The Apocalypse Cabaret Manifesto – Part 9: Why The West Got Modern In The First Place

Does the notion that a diversity of cultures can actually be more stable than a single common culture seem counter-intuitive? It shouldn’t: it’s actually the basis of the American experiment. Freedom of speech and religion, and the ability to have spaces outside the purview of the government, were created in no small part specifically to avoid the kinds of religious and cultural civil wars that had incessantly wracked Europe – and it worked.

To be sure, there is plenty of violence and bloodshed in America’s history (including the American Revolution and the War of 1812 – which were white Anglophiles fighting other white Anglophiles), but it almost always occurred when the commitment to the fundamental idea that people should be free to live in communities that reflect their own values was abridged, not when it was upheld. The more that commitment to religious and cultural pluralism was upheld, the more America has actually flourished.

Indeed the notion that mono-ethnic and cultural states are actually any more unified and internally peaceful ignores the vast majority of historical evidence: it is only in the aftermath of colonialism and mass migration that we have looked back on those pre-modern states through rose-colored glasses and deemed them peaceful and harmonious. This is historical amnesia – one of the four horsemen of the cultural apocalypse. 

It behooves us to remember that there was a near constant state of war between England and Scotland, England and Ireland, and England and France through much of modern history. Italy and Germany only unified at the beginning of the Modern period: prior to that they were hotbeds of violent conflict between regional powers. Protestants and Catholics engaged in an all-out slaughter of one another for centuries. The French Revolution was an exclusively an affair of French-on-French violence, until it became European-on-European violence. World War I was a mass slaughter across Europe – a continent that we now for some reason think was a peaceful place prior to the arrival of immigrants.

Historically, Europe has gotten much more peaceful as it has become comfortable with cultural diversity – not less. To the extent that religious and political persecution also faded away in the modern age, it is because Europe adopted the American model. England’s strife between Protestants and Catholics ended precisely when the legitimacy of Catholicism to exist unmolested was realized.

Why? Because as we’ve established:  the attempt to create a cultural hegemony always creates its own backlash. That’s true with or without immigrants.  Monocultures are not innately stable.

It should similarly be recognized, as it is among those who follow the data, that American Muslims have simply refused to radicalize the way some European Muslims have. For all that America’s social safety net and immigrant benefits are significantly smaller, American Muslims have flourished and integrated into the culture in a way that simply has not occurred in Europe (once again, Buruma’s Murder in Amsterdam is a great examination of these issues) – and it is vital to notice just how much less pressure there is in America for immigrant Muslim communities to “fit in.” Europe has to a much greater extent refused to allow Muslims to participate in civic life as Muslims. Paradoxically, yet undeniably, the greater ability of American immigrants to live in accordance to their values actually enhances their interest in integrating with a larger, common, culture.

This is in part a result of economic conditions. The global economy and Pax Americana has simultaneously made a dazzling array of consumer and lifestyle choices possible – refined to a degree unprecedented in human history – while creating a mass decline in the traditional scourges of humanity, such as plague, infant mortality, and mass starvation.  Virtually everyone on the planet wants to reap the benefits of that.

It is only as the markets themselves became hegemonic, significantly curtailing humanity’s ability to engage in any communal behavior that is not market based, that we have seen this level of internal pushback against Western modernity.

The great utility of the “free market” was never that it provided a dazzling array of consumer choices, but that it generated sufficient prosperity to allow for people to better support non-market based activities – liberal democracy itself being fundamentally a non-market based activity.  Capitalism has risen and fallen based on the extent to which it has allowed people to pursue meaningful lives.

The assumption that, given a choice, all human beings will choose to live in a variant of the same moral order is essentially the same “end of history” argument made by Fukuyama and the neo-liberals:  that having found an optimum society, there is simply no escaping from it.  And while we do not – one should never – take away the practical and useful knowledge that Western culture has attained in how to established a sustained rule of law and generate economic prosperity … really, given their track records at improving the human material conditions, neither human rights nor some form of capitalism should be up for debate … that larger thesis has been thoroughly debunked by global events.  Not only are there alternatives, but people want to live in them.

Just as importantly:  people want to choose.  A key element of human thriving is the ability to live in accordance with one’s values, and this not only requires individuals to ultimately determine what it is they value for themselves – a process with a whole range of potential outcomes – but the ability to make a meaningful choice about it.  People have to be able to freely join or form communities that are meaningful to them – and be able to refuse to join communities that are not in accordance with their values – if they are going to find happiness.

To use the terms of the analysis we’ve made in this manifesto: having a plurality of connected anti-political cultures within a legitimate political order makes it easier for new generations to actively choose the virtues needed to continue a stable culture, precisely because they have the ability to clearly see different alternatives, and what it takes to preserve them. It is when there appears to be no choice, and culture appears to be an automatic process set on autopilot, that the four horsemen of the cultural apocalypse become excessively attractive.

Ironically, then, the attempt to establish an enforced social hegemony ultimately leads back to an unstoppable decay.  Cultural uni-polarity cannot balance.  A binary system of opposites is more stable, but not as stable as a multi-polarity system wherein people can make choices to live in many different ways.  Past a certain point, provided there is communication and movement between them, diversity is not divisive but unitary.  This will never – it cannot be emphasized enough – eliminate political, social, and cultural tension.  Anti-political orders will become political orders, and attempt to establish hegemony through the system.  But it will be a system better able to weather it, and even harness the tension in productive ways.

The quest for uniformity will never lead to healthy stability; learning to engage with people different than you can.

Each person within a social order or body politic must make a choice about the values by which they want to live.  This is not only requisite for the larger social order: it is a human necessity, a psychological drive.  There are certain kinds of choices which we must make in order to live healthy lives, and the inability to do so generates not only anger and resentment but confusion, neurosis, and disaffection.  People who would not otherwise rebel against a political or moral order will do so anyway, for reasons they cannot necessarily even process, if they are denied the opportunity to choose it or leave it peacefully.

Human nature thus measures the potential success of political orders:  people support political orders in which they can find meaningful moral orders in which to choose to participate.  It is when people cannot find a way to live that is meaningful to them, from whatever source, or make the choice that they need to engage with it, that cultural disintegration comes.

Economic prosperity and free choice are, to be sure, significant parts of the society we need to build – but as we are seeing in our world now, they will never be sufficient.  They must be channeled into the opportunities for individuals to create or join anti-political spaces which live by moral orders that are in accordance with their values.  Without that, the system undermines itself – oligarchies form across the political system, further reducing the individual’s ability to make meaningful choices and turning the system towards ruin – and for all the progress we have made, we find ourselves in the same existential crisis we have been in many times before, only with far higher stakes.

We next look at the key conditions required to create a better society.

This post is part of a series which first appeared in my Patreon.