There are three different levels at which the question “what do we do?” can be answered in this context.
They begin at the most abstract level: “what and of society are we trying to create?”
They move down to the level of collective action: “what kind of civic virtues and institutions do we need to encourage to get there?” Which implies what kind of systems we want to build, and what kind of behaviors they will incentivize.
Finally, they come to the most grounded and direct: “How do I, personally, act?”
We’ll look at these questions in that order, moving from the most abstract of our collective goals to the most specific of our personal actions, and therefore begin with the question: if Western modernity is failing, what kind of society do we want to replace it with?
But first, we must admit explicitly what we’ve only implied: there is no turning back. “Western culture,” as we have inherited it, is a dead culture the same way that Latin is a dead language, and prog rock is dead music.
That’s the evolving state of Western modernity: it’s not going to vanish, but it is also no longer being lived, and cannot really be resuscitated. It is no longer (to use a Latin phrase) the status quo.
The immediate objection to be raised is that we are still living it now, aren’t we? Freedom of speech, science, the social contract, all haven’t gone anywhere, have they?
Indeed. But this is not a sign that a culture is alive, only that the death is so recent that the body is still warm.
Nietzsche’s fable about the “Death of God” is instructive here. First the madman comes to the town square and proclaims that God is dead and that this will force us all to reconsider every aspect of how we live our lives. And the people are perplexed and baffled and don’t know what he’s talking about. Then the madman realizes that the people do not understand that God is dead yet: that there is a lag time between the center of the universe collapsing, and people realizing what has happened and reacting to it – and so he vows to come back when they have understood the enormity of the change.
Which is, indeed, exactly how the decline of mainstream Christianity as a civic force in the West happened in the 20th century.
“Nietzsche sees that civilization is in the process of ditching divinity while still clinging to religious values, and that this egregious act of bad faith must not go uncontested,” Terry Eagleton wrote in Culture and the Death of God. “You cannot kick away the foundations and expect the building still to stand.”
What we are experiencing now is the lag time between the destruction of the foundations of the West as a living culture and the collapse of the structure.
But isn’t this defeatist? Couldn’t we save Western modernity from the Trumpists and the Nazis the way we once saved it from the fascists and the Nazis?
We certainly could, if we still believed in Western modernity as a model to follow. But the truth is, the Trumpists and the Brexiteers are right about many of its failures, and we know it. There is a great deal wrong about their rejection of modernity, but it is not wrong enough that anyone wants to go back to the way things were. That apathy is what has killed it: Western modernity is not dead because the Trumpists vetoed it, but because the rest of us are not living it.
Consider the difference between two yeas ago, as America debated whether to send troops into Iraq to stop ISIS, and 16 years ago, when America debated whether to send troops into Iraq in response to the Sept. 11 attack.
Back in 2002, the justification for going into Iraq wasn’t just to topple Saddam Hussein: it was to create a democratic government in his place that would transform the region. Imagine, the argument went, what it would mean to establish a functioning Arab democracy in the heart of the Middle East: it would create a domino effect for freedom that would create peace and prosperity in its wake.
Nobody’s talking like that now. In 2016, as we debated whether to send troops to topple ISIS, no one in America ever suggested that what the region needed was democracy. Not a single presidential candidate suggested that what we really need to do is extend the vote to the disenfranchised in Iraq, at which point democracy will work its power to bring different groups together in the bonds of self-governance. And no one has suggested anything like it since.
We no longer believe democracy can do that. Donald Trump’s foreign policy is explicit in its preference for stable, and even semi-stable, dictatorships. The global champion of democracy is no longer interested in spreading it. America just wants to feel safe.
America is highly conflicted about democratic institutions at home, too. There is no branch of government at this point that has positive approval ratings. Congress did not renew significant portions of the Voting Rights Act. A significant effort has been made by one of the two major political parties to drive down voter turnout in major urban areas..
All this as America routinely passes new measures to strip away citizen protections: the government has admitted to spying on the communications of Americans who are not suspected of any crime; we have had the first formally government approved assassination of an American citizen without the benefit of due process; and legal briefs were filed by the executive branch under President Bush – and utilized as convenient under Obama and Trump – claiming that there is simply no limit on the power of the executive branch so long as it is acting to keep the homeland secure. On college campuses across America we debate not how best to support freedom of speech but whether to have it at all.
Ironically a lack of faith in our traditional constitutional democracy is a non-partisan issue, shared by both the political left and right.
This is not to suggest that all liberals or all conservatives are anti-democratic. It is to show that the most energetic and passionate parts of those movements are – and that they are not refuted by the center.
No one is actively on democracy’s side. No one is in the public square passionately advocating it for its own sake anymore. Human rights have likewise become more of a pro-forma bullet point than something actually acted on,
America has had plenty of anti-democratic movements before, beginning with slavery and continuing up through the Ku Klux Klan, the anti-labor coalitions, and the secret FBI programs to spy on and discredit dissidents. None of that’s new.
What’s new is that this was always met with a vigorous belief in democracy and human rights – the idea that all we had to do was extend democracy and liberal freedom to everyone, or get finally administer them correctly, at which point these problems would be solved.
That belief has become a reflex action now, an empty habit. We defend democracy because it’s what we’ve got not, but nobody’s really enthusiastic about it: nobody believes that if we get it right we can put society on the right foot anymore. Instead we’re actively looking for alternatives.
American conservatives look for strong paternalistic leaders who don’t follow rules; American liberals looks to direct action movements that circumvent democratic institutions; and around the world, nations are asking whether the “Chinese Dream” doesn’t look more appealing than America’s.
To revive the West, we have to believe in it first, rather than go through the motions and expect people to get on board. I would like to think a popular movement to re-establish liberal democratic norms would reverse this trend. I do not see evidence of it anywhere. Instead, it looks very much like Western modernity, as a concept, as a guiding principle, is already dead, and we just haven’t processed it yet.
In which case the best we can realistically do is move forward, taking the best parts of what we loved about the West and holding them tight, defending them vigorously, and proselytizing about them wherever we can, so that they will be the foundation of whatever comes next. That foundation could in fact be amazing – but it cannot be assumed.
Which brings us back to the question: what should we build?
This post is part of a series which first appeared on my Patreon.