This is the modern world: “What’s Left?” September 2020

SFMOMA. Photo by Henrik Kam

I’m old.

I’m 68 years old. My dad died of a heart attack at 67 on December 16, 1993, not quite two months after his wife—my mom—died of lung cancer at 64. I look at this two ways. He lived just one month and two days after his 67th birthday. As of today I’ve lived a year plus two months and change longer than he did when he died almost 27 years ago. I’m now 13+ months past my own 67th birthday. So I’m feeling reassured.

I’m also considered old Left by “the kids” these days. That’s despite having developed my politics during the period of the New Left—the time of SDS, the New Communist Movement, a resurgent rank-and-file labor movement, and a revived anarchism. Which is doubly ironic because we in the New Left called the Left of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s—the Stalinist CP-USA and its loyal opposition the Trotskyist SWP—the Old Left. Frankly, I’m darned uncomfortable with and a bit distrustful of the current youthful Left based not on class but on non-class identities embraced by the “new” populist postmodernism. So I’m pissed off that I’m now considered a sad old Leftist anachronism.

Finally, I feel old in a metaphysical sense. To understand this, let’s start with a curious pair of books: Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (1904) and The Education of Henry Adams (1907), both written by Henry Adams. My parents had a two-volume Time Life “great books” series paperback edition of The Education of Henry Adams that I discovered in their library one rainy weekend and read in one sitting. Editions of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres were harder to come by, but I discovered a Doubleday Anchor paperback in a used book store years later to round out my own education of Henry Adams.

Henry Adams

Henry Brooks Adams (1838-1918) was the scion of Boston brahmins, member of the famous Adams family which included the 2nd and 6th US presidents, and an American historian who produced a nine volume study of Jefferson’s and Madison’s presidential administrations. He was also a man of letters, writing two novels to boot, whose life straddled the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. He was obsessed with the erosion of faith by science, convinced that a world of order and unity was disintegrating into chaos around him. Adams distilled the history of western civilization down to the metaphor of the Virgin and the dynamo in these two books. His first book, subtitled A Study in 13th Century Unity, was a historical and philosophical meditation on the 12th century Norman construction of the Mont-Saint-Michel cathedral and the 13th century cult of the Virgin at Chartres. For Adams, Europe in the century from 1150 to 1250 was “the point in history when man held the highest idea of himself as a unit in a unified universe.”

That old order, the Ancien régime, the Europe of the Middle Ages was manorialism and feudalism, chivalry and serfdom, the Holy Roman Empire and the Crusades; of nobility, clergy and peasantry unified in Christian holy war against infidel Islam according to Adams. He admired the infusion of religious ideals throughout European economic, political and military institutions in this age when philosophy, theology and the arts were all informed by faith. In Mont-Saint-Michel he symbolized this organic unity of reason and intuition, science and religion in the statue of the Virgin Mary in Chartres cathedral. In turn he saw in the scholasticism of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its emphasis on human reason, the beginning of the destruction of this coherent, totalizing world view.

For Adams, the humanism of the Renaissance, the individual faith of the Reformation, the universal reason of the Enlightenment, the liberté, égalité, fraternité and démocratie of the French revolution, the modern era’s nation-states and national capitalist economies all furthered the disintegration of this organic unity, replacing the singularity of faith with the fragmenting logic of science. In The Education, Adams described this historical transition as “evolving the universe from a thought” to “evolving thought from the universe.” The movement from religious spiritualism to scientific materialism produced “Multiplicity, Diversity, Complexity, Anarchy, Chaos,” with no way to prevent the proliferation of conflicting, contradictory thoughts from scientific observation of the universe. Adams symbolized this atomizing scientific world view in the mechanistic force of the dynamo he saw at the 1900 Great Exposition in Paris. He subtitled his two volume philosophical and autobiographical reflection on the woeful inadequacy of his “education” for the modern world A Study of 20th Century Multiplicity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

When the Virgin was central, man was at his pinnacle of unity with the universe. Yet when the dynamo of human achievement replaced faith, man was eventually subordinated to mere mechanical forces. The primary paradox embodied in Adams’ Virgin/dynamo metaphor has been described by others in different ways. Friedrich Nietzsche decried the “collective degeneration of man” into the “perfect herd animal” of our democratic era when, under corrupt “modern ideas,” human beings behave “too humanely.” He maintained in Beyond Good and Evil that: “[e]very elevation of the type ‘man’ has hitherto been the work of an aristocratic society—and so it will always be: a society which believes in a long scale of rank and differences of worth between man and man and needs slavery in some sense or other.” In his Revolt Against the Modern World, Julius Evola praised Medieval Europe for “its objectivity, its virile spirit, its hierarchical structure, its proud antihumanistic simplicity so often permeated by the sense of the sacred” which made man heroic. When the humanism of the Renaissance supposedly “emancipated itself from the ‘darkness of the Middle Ages’ […] [c]ivilization, even as an ideal, ceased to have a unitary axis.” Degeneration and decadence inevitably followed, marked by “restlessness, dissatisfaction, resentment, the need to go further and faster, and the inability to possess one’s life in simplicity, independence, and balance” in which man was “made more and more insufficient to himself and powerless.”

So I understand it. I get the lure of traditionalism in its organic, anti-individualist, communalist aspects, even though I’m firmly rooted in modernity, a contented child of the modern world. Which is why I’m leery of postmodernism. I’m appalled by the collapse of Leftist class politics to identitarianism and populism. I hoped that the nation-state would be transcended by a stateless, classless, global human community, not disintegrate into ultraviolent tribalism. I’m an abject atheist now terrified that the world’s religions are splintering between ultra-orthodoxy and neopagan revival. And I’m horrified that, throughout all of this, capitalism will still prevail.

On the one hand, I think that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold” once the orthodoxy of a tradition is rejected. I see this in the history of the Catholic faith I rejected, and in the Marxist faith I’ve acquired that Doris Lessing has argued “could not prevent itself from dividing and subdividing, like all the other religions, into smaller and smaller chapels, sects and creeds.” On the other hand, I think that capitalism has a totalizing, globalizing impulse that is built on cycles, each of which engenders a Leftist reaction that attempts to supersede capitalism. The Left that arose out of industrial capitalism nearly succeeded in smashing that system. I don’t see the same potential arising out of the postmodern Left.

Calvin and Hobbes, Bill Watterson

There is little scholarly disagreement that Friedrich Nietzsche is at the heart of postmodernism in centering an “incredulity toward metanarratives.” I consider the revival of this “radical conservative” and “aristocratic individualist” philosopher—much admired by Fascists—to be generally troublesome for a postmodernism that claims to be Leftist. Postmodernism becomes highly problematic when it attempts to rehabilitate philosophers like Martin Heidegger who enthusiastically if opportunistically joined the Nazi party, only to think better of his decision later. Thus far we have an intentionally fragmentary, pluralist, vaguely leftist populism. Once we reinstate overt Nazis like Carl Schmitt and recruit parafascist Traditionalists like Julius Evola, we arrive at the European Nouvelle Droite of Alain de Benoist. He championed a Traditionalist identitarian “Europe of a thousand flags” comprised of separate tribal ethnies. This is rightwing populism pure and simple.

“I believe that the emergence of postmodernism is closely related to the emergence of this new moment of late, consumer or multinational capitalism,” writes Fredric Jameson in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. “I believe also that its formal features in many ways express the deeper logic of that particular social system. I will only be able, however, to show this for one major theme: namely the disappearance of a sense of history, the way in which our entire contemporary social system has little by little begun to lose its capacity to retain its own past, has begun to live in a perpetual present and in a perpetual change that obliterates traditions of the kind which all earlier social formations have had in one way or another to preserve.”

I’m not just old, I’m crotchety. Postmodernism obliterates not just tradition, but history. I am, and we are, nothing without history.

Fred Jameson, portrait by Mark Staff Brandl

Personal recollections
Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres and The Education of Henry Adams (2 volumes) by Henry Adams
Revolt Against the Modern World by Julius Evola
Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism by Fredric Jameson
Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique by Alex Callinicos
The Illusions of Postmodernism by Terry Eagleton
The Sokal Hoax ed. by editors of Lingua Franca
Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont
The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism ed. by Stuart Sim
The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism by Richard Wolin


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Western Civilization and Its Discontents: “What’s Left?” December 2015, MRR #391

Mistah Kurtz—he dead…

Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1902

We need only glance at the awesome population figures predicted for the year 2000, i.e., twenty-eight years from now: seven billion people, only nine hundred million of whom will be white.

Jean Raspail, author of The Camp of Saints, 1972

I’ll put it bluntly: Nothing you love will survive without white people.

Jared Taylor, “An Open Letter to Cuckservatives,” American Renaissance, July 2015

Let’s take two people: Bill Maher and Gavin McInnes. Both are writers, actors, political commentators, media personalities, and comedians of a sort. That’s what they do for a living however, and there the similarities end. These two individuals couldn’t be more different when it comes to what they believe.

Bill Maher calls himself a liberal, albeit one with a libertarian streak, an advocate of decriminalizing if not legalizing most “soft” drugs and prostitution, a pro-choice, pro-feminist, gay-friendly atheist who is anti-racist and against US military interventionism abroad. Gavin McInnes considers himself a conservative with libertarian tendencies, an opponent of legalizing “adult vices” like drugs and prostitution, a pro-life, anti-feminist Catholic with assorted issues about the usual suspects—gays, trans-folk, blacks, illegal immigrants—who likes his wars necessary and just. Funny thing is, despite these obvious political disagreements, Maher and McInnes both agree on a political tenet so fundamental as to constitute a common worldview, the need to defend Western civilization.

Catch Maher’s tirades on Real Time with Bill Maher, or McInnes’s rants on Red Eye and TheRebelMedia, and they sound remarkably alike. Muslims suck. Liberals are brain-dead or self-hating idiots and need to wake up. The West is ashamed or oblivious and needs to cultivate some brass. We’re at war. We need to defend Western civilization, the West, our way of life from those goddamned Mooslims!

This umbrella sentiment—defend Western civilization—held by mainstream left-right-and-center, as well as certain elements on the fringes, relies upon volatile, highly emotional symbols. The Muslim hordes are once again at the gates of Vienna and Poitiers, symbolically speaking. And, there is a search for the next 9/11 to wake us all up. 11/M—the Madrid train bombings of 3/11/05—was the next 9/11, and 7/7—the London bombings of 7/7/05—was the next 9/11. Now, the Paris shootings of 1/8/15 (and 11/13/15) have been equated with 9/11, and the hope was that the events in Paris would act as a rallying point around which the West could marshal its resolve.

A reporter once asked Gandhi: “What do you think about Western civilization?” Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” So while I broach the subject in this column, I can only scratch its surface. Consider for instance just the distinctions between Maher and McInnes among the myriad “defenders of the West.” For McInnes, Islamic culture is backward, violent, inbred, not civilized, requiring a culture war or a religious war to protect “our entire civilization.” For Maher, all religion is a bad idea, but Islam is the mother lode of bad ideas, necessitating a war against them by those holding liberal Western values and ideas to preserve “our way of life.” But what the hell is “Western civilization” anyway?

If we use strict political categories and define Western civilization as that aggregate of liberal democratic nation-states that purport to be based on and supportive of Western (e.g., Enlightenment) values, this is entirely ephemeral. Liberal democracies often become authoritarian or totalitarian regimes with alarming consequences (Italy in the 1920s, Germany in the 1930s, Czechoslovakia in the 1940s), and those nations touted as “the Switzerland of X” (Uruguay in South America, Uganda or Rwanda in Africa, Singapore in Asia) are anything but upon closer examination. Maher and McInnes are proud citizens of liberal Western-style democracies even as they consider liberal democracy the Achilles heel of those countries. And despite their professed libertarianism, when push comes to shove, Maher and McInnes often advocate very illiberal, undemocratic means such as racial profiling to combat the perceived threat of Islamic extremism.

If we defer to what we learned in our primary and secondary education, Western civilization is based on some combination of our Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian traditions. Right off the bat, atheists like Maher would take issue with any form of religion counting positively toward the heritage of the West. For the classic liberalism that Maher claims, the Enlightenment legacy of reason, science, and skepticism constitute the best of what the West has to offer. For McInnes, he accepts the whole vague social/cultural package defined as Western civilization, having converted from atheism to Catholicism and from anarchism to conservatism. Certain white power types would take offense at inclusion of the Jews in any affirmative evaluation of the West, since the Jews and Judaism are evil incarnate. This leads the ultra-right to efforts to redefine Christianity without its Judaic core, as in Christian Identity, or to abandon Christianity altogether for some amalgam of European paganism or out-and-out atheism. As for the Greco-Roman part of the equation, and again aside from the Enlightenment emphasis on these roots as the classical West’s cultural and philosophical beginnings, there are many contenders for more-European-than-thou sources. The Celts and Germanic peoples—the latter a part of some mythic Aryan race—to pan-Slavism and Eurasianism—which seeks to shift the focus of European civilization from west to east, and to a Greater Russian geopolitical dominance that rejects Western European values—are all contenders for the origins of Western Civilization.

So, which values are real, true Western values? Is Western civilization at its core pagan Celto-Germanic tribalism, or Talmudic Judaism, or Greek city-states, or Roman imperialism, or crusading Medieval Christianity, or Enlightenment modernism, or Slavic orthodoxies, or Russian Mongol corporatism? Aside from broad and banal generalizations, can anything uniquely Western be discerned in the music, literature, dance, painting, and architecture subsumed under the label Western culture? Can Western and Eastern be convincingly separated? Are the rule of law, secularism, science, and technology what distinguishes Western civilization? Can any combination of the above stand for the whole, or must we be satisfied with an undifferentiated, cumulative understanding of Western civilization? Or is Western civilization like pornography, something that cannot be clearly defined, but we know it when we see it?

If the political is ephemeral and the social/cultural is vague, the biological seems to offer certainty. Western civilization is the product of white people, and white people are the source of all that is good in the world. Hence the current popularity of DNA ancestry analysis that attempts to associate certain DNA markers with geographic locations as when, for instance, the distribution of the maternal haplogroup H is correlated overwhelmingly with the European subcontinent. From there it’s a small step to equate such analyses with a genetic causation for ersatz races and their behaviors, bringing us back to the “scientific” racism and eugenics of two centuries prior. Maher clearly detests and denounces such racialized definitions of Western civilization and resists taking this step. But McInnes shamelessly flirts with them. According to McInnes, sub-Saharan Africa had no written languages before white people arrived. Our advanced technologies were all invented by white people, and our material superiority is all due to the hard work of white people. “I love being white and I think it’s something to be very proud of. […] I don’t want our culture diluted. We need to close the borders now and let everyone assimilate to a Western, white, English-speaking way of life.” (NYT, 9/28/03) McInnes even denies that black people had much to do with creating rock and roll, he’s so dead set on affirming that “white is right.”

When he’s not playing the contrarian, McInnes is responding in part to increased anger and frustration on the ultra-right as white racists feel increasingly besieged. The issue here is power. When white people held uncontested social power, white racists gloried in being white supremacists, fully backing the superiority and domination of white people over all others. When that power was challenged in the slightest degree and Enlightenment values such as equality threatened to emerge, white racists became the voice of the “embattled white minority” and fancied themselves white nationalists seeking to secede as a separate white nation. Countering the biological explanation for Western civilization does not merely require invoking the statistical truism that correlation is not causation, that the correlation of genetic factors with geographic location is not the cause of a so-called race’s achievements and failures. What also is required is countering a logical fallacy that confuses the repeatability and predictability of hard science with the lack of either in history.

That the past 10,000 years of human history and 2 million years of human evolution have led us to a world where capitalism, the nation state, white supremacy and patriarchy reign supreme tells us only so much. We cannot repeat history over and over, like a scientific experiment, to see whether or not we get the same results. Science depends on predicting future experimental results from successful past experimental results. But despite some historians seeing patterns in history, any ability to predict the future based on a study of the past has remained elusive. A particularly virulent configuration of wealth and power won the game we call history this time around, but since we can’t ever play the game again there’s no way to know whether that win was a fluke due to luck or a certainty due to merit.

Marx committed this fallacy himself in seeking to formulate a scientific socialism based on historical materialism. But there you go, another dead white European male whose ideas and the movements he inspired are very much a part of Western civilization. Again, whatever the fuck that means. Maybe the only way to make sense of Western civilization nowadays is how Joseph Conrad did it by counterposing Europe to The Other, in his case Africa, as a “foil to Europe, a place of negations at once remote and vaguely familiar in comparison with which Europe’s own state of spiritual grace will be manifest” as Chinua Achebe once commented.

Maher, McInnes and other defenders of the West against radical Islam consistently contend that what Islam needs today is its own Reformation or Enlightenment. Seriously? Consider that from 1517 (the start of the Protestant Reformation) to roughly 1650 (an arbitrary start for the Enlightenment) between 10 and 30 million people perished across Europe in various conflicts related to the clash between Protestantism and Catholicism. In less than 150 years, on a subcontinent of roughly 4 million square miles and 70-80 million people, something like 20 million people died in Reformation, Counterreformation, the Thirty Years War, indeed scores of major wars and upheavals. This doesn’t include the “New World” that Europe was exploring, conquering and colonizing at the time. The period in Europe from the Reformation to the Enlightenment was truly a slaughterhouse, yet a comparable social transformation is being urged onto the Islamic world as a great idea.

Or maybe, perversely, it’s already happening. Perhaps Islam is undergoing it’s equivalent of the Reformation and Enlightenment right now. But to soberly compare 16th/17th century Christian fratricide to the modern Middle East—to the sectarian, ethnic, national and class conflicts engulfing vast swaths of a region with some 7 million square miles and half a billion people for the past 2 to 3 decades—we need to realize that we’re are all in for some nasty shit. The exponential expansion in firepower from Medieval Europe to the Middle East today alone should give us pause.

Our brave defenders of Western civilization have a hard time seeing what’s under their noses, much less the future.

(Copy editing by K Raketz.)


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