Almost always one reads a book of future-looking political theory long before or long after its substance has been proven or disproven. It is quite another experience to observe theory offered just yesterday as it morphs today into reality. So it is with The Decadent Society, released in February, a month ago. It sharply identifies our problems, and speaks abstractly of possible futures for both America and the rest of the world, in which our problems are solved, or not. But all changed futures require a mechanism of change, that in February we were lacking. Now, the Wuhan coronavirus, and, much more importantly, its knock-on effects, have delivered a possible mechanism, and a changed future rises in the shadows. History has, perhaps, returned.
We live in an age lacking dynamic leadership. We are instead led, if one can call it that, by men who are clowns, feminized, or confused—or, often, by confused feminized clowns. The idea of a charismatic, ambitious, intelligent, unapologetically masculine leader has entirely vanished from our minds, in part because we see no examples among us, and in part because we are indoctrinated such men are retrograde and properly consigned to the past, and we should accept our new, apparently vat-grown, “leaders,” typically resembling some hybrid of John Kerry and Trigglypuff. Still, a heretical little voice whispers to us, pointing out that eras of human flourishing and accomplishment are always led by men of glory, and asking us, why is that?
I am skeptical of those who predict the future by looking at the past. It’s not that history follows a random walk, like the stock market. Quite the contrary—it is easy to show certain patterns in history. But predicting how and when those patterns will yield any particular result in any given society seems like astrology. Peter Turchin, however, offers a very convincing, and very well-supported, tying of patterns to data. I’m still not sure it’s not astrology, but I’m half convinced. And this is a good book to read in January 2020—because right now is when Turchin predicts, in America, the swelling discord of the title.
Much modern popular history is mendacious, written with an ideological agenda that deliberately distorts, or omits, or simply lies about, the truth. Sometimes, therefore, reading history written in the past can offer better information. Earlier historians were often more objective, ideology being less prevalent. Their biases, if they have any, are usually obvious. Thus I thought that Only Yesterday, a semi-famous history of the 1920s, published in 1931 by a mass-market journalist/intellectual of the time, Frederick Lewis Allen, might teach me something new about that decade. But I found, to my sorrow, that I learned little new, and I was instead again reminded of how early the rot in America’s ruling classes set in.
The Great Transformation, published in 1944, is an ambitious book. It attempts two huge tasks. First, to refute the free market ideology, sometimes called market fundamentalism, represented at that time by men such as Ludwig von Mises, and now by the entirety of globalized neoliberal capitalism. Second, to explain the history of the nineteenth century through an economic lens that also purports to explain both World War I and World War II. Mostly, the book is a failure. It overshoots in its criticism of the free market, and falls short on its claims of historical explanation. Karl Polyani’s prescriptions are, moreover, vague and worthless. There is some truth in this book, but it is buried beneath too much dross.
I am trying to understand how human beings create value through their actions, and what that implies for humanity. Although this goal is hardly original, and has occupied much brighter thinkers than me for much of their lives, it is a necessary step in defining Foundationalism, because how we occupy our hands and minds, and what effects that has on us and society, are critical components of human flourishing. And the economic path we have been on for the past several decades has led to the opposite of human flourishing, surface appearances notwithstanding. To guide us to flourishing, we must understand why that is, and what can be done differently.
We all like to imagine ourselves as heroes. We watch movies, and we instinctively put ourselves in the place of the hero, not in the place of the villain. We read the histories of twentieth-century tyrannies, and we assume we would be the resistance fighter, not the collaborator, informer, or toady to the new archons. Maybe we would be heroes. But probably not, if history is any guide. Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 The Captive Mind explores, through the author’s personal experience, what motivates seemingly morally strong, thoughtful men to instead cooperate with, and often embrace, evil. Sadly, this question is as relevant today as seventy years ago, which makes this book very much worth reading for its insights into the future, as well as into the past.
Attacks on digital technology for destroying our capacity for attention are a dime a dozen. Despite its title, Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head is not such an attack. It is far more ambitious. Somewhat to my surprise, it is a direct assault on the Enlightenment for ruining the habits of mind and practice that lead to human flourishing. Crawford says modern man is subject to delusions, birthed by the Enlightenment, that diffuse our perception of the world in a fog of unreality. He therefore sets himself up in as the paladin of reality, a champion badly needed by our times, offering a return to the solidity of the real, through excellence as developed in skilled practices.
Rusty Reno, editor of the prominent religious conservative journal First Things, here couples an original diagnosis of how we got to the vicious decay of now with very muted prescriptions. This is a good enough book, earnest and intent, but it is cramped. Reno offers as an alternative not strong gods, nor even coherent positive visions of the nationalism and populism of the title, but only the tired and repeatedly failed call to return, though some unspecified mechanism, to vaguely conceived virtue. I’m all for virtue, but Reno refuses to acknowledge that, more likely, and more desirable, the strong gods are those who will inevitably, as Kipling said, with fever and slaughter return, to scour the Earth in preparation for the rebirth of actual, living virtue.
Different eras view Alexander III of Macedon differently. Though always honored as a hugely successful military leader and conqueror, in the ancient world, he got mixed press, seen as a blend of virtues and faults. In the Middle Ages, and really until the twentieth century, he was usually regarded as among the greatest men of history, and surrounded by myths exaggerating his accomplishments. More recently, without detracting from his military abilities, he has been classed as a killer mad for power. Anthony Everitt, British writer of slick popular histories, tries to move the needle back toward a favorable view of Alexander. But revisionist popular history is a difficult genre to pull off well, and Everitt does not succeed.