We Live In Rieff World
If you read nothing else today, make it Carl Trueman’s short essay on Philip Rieff and cultures of the Third World. Rieff is not talking about underdeveloped countries. He’s talking about people like us, who live in a world without absolutes. It’s a (very) short course in the basics of Rieff’s cultural analysis. Excerpts:
In Sacred Order/Social Order, Rieff offers a historical scheme for categorizing cultures in light of these basic insights. Rieff calls these First, Second, and Third World cultures. First Worlds are characterized by a variety of myths that ground and justify their cultures through something that transcends the immediate present. These might be the tales of the gods and heroes in the Iliad or the Norse sagas, the philosophy of Plato, or the mythic stories of origin found in Native American societies. Whatever their specific content, what they share in common is that they make the present culture accountable to something greater than itself. Rieff says that a belief in fate is perhaps the key here.
Second Worlds are characterized not by a belief in fate but by faith. The great examples would be Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where cultural codes are rooted in the belief in a specific divine and sovereign being who stands over and above creation, and to whom all creatures are ultimately accountable. First and Second Worlds are similar in that both set their social order upon a deeper, even sacred, order. It is the Third World that represents a decisive rupture on this point.
Third Worlds are characterized by their repudiation of any sacred order. There is nothing in a Third World beyond this world by which culture can be justified. The implications of this are, according to Rieff, comprehensive and catastrophic. First, because of their rejection of a sacred order, Third World cultures face an unprecedented challenge: that of justifying themselves on the basis of themselves. No culture in history, Rieff notes, has ever done this successfully. It is a fool’s errand that ends in cultural collapse:
No culture in history has sustained itself merely as a culture, however attractive and authoritative. Cultures are dependent on their predicative sacred orders and break into mere residues whenever their predicates are broken. That is the main reason why our late second cultures and early thirds are increasingly unstable.
Cultural conservatives (in the true and literal sense of the term) are not engaging opponents with whom they simply disagree about the content of culture. They disagree with them on what exactly culture is: either it is something grounded in a sacred order or it is something free-floating and up for grabs. Those are incommensurable positions. If Rieff is right, the prospect for improvement is minimal. As Nietzsche’s Madman pointed out many years ago, if you unchain the earth from the sun, you end up plunging into total darkness.
Again, this may tell you why I believe that Donald Trump is far from the worst of our problems. Politically, the best I hope for is a government that protects the ability of people like me and my own to live without oppression by the people who believe these things that are incommensurable with what I believe. At this point, politics in America is the art of managing decline, and trying to keep things from going too far off the rails before something happens that will regenerate sacred order. What that “something” is, aside from mass religious conversion, I have no idea.
When you read Houellebecq’s Submission, you understand the appeal of political Islam to a people who are rootless and sick unto death. Those people are a kind of solution. As for us Christians, most of us don’t even understand what’s happening to the West. We are like the doomed rabbit in Larkin’s poem Myxomatosis:
You may have thought things would come right again
If you could only keep quite still and wait.
Recently I met a man who had converted to Christianity out of OTO, the cult associated with Aleister Crowley. This Christian convert had spent years in it. The man said that at the heart of it was Crowley’s belief that ritualized sexual perversion would be the key to destroying all taboos on the exercise of pure will. The man said that he was finally driven away by the sexual things he was going to be required to do to ascend in the cult. (I’m not going to link to any of the publicly available information on what these things are, but to call it extreme is to vastly understate the reality.)
The man told me that to live in our own culture today is to see how triumphant Crowley’s ideas have become in the mainstream, without most people understanding any of it. I believe him. One more quote from Carl Trueman’s essay on Rieff:
Given that Rieff believes cultures to be defined by what they prohibit, particularly in the sexual realm, the Sadean vision of the Third World as one of the abolition of sexual codes, of “forbidding to forbid,” has far-reaching significance. Indeed, it leads Rieff to call this type of culture an anti-culture. Its purpose is not to transmit beliefs and practices from one generation to the next. Its purpose is quite the opposite: to shatter past values and to engage in the constant revolutionizing of beliefs and behavior. While all First and Second World cultures acknowledged the reality of transgression, in the Third World transgression becomes the norm. In fact, given that it is forbidden to forbid, the very concept of transgression ceases to have any stable meaning.
As I have said here before, I think Donald Trump is in no sense a solution to our crisis, but is in fact a manifestation of it. What is hard for many people — on the political and cultural Left, certainly, but also on the establishment Right — to understand is that we live in a Philip Rieff world, in which all the Respectable People running the institutions and comprising the societal elites are busily and respectably tearing down the foundations of culture. It didn’t start with them, and it didn’t start in the 1960s — though the acceleration began to pick up then.
For me, the most important political question is: how to protect people and institutions of the Second World from the barbarism of the Third World, even as the Third World careens towards cataclysm? (Understand that I’m using “Second World” and “Third World” in the Rieff sense, not in the geopolitical sense.) In other words, under what kind of political leaders is the Benedict Option — which will, in time, be the regenerator of our culture — most likely to thrive? When you regard politics through the eyes of a Rieffan (Rieffish?) cultural diagnosis, it is hard to see the line between Good and Evil running between Donald Trump and those opposed to him. This is why I see conservative federal judges as the last serious line of defense for social and religious conservatives over the next two, maybe three decades. What a bitter irony for conservatives of my generation and older!
Somebody said on Twitter the other day, I forget who it was, that Trump makes explicit an ugly truth: that this society no longer has norms, and its institutions have rotted from within. That’s putting it more strongly than I would, but not by much. Donald Trump is a barbarian whose barbarism is somewhat more obvious than the barbarism of those who most hate him. We live in bad times. How good men and women live together in such times, indeed thrive in them, is the chief political problem we face.
UPDATE: Here’s the tweet (h/t: Carlo):
UPDATE.2: And now, let’s all look away from the abyss and into the eyes of a Corgi puppy: