This Too Shall Pass
Did you know that there are people who think the era of big wars is ending, or has already gone? I find more people criticizing this position than holding it, but it does exist. Stephen Pinker does a heroic amount of hedging in Better Angels of Our Nature, but he does more or less believe this. This Human Security Report Project paper comes out in favor of this idea, again with a lot of hedging. Since the fall of the Soviet Union many have argued that the intertangling of interest between countries inherent to globalized capitalism makes big wars much less likely. People share data like this, which I don’t question numerically but which I don’t think proves what they think:
As people have pointed out, this is probably much more of an “advance of medical science” than a “decline of war” chart. But some really believe the narrative.
Like I said, I think more people reject this position than accept it, and those that reject it are far less equivocal than those who advance it. But the fact remains that it is a position that people with influence and audiences (not to mention education) sincerely believe. Which seems unfathomable to me. I believe that a future without war is possible and worth fighting for, but I also recognize that war is as old as civilization. To get caught up in the fact that we haven’t had something the scale of World War II since seems like silly lawyering to me. People who debate this stuff always end up quibbling about which wars are major and which aren’t; like if you say Vietnam wasn’t major, maaaaaybe you can claim that it’s been since WWII, if you’re willing to stretch? I certainly wouldn’t. There’s newer examples than Vietnam anyway. To pick one, Iraq-Iran seems like a major war to me in every intrinsic sense - geopolitical importance, economic importance, length, casualties, long-term fallout. It just didn’t feature any of the big-name countries people care about, so they don’t think of it much. But even if we decided World War II was the last big war, it’s been only slightly more than 75 years since then. There’s a construction company in Japan that’s been around for almost 1,500 years, which itself is a brief moment on the timeline of human culture. Historical time is long, and there’s no reason to believe that we live in some liminal moment, other than the fact that so many of us want to.
So: am I arguing that things change or that they don’t? “War is forever” seems like an argument that things don’t change. But “this period of armed conflicts remaining largely limited and regional will inevitably end” seems like an argument that things do change. What makes it complicated is that one of the things that doesn’t change is that things change. This is not just some bong-hit rumination. We live in the flow of history and so we fail to see both that nothing about our world is permanent and also that there is a pattern to the change. In other words, you can be sure that everything will change in time, but you can also plan on a certain regularity or order to that change. Pass me that bong again.
I don’t know if we have a socialist future and I’m fairly certain we don’t have a communist future. But we certainly will have a post-capitalist future. Why? Because human systems are born, they last long enough to seem like the permanent truth, the world changes, and they die. A hunter gatherer would not have understood the question if asked about their economy or social system, but if they could, they might look back at hundreds of thousands of years of the world working one way and never imagine it could work a different way. Plenty of ancient Romans would have rejected the idea of an economy without mass slavery out of hand. People living under feudalism tended to believe that the system was literally ordained by God - and then the plague, the rise of merchants and guilds, and urban growth fundamentally changed the power balance between the nobility and ordinary people. The French aristocracy was notoriously unable to believe that a sudden and dramatic change to their system was coming. And even in smaller cases that we might not call a change in economic system endless little revolutions in human affairs have massive human consequences we don’t foresee. If you were a unionized autoworker in Detroit in 1970 you enjoyed a kind of life you would very likely have assumed you could pass on to your son as your father had passed it on to you. But things change.
I don’t know if our post-capitalist system will be better or worse. But it will come. “The end of history” is a cope, a psychological defense system for dealing with our own feelings of insignificance. “I’m not like all those other humans! I live now!”
But as I said there’s a meta-condition (probably many) that seems to hold true across eras and systems. For one, human history is a cyclical pattern of constricting and loosening systems of moral and human values. Conformity and repression reign, this creates dissatisfaction among the populace, this dissatisfaction is given expression through art and ideas, it is actualized in various small rebellions by a radical fringe, those behaviors catch on with the broader populace, and in that way you have Victorian moralizing leading to 1920s licentiousness, the 1950s becoming the 1960s, domination by the Church leading to John Locke and the Renaissance. And then things turn. The new social freedoms lead to new social problems. People move west from stultifying eastern and southern social mores to the frontier, looking to be more free. Lax or nonexistent alcohol laws and a culture of unrestrained drinking there cause epidemic amounts of criminality and health problems, which in turned powers the Temperance movement which begins to turn the tide. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s that seemed so freeing to some comes to be seen by many in the 1970s as moral decline, as they are stung by skyrocketing divorce rates and an exploding drug trade. What once seem to be repressive edifices of social control come in hindsight to seem like the moral structures that once held society together.
And then it turns again. The Temperance movement’s power led to Prohibition, which sparked a backlash that saw a national return to legal drinking. The backlash against the 60s social revolutions inspired the Reagan era which was in turn repudiated by the cultural rebellions found in music, film, and visual arts of the 1990s. Across cultures and eras, religious decline sparks revivalism which returns a sense of normalcy and meaning which in turn comes to be seen as a stultifying orthodoxy….
The point is not that things return to the same conditions as before; the cycle is a cycle but it is not a stable or simple one. The 1950s and the 1980s are both frequently characterized as socially conservative eras, but they were not the same. Divorce was still a scandal in many environs in the 1950s in a way that was not true in the 1980s. And yet from the opposite perspective anti-drug sentiment was prevalent in the 1950s but did not reach anything like the drug war mania and heavy-handed criminalization of the 1980s. Prohibition failed, but we still have alcohol regulations and blue laws that more strictly limit our consumption relative to frontier days. And of course the current era of rapidly-increasing social control, the woke moment, is different in profound ways from that of the Reagan movement, of 1950s conformity, of the Victorian age, of all of the great periods of repression in human history. Like I said at the beginning, things change. My point is that from the perspective of history social change often unfolds as a fairly predictable sequence of increasing personal freedom followed by a reactionary constricting of social mores and back again. Governments don’t do fine-tuned social calibrations well and neither do religions or cultures, so nobody ever gets the balance of freedom and order just right. We zig and we zag.
For these big-picture reasons I feel compelled to remind people that as dominant as current social justice norms are within most establishment institutions - I would once have said intellectual or cultural institutions but with the military and oil companies having gone woke I don’t think that’s capacious enough - they will fail. They seem as ripe for a big national repudiation as any social evolution I can think of. The simplest reason is that this new regime is just unpleasant. Unpleasant to its critics, obviously, but I suspect to many of its professed adherents as well. Woke white people don’t actually want to “do the work” if doing the work leads to awkward conversations. Those aren’t fun! I’ve said before that people drop out or age out or graduate out of wokeness many times. You know somebody at college and they’re constantly screaming about decolonizing the local Wendy’s or whatever and then you run into them five years later and now they’re an actuary who’s 60% of the way to the down payment on a brownstone and they just seem to not have time to get mad about made up problems anymore. (They definitely still have a Biden-Harris sign up in their window though.) Besides, the degree to which any of it is sincere is a key question. I was in a grad school humanities program fairly and while most everyone talked the talk it was always clear to me that the large majority of them did so because they knew they would never have a career if they didn’t, not out of sincere passion. It’s all fragile. Ideologies inspired by fear are inherently unstable. Ask Stalin-era Soviets.
To put it in more flowery terms, people like to be free. How that freedom is defined means everything - people in Nordic socdem states with high taxes and lots of government and regulation certainly seem to feel that they’re free, after all, which I like. People in Singapore seem to feel the same way despite being very seriously curtailed in their personal liberties, which I don’t like. But however you define freedom, at some point if people feel that they are having a set of rules imposed on them without an attendant benefit in quality of life, they will rebel. An ideology that insists that people police their language at all times under fear of immense professional and social costs can’t be a long-term victor because living that way sucks. Most of us struggle to avoid saying stupid shit more than a dozen times a day. Repressive regimes have ruled for centuries in the past, so I’m not counting social justice politics out at all. But a fringe ideology that has come to be enforced by a priestly caste over the institutions of society while the great mass of the population feels alienated and ignored…. It don’t think it’s sustainable in a world where infinitely many alternatives are mentally available to us thanks to information technology.
This could lead to a Great Wokelash, and that could lead to genuinely conservative cultural politics (80%) or a redefined and newly-serious left-wing society (20%). This may very well come to pass. But I think it may be more likely that our elite institutions will just quietly get tired of it and gradually move on, in much the same way as those who spend their adolescence doing yelling social justice activism and then go on to get their MBAs and get less and less strident and eventually just become absentminded flavorless Democrats. There will still be an identitarian left, but it will develop new fixations and likely lose influence. When I was in high school and college Free Tibet and sweatshops were huge concerns with the exact same kind of people as the woke armies now, but you never hear a single word about those causes from the new generation. Politics is faddish. In five years 27 year old passionate midlevel nonprofit workers who yell about CRT for six hours a day will have become overtired soccer moms whose ascendancy to executive positions and executive paychecks inevitably dulls that old fire inside. The new kids will be too busy livestreaming their prescribed ketamine treatments to do all that social justice stuff.
What follows will not be the same as what came before. The post-woke era will not be Bush’s 2000s, Reagan’s 80s, or Eisenhower’s 50s. The new times will be informed and altered by social justice politics and will, at least, pay adequate lip service to the problems identified in those politics. But I do feel compelled to compare things to previous eras in terms of permanent change as enacted in legislation. Yes, the 60s era ended, but its repercussions live on, in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and the abolishment of the draft…. The question that asserts itself is the same one I’ve asked 30 times: what is the 2020s equivalent of those enduring and tangible changes? I can’t name one. If Biden’s child credit were to somehow be made permanent, it would change the country more than every expression of social justice politics ever made. Yet no one within that movement seems even to think in these terms. This convulsion of identity moralism in our politics has the potential to do a lot of harm or a little good or both. But it seems to me to be uniquely positioned to generated a billion words of analysis and almost no real change.
This post isn’t really even about the social justice era, though. It’s about the need for perspective. I get a lot of anguished emails about social justice politics, including regularly from people with public personas that betray no concerns with the woke turn. (Again, it’s an ideology that spread through fear, not persuasion.) Sometimes they’re thoughtful and perceptive and sometimes they’re overwrought and a little ridiculous. All of them can at least refer to genuine injustices that have been perpetrated against undeserving people, injustices which people in media and academia refuse to acknowledge as such no matter how plain the mistreatment. But all of them also seem incapable of thinking or unwilling to think in a broader perspective. For one thing, though I detail the excesses of our moment often, I do try to gently remind people that even someone who labors under the most repressive professional and social conditions in a liberal social justice nonprofit in a lefty city enjoys greater personal liberty than the vast majority of people living in the past 1,000 years.
But the bigger thing is the kind of historical perspective I’m expressing now. I am frequently reminded of the downsides of coming from a radical left philosophy, often by my readers. But there are advantages, and a sure one is that being marginalized in terms of practical power helps you to view the world in epochal terms and to understand that now is conditional and fleeting. If you’re a committed centrist Democrat who can plausibly get much of what you want in your lifetime, that’s a great fortune, but it also means that you’re constantly getting hard about tweaks to chained CPI or whatever, and in so doing you lose perspective of the big picture. I try to pay some attention to such things, and I would never say that they don’t matter. But I do believe that while the average American probably pays too little attention to day-to-day political trends, the average journalist/writer/academic pays too much. You must maintain a certain attachment to detachment in politics. For analytical reasons, yes, but for psychological and emotional ones as well. I am a politically angry person, and I hope that never changes. But I have very rarely experienced political panic. (I did when we invaded Iraq, to pick a prominent example.) I very rarely panic because being so influenced by Marxist history forces me to understand that the world moves in great trends that sometimes seem like the inevitable path of history and, in an eyeblink, they’re gone.
All I’m saying is this: if you, like me, think that the embrace - the enforcement - of social justice politics in elite spaces represents a profound mistake, both in terms of basic fairness and freedom but also for achieving a genuinely progressive future, you should be moved to work against it but also to understand that the worm will inevitably turn. Look, my 20s were spent in an American political culture defined by flagrant and constant overreactions to terrorist events that were terrible in human terms but from any broader perspective blips on the timeline of history. And this lack of perspective created an atmosphere that allowed the powers that be to erode many of our most basic freedoms and civil rights. There are still people languishing in Guantanamo, 20 years later, never having been charged with a crime. However bad the woke world is, the Bush era was far worse. Yet barely more than a dozen years after Bush left office, terrorism is a political nonentity. The topic was a complete nonissue in the 2020 election. Nobody cared. History moves at whatever pace it wants to.
Be in this world but not of it, my friends. Today matters. I write about today constantly. But today will be followed by tomorrow. Someday the youth will look back at the social justice politics of our moment as an embarrassing anachronism. I can’t say what they’ll replace it with. I am sure though that it won’t be like today, and that the things you hate about this period will evaporate away in the night when nobody is paying attention. I feel as alienated from today’s culture as I possibly could be, because of the disdain for free speech, the obsession with the linguistic and the symbolic, the economic and cultural dominance of pop culture properties that fans nevertheless represent as underdogs, the comfort with the dominant power of tech companies, the rejection of experimental art and the avant garde, the decline of reading books, the devolution of sports into just another culture war, the rise of powerful gatekeepers restricting artistic expression, the insincerity of ostensibly political sentiments from corporations and government bodies, the infiltration of neoliberalism into the socialist heart, the death of materialism in progressive politics, the fear of sex and attendant plummet in the number of people having it, the denial of uncomfortable science, the denunciation of moral and political universalism, the embrace of collective guilt…. I was not meant for this world.
But then I remember that, when I was 18 years old, the world of the 1990s seemed permanent, forever. Now it feels like a different world. And so I remember that this too shall pass. This too shall pass.