What we’ve seen so far is that the wave of “Trump-like” politicians in the West emerged (beginning significantly before Trump) because what are their vices, from the perspective of hegemonic consumer-capitalist modernity, are in fact virtues from the standpoint of people whose primary goal is to veto that modernity. Likewise the rise in Nazism and Islamic fundamentalism has occurred not because of any innate appeal of those doctrines, but because they are things that modernity has so far refused to (or genuinely cannot) co-opt. Trump-ism and neo-Nazism and “Islamic fundamentalism” are not at this point themselves coherent ideologies – they are the form that the tactics of anti-modernism takes. Coherence is beside the point.
Now there’s no guarantee that this precise state of affairs will last – and in fact, the particulars are bound to change at some point. It is horrifically possible that consumer capitalism will decide to co-opt Nazism … or that Socialism will be seen as truly dangerous again, or that the hegemonic system will develop some kind of political antibodies that neutralize politicians in the Trumpian mold. Or we’ll all blow ourselves up.
One way or another, at some point, these specifics are going to change. And most likely either modernity will triumph and become even more of a hegemony, or its hold will start to crumble and what was once ridiculous and impossible will begin to happen next door.
What do we do?
That’s not just a good question, it’s a critical question, but before we get there, there’s one more important observation I want to make about this sequence of events.
Timing, as they say, is everything.
For most of the 20th century everyone wanted to be “modern.” Yes, including the leaders in the Middle East – they too wanted to be modern. The struggle wasn’t “for” or “against” modernity, but to define modernity. Would it be capitalist? Would it be “industrial” capitalist or “consumer” capitalist? Would it be Soviet Communist? Would it be Communist-With-Chinese-Characteristics? How “liberal” would “liberal democracy” be? Everyone believed in “progress” – the arguments were what “progress” actually meant, what direction it would go.
At the time, this struggle seemed tragically dangerous – and in many ways it was. Ideological paranoia ran rampant, monstrous acts were committed in the name of victory, and much of the world really believed that a nuclear holocaust was inevitable. We must not romanticize it. But in hindsight the existence of this struggle clearly had advantages too: the fact that there was a competition for the direction of the future brought out the best in us as well as the worst.
In hindsight, much of what we assumed to be natural and normal to “America” was in fact a response to the Soviet threat.
The American government’s support for arts and culture was in no small part a propaganda effort against the Soviet Union, so that capitalism would not be seen as incapable of supporting a thriving and relevant art scene. The American government’s support for pure science research, and its need to be the scientific leader of the world, was in no small part an effort to stay one step ahead of the Soviets, and to convince the world that a free country was a country capable of supporting a rigorous scientific establishment. Our support of unions and worker’s rights fell flat after we won the Cold War, because the best card that Communism had against Capitalism was that Capitalism oppresses its workers and leaves them at the mercy of employers and plutocrats. American needed a thriving union culture in order to prove that wrong. When the Cold War ended, support for workers was replaced at every level of government with support for stockholders. Likewise America had a compelling reason not to seem racist during the Cold War: if we were seen as racist, it would tip popular global sentiment towards the Soviets. So we were invested in making progress on racial equality.
We had no idea how much of what we thought was basically American was in fact America forced to be on its best behavior because we didn’t want to lose.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, America’s version of modernity – which at that point was a post-industrial, secular, corporate, version of consumer capitalism – won the war for progress.
At this point, the common view around the world was that liberal consumer capitalism, and representative liberal democracy, were inevitable. Fukiyama’s book The End of History, was the most blatant pronunciation of what was increasingly seen as a truism at this time. Consumer capitalism emerging out of Enlightenment values truly became a global hegemony: not only wasn’t there a competing alternative, no one could imagine what an alternative would be.
And it was also at almost this exact moment that what we can now see as the forces of anti-modernity began emerging. We just didn’t recognize them at the time for what they were.
The Soviet Union fell in 1991. Fukuyama published The End of History in 1992. Silvio Berlusconi was first elected Prime Minister of Italy in 1994. And yes, while we’re at it, FOX News began broadcasting in 1996. By the late 90s, anti-Muslim prejudice in small European countries was reaching a fever pitch. Then we had Sept. 11.
The point is that even winning the future didn’t stop the fight. Liberal consumer capitalism had achieved a hegemony, it was so dominant that people couldn’t even imagine any credible alternatives, but instead of creating unity and harmony it was immediately met by what we could later recognize as the growth of an anti-modernity movement.
And not just a series of independent, local anti-modernity movements. As we’ve seen, the anti-modernity movement is using the same tools and promoting the same kind of leaders across what are in fact many different cultures. The hegemony of consumer capitalist modernity has created an anti-modernity monoculture in response. An opposite, and potentially equal, reaction. People who wonder if “Trumpism” will outlast “Trump” are misunderstanding what “Trumpism” is: it’s not a political philosophy or even semi-coherent set of doctrines, it’s a refusal to play by modernity’s rules. And so long as a substantial number of people want to veto modernity, it won’t go away.
And what I suggest this means is that there is no such thing as “winning” a culture war. Not in the long run. Dominance creates its own resistance. The best you can do is inspire people to make choices that move them vaguely toward the direction you want. People can want to have a truly unified culture, and the wanting to have it leads them to make choices that are often beneficial, but the closer such a culture comes to reality, the more it is felt as an imposition, and the more reaction it breeds.
This theory is likely going to be tested very soon, as a whole new generation of dictators seek to leverage Big Data technologies to micro-manage enormous populations on a scale never before envisioned outside of science fiction. They believe their success is inevitable, because what form of resistance could there possibly be?
They could be right – but history suggests that in fact people always have veto power. Culture needs people to engage in it actively, and when people don’t, catastrophic failures occur. No one thought Donald Trump could possibly become president, but once enough people wanted to veto modernity, the absurd became possible, and all the fail-safes in the world didn’t stop it.
The point of this is that while winning elections is crucial to prevent humanity from destroying itself and matters to people’s lives, the war over modernity cannot be won at the ballot box or through policy initiatives, precisely because a culture war cannot be won. So long as modernity is a hegemony, and a substantial number of people feel so lost in modernity that they don’t know how to live, the conflict will continue.
The closest approximation of “winning” is to inspire people to take responsibility for a common culture, and to do that they have to see a place for themselves in it.
Only by understanding that can we usefully turn to the question of “what do we do?”
This post is part of a series which first appeared on my Patreon.