In his classic book Suicide of the West, James Burnham famously characterized liberalism as “the ideology of Western suicide.” I’ve been meaning for some time to write up an essay on the book. This isn’t it. But Burnham’s thesis came to mind when reading Michael Anton’s essay “Unprecedented” in the latest New Criterion, because the phenomena Anton cites clearly confirm Burnham’s analysis.
Ours is a civilization in decline, and at a rapidly accelerating pace. That isn’t new in human history. But the precise manner in which it is disintegrating seems to be unprecedented, which is the reason for the title of Anton’s essay. What has effectively become the ideology of the ruling classes, which goes by many names – political correctness, “wokeness,” “critical social justice,” the “successor Ideology,” the baizuo mentality, and so on – manifests a perverse self-destructiveness and nihilism that, as Anton argues, appears sui generis.
This ideology, now embraced wholeheartedly by our elites and propagated by them in all the major institutions of society, teaches hatred of their own country and their own civilization as somehow uniquely malign and oppressive. It encourages foreigners and immigrants to regard the United States and the West in general with the same hostility. Affluent left-wing whites have also adopted an ethnic self-hatred that is unparalleled in history, enthusiastically embracing the demonization of their “whiteness” as the source of all evil in the world. Yet these forms of oikophobia or hatred of one’s own are prescribed by them only for Westerners and white people – non-Westerners and non-whites, however bloody or oppressive the histories of their own people, are encouraged only ever to celebrate their heritage.
Even more radical, though, is this ideology’s attack on the very foundation of all social order, the family, and the distinction and relations between the sexes that is the family’s own basis. Every form of sexual degeneracy is celebrated, and even the most timid criticism of it shrilly denounced as “bigotry.” The rarest kind of sexual activity may be that which actually results in children – despite that being what sex exists for in the first place – and marriage rates and birthrates are declining significantly. Norms governing the roles of fathers and mothers and the relations between the sexes are condemned as “patriarchal.” Many are alienated even from their own sex, “self-identifying” instead as one of up to 63 imagined alternative “genders.”
As Anton notes, outright ugliness is aggressively promoted in all areas of culture, from architecture to the arts to advertising. Movies and music endlessly obsess over the deviant, the disordered, and the criminal, while ridiculing the normal. Bodies are ever more thoroughly tattooed, pierced, and clothed in amorphous garb that smothers rather than enhances femininity or masculinity. Obese or emaciated models stare out from advertisements with expressions of sullen defiance. Conventional standards of beauty, like those of morality, are condemned as “oppressive” and “bigoted.”
Basic law and order too is condemned in the same terms. Police are demonized, defunded, and demoralized. Many offenses are decriminalized, many laws that remain on the books are left unenforced, and many who are arrested for breaking the laws that are still enforced are let back onto the streets without bail. Looting and vandalism are excused or even approved of. Drug addicts and the mentally ill are permitted to take over sidewalks and defecate in the streets, though this benefits neither them nor anyone else.
The educational system inculcates into the young this nihilism and oikophobia, and condemns standards of excellence as (you guessed it) just further examples of “oppression” and “bigotry.” “Progress” is conceived of in terms of the endless ferreting out of yet further norms that might be subverted, and the death spiral that this entails now seems to be reaching its inevitable climax.
It is the societal self-hatred that all of this evinces that in Anton’s view makes it unique in the annals of civilizational collapse, and it is what brought Burnham’s analysis to my mind. What accounts for it?
Part of the story is that we are victims of our own success. The truth, of course, is that modern Western society is not oppressive (except, now, toward those who resist the cultural decline just described and try to shore up traditional standards). It is freer and more prosperous than any society in history. The fact that it tolerates even the odious malcontents who spread “wokeness” like a cancer through the body politic, and indeed has now adopted this ideology as its own, itself demonstrates how free it is. The fact that the entire system, though highly dysfunctional, has not yet collapsed from this cancer shows how prosperous it is. A society needs a high degree of affluence in order to limp along, at least for a while, as the family unit and basic law and order crumble.
But liberty and affluence breed decadence. The wealthier and freer people are, the more they tend to find unendurable any residual discomfort or restraint on the indulgence of desire. Elsewhere I have discussed in some detail Plato’s account of how oligarchical societies tend to decay into egalitarian licentiousness. And as Nietzsche observes in Beyond Good and Evil:
There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly. Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it. “Is it not enough to render him undangerous? Why still punish? Punishing itself is terrible.” With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (201)
If this is true even of criminal activity, it is naturally going to be true of non-criminal forms of deviance. A “pathologically soft and tender” society cannot endure the thought that people who do shameful things might be made to feel shame. Hence it will frantically lower or abandon standards in order to pander to every weirdo or pervert who whines that his favorite brand of deviancy has not been afforded sufficient respect.
Yet while this accounts to some degree for the extent to which norms have collapsed, it does not explain the visceral hostility of those who work to undermine them. For that we need to factor in the deadly sin of envy, and what Nietzsche called ressentiment, which are the concomitants of radical egalitarianism. As Aquinas teaches, “hatred may arise both from anger and from envy… [but] arises more directly from envy, which looks upon the very good of our neighbor as displeasing and therefore hateful.” The envious person wants to destroy what he cannot achieve or live up to himself. Thus the “woke” are not satisfied merely to have the liberty to flout the standards upheld by “normies.” They want to do dirt on those standards, and indeed utterly to annihilate them. Nietzsche had their number in Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
You preachers of equality. To me you are tarantulas, and secretly vengeful…
“What justice means to us is precisely that the world be filled with the storms of our revenge” – thus [the tarantulas] speak to each other. “We shall wreak vengeance and abuse on all whose equals we are not” – thus do the tarantula-hearts vow. “And ‘will to equality’ shall henceforth be the name for virtue; and against all that has power we want to raise our clamor!”
You preachers of equality, the tyrannomania of impotence clamors thus out of you for equality: your most secret ambitions to be tyrants thus shroud themselves in words of virtue. Aggrieved conceit, repressed envy – perhaps the conceit and envy of your fathers – erupt from you as a flame and as the frenzy of revenge…
Mistrust all who talk much of their justice! … [W]hen they call themselves the good and the just, do not forget that they would be pharisees, if only they had – power…
Preachers of equality and tarantulas… are sitting in their holes, these poisonous spiders, with their backs turned on life, they speak in favor of life, but only because they wish to hurt. They wish to hurt those who now have power. (The Portable Nietzsche, pp. 211-13)
Now, such hatred naturally has a tendency to subvert reason. But as Plato and Aquinas teach, it is sexual vice, among all vices, that has the greatest tendency to destroy rationality. Sexual desire can seriously cloud the intellect even in the best of circumstances, but when its objects are contra naturam, indulgence makes the very idea of an objective, natural order of things hateful. Wokeness, which marries the deadly sin of envy to that of lust, must inevitably give rise to ever more bizarre manifestations of outright irrationality.
So, affluence breeds softness which breeds egalitarianism which breeds licentiousness which breeds madness. This is all just good old fashioned sociopolitical analysis in the classical tradition (Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, et al.). And it is a very large part of the story we see playing out around us. But I submit that even this does not quite explain what Anton calls the “unprecedented” nature of our cultural collapse. What I have been describing are entirely natural processes of cultural decay. But there is something beyond the natural order at work here – something truly diabolical in what is going on.
After all, even the pagans of old had some significant understanding of the natural law. That is why the Church could find kindred spirits in the likes of Plato and Aristotle. By contrast, the modern West has largely lost even the moral knowledge that the pagans had. Deviancy was, in the days of the old paganism, largely confined to the affluent upper classes. Today it permeates the whole of the social order.
What happened between their time and ours? Christianity, of course – and then apostasy from Christianity. And it is this character of apostasy, I submit, that accounts for the unprecedented and diabolical character of the cultural collapse we are witnessing. The pagans of old had a rough understanding of the natural law. The Catholic faith perfected it, and added to it knowledge of our supernatural end – the beatific vision – and the possibility of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity that allow us to achieve that end. But the modern West has abandoned the Faith, and lost, along with it, even the natural virtues, along with these supernatural gifts. The higher one has been raised, the further he has to fall. Or as Christ warns those who do not do well with what he has given them: “For to him who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Matthew 13:12).
Now, where does liberalism fit into the story? Liberalism, I submit, was bound to give way to nihilism of the kind embodied in wokeness. As I have argued at length elsewhere, liberalism is essentially a Christian heresy, and its heresy involves a distortion of the Christian conception of nature. In particular, it requires a conception of nature that strips from it any inherent teleology or purpose, and thus yields a distorted conception of natural law. It also makes of the supernatural an alien imposition on nature rather than the completion of it. And as I have also argued, liberalism’s denuded conception of nature leaves the individualist self the sole arbiter of value. Whatever the self does not consent to must come to seem oppressive.
It is true that there is also, alongside its radical individualism, a strongly collectivist element in wokeness, particularly in Critical Race Theory. But this does not undermine the point that wokeness is the fruit of liberal individualism. For one thing, modern forms of collectivism (whether socialism, communism, or the racist collectivism of Nazism and CRT) have arisen precisely as an overreaction to liberal individualism. For another, the collectivism of CRT is highly attenuated by its emphasis on “intersectionality.” When one defines oneself as (say) an undocumented low-income trans lesbian plus-sized person of color with disabilities, who is the victim of oppression by everyone outside this intersection of categories, group identity isn’t doing much work anymore. It’s just another novel expression of individual grievance.
As Nietzsche emphasized, the egalitarianism of modern liberalism and socialism is an inheritance from Christianity, and lacks any rational basis in the absence of its original foundation. But modern forms of egalitarianism are also grotesque distortions of what Christianity says about human equality. Christianity teaches that all human beings are equally made in God’s image by virtue of their rational nature, and have all been offered the supernatural end of the beatific vision. Wokeness says, contrary to traditional Christian teaching, that human beings are or ought to be equal in every significant respect and that all “inequities” per se are unjust. Christianity teaches that all sinners are equally offered the opportunity for forgiveness, if only they will repent. Wokeness teaches that no repentance is necessary because the things Christianity offers forgiveness for are not really sins. Indeed, the only real sinners are those who uphold the old norms.
In other ways too, wokeness amounts to a counterfeit Christianity that aims to subvert and replace the original. In particular, and as I have argued elsewhere, it has the character of a Manichean Gnostic cult that shares many traits with earlier Gnostic challenges to the Church.
Where will all of this lead? Contra those who worry (or hope) that the woke “successor ideology” will have its boot on our throats for generations, Anton says:
If forced to bet, I would have to place my chips somewhere between imminent collapse and drawn-out decline. I occasionally read theories of triple bank-shots and four-dimensional chess – they really know what they’re doing! – only to marvel. Our regime cannot, at present, unload a cargo ship, stock a store shelf, run a clean election, handle parental complaints at a school board meeting, pass a budget bill, treat a cold variant, keep order in the streets, defeat a third world country, or even evacuate said country cleanly. And that’s to say nothing of all the things it should be doing, that all non-joke countries do, that it refuses to do. If our ruling class has a plan, it would seem to be to destroy the society and institutions from which they, at present, are the largest – one is tempted to say only – beneficiaries. Do they think they can benefit more from the wreckage? Or are they driven by hatreds that blind them to self-interest? Perhaps they’re simply insane?
My own answer to Anton’s last three questions is “All of the above.” And I think that those who suppose that the current woke hegemony will last indefinitely are deluding themselves. The world is breathtakingly different from what it was even just five decades ago, when I was born. If norms that persisted for millennia can seemingly disintegrate in a single lifetime, why on earth does anyone have the confidence or fear that what has replaced them will last? Especially when it involves an attack on the very cell of society, the family, that is even more radical than what the communist regimes attempted?
In fact, this sick new disorder of things is so utterly contra naturam that it cannot possibly last. The real questions are: How chaotic will its end be? What comes after it? And might the successor to the successor ideology involve a revival of the Faith, apostasy from which has led us into this crisis?
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared on the author’s blog in a slightly different form and is reprinted here with his kind permission.)
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