born of desperation.
Much in the way that movement conservatism has become post-modern and relativistic, what we’re seeing, ironically enough, is the development of the weapon liberal theorists have been pining for, for decades – a cultural weapon potentially able to take down consumer capitalism.
Be careful what you wish for.
This post is part of a series which first appeared on my Patreon.