A young writer in Australia recently sent me an essay that ended with an arresting sentence: “I am twenty-seven years old and hope to live to see the end of the twentieth century.” I sympathize. We have reached a series of dead ends in the West. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans thought the world stage had been cleared for our benevolent power to lift others to the broad, sunlit uplands of liberal democracy and free-market prosperity. The European Union moved from strength to strength, heralding an era of international cooperation and soft power. But the hoped-for utopias have not come about, and what we once thought the ideal and even inevitable future now brings frustration, disgruntlement, and incipient rebellion, not just from non-Western forces that resist our triumphalism, but within our own countries and among our own people. For good and for ill, the last century is finally ending.
One sure sign is the eclipse of the classic structure of modern Western politics. Since the Industrial Revolution, the fault line running through partisan politics has been the diverging interests of labor and capital. This is no longer the case. In Europe, establishment parties on the left and right frequently cooperate to fend off anti-establishment challengers—not always successfully, as recent votes for Brexit and against Italian constitutional reform indicate. The American constitutional system stands in the way of coalition governments, but our last presidential election featured an anti-Trump consensus among elites that transcended traditional left vs. right distinctions—here, too, the establishment consensus failed to carry the day. The wheel of history seems to be turning.
In this changing political environment, the central and divisive issue is almost always the role and future of the nation. Will we enter into the shining future of a prosperous, globalized world without borders, managed by experts and guided by the high ideals of human rights? Or will we return to the dark days of racism, nationalism, war, and concentration camps?
To put our present political situation in these terms is, of course, tendentious, though this is how the establishment side tends to express what is at stake. More than tendentious, it is also metaphysically insufficient. Our political struggles over nations and nationalisms are best understood as referenda on the West’s meta-politics over the last three generations, which has been one of disenchantment. The rising populism we’re seeing throughout the West reflects a desire for a return of the strong gods to public life.
Max Weber anticipated the meta-politics of disenchantment in his famous address “Science as a Vocation.” He thought the new scientific age had broken the metaphysical bond between fact and value. The analytical capacities and expanding technical expertise of modern intellectuals do not help us answer the pressing questions of how we should live and what we should live for. Weber knew that during his own lifetime, his severe intellectualism did not hold sway in public affairs, and he warned of the growing desire for prophecy and political commitment among young students. His forebodings were well-founded. In 1914, strong gods of nationalism drove Europe into a terrible and pointless war. Then, after a brief interlude, these gods and others roused themselves for still another round of violence and bloodshed on a global scale that ended with Europe in ruins.
The strong gods discredited themselves in the first half of the twentieth century. After 1945, Weber’s notion of disenchantment, which he saw as the spiritual burden that modern men must carry, was adopted as a positive program for cultural renewal. Three decades of mass mobilization left Europe exhausted, and a consensus formed that the West could not endure another round of nationalist zealotry. The way forward would require weakening the powerful loyalties that bound men to their homelands. In some circles, this consensus also held that communist totalitarianism suffered from the same dark disease. Ideological commitment and passion lead to brutality and moral blindness. Here again many political and cultural leaders assumed that restoration of a more humane way of life in the West would require softening and weakening.
Accordingly, in the initial years of the postwar era, steps were taken to disenchant and desacralize public life. The European Coal and Steel Community was established in order to apply the soothing balm of commerce to the wounds that had historically divided Europe. This initiative was part of a large and powerful cultural trend in the postwar era that involved rejecting more than nationalism. It made strong claims of many sorts taboo. The popular influence of French existentialism is a case in point. Albert Camus sought to articulate a humanism that required no authoritative tradition, institution, or form of life. His selection for the Nobel Prize in 1957 was an official endorsement of this effort to defend the human person against the claims of strong gods in any guise, even in the garb of moral truth. Camus’s metaphysical asceticism—he refused all traditional claims about the sources and foundations of reality—was received by the postwar West as exemplary moral heroism.
That a man who proclaimed morality without truth became a secular saint is not surprising. In the aftermath of the civilizational crisis of 1914–1945, the imperative of weakening affected everything. The Second Vatican Council, which met in the early 1960s, was widely interpreted as liberalizing and secularizing once authoritative dogmas. The actual content of the council’s documents mattered very little. Catholicism too was swept up into the imperative of disenchantment, which also characterized a great deal of Protestantism. Even within the churches, repudiation of strong and transcendent truths seemed necessary after Auschwitz.
In the United States, the cultural and political context was different. World War II was our “good war,” and it did not leave the country in ruins. Our leadership of the West during the Cold War required commitment and resolve. Nevertheless, America also participated in the banishment of the strong gods from public life. The dominant liberalism of the 1950s cultivated a pragmatic approach and claimed to be “post-ideological.” In 1955, Walter Lippmann published Essays in the Public Philosophy. He expressed the concern that liberal democracy becomes vulnerable if it loses touch with deeper metaphysical warrants. Liberals did not receive the book well. A number of reviewers recognized that Lippmann dissented from the postwar consensus of disenchantment. Some suggested that his call for a renewed moral basis for liberal democracy had authoritarian implications.
The disenchanting imperative broadened dramatically in the 1960s. For Europeans, the decisive moment came in May 1968. Rioting French students in Paris scribbled graffiti on the city’s walls: “It is forbidden to forbid.” This contradictory formula marked well the trajectory of the postwar era. It meant that everything strong and limiting goes. We must weaken social authority so that we can live more fully. For the radical French thinkers who came to be called “postmodern,” nihilism offered the opposite of despair. The notion that there are no solid, enduring truths was for them a gospel of freedom.
I don’t need to recount the cultural revolutions of the 1960s. They’re familiar to all of us, and we live with their consequences. What’s less widely acknowledged is the importance of 1989. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the existential threat posed by communism pressured the West to maintain consolidated political and cultural loyalties. We had to steel ourselves to speak forcefully about the virtues of a free society. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, America and Western Europe relaxed, confident that our way of life had been vindicated. As Francis Fukuyama famously pronounced, we had come to the “end of history.” Fukuyama has subsequently repented of this sunny optimism, but his formulation captures a sentiment that remains widespread. To a great degree, we now think that securing a better future no longer requires strenuous efforts to muster a strong political will; nor does it need philosophical justification. The project of making the world a better place will be carried forward by global capitalism, which has an intrinsic momentum, along with the legal and bureaucratic apparatus of transnational institutions and structures, which have their own logic of expansion and colonization.
The Italian public intellectual Gianni Vattimo is one of the best apologists for this “end of history” consensus. He synthesizes different trends in contemporary intellectual culture, all of which contribute to what he calls the “destiny of weakening,” which is his way of speaking about disenchantment. We are shifting from an ontology of “substance,” he says, to one of “event,” and this moves the postmodern West away from authoritarian modes of thinking and guides us toward those that encourage freedom. Our present-day view of the good life “has the features of lightening.” All of this is summed up in his catchphrase the “weakening of Being,” which he sees as a happy unburdening of the West, for weakening promotes tolerance, peace, and freedom. If there are no strong truths, nobody will judge others or limit their freedom. If nothing is worth fighting for, nobody will fight. Vattimo looks forward to a disenchanted world that encourages us to adopt a “moderate and generous” approach to life. The great commandment is not to love our neighbor as we love our self. Instead, it is to go easy on our neighbors as we go easy on ourselves.
Vattimo speaks in the patois of postmodern philosophy. Most contemporary economists take a more straightforward approach, but they say pretty much the same thing. Yale economist Robert J. Shiller argues that technological change and Paul Samuelson’s “factor-price equalization theorem” are now driving a global integration that will eclipse the narrow parochialism of the nation-state. Globalization evolves in accord with reliable economic laws that are more powerful than partisan politics—and more objective, rational, and neutral, and thus at once inevitable and morally superior. We may need to marshal moral arguments of a sort to fend off objections to the emerging global system, but there’s no real political alternative. We only need statesmanship to blunt the misguided popular resistance to the emerging empire of utility. In the place of the strong gods of traditional culture, the globalized future will be governed by the hearth gods of health, wealth, and pleasure. Our high priests will be medical experts, central bankers, and celebrity chefs.
To a great extent health, wealth, and pleasure already govern in the United States and Europe. The left and right in Europe and America are united in a common meta-politics that promotes the general pattern of weakening and the rule of the hearth gods. The left presses forward to the next frontier of “liberation.” Transgender rights reflect a desire to weaken the claims our DNA makes on our sense of self as either a man or a woman. The right adopts the libertarian logic of market-based thinking and regards the removal of all obstacles to the free flow of labor, capital, and goods as the best way to serve the common good. As much as possible needs to be disenchanted so that the benevolent invisible hand can work its magic.
The growing fusion of left and right around the pattern of weakening provides the context for today’s different forms of populism and their “anti-establishment” politics. They represent a revolt against the imperative of disenchantment. The reasons for these rebellions are no doubt multifaceted, complex, and influenced by the unique circumstances that obtain in different countries. For obvious historical reasons, Germans are animated by a particularly powerful fear of the return of the strong gods. Populism there will surely follow a different trajectory than in Holland, France, or the United States. But we can identify a common, underlying dynamic.
“Neoliberalism” is the word that gets tossed around to describe our current system. It describes an economic and cultural regime of deregulation and disenchantment. The ambition of neoliberalism is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasingly global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.
The metaphysical character of today’s populist revolt is clearest in calls for renewed national identity in the face of perceived threats. These threats are brought into sharp relief by anxieties about mass immigration, especially in Europe. Our political establishments have inherited the postwar imperative of disenchantment. We are socialized to believe that we have a fundamental moral duty to resist populist calls for a more nationalist politics. Our establishment defends diversity and inclusion, promising that the world will be more at peace if we affirm multiculturalism. A politician or public figure who stands for something strong, whether it’s nationalism or even traditional morality, invariably gets described as “authoritarian.” In Europe we’re warned that we must prevent a return of fascism. In the United States, the inherited fear concerns renewed racism. I’ve heard sophisticated intellectuals offer sincere analysis of contemporary populism in terms of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Ku Klux Klan. This is a sign of how deeply invested our establishment is in the postwar era, encouraging us to meet every challenge with still further disenchantment.
The populist rebellion is likely to intensify. As it does, establishment resistance will increase as well. The postwar consensus marshals cultural and political power to condemn the return of the strong gods in the strongest possible terms—racist, xenophobic, fascist, bigoted. Political correctness has many forms, but they are united in a shared repudiation of anything solid and substantial in public life, whether in the form of nationalism or strong affirmations of constraints that human nature places on any healthy society, constraints that get articulated by all forms of traditional morality. The growing ferocity of the establishment’s denunciation of anything strong further enflames the anxieties of populists, who fear that they are losing whatever remains of any solid place to stand.
This dynamic of redoubled disenchantment designed to discredit a growing populism will precipitate a series of political crises in the West. What forms the crises will take I cannot predict. The EU Court of Human Rights may reverse a national vote in the next few years, declaring the election of a right-wing candidate a violation of human rights. Or perhaps there will be some other nullification of populist sentiment. But crisis is coming. Put simply, populism wishes for something sacred in public life. National heritage is the obvious example. Yet our political culture has been so thoroughly shaped by a pattern of weakening that it cannot accommodate this desire for the sacred.
I was recently in Europe for some discussions, and some of what was said redoubled my concerns. During a debate about immigration, a young woman from France made an impassioned speech that opened my eyes to the deeper issues at stake in populism. She told her listeners that she was middle-class and therefore could not afford to live in neighborhoods that have no Muslims, as the rich French do. And so she knows their ways, which include a tradition of returning to Tunisia or Algeria during holidays to visit relatives. They are explicit, she said, in how they describe these trips. They are cherished opportunities to go “home.” At that moment her voice broke with emotion. She asked, “If I lose France, where can I go?”
There is no more explosive political fear than that of homelessness. And I can’t imagine a less effective response than denouncing her as Islamophobic, for this expresses the demand for weakening, which amounts to the demand that she give up her desire for a home. Vigorous disenchantment—and this is the reflex of our establishment that has been socialized into the deepest imperatives of the postwar era—can only make her more fearful that France’s leadership class will be complicit in her homelessness. This will in turn deepen her mistrust of the establishment and strengthen the populism she represents.
Julia Ioffe is an accomplished journalist who writes for a variety of mainstream newspapers and magazines. I was struck, however, by her recent tweet in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election last November: “Russian govt media watchdog blocks all Russian access to YouPorn and PornHub. Is this the America you want, Donald?” It’s unwise to read too much into tweets. Perhaps she is mocking Trump for being an unlikely vehicle for the re-moralization of American society. I doubt, however, that was her intent. In all likelihood, evocation of Russia in conjunction with Trump seeks to dramatize the choice we face in 2017. Trump’s rhetoric of building walls and shredding free-trade deals evokes a trajectory of consolidating and strengthening the body politic after a long season of disenchantment and weakening. This, Ioffe seems to suggest, sets us on a road to censorship and illiberal authoritarianism. If we care about sustaining a liberal society, then however repugnant we may find ubiquitous online pornography, we need to double-down on the weakening patterns of the postwar era that minimize boundaries and lift restrictions. Which forces me to wonder: Has the high moral mission of liberalism and its noble defense of freedom really come down to unlimited access to pornography?
There are good reasons to worry about illiberalism here and abroad. Nevertheless, Ioffe’s easy association of censorship with authoritarianism and free access to pornography with liberalism is widespread. Earnest and proper liberals throughout America often express a horror of any limits on Internet access at public libraries. Such an attitude reflects an implicit affirmation of Vattimo’s view that weakening and disenchantment are a happy fate. In his view, any form of moral authority or regulation represents an evil regression back to fascism. A couple of years ago, United Nations ambassador Samantha Power sought to counter Putin’s annexation of Crimea in a symbolic way. She did so by hosting a party for Pussy Riot, a group of Russian performance artists known for staging public orgies and other transgressions. All of this is very familiar. Pussy Riot engages in now conventional strategies of disenchantment that are widely celebrated by our establishment as integral to cultural “progress.” Just as it is forbidden to forbid, today it is conventional to be unconventional.
We are coming to a dead end. The postwar consensus now tells me that I must choose between pornographic transgression and Putinism, just as it is telling the young French woman to choose between multicultural utopianism and fascism. These are not happy choices, and a political culture that frames our most important public questions in these ways is in trouble.
As religious people, we are committed to the humanizing power of divine authority—the gracious word of God—and we need to break with the postwar consensus. We should not join our voices to the conventional denunciations of the populist desire for the renewal of strong loyalties in public life. The imperative of weakening has made many things fluid and uncertain, leaving us with little that is solid and trustworthy. It is not good for man to be alone, and it is a sign of health that our societies wish to reclaim, however haltingly, the nation, which is an important form of solidarity.
Dangers and perversions are sure to come. The nation became an idol in the past, and it can again. In meeting this danger and others we must be careful. As the postwar era ends, however, the establishment strategies of weakening meant to defuse dangerous passions and undercut overzealous loyalties lose their effectiveness. Populism rebels against the fluidity and weightlessness of life. This impulse, however disruptive it becomes for our political institutions, reflects a sane desire for metaphysical density. Our goal should be to educate this desire in the proper order of love rather than allowing ourselves to be conscripted into the increasingly frantic efforts to sustain the postwar era by administering yet another round of the chemotherapy of disenchantment.
There are three great covenants that anchor life and provide us with a place to stand. These “necessary societies,” as Russell Hittinger calls them in his exposition of the enduring foundations of Catholic social doctrine, guard against perverse and destructive loves. The most basic and primeval is the domestic covenant of marriage. The union of a man and a woman stabilizes our restless longing and provides us with an experience of solidarity in the service of a common good. For most adults, marriage teaches a deep truth about the human condition: I do not live for myself.
The metaphysical poverty created by mandatory disenchantment can lead populism to seek an ersatz solidarity of ideological homogeneity, and even feelings of empowerment that flow from collective violence. The covenant of marriage guards against these perversions. Married men do not fill the ranks of paramilitary organizations, and they do not populate terrorist cells. This is not because married men are preoccupied. The covenant of marriage anchors ordinary lives in something transcendent. It serves as our most intimate and reliable experience of “home,” and thus provides us with the metaphysical ballast needed to endure the greater fluidity, heterogeneity, and change in modern civic life governed by the social norms we rightly seek to protect and preserve.
The second covenant is civic, and like marriage, it draws us together to serve something higher than ourselves. The civic covenant has many layers: local community, civic organizations, school loyalties, voluntary associations, as well as an overarching devotion to one’s country. These loves create a multifaceted yet integral solidarity that teaches another profound truth: That which is most precious is magnified, not diminished, when it is shared. The civic covenant binds our lives together, forming what Roger Scruton calls the plural “we.” National solidarity encourages us to see our personal successes as the fruit of a larger, collective achievement, to which we owe a debt of gratitude. It also causes us to grieve over the trials and suffering of our fellow citizens.
As the postwar era’s imperative of disenchantment has weakened the civic covenant, our societies have become more divided. Today, elites are more remote from the rest, and also wealthier and more powerful. This is not a coincidence. A meritocratic mentality supplants the civic covenant as a rationale for wealth and power, and this way of thinking regards social rewards as an entitlement of the credentialed. The future of liberal democracy depends upon the renewal of our civic covenant and a restoration of solidarity between the leaders and the led, as well as among the many citizens of our diverse nation. Multiculturalism only works in empires. For a democracy, it is an impossibility.
The greatest and highest covenant is religious. Faith exposes us to the full truth of our vulnerability: The fate of our souls is not, finally, in our hands. Yet it is also our most profound experience of security and stability, for our souls are in God’s hands, and his power is supreme and everlasting. The religious covenant relativizes our other loyalties. It smashes idols not by relying on the postwar pattern of disenchantment, but instead by romancing our souls with a higher, more powerful enchantment. The most reliable protection against a false and dangerous sacralization of ideology, nation, Volk, or any other populist perversion is not multiculturalism or post-national globalism. It is instead love and loyalty ordered toward the highest good, which is God.
We are made for love, and love strengthens. We are, moreover, social animals. For that reason, the imperative of disenchantment and pattern of weakening can never provide a satisfactory basis for public life. After 1945, it made sense. There are times when dispassion plays a proper role. But it has become too predominant and too obligatory. To a great degree, the banishment of love from our politics is creating the populism that presently troubles us. In our present circumstances, we should support the populist call for the return of something worth loving and serving—and we should tutor it as best we can. This will not be easy. Nothing important in public life is. But we owe it to the young writer in Australia to do our best to bring the twentieth century to a close.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.