“Strategy” in the Culture Wars (Part 1 of 3)

The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 1): Is Change Even Possible? 

Is the future of civilization still determined by humans? It may seem a scholar’s query, but many ordinary folks, especially with the advent of peculiarities like fascist AI, would love to know the answer. What’s the alternative, one might ask? The answer is a bit amorphous—a system of relations, a lawlike description of precisely how modern states, industry, communications technologies, martial force, local government (etc), intersect in our age of globalization—and how “whatever it is” likewise governs our individual decision making, mental habits, and practical instincts.  Jacques Ellul calls it technique. Scott Alexander has called it Moloch. Matthew Crawford has recently alluded to this Leviathan in his analysis of the modern trend to outsource human decisions to non-human actors. Its alleged designs are exactly opposite to the God of the Bible, who makes man after His image, and sets him upon the path of differentiation and distinctness in the command to fill the earth. Whatever this god is, it reaches across the filled earth, and lulls man to become less than fully human—progressively dissolving all differentiation into a common denominator that corresponds to no real person, but rather to a lifeless idol. 

The internet has complicated this process. On the one hand, it is the most dramatic in a long line of technologies (the automobile, etc.) that have enabled humans to relocate their networks of identity and trust from embodied local spaces to a more vaporous “communities” with which they choose to identify. These “communities” grow in importance as one’s attachment to home diminishes. But, on the other hand, as spectral communities absorb the energy each of us has to invest in forging common projects, the boundaries between our symbolic tribes harden. We increasingly live in entirely different worlds from the actual faces we encounter (different real-life social networks, different institutions, different sites of news, etc). Negotiation between locals—formerly the easiest of negotiations—is now foreign policy. And even what James Hunter calls “centers of cultural capital” (the levels of elite-dom that ultimately govern the culture in a top-down fashion) appear to be in the process of changing, rendering the strategic sites of unity difficult to identify.

But do such analyses run the risk of personifying an abstraction (the “system”) that really is just man, or minimally, some men? Marx famously insisted that man’s woe is always other men. C.S. Lewis, a much different intellectual, similarly claimed that man’s control of nature is really some men’s control of other men. Lewis does something curious with this in his works, though. In That Hideous Strength, he does not appear to imagine Leviathan’s defeat at the hands of human strategy. To be sure, its slaughter is partially accomplished through human action, but since the ultimate source of Leviathan’s hubris is demonic, the final salvation of civilization comes in the form of divine intervention.

To be clear, all would agree that human civilization remains anchored in some way to human decisions, but there is a dispute about whether the human collective (or even some elites within it) control the outcome. Alternatively, has modern civilization passed the event horizon of its eventual replacement—either in Kurzweil’s posthumanist utopia or “Leibowitz’s” civilizational apocalypse? It should probably say something to us that both options seem plausible—replacement through either technological transcendence or through cycles of civilizational suicide-cum-reincarnation. And indeed, some read the former as the worse option, seeing whatever comes “after” humanity (uploading our consciousness into new hardware or whatnot) as the engineered euthanization of rational animality itself. In any case, is there a unifying way to read the situation? Considering “the market” might help to answer this. On the one hand, it may seem like an impersonal force that nevertheless reads man and knows him, and precision targets him beneath all his intellectual defenses and strategies. The market wins through man’s body and appetites, overwhelming them with a perpetual indulgence. And yet, this abstraction can be broken down into two ingredients: the general predictability of human decisions and some men’s knowledge of human tendencies, a knowledge employed for the task of manipulation. And these, one might say, sit atop a common explanatory foundation in the territory of Freud rather than of Marx. Both the general predictability of human decisions and the desire of some men to manipulate others bespeak an agitation for more. Man progressively transforms from rational animality to animal rationality in employing his faculties in the service of mere appetite. The accent here is not on physical pleasure as such, but rather on Eve’s primal envy in concert with Adam’s gluttonous refusal to say no—twin vices echoed in all of their progeny. 

If this is a fair reading, then one coherent take on the times would be that man is in far more control than the Luddites think, and far less than the Marxists think. This is because we are not in control of ourselves (whether Lewis’s “some men” or his “other men”), and yet remain fully responsible for ourselves. Modernity, in this reading, is a moment of unprecedented self-exposure. What is lamentable in modernity is lamentable of humans. This evokes the possibility, however, that modernity might also be read as a moment of grace. How so? First, because self-exposure is inherently a grace. Second, because the subversion of the knowledge of man requires a knowledge of man. The knowledge of Montaigne and Coleridge are prior to the fine-grained manipulations of the market. Indeed, the success of the market depends upon ever deepening knowledge of man, and is therefore (like sin) always parasitical on what is essentially good. The world of the market is also the world of the novel, of modern film, of imagination—resulting in the possibility of highly calibrated pastoral care, ever deepening and widening efforts at evangelism—all distributed through the same channels as their ill-willed counterparts. In short, we have also been exposed for our good. A Nietzschean sort might even opine that the best modern creations are worth all the trouble. Dickens might describe it this way: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

The Culture War Puzzle (Piece 2): Individuals Going “Home?”

One of the more promising trends in conservative thought (Allan Carlson and C.R. Wiley come to mind) explores how late capitalism progressively dissolves the integrity of the home and its weight-bearing role in human life. Mary Eberstadt has recently argued that the move away from home was the original sin at the back of modern social fractures and moral problems. Central to addressing all other “culture war” issues, some conclude, is addressing whatever steals sovereignty from the world of the home. There is a strong hint that Christians (especially) ought to make the kinds of sacrifices and decisions that re-cultivate the home’s centrality in human civilization. And for those with this value system, courage looks especially virtuous. The recent influence of Jordan Peterson is (in no small measure) explained by this. 

More and more conservative sorts figure that something like this has got to be right, but questions remain. Worth noting, for instance, is the extent to which actual households (in real history) were just as liable to be alienating and lonely sites of misery as to be spaces of flourishing. Related, while there is truth in the claim that humans were progressively coerced away from dependence on intimates, it is equally true that people elected to sack their default trustees precisely when the option became available (a fact that any persuasive narrative needs to absorb). Minimally, this must mean that whatever “going home” is, it’s an act of fresh creation. The past will remain a foreign country. And this suggests to me that another required virtue in this project is imagination. Cultivating humans to choose a certain lifestyle (and that is irreducibly what this project is) requires enormous imagination. This means that it must realistically address the set of concerns that arise from its historical push factors, have a real knowledge of how modern reality actually works, and also engage in good-faith negotiation with those who are suspicious of the project.

Why is this? Because any wise practical suggestion must be conscious of its implications. And it is quite simply true that the modern world and its systems—and more importantly, people’s lives—are complicated. We too easily opine confidently about various tactics without knowing what we don’t know. Moreover, the metric by which we calibrate our strategies and exhortations too easily involves an over-trust in our own gut instincts. The reason there is wisdom in many counselors, however, is because wisdom is calibrated by the perspective-expanding hunches and interpretations of others. Righteous principle can easily be fitted to foolish practice, born of untrained and limited imagination. And this is only to name the technical problem. More basic than that (as perhaps Chesterton might want to remind us), we are part of the problem as such. Presumably we all know this, but we are also prone to forget it when we suspect ourselves to be doing something that is cutting edge.  In short, caution is needed because “what we should do” is not obvious

One non-obvious conundrum is which pieces of the modern arrangement are worth preserving. Conservatives against capitalism rightly note that many of modernity’s supposed gifts were achieved through an illicit exchange of domestic sovereignty for outsourced dependencies. But it is also true that this exchange has benefited those who have had a less-than-savory relationship with concentrated ground-level power. Power on the ground is very difficult to correct or change—rigidly stuck, as it tends to be, in the moral and imaginative limitations of its wielders. In this light, it is not at all surprising that those who are more vulnerable (women and minorities) tend toward suspicion of sentimentality about “the local” sans robust systems of appeal and accountability.

Moreover, the heritage of civilization is mostly its accidental goods! We don’t celebrate civilization for the self-image of its makers, but rather for its accidental (yet most preserved) accomplishments. From Babel to Babylon to Rome, human civilization has been founded on human violence and pride. And yet the story of human history just is this: what man means for evil, God means for good (Gen. 50:20). If we read John’s Revelation, it is clear that the nations, and civilization, and even empire (all birthed in human sin) are nevertheless part of God’s final order for humanity. Rome was founded on violence, but it was accidentally the crucial breeding ground of the gospel. Social media is arguably full of terrible consequences in our culture, and yet it places someone like Kanye West in a position to reach hundreds of millions with total immunity from the vetting of their otherwise woke advocates and self-appointed gatekeepers. God works in mysterious ways, as the saying goes.

Furthermore, it is crucial to grasp the extent to which modern goods come not from one hand but from two—always enmeshed in spiritual battle. Modern individualism, and even political individualism, was not just a legacy of the Enlightenment, but has its foundations in Protestant political thought (and certain emphases in Christianity prior to it). Consider something like universal suffrage, then, in this light. For some, universal suffrage represents a primary move away from the centrality of the home. Even if true, due consideration should be given to Steven Pinker’s claim that much of the good in our world is to be highly correlated with female political representation. Systems which reflect the characteristic concerns of women, it turns out, are more peaceable. And arguably, in an age of nuclear weapons and a rapidly expanding population, this is a crucially important thing.  The resultant discussion needs to be, then, whether we necessarily damage the household by preserving this custom. Perhaps a mature society would have aspects that respond both to its individual members, and to its collection of households. The mediation between these is not static and pre-determined, but rather dynamic and responsive to circumstance and human creativity.

Finally, we cannot (even if it were desirable) return to business as usual. Charles Taylor has written extensively on the manner in which “what it is like” to believe changes fundamentally at the moment that belief becomes an option. Once one’s belief is felt to be a single option among many, we have modern belief. Similarly, given modern transportation and communication technologies, no recovery of the household will be a recovery that isn’t easily avoided or circumvented. The new household will still be a modern household—a household that is chosen. And the only way for it to survive this circumstance is to actually be a good and attractive option. There is significant pressure here. Hopefully we can find ways to incentivize a household economy (which is what the recovery of the local must mean), but such a lifestyle is not likely to ever become unavoidable again. And this means that the modern household—no matter how robust—exists irreducibly in a state of negotiation with the individual.

Recognizing this, we are in a place to recall that such negotiations are simply a matter of the human condition. It is not as though “the household” has been the same institution since time out of mind. It is (to be sure) under unique threat in the modern order, but history is the story of re-negotiation after re-negotiation. And in His providential ordering, God has implicitly dignified many versions of the household, not to mention many versions of “being a people” or nation, etc. And this suggests that many of the pieces on the table of our contemporary cultural negotiation are simply the result of living in a complex society. A planet with rigidified borders, a lack of commons, and an exponentially exploding population (not to mention a dependence of said population on advanced subsistence methods) is a world in which basic societal ordering is inevitably confusing, and in which the greatest wisdom will inevitably be surprising.