One of the prime lessons we must draw from the “Great Awokening” this summer is how corrosive much modern Euro-American thought has been for Western liberal democracies. In virtually every field of the humanities and social sciences, the general trajectory of modern thinking—defined by a crippling oikophobia, or fear of one’s own culture—has contributed to the dismantling of the Western tradition and the social world it was built on. And yet, the emergence of Western liberal democracy in the eighteenth century could not have occurred without the values inherent to modernity. This is quite a paradox: modern Euro-American thought was both a prerequisite for liberal democracy and an agent for dissolving the democratic societies it brought into being.
The American project established a regime that extended the elite privilege of individual autonomy to the masses.
Many scholars disagree on when, exactly, the social condition we call “modernity” emerged in the West. In my new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, I date the modern period beginning in the early 16th century and continuing up to the present day. I argue that this was when a radicalized, modern ideal of individualism began to be theorized in the writing of certain European intellectuals.
The first clear signs of the modern mode of thinking were evident in the writing of men like Michel de Montaigne. In his essay, “On Repentance,” he rejects the traditional thinking that externally imposed standards and morals should limit one’s actions. “I have my own laws and my own court to judge me,” Montaigne writes, “and I refer to these rather than elsewhere. I certainly restrain my actions out of deference to others, but I understand them only by my own light […] Do not rely on their opinions, therefore; rely on your own.” Montaigne calls the essay “On Repentance” because he is particularly concerned with the Christian church’s power. As time went on, though, modern thinkers became increasingly hostile to any external powers that might circumscribe the individual’s options for self-creation.
Montaigne’s writing reflects an idea that would catalyze the shift away from the premodern order: personal autonomy—the right of each individual to live a wholly self-determined life—became the ultimate goal that drove modern insights in philosophy, politics, culture, psychology, and even certain areas of study in the natural sciences.
When it was expressed by Montaigne, the modern view of life was still in a natal stage of development. Early on, this belief in personal autonomy was actually a class privilege: a way of living that was available only to the European aristocracy. As the growth of free-market capitalism expanded the middle class and resolved long-standing difficulties related to basic subsistence, the masses’ attention turned increasingly towards quality of life. Over the next three centuries, Western thinkers undertook a more expansive view of how modernity could reimagine all aspects of daily life—for all individuals.
Rousseau, Locke, the Marquis de Sade, John Stuart Mill, and innumerable other figures of their era produced a canon that celebrated the inviolability of the autonomous self. The influence of this body of work cannot be underestimated: the birth of American democracy would have been impossible without the modern fetishization of the individual. The ideas of limited government and natural human rights became fashionable precisely because they implied an order in which the self was sovereign. The purpose of the democratic state that the Founders imagined was to liberate citizens from unjust impositions of society and government. Democracies presume the capacity of individuals for rational self-governance—allowing common men and women to cast ballots would be a disaster if this wasn’t true.
The American project established a regime that extended the elite privilege of individual autonomy to the masses. Liberty—understood as the freedom of each person to pursue his own happiness—was the pinnacle achievement of modernist ideology. And this summer’s various rebellions—the ‘Great Awokening’—are not a rejection of this Euro-American understanding of human freedom. On the contrary: they are a logical elaboration of it.
A MODERNITY THAT SIMPLY WASN’T MODERN ENOUGH
In the mid-nineteenth century, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche inaugurated a crisis in modern thinking. His work offered a radical critique of the effects of modern life on the individual. Instead of celebrating modern individualism, Nietzsche argued that modern civilizations had traded the full range of human emotion and experience for a regimented social order, one that promised material comforts and minimal pain. Further, he saw modern scientific pursuits as blind utopian attempts to artificially unify what was an inherently disordered reality. He decried an unjustified (and very modern) humanism that presupposes a rational order in the natural world, and he openly mocked the assumption that humanity’s critical faculties were adequate to comprehend that (imagined) order.
A modernist understanding of humanity both enabled the establishment of political liberty and gave rise to the now-ascendant idea that the American understanding of liberty is anathema to personal sovereignty.
And yet, for all of his polemics against modern ideology, Nietzsche, too, was an acolyte of the modern cult of the self; he railed against the stifling constraints imposed by the pedestrian values of ordinary men. His vision of the superman (or übermensch—the transcendent, self-defined individual who generates a new table of values through his own creative capacities) was very much an expression of the modern autonomous self. On some level, it seems Nietzsche’s complaint was that modernity simply wasn’t modern enough.
It took decades for Western intellectuals to fully grasp the scope of Nietzsche’s critique of truth, knowledge, tradition, morality, and history. But, by the mid-twentieth century, modern Western thought was clearly undergoing a radicalization. Taking their lead from Nietzsche, thinkers began to assert, both implicitly and explicitly, that the artifacts of modern human freedom—political liberty, democracy, unfettered access to free markets, natural rights, limited government—were themselves tools by which freedom was limited and constrained in the West.
Thinkers like Marx, Veblen, Freud, Foucault, Derrida, Marcuse, and a host of their American contemporaries (John Dewey, John Rawls, Bill Ayers, and others) developed theories that simultaneously expressed skepticism toward the experience of selfhood and described various modern types of oppression from which modern selves must seek liberation: psychic, economic, educational, sexual, or aesthetic. This particular vision of liberation (as opposed to liberty), while hostile to Western society’s traditional values, would nevertheless have been impossible without the legacy of modern Western thought.
This brings us right up to 2020. As I have recently written, today, the modern democratic notion of liberty itself is understood as the most egregious barrier to personal liberation (most recently, in organizations like Black Lives Matter and Antifa). A modernist understanding of humanity both enabled the establishment of political liberty and gave rise to the now-ascendant idea that the American understanding of liberty is anathema to personal sovereignty. How can this be?
THE RECKLESS IMPATIENCE OF “SOCIAL JUSTICE”
Two inherent and interlocked features of Western thinking ensured that the modern doctrine of political liberalization would collapse under its own weight: social amelioration and presentism.
Modern innovation brought the Western world sweeping solutions to problems that had plagued civilization for thousands of years.
The last few centuries of Western life have enshrined a concept of social amelioration: a widely held attitude and assumption that whatever the actual state of affairs happens to be, there are improvements to be made. To one degree or another, societies all over the world recognize their own shortcomings, and this recognition implies the need for improvement. But the Western world has operated on further premises that make its societies unique: not only can improvements be made, but there is a moral imperative that we must actively pursue these improvements.
Dangerously, the West defaults to optimism regarding the prospects of their efforts to improve the world—reforms are undertaken with conviction that they will, in fact, improve conditions. And even if they don’t, well … they can’t make things any worse …right?
This impulse is reflected in sloganeering from recent Democratic presidential candidates; Obama’s beatific confidence in the results of the “fundamental transformation” that he envisioned, or Hillary’s new PAC entitled “Onward Together,” which calls to mind a grim slog through the present to meet our utopian future. With the advance of modernity, the ameliorating impulse found its expression through technocratic administration: the belief that through the proper applications of empiricism and expertise, institutions and state actors can (and should) address and eliminate any social problem, A recent example can be found in the self-satisfied demeanor of the “expert” architects of the Affordable Care Act—a piece of legislation that, fittingly, failed to solve the problem implied by its name.
The second factor that ensured the inevitable dysfunction of modern liberal democracies was a presentism that was ignorant of, and impatient with, the historical contours of social change. This presentism was itself a product of the awe-inspiring power of modern thinking and innovation. Modern innovation brought the Western world sweeping solutions to problems that had plagued civilization for thousands of years. Polio was seemingly cured overnight. The mastery of electricity was an amazing victory, and it was quickly followed by a number of other marvels—incandescent light, telephones, dishwashers. These advancements added to the hubris that was already very much at home in the Western mind: not only was there no problem that couldn’t be solved, but we already have the means to do so.
The endurance of complex problems—“systemic” racism, an imperfect healthcare system, “unjust” disparities in wealth—comes to be understood as proof of a deliberate effort to harm citizens.
The astounding rate of change over the last 150 years gave birth to the conviction that in the modern world, complex problems should be solved quickly and completely. The historically-glacial pace of social change was soon forgotten. We see this historical amnesia today in the way that so many enormously complex problems are thought to be solvable with a single “comprehensive” piece of legislation (e.g., a “comprehensive” health bill, or “comprehensive” immigration reform, or “comprehensive” debt relief packages). Does anyone believe these “comprehensive” measures will comprehensively solve the problems they address?
These two forces, an unceasing impulse for improvement coupled with the presentism of an impatient progressivism that was enchanted by the awesome power of modern rationality, intensified one another, with catastrophic results for modern liberal democracy. These ideas have been dramatized by the violence and chaos that we have seen this summer: people believe that we have the means and ability to solve any problem, so problems that remain completely or partially unresolved become evidence of intolerable dysfunction and mismanagement. The endurance of complex problems—“systemic” racism, an imperfect healthcare system, “unjust” disparities in wealth—comes to be understood as proof of a deliberate effort to harm citizens.
When people believe that their suffering is a product of deliberate inaction by the very entities invested with the power to quickly remedy their condition (and are obligated to do so), those who perceive themselves as victims find a moral justification for destroying the existing order. This certainty of moral righteousness is evident in all the parties that are launching the most violent attacks on our nation and our history. Antifa, Black Lives Matter, the New York Times, AOC, Chuck Todd, Joe Biden, the Women’s March, the academics who admonish your pronoun usage—what unites them is an absolute conviction that everything they believe is right and good, factually and cosmically.
The irony, of course, is that the liberation they demand—a liberation from the oppression they identify with the Western intellectual tradition that gave birth to societies like ours—is a vision of liberation that is deeply indebted, and perhaps unthinkable without, the modern Euro-American intellectual tradition that they seek to destroy. In all our Jacobins’ zeal against the legacy of “old white men,” they remain oblivious that their transcendental notion of human freedom (and the civic forms of agitation by which they pursue it) is an unmistakable continuation of the same “white,” “male” legacy of Western culture and ideology they claim to fight. Their rebellion is not a rejection of the Western tradition of modern thought—it is an elaboration and extension of it.
This historical ignorance is an enormous chink in the armor of the woke: in their haste to destroy the legacy of the “white” intellectual tradition, they have failed to justify their revolution on any grounds outside of longstanding western notions of liberation, freedom, and the autonomous self. To defeat them, we must exploit this contradiction.