I met a Hungarian journalist for coffee this morning in Budapest. “Everybody knows that something is coming,” she said. “We can all feel it. I think this is why your book resonates with so many people.”
After we parted, I made my way back to my hotel. In my morning reading was this Andrew Sullivan essay contrasting Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. Pinker’s book argues that we’ve never had it so good. Violence is way down, historically speaking, and people are healthier and better fed than ever before. Pinker’s general idea is that humanity is making real progress, and that people should ignore the doomsayers.
At the same time, I was finally reading another new book, Why Liberalism Failed, by Patrick J. Deneen. If you really want a point of view that is disturbingly persuasive about the modern predicament and yet usually absent from any discussion in the mainstream media, I cannot recommend it highly enough. A short polemic against our modern liberal world, it too is relentless. By “liberal,” I don’t mean left-liberal politics; I mean (and Deneen means) the post-Machiavelli project to liberate the individual from religious authority and the focus of politics on individual rights and the betterment of humankind’s material conditions. Deneen doesn’t deny any of the progress Pinker describes, or quibble at the triumph of the liberal order. It is, by and large, indisputable. He does something more interesting: He argues that liberalism has failed precisely because it has succeeded.
Which is to say that both Pinker and Deneen are right, but Deneen is deeper. Deneen sees paradox in human life, tragedy even; he respects the wisdom of the aeons that Pinker is simply relieved we have left behind; and he has a perspective that Pinker — despite his vast erudition and intelligence — doesn’t seem to grasp. Pinker, for example, has no way to understand our current collective rage — why aren’t we all ecstatic about such huge and continuing “progress”? — unless he blames our gloom and grief and discontent on … bad media. It’s all the journalists’ and intellectuals’ fault for persuading people they’re sad when, in fact, they’re super-happy! And he has a faltering grasp of politics, the cycle of regimes, the vicissitudes of history, the decadence of democracies, or the appeal of tyrants. His view of history is so relentlessly Whiggish it’s almost a self-parody. His understanding of the Enlightenment, as David Bell notes, surgically removes its most popular representative, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw from the very beginning the paradoxes of liberty and reason, and, for that matter, Edmond Burke, who instantly realized the terrifying emptiness of modernity, and the furies it might unleash upon us.
But, as Deneen understands, we are where we are. There is no going back. For our civilization, God is dead. Meaning is meaningless outside the satisfaction of our material wants and can become, at its very best, merely a form of awe at meaninglessness. We have no common concept of human flourishing apart from materialism, and therefore we stand alone. Maybe we will muddle through this way indefinitely, and I sure hope we do, numbed or placated by continuous material improvement. But it is perfectly possible that this strange diversion in human history — a few centuries at most, compared with 200 millennia — is a massive error that will at some point be mercilessly corrected; that our planet, on present trends, will become close to uninhabitable for most of its creatures thanks to the reason and materialism Pinker celebrates; that our technology will render us unnecessary for the tasks our species has always defined itself by; and that our era of remarkable peace could end with one catastrophic event, as it did in 1914. We have, after all, imperfectly controlled weapons of mass destruction, and humans have never invented a weapon we haven’t used (including nukes, of course). It is also true that humans have never lived before without a faith or cult or set of practices designed to reconcile us to death and suffering.
Why should this continue forever? Pace Pinker, this is a question that remains terrifyingly open. For Pinker, every sharply upward graph continues indefinitely upward. But I have never seen such an astonishingly rapid ascent without an equally sudden decline, a return to the mean. Maybe I’m just a doomsayer. But it takes a remarkably sturdy set of blinkers to think it’s an impossibility.
And it is significant, it seems to me, that the drugs now conquering America are downers: They are not the means to engage in life more vividly but to seek a respite from its ordeals.
The alkaloids that opioids contain have a large effect on the human brain because they tap into our natural “mu-opioid” receptors. The oxytocin we experience from love or friendship or orgasm is chemically replicated by the molecules derived from the poppy plant. It’s a shortcut — and an instant intensification — of the happiness we might ordinarily experience in a good and fruitful communal life. It ends not just physical pain but psychological, emotional, even existential pain. And it can easily become a lifelong entanglement for anyone it seduces, a love affair in which the passion is more powerful than even the fear of extinction.
One of the more vivid images that Americans have of drug abuse is of a rat in a cage, tapping a cocaine-infused water bottle again and again until the rodent expires. Years later, as recounted in Johann Hari’s epic history of the drug war, Chasing the Scream, a curious scientist replicated the experiment. But this time he added a control group. In one cage sat a rat and a water dispenser serving diluted morphine. In another cage, with another rat and an identical dispenser, he added something else: wheels to run in, colored balls to play with, lots of food to eat, and other rats for the junkie rodent to play or have sex with. Call it rat park. And the rats in rat park consumed just one-fifth of the morphine water of the rat in the cage. One reason for pathological addiction, it turns out, is the environment. If you were trapped in solitary confinement, with only morphine to pass the time, you’d die of your addiction pretty swiftly too. Take away the stimulus of community and all the oxytocin it naturally generates, and an artificial variety of the substance becomes much more compelling.
One way of thinking of postindustrial America is to imagine it as a former rat park, slowly converting into a rat cage. Market capitalism and revolutionary technology in the past couple of decades have transformed our economic and cultural reality, most intensely for those without college degrees. The dignity that many working-class men retained by providing for their families through physical labor has been greatly reduced by automation. Stable family life has collapsed, and the number of children without two parents in the home has risen among the white working and middle classes. The internet has ravaged local retail stores, flattening the uniqueness of many communities. Smartphones have eviscerated those moments of oxytocin-friendly actual human interaction. Meaning — once effortlessly provided by a more unified and often religious culture shared, at least nominally, by others — is harder to find, and the proportion of Americans who identify as “nones,” with no religious affiliation, has risen to record levels. Even as we near peak employment and record-high median household income, a sense of permanent economic insecurity and spiritual emptiness has become widespread. Some of that emptiness was once assuaged by a constantly rising standard of living, generation to generation. But that has now evaporated for most Americans.
New Hampshire, Ohio, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania have overtaken the big cities in heroin use and abuse, and rural addiction has spread swiftly to the suburbs. Now, in the latest twist, opioids have reemerged in that other, more familiar place without hope: the black inner city, where overdose deaths among African-Americans, mostly from fentanyl, are suddenly soaring. To make matters worse, political and cultural tribalism has deeply weakened the glue of a unifying patriotism to give a broader meaning to people’s lives — large numbers of whites and blacks both feel like strangers in their own land. Mass immigration has, for many whites, intensified the sense of cultural abandonment. Somewhere increasingly feels like nowhere.
It’s been several decades since Daniel Bell wrote The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, but his insights have proven prescient. Ever-more-powerful market forces actually undermine the foundations of social stability, wreaking havoc on tradition, religion, and robust civil associations, destroying what conservatives value the most. They create a less human world. They make us less happy. They generate pain.
The reason the brilliant Steven Pinker can’t understand why there is so much unhappiness is because he is a materialist. Patrick Deneen, Andrew Sullivan, and people like us understand otherwise. There is no replacement for the company of other people.
You might recall my post from last September about a speech I heard Sen. Ben Sasse give to a big group of Evangelical Christian philanthropists. Sasse, whose academic training is as a historian, said that social science identifies four things people need to thrive:
A theological or philosophical view that explains death and suffering
Meaningful work (Defined as work in which people think that they’re needed. “Not, ‘Do I make a lot of money?’ but ‘When I go to work, are there actually people in the world who need what I do?”
The period we are now entering, he said, is one in which every one of those things will be radically challenged. He urged the audience to devote their charitable giving towards building up local institutions that will help people develop resilience to cope with the tumult upon us now, and coming at us even harder and faster.
The center is not holding. We know this. The important thing, I told the journalist, is that we are not destined to collapse with the rest of it. We have the liberty now to form ourselves, and our communities, in such a way that we can thrive amid the chaos and darkness. We have resources — but we have to commit ourselves to going against the mainstream. The choice — the option — is ours.