The Demoralization Of The West
Rod Liddle, who grew up poor in Middlesbrough, a town in the north of England, reviews J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy in First Things. Here is Liddle referring to Vance’s drug-addicted, unstable mother, who cycled through a number of men and neglected her child:
I was of J. D.’s mum’s generation, the people who made fecklessness a lifestyle choice, and were somehow encouraged to do so. We jettisoned almost everything our parents believed in and made ourselves much worse off—just as did J. D.’s mother. I tried to make sense of this generational shift in a book—Selfish, Whining Monkeys—which attempted to explain the reasons why my generation had managed, in such a short space of time, to let down their children and their parents. Some of it accords with what Vance has to say, even if he does not spell it out. Gone, for example, was any notion of deferred gratification and work ethic—just one of the many consequences of the diminished importance of religion in our lives.
Protestantism inculcated a simple and perhaps confining moral code: work hard, invest, don’t steal, look after your community, put your family first, wait for reward—always wait for reward. Don’t sleep around, don’t lie, don’t spend more money than you have. For my parents’ generation, divorce was a stigma and vanishingly rare, at that. But recently I stood outside a Middlesbrough job center interviewing one hundred or so people who were seeking work. Every single one of that hundred came from a broken family. Every one. And of those who now had children themselves, every one was no longer with the partner with whom she’d had the child. And this state of affairs had not made them happy; it had wrecked them. They were all J. D.’s mum now.
Liddle goes on to say that liberalism has a lot to do with this — not just the left-wing liberalism of social permissiveness, but also the right-wing liberalism of market über alles:
Both of these doctrines, left and right, in the end amounted to the same thing: You are your own God now. The old God will not stand in your way, nor, frankly, will the state. You have total freedom to do as you please. Go, use, enjoy. But for the poorest of us, these injunctions did not bring liberation. They brought the illusion of liberation and the reality of a new poverty, characterized by broken homes, idleness, vast mountains of personal debt, and a disconnectedness with the communities in which we lived.
Read the whole thing. Liddle suggests at the very end that liberalism might have had its day. If so, what comes next? I don’t know, and I don’t think anybody knows, any more than Italians in the 6th century knew what was coming after the fall of the Roman Empire. Liberalism, in all its iterations, is much more than a governing philosophy; it’s a way of seeing the world. When all your life your horizons have been delineated by liberalism of one sort or another, it’s very difficult to imagine anything beyond it.
But there is a world beyond it. Several worlds, in fact, depending on which direction we choose. Not saying this is going to be a pleasant journey for us all, but it’s going to be a journey. From the introduction to The Benedict Option:
If we want to survive, we have to return to the roots of our faith, both in thought and in deed. We are going to have to learn habits of the heart forgotten by believers in the West. We are going to have to change our lives, and our approach to life, in radical ways. In short, we are going to have to be the church, without compromise, no matter what it costs.
This book does not offer a political agenda. Nor is it a spiritual how-to manual, nor a standard decline-and- fall lament. True, it offers a critique of modern culture from a traditional Christian point of view, but more importantly, it tells the stories of conservative Christians who are pioneering creative ways to live out the faith joyfully and counterculturally in these darkening days. My hope is that you will be inspired by them and collaborate with like-minded Christians in your local area to construct responses to the real-world challenges faced by the church. If the salt is not to lose its savor, we have to act. The hour is late. This is not a drill.
Take a look at these tweets from Ross Douthat, who in a previous tweet, called this list “hilarious,” meaning it is very much out of touch with the world as it is, versus how the globalist elites wish it were:
An alternative list of “global thinkers” who actually mattered in 2016: Houellebecq, Buchanan, Aleksandr Dugin …https://t.co/DbWZhPVbNe
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) December 12, 2016
… Eric Zemmour, Ryszard Legutko, Pierre Manent, Thilo Sarrazin, Peter Hitchens, and throw on the late Sam Huntington and Chris Lasch.
— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) December 12, 2016
With any luck, by this time next year, Benedict of Nursia’s name will be on the list. Also, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst have a new book out about the failures of liberalism, pointing the way to the post-liberal future. I was recently sent a review copy, and expect to be writing about it soon. Rowan Williams, the former primate of the Anglican Church, has reviewed it in New Statesman. Excerpts:
Milbank and Pabst see the dissolution of this classical Christian picture by the individualism of the Reformation as a cardinal moment in the decay of the West. In other words, the very moment identified in conventional history as the birth of “Western” supremacy – the triumph of a notion of individual right, the recognition of the objective authority of scientific method – becomes the cradle of the metacrises through which we are now living.
Human survival, no less, depends on recovering a sacred cosmology, so that we learn again to value the material and the local, to affirm the solidity of “intermediate” communities that are neither private nor state-franchised (professional guilds, trade unions, religious associations, volunteer organisations and activist citizens’ networks) and to welcome the imaginative and ideological contribution of traditional religion to social cohesion and justice. Despite the immense acknowledged influence here of Catholic social teaching, the authors present the Church of England (unfashionably, to put it mildly) as a model for church-state symphonia, to borrow the Byzantine term; they defend the monarchy as a symbolic focus for a social order resistant to functional reduction and oligarchic absolutism; they identify “gender fluidity” as a contemporary instance of the victory of abstract will over mere physicality. And these are not the only points where the average left-leaning, right-thinking reader will raise his or her eyebrows – or just stop reading.
But before such a reader dismisses the whole book as an apology for theocracy by the back door, there is reason to pause. The analysis of the metacrises is in fact unfailingly detailed and acute, from the lucid argument that economic liberalism is inimical to sustainable democracy to the diagnosis of the universal commodification of culture – including culture that likes to present itself as critical, ironic or revolutionary.
Chapter after chapter insists on how important it is that we dissolve our self-deceptions about the kind of world we have allowed to develop. If we are now panicking about the triumph of a politics of resentment, fear and unchallengeable untruthfulness, we had better investigate what models of human identity we have been working with. Our prevailing notions of what counts as knowledge, our glib reduction of democracy to market terms, our inability to tackle the question of limits to growth – all these and more have brought us to the polarised, tribal politics of today and the thinning out of skill, tradition and the sense of rootedness. Treating these issues with intellectual honesty is not a sign of political regression but the exact opposite. And if that requires a different kind of engagement with religious and metaphysical traditions of understanding and an abandonment of the assumption that instrumental secularism is everyone’s proper default position, so be it.
Read the whole thing. It’s a qualified endorsement of the book. Milbank is a well-known Anglican theologian. Pabst writes about politics and theology, but I’m not certain of his particular religious commitment, other than that he’s a Christian.
One big lacuna in my Benedict Option book is political economy. I have a chapter about politics, and one about work, but I found that the subject of political economy was not one I could tackle in this particular book. But it’s a hugely important one, and I am sure it will become ever more important over the coming years as we move into whatever this new era will bring us. “Instrumental secularism” is not enough. Sooner or later, this culture will return to the practice of religion. But that is far into the future, so for now, we have to remember our MacIntyre:
What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.