The Rage Against Modernity’s Miracles

Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism and Identity Politics Is Destroying American Democracy
by Jonah Goldberg
Crown Forum, 2018, 453 pages, $56

noble savage IISuicide of the West is a remarkable book. Epic in scope, lucid in style, it is probing, witty and serious. Filled to the brim with interesting observations about an extraordinary range of topics, it leaves most contemporary political writing for dead. The book wears its deep learning with a light touch. Beautifully written, it poses provocative questions and answers them in memorable ways. It is the kind of work that compels a reader to think. I found myself musing on its themes long after I had closed its final pages. Books are like films. Most films you forget the moment you walk out of the cinema. But some stick with you. Suicide of the West has that effect. It lingers in the mind.

Jonah Goldberg’s touchstone is what he calls the modern “miracle”. Three centuries ago something extraordinary happened. A mix of markets, cities and industries began to coalesce in astonishing ways. A short-hand term for what happened is “modern capitalism”. Long-distance trade, big cities and industrial technology merged into a remarkable machine for the creation of material wealth and social prosperity. Nothing like it had existed before. From the end of the Roman empire to the eighteenth century, the standard of living across the globe remained static. Even in the richest countries, most people lived on the equivalent of three dollars a day. Today most of the world has been lifted out of absolute poverty.

This review appears in October’s Quadrant.
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Goldberg is right to call this a “miracle”. It is miraculous not only because of its exceptional beneficial effects but also because the reason why it happened remains obscure. Goldberg doesn’t try to provide a conclusive explanation for modernity’s remarkable prosperity. Instead he draws on a series of classic and contemporary accounts from Adam Smith to Deirdre McCloskey while admitting that we still do not really understand what happened. Modern prosperity is a genuine social-science mystery. Perhaps we will never fully understand it. Goldberg’s primary aim is not to try and explain the miracle but to explain why so many people have been so opposed to it—not just today but over the past three centuries. In a world that has never had it so good, a third of humanity routinely traduces its prodigious prosperity. The disaffected despise world trade, market efficiency and industrial productivity. In varying degrees, they hate these. Not least intellectuals—95 per cent of them loath the miracle.

Consequently, as prosperity has grown, so have the “isms” opposed to the miracle’s propitious mix of merchants, metropolises and machines. As Goldberg describes it, the opposition begins with romanticism.[1] This is followed by labourism, socialism, populism, nationalism, vitalism, fascism and totalitarianism. Just as the miracle produced massive gains in per capita GDP and wealth, so these counter-movements have devoted untold energies to undoing the miracle. This is the “suicide” in Goldberg’s title. There are millions of people who benefit every day from the miracle who want to end it. This is a very puzzling thing.

goldberg bookOne of the many virtues of Goldberg’s book is that he provides an explanation for this self-lacerating behaviour. His account focuses on the idea of tribalism. To understand why so many people end up so masochistically dissatisfied with a social system that produces so much human happiness that was out of reach for the vast majority of humankind during most of human history, you have to grasp, Goldberg argues, how human beings across this unprosperous time organised their societies. They began with bands and tribes. Later on tribes gave way to monarchies, aristocracies, feudal relationships and patrimonial states. All of these were organised around personal ties, hierarchies, extended kinship systems, communal family structures, statuses and rank orders. Historically the dominant tendency of human behaviour was tribe-like in nature. Modern capitalism broke with this.[2]

As Goldberg astutely argues, there is no single factor that explains the modern miracle. Rather a combination of causes merged into an exceptional pattern. The pattern starts to take shape in eighteenth-century England. In sociological terms, it can be described as a mix of large-scale markets, industries and cities—along with publics. Systems and associations replace small-scale close-knit communities. Old status hierarchies shrink. Individuals interact with growing number of strangers. Our family, immediate neighbours, friends and acquaintances total around 150 people. In a modern society we add to that 150 the thousands of strangers we buy things from, listen to on the radio, pass by on our travels, and sit with in arenas and theatres.

This social pattern is the exception, not the rule, in human history. Goldberg argues that it would not have developed had it not been for English society and England’s version of Enlightenment philosophy epitomised by John Locke. Locke’s philosophy hypothesised that individuals had inalienable natural rights. These preceded and were superior to government. This implied limits on the state. These limits were embodied in bills of rights, the rule of law, the separation of legislative, judicial and executive authority and the constitutional balance of these powers. Locke also supposed that individuals had a right to the fruits of their own labour. This was a conceptual breakthrough. The dominant tribe-like social mentality across millennia thought of human output as a pool to be distributed. Naturally this discouraged human productivity and encouraged forced labour including slavery. States, landlords, patrimonial kings, clerical and scholarly castes drew from this pool and flourished.

Locke’s most influential contribution was to attribute inalienable natural rights to life, liberty and property to all individuals. This was reformulated in America’s Declaration of Independence as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights in the American Constitution refined this further. The natural rights of individuals—to speak, assemble, bear arms; get a fair jury trial; and not have their houses, papers or property seized by the government—carved out a sphere of human life that was independent of government. Modern natural rights were not imputed to the state or corporate bodies (be they guilds, chartered companies, unions or firms) but rather to individuals. Because they did not have to rely on the permissions, licences and grants of the state, individuals were free to co-operate and compete with each other. As they contracted and innovated, the scope and scale of markets, industries, cities and publics grew. In turn productivity and prosperity expanded.

Unhappy in paradise

However, all was not right in paradise. For while human happiness expanded dramatically, it was matched by a wellspring of brooding discontent. For many, prosperity proved to be unbearable. Rising standards of living often were met not with jubilation but with dissatisfaction and disaffection. Why? Goldberg points to the unnatural nature of the modern miracle. He speculates that, for many, what feels natural is a tribe-like society. In comparison the mix of global trade, big cities and technological industry feels artificial. So that even after 300 years of remarkable human development, many individuals just want to interact with 150 people.

The promise of “the 150” is warmth, empathy and personal contact even if the reality is often toxic, claustrophobic and demeaning. It’s not so surprising then that, in spite of the epic spread of modern markets, cities and industries along with the dramatic increase in living standards across the world, most countries still have neo-patrimonial, client-patron and kin-based social structures with powerful status power systems based on personal connections. Most still focus on pooling rather than production. Where this prevails, the rule of law is weak and everyday life is marked by high levels of violence.

Even in the most successful societies, the pull of modernity’s “new feudalism” is strong. Across the twentieth century we saw the spread of institutions that outwardly were modern, technological, procedural and democratic yet inwardly were stratified, rank-ordered and preoccupied with grants, allocations and status creation. This was the phenomenon of the managerial society—first diagnosed by the American philosopher James Burnham in the 1940s.[3] It promised scientific government, expert knowledge, know-how and efficiency. What it delivered were large organisational hierarchies preoccupied with rank, title and status signalling. Managerial bureaucracies multiplied across the administrative state, the corporate firm, pressure groups, schools, charities, unions, sports, media and arts bodies, and churches.

In nominally Lockean societies, including the United States, substantial portions of the population dream of pre-modernity. The swarms of inner-city bicycle riders are typical. These pedallers adamantly reject the modern industrial machine, the automobile, in favour of laborious muscle power. In the same fashion, cheap reliable fossil fuels are abandoned for costly erratic medieval-style wind-power.[4] Such regressions are not new. They occur right from the moment the modern miracle begins. Goldberg recounts that when the first European settlers arrived in North America, some were captured by Indians. Even after they were returned to their families many of those seized wanted to remain with their captors. As Goldberg observes, thousands of white European colonists wished to be Indians, yet no Indians wanted to become Europeans. So it remains today. Academics belong to one of the most privileged groups in modern affluent societies. Yet among their number, the cult of aboriginality is pervasive. Indigenous societies are idealised to the point of extreme fantasy.[5]

Goldberg argues that the reason for this is that for most of human history social expectations were shaped by tribe-like patterns. We find this difficult to shake off—or at least a good portion of humankind does. Modern-miracle societies are organised around systems and associations. Societies with tribe-like characteristics are organised around groups. These groups are defined by ascription, inherited characteristics such as sex, race, ethnicity, age, birth-class, ancestors and kin. Behaviour focuses on “who you know”—on personal relationships with familiar figures, usually superiors and subordinates. Distrust of strangers is prevalent. Nepotism is strong. Occupations are inherited.[6] Cliques and coalitions form around superstitions, taboos, fraternities and group pride. Having one’s status or one’s status-group “respected” is crucial. Conduct revolves around honour and shame. Prohibitions are effective if the eye of the community is watching. When not, transgressions are common. Accordingly, violence is pervasive. Warfare is chronic. Blood feuds and brutal abductions are widespread.

One of the great achievements of the modern miracle was a massive drop in the level of violence. In part this was because honour and shame culture was replaced by a conscience culture (doing good when no one is watching). This transformation occurred unevenly—more so among some people and some countries than others. Everywhere the temptation to regress persisted. Today, Goldberg observes, identity politics revives the archaic totemism of the group. Similarly, the call of the sacred forest remains seductive. Some archaisms have a shiny modern surface. We constantly see legal-rational reinventions of grants, allocations, licences, monopolies, privileges and bounties. These often are blended with anti-industrial pastoralism and anti-machine handcraft utopias.

Underpinning the various new procedural “feudalisms” of the modern bureaucratic state is a personality type anchored in group identity. In the past the group was the village, guild, university, manor, monastery, clan, estate or status rank. Now it is a gender, race, ethnic culture, province, sexuality, organisational status or qualification status. Today political claims based on group identity are pursued in the name of “equality”. Yet rarely do the claimants want to eliminate a rank order. Rather they want to turn it on its head. We might renovate group identities, give them new names or invert them. But that doesn’t mean we get rid of them. They are seductive because they promise access to a pool of social resources via tenures, benefits, grants and allocations. In archaic times the pool was the meat provided by the tribe’s best hunters. Today it is the state’s pot of tax revenue and the corporation’s sales income. Status, rank, group affiliation and title determine how much a person shares in these pools.

In spite of that, millions of people reject these neo-antediluvian temptations. They are at ease with contracts, technologies and cities. They get on with strangers.[7] They use their own initiative. They move, settle, buy, sell, trade, travel, create, produce, adapt and invent without the permission of a group, boss, patron, patriarch, godfather, guild or government. They happily form voluntary associations and respond eagerly to the large-scale modern social systems that—somewhat mysteriously—create extraordinary wealth, broad-based prosperity, and general social uplift.

Political romanticism

The modern miracle, Goldberg argues, replaces a millennia-old “natural” tribal style of social organisation with a civilising human “artifice”.[8] We see the impact of this on even the most durable of all human institutions—the family and the household. Wherever it has managed to anchor itself deeply, the modern miracle has replaced extended kinship structures with the flexible and effective nuclear family.[9] As Goldberg points out, the basic recipe for social success and upward mobility in modern prosperous societies is to finish high school, get married around twenty years of age, and have children. The pair-bonded nuclear family provides mutual aid, social purpose and personal stability. Internally it pools its resources. Externally it encourages productive effort instead of pooling and sharing wealth among extended kin.

The modern miracle, as Goldberg suggests, does not have a single cause. Rather multiple factors merged to create its characteristic pattern. Freehold property replaced leasing of land from the Crown. Function supplanted status. Learned achievement overtook ascribed inheritance. Aristocracies, patricians, monarchies, principalities and patrimonial empires gradually shrank in influence. Old metaphors died. The king was no longer the “father” who “fed” the people. Government was no longer carried out by the royal “household” and its “servants”.

For all that, though, numerous “isms” emerged to cater to society’s latent tribal impulses. These “isms” promised a “warm” community in place of a “cold” society. Militancy was idolised in preference to industry. Status was eulogised in place of contract. Rural life was venerated in contrast to urban life. Most “isms” do not prescribe a literal return to the archaic past. Even so, in the past two centuries a surprising number of them have exhibited some pretty extreme back-to-the-earth, völkisch and aboriginalising tendencies. The number of ordinary Australians today who want to build exurban houses among the gum trees, courting summertime bushfire holocausts, is a reminder of just how deep the appeal of the gothic forest is. Nature worship is never far from the surface of modern societies. Its attractions evolve with time. A century ago in Europe it was the promise of living close to the cleansing spring waters of the burbling brook among the happy smiling peasant farmers in harmony with nature away from the dirty overcrowded city teeming with “alienated” factory workers and middle-class “philistines”.

The starting point of this modern primitivism, Goldberg rightly argues, is Rousseau. Long-dead thinkers may not be the legislators of the world but they do create the words by which millions interpret the world. Goldberg singles out Rousseau, Herder, Fichte and Nietzsche as the primordial foes of the modern miracle. For Rousseau modernity’s material civilisation enslaves rather than liberates. Its refinements are corruptions. Its artificial nature degrades human goodness. Goodness, Rousseau argued, is the preserve of “simple men”. Among the happiest people in the world were “bands of peasants regulating the affairs of state under an oak tree”.[10] The simple guileless peasants created in unison a “general will” that was wise. In contrast modern “refined nations” were both “illustrious and wretched”.

What Rousseau started branched in several different directions. No matter how it cleft, its underlying complaint was always the same. The modern miracle—the mix of capitalism, industrialisation, urbanisation and materialism—is the cause of spiritual ills that strip life of “meaning”. Romanticism, Goldberg argues, indicts the modern miracle for being disenchanting. The miracle destroys “meaning” because it is inauthentic. It has no purity. It lacks originality. It’s tainted by admixtures. Because it’s not first, unpolluted, unique, indigenous or simple, it lacks validity.

After Rousseau, the German philosopher Johann Fichte added another dimension to romanticism. His was a response to Napoleon’s effort to create a Continental French imperial super-state. His concern was to create a German nation. Goldberg notes how in Fichte’s view a language forms a people. Accordingly the German nation-state was co-extensive with German speakers. And because German was a literary language, the German-speaking people were special. Still more special was their history. For it symbolised, Fichte thought, the self-determination of a national super-ego.

Fichte built a philosophical system around the concept of the absolute ego.[11] His notion of the state echoed this idea.[12] He imagined the nation as a self-contained super-subject—a super-ego. God was expunged from this concept of the state. There was no place in the state for natural law or even the divine right of kings. God was replaced by the nation conceived as a divine super-subject. Self-determination meant a nation free from external forces. For Fichte the primordial resistance of German tribes to the Roman empire was the original model of national self-determination.[13] From the self-determination of the national super-subject emerged a divine people.

What Germany philosophised, France practised. In the eyes of Robespierre, Goldberg notes, the French were the sublime people for whom the citizen lived and died. The symbol of permanence and eternal life previously was God. Now the divine people took the place of God. Ordinary selves were emanations of the national super-ego. They gladly sacrificed themselves for it. As this romantic idea of the nation came into wide circulation so did the modern anti-romantic conception of the nation. Its outlook was stoical, its people were “hardy”.[14] The latter don’t deny external determination. Rather they adroitly adjust to it. They face external forces with thrift, industry, discipline, work, enterprise, grit and persistence.

The hardy adaptive nation is the opposite of the romantic self-determining nation. The latter, conceived as an immortal super-ego, relates principally to itself. Fichte thought of it as a “closed commercial state” with a state-managed economy insulated from external trade, diplomacy and travel. Science and communication were partly exempted from this national solipsism but still regulated through state-funded institutions. The key to political romanticism is the idea of a super-subject that is “free”. Freedom means separating the nation from external forces—treaties, wars, markets and industries—it can’t control. In practice this is impossible to do.[15] So when unavoidable external pressures impinge on the national super-ego, feelings of persecution, suspicion and paranoia spread. Fear, scapegoating and conspiracy theories proliferate.

Fichte was a nationalist but, following Rousseau, he was also a trans-nationalist. Rousseau proposed a federated European super-state that could legislate a “common law” for all its members in order to secure “a lasting peace between all the peoples of Europe”.[16] In effect this was the first model of the European Union. Fichte argued that perpetual peace was only feasible if the component states of Rousseau’s super-state were no longer economically competitive but rather had economies that were planned and self-sufficient. Perpetual peace would be attained when nations severely reduced relations with each other—restricting commercial, political and intellectual interaction or regulating these through government agencies.[17]

The inspiration for the third branch of romanticism was Johann Herder, an older contemporary of Fichte’s. Herder thought the world was made up of equally valid cultures. This is where the contemporary ideology of “diversity” comes from. Each culture is the collective mind of a group that has a common language, literature, tradition, experience, history and memory. Each culture is separate and distinct. There is no “chemistry” that can bond them together. In the pan-national version of this, a single hermetic culture is the basis of a super-state that incorporates multiple states. The classic example was the German-speaking principalities that amalgamated in the nineteenth-century German Wilhelmine empire.[18] This state fused Herder’s idea of an immaculate culture and history—a unique essence, as Goldberg puts it—with a Fichte-style tariff-protected, regulated economy.

Trans-national political romanticism, first mooted by Rousseau, was rebadged as a kind of super-trans-national political romanticism by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.[19] The model for this was Friedrich II, the thirteenth-century Holy Roman Emperor. Nietzsche was an anti-romantic romantic.[20] He regarded nationalism—cultural, racial or pan-German—as a neurotic sickness.[21] He proposed instead a European Union.[22] But there was a catch. The original Central European super-state was the Holy Roman Empire. It was in need of updating. For Napoleon had abolished the old empire and Nietzsche had declared that God was dead.[23] From this crucible emerged the idea of a trans-national super-state deferential not to God but to a class of supermen—inspired, Nietzsche said, by “aristocratic commonwealths” like Venice.[24] This echoed Fichte’s root concept, the super-subject or super-ego, which similarly had replaced God. It also had Faustian overtones.

Faustian ideas are yet another branch of romanticism. The idea of the superman first appears in Goethe’s Faust. The figure of Faust signified the absence of limits and an appetite for gargantuan development. These mean different things in different contexts. Among the most influential arguments for a Faustian world was Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1918–1922). In this case the “West” meant a gothic “German-Roman” Middle European culture. Spengler thought this had originally emerged in the 1100s along with the Holy Roman Empire.[25] This was the hook around which he developed a cultural hierarchy. In the “West” the country “gentleman” was superior to the “parasitic” city dweller. Likewise the provinces were superior to world-cities, culture to civilisation, becoming to being, and measurelessness to form and boundaries.

Self-deification and the political super-ego

In America political romanticism developed differently. Goldberg emphasises that one of its principal American forms was progressivism. The progressive movement took shape in the late nineteenth century. It gradually replaced God—the symbol of permanence—with the idol of change. Key progressive figures, notably the philosopher John Dewey, were obsessed with change and reform. To their mind, no principle could outlive its own time. Goldberg notes that progressive reform meant the expansion of the administrative state. This was a liberalised version of Fichte’s state imported from the Wilhelmine empire.

Progressivism was not the only romanticising strain in American life. The first book in English on Nietzsche was produced in 1908 by the influential American journalist H.L. Mencken. Numerous cultural figures in the United States, across the wider English-speaking world and in East Asia followed Mencken’s example.[26] As Allan Bloom observed, Nietzschean philosophies entered wholesale into American universities from the 1970s onwards.[27] A Nietzschean political Left developed. Its influence spread through the wider society.[28] Eventually an equal and opposite reaction occurred on the political Right. This culminated in the election of Donald Trump as US President.

Despite the claims that the Trump presidency is a unique phenomenon—a presidency like no other—it is not.[29] It is part of the larger body of American romanticism. The American kind is distinct from the European kind. But it is influential all the same. Periodically it swells then recedes. It has episodic peaks. These coincide with decades of economic downturn. When the economy declines, romanticism rises. The two cycles—one economic, one political—are counter-cyclical to each other.

The pattern begins in the 1830s with the protectionism and populist anti-elitism of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The romantic literature of Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson underscores it. Emerson was one of the most important influences on Nietzsche.[30] Progressive and populist upsurges in the 1890s set the tone for Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency from 1901 to 1909. The 1910s produced the Fichtean statism of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency from 1913 to 1921. Goldberg rightly stresses its importance. Wilson’s foreign policy pursued the romantic pair of trans-nationalism and national self-determination. Wilson’s bent was philosophically immortalised in John Dewey’s 1919 Reconstruction in Philosophy, possibly the greatest statement of the progressive worldview ever.

The peak romanticism of the 1910s repeats in the 1930s. That decade delivers the hyper-statism and protectionism of Franklin Roosevelt, bipartisan policies to return the legal Mexican-American diaspora to Mexico, and “America First” Father Coughlin populism. The next romantic peak occurs in the 1970s. It encompasses anomic sexual, drug-taking and post-material romantic fantasies, revolutionary chic, the persecutory outlook along with the environmental and affirmative-action progressivism of the Nixon administration, the “outsider” pretence and moralising negativity of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, his administration’s financing of Afghanistan’s mujahedeen “freedom fighters” and its ambition to withdraw troops from South Korea.[31] The latest wave in the 2010s began with the Obama administration’s recycling of the Carter-era desire for national health insurance framed by Occupy-style left-wing movement populism, re-intensified statism, romantic fantasies of choosing one’s sex, open borders and the idealising of subaltern racial and ethnic groups—all wrapped in the rhetoric of progress.

There is little that is new under the sun. That includes Donald Trump. His public persona is rooted in the cyclical recurrence of American political romanticism. The genius of Suicide of the West is its meditation on the upsurge of political romanticism during the past decade in the United States. Goldberg says many people advised him not to write about romanticism. Yet it turns out this is the most compelling theme in the book. It explains why divisions in American politics today are not just deep but also difficult to read.[32] People argue about whether Trump will transform American politics permanently. That seems unlikely because what he represents is not new. It comes around periodically, then it goes away, then it comes back again. This is because romanticism, as Goldberg appreciates, is the great opponent of the modern miracle while America is the miracle’s greatest exemplar.

Trump’s political personality is a composite of various American romanticisms, not least the conspicuously dissolute sexual romanticism of the 1970s. The era when he came of age is the same era when most of today’s church child-sex scandals have their origin. Trump was twenty-four in 1970. He is a cipher of his times. He borrows heavily, if unconsciously, from Nietzschean and Faustian threads in the broader culture. A Trump tweet is the cartoon twin of a Nietzschean aphorism. It communicates with the same kind of mocking sarcasm and cruel laughter that permeate Nietzsche’s writings. Nietzsche weaponised laughter. He turned it into jibs, taunts, derision, goading and sneering. Goldberg is right when he identifies a Nietzschean side to Trump. Trump acts on instinct—in Nietzsche’s sense of a self-created unconscious trigger that leads to spontaneous actions that have nothing to do with rational deliberation.[33] Then there is his Faustian side.

The American Faust became a familiar figure on the American intellectual Right in the twentieth century with the publication of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead in 1943. It sold 6.5 million copies. H.L. Mencken was an early admirer of Rand. The Fountainhead’s principal character, the New York architect Howard Roark, epitomises the world of Faustian building. The fictional Roark had a real-life counterpart in New York’s Robert Moses—the mid-century public authority construction boss who created multitudes of parks, bridges, highways and public housing projects following the advice of Goethe’s Mephistopheles that in order to create one must destroy.[34] Barack Obama in 2010 said, “I think about Robert Caro and reading The Power Broker [the biography of Moses] back when I was 22 years old and just being mesmerized, and I’m sure it helped to shape how I think about politics.”[35] Obama also admitted that, while he was living in New York, he “devoured” the writings of Nietzsche.[36]

There is a short passage from these fictional and real characters to Trump, the New York developer turned celebrity turned politician, who combines a Faustian love of big buildings with the Nietzschean superman’s value system.[37] The latter idolises greatness and strength.[38] It venerates contempt.[39] Vulnerability and weakness, it thinks, deserve derision and mockery. Trump’s Faust is a developer, not a maestro of the administrative state. So in office he’s worked with Congress to achieve a visible reduction in federal government regulation. That’s the antithesis of Obama. Despite that there is something promethean about both of them. Each channels the romantic rapture of their most ardent supporters. As Goldberg notes, romanticism is neither of the Left nor the Right but both.

Today the American Left is split between statist liberals and Nietzschean liberals. The Right is divided between realist and romantic conservatives.[40] In varying degrees these rifts are bitter. People “unite” at election time for “their team”.[41] But the gulf between them does not diminish. Movement activists—an inherently romantic category—now make up the “base” of the major parties. The activists determine key factors such as success in party primaries and turn-out in major elections. The policy intellectuals worry whether romantic enthusiasms, of the Left or the Right, make any political sense. Public intellectuals bend in both directions. Institutionalists—caught between the activists and the intellectuals—try to figure out how to run party and government machines effectively when romanticised “movement” politics is ascendant.

Obama and Trump straddle a political decade—the 2010s—when numerous American voters yearned for a super-ego with a disdainful tongue to redeem the nation. In Obama’s case, there were hints of Faust: he promised to slow the rise of the oceans and heal the planet. While he had no instinct for war he had the strongman’s drive to achieve victory over opponents, laced with contempt for them.[42] Both wilful and calculating, his was a decisionistic politics—a “we can” channelled through executive orders.[43] He constantly promised “change and progress”. This meant expanding the administrative state and the pool for redistribution. Its promise was backed not by a Nietzschean-style aristocracy who courted danger but rather a pusillanimous postmodern managerial aristocracy who worshipped safety. In matters of war these were “men without chests”. Yet when it came to turning enterprise into allocation and regulation, to the last, these were chest-beating men.[44]

Goldberg describes the rise of the American administrative state and the managerial elite with great skill. But in one respect I think he’s wrong. At the beginning of Suicide of the West, he brackets the question of God. In contrast I don’t think you can understand the post-Nietzschean age without understanding its substitutes (secular and religious) for God. This is not an abstract question. Again, consider Obama and Trump. Both are obsessively self-referential. This is not a personal quirk. It arises out of a distinctive American crypto-religious tradition focused on the creation of a hyper-confident self. This is the religion of the “confidence man” or what the Reformed Protestant theologian and realist Reinhold Niebuhr rightly condemned as a religion of self-deification.[45]

America’s confidence religion begins in the nineteenth century.[46] It branches widely and deeply through the culture. It includes both the black Christian self-confidence theology of James T. Cone that Barack Obama consumed in Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and the “power of positive thinking” psycho-babble theology of Norman Vincent Peale that Donald Trump ingested in New York’s Marble Collegiate Church.[47] This crypto-religion produces self-deifying personas whose self-mythologising rests on hyperbolic positives like “the audacity of hope” or “American greatness”. When neo-religious hyper-positivity gets mixed in with Nietzschean disdain it produces a schizoid rhetoric that flip-flops between nasty putdowns and grandiose booster talk.

Self-deification is Fichte’s super-ego. It is the answer to Nietzsche’s question: we killed God, now what do we replace Him with? Ayn Rand’s Howard Roark outwardly is a secular hero—an icon of laissez-faire capitalism. Yet, as Rand admits in her preface to The Fountainhead, her point is religious. The novel is a work of religious exaltation.[48] Goldberg objects to Donald Trump on the grounds of character. Driving the character question is an existential shift. The nineteenth-century self was still anchored in virtue. The romantic postmodern protean self is not. The latter offers rapturous self-acclaim. It tells itself that it has grandiose powers. This is now widespread in American culture. It crosses from elite secular universities to Pentecostal churches. The language in each may be different but the inflation of self is the same.

Impotent omnipotence

Goldberg is right, though. There is another side to this. The romantic titanic self is matched by the aboriginal (autochthonous) tribal group-fixated self. This might be La Raza or the white identity group or the idealised small-town “community”. It is a self that is defined by group origins.[49] As the Vulcan self has risen—mirrored by the contemporary rise of the super-hero movie—so has its antithesis, the tribal self.[50] The result is extreme incoherence. Take the postmodern campus. It fused Dewey and Nietzsche—but then added Herder. As a result the American government began to treat the natural substratum of human existence—such as a person’s sex—as if it was contingent and changeable. At the same time it encouraged state-funded goods like university places to be allocated on the basis of ascribed—that is, inherited—group characteristics (sex, race, ethnicity) in the name of Herder’s “diversity”.[51] The incoherence of all this was remarkable. Cumulatively it made little sense. Trump torpedoed the mishmash—but did so with his own mishmash. Small-town blue-collar left-behind forgotten-people white identity on the one hand,[52] Nietzschean-Faustian greatness, strength and instinct on the other.

Greatness, strength and instinct sound straightforward. Nietzsche’s supermen are spontaneous, contemptuous and pitiless. Yet the contemporary supermen are also seduced by another Nietzschean trait that has filtered into the broader culture: the desire to invert value hierarchies.[53] As Goldberg puts it, this redefines the culture’s idea of what it means to be virtuous. The siren song whispers that all value hierarchies can be overturned. The servant can dominate the master, the daughter can rule the mother, and the foe is better than the friend.[54] Nietzsche began this trend by inverting the traditional hierarchy of Christian peace over aristocratic war. But why stop there? Just war can be topped by perpetual peace. Arms by disarmament. The hardy nation by the ethno-cultural nation. Wealth by poverty. Growth by de-growth. Truth by error. Two sexes by a fanciful infinity of sexes. Biology by social construction. On and on it goes till the trans-valuation of values becomes permanent.[55] There is no value hierarchy that cannot be reversed. The US Congress reduces taxes on companies. The executive branch then ramps up taxes on imported goods.

The cascade of inversions is Nietzsche devouring Nietzsche. In the end the brooding postmodern superman will ask himself: Is deference better than dominance? Is submission greater than might? When we killed God, this is what we got. Less nihilism (though that as well) and more the Superman asking: Shall I swallow the kryptonite? The culture has shifted. So has the idea of truth. The prevailing concept of truth no longer is historicist (truth changes with the times). Nor is it just relativist (my truth is as good as your truth). Rather truth now is endless reversal. As Fichte put it, the absolute ego wavers. So truth wavers. It zig-zags, flutters and flickers. Does the President reach a bargain with Vladimir Putin or impose sanctions on Russia? Both. Neither. Truth is vacillation. It reverses as it speaks.

The loudest symptom of vacillation is impotent omnipotence. Outwardly political romantics project an all-consuming self-determining power over things. They believe that everything can be chosen and that society exists without necessity, fate or tragedy. On the political Right this means “freedom” or “liberty”; on the political Left “choice” and “change”. Yet this is a mirage. Not everything can be chosen. So inwardly the psyche of the political romantic seeks to withdraw and isolate itself to maintain the psychological illusion of absolute self-determination. Torn between impotence and omnipotence, the howling begins. Shouting, foot stamping and outrage are staples of romantic eras.

Today’s primal screaming though is not just a political phenomenon. It’s also social. The modern miracle replaced the old fixed-status system based on class with a fluid-status race. Status-seeking multiplied. Status anxieties and ambitions have fuelled all kinds of identity politics from nineteenth-century race-status to twenty-first-century protected-group status. Modern equality brought an end to class society. But class equality generated an immense striving by individuals to be unequal and distinct.[56] As class withered, the competition for recognition, respect and prestige took off.

Americans in the twentieth century aspired to belong to a vast “middle class”. Yet the rise of the managerial society and the administrative state undercut that. It created a jockeying status system based not on class but on education. Americans are “born equal” but stratified by education. Not much learning goes on in American education but a great deal of status signalling does.[57] Much more so than class, status turns into contempt for others: disdain for those below (“deplorables”), resentment at those above (“elites”) and anger at peers. It is notable that the only thing Hillary Clinton in her failed 2016 presidential bid offered left-behind blue-collar workers in exurban America was “education and training”. The response—a vote for Donald Trump—was a vote to turn the contempt generated by America’s postmodern status system against itself.

Goldberg is right. Progressive America produced the populist backlash. But, as he also understands, the politics of contempt is destructive. The English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes warned against it in the seventeenth century. All social moods pass, as do presidential personas. Nonetheless the 2010s revealed some corrosive constants. America’s postmodern status system is one of them. The other is public spending. Barack Obama dramatically pushed up federal spending in his first two years in office. The subsequent Republican-controlled Congress forced it back down. Donald Trump wanted a big infrastructure program when he was elected. The Republican Congress said no. Yet the members of Congress still spend too much and rely too much on debt to pay for what they spend. They talk about limited government yet they fund a super-sized state. Republican voters love the principle of small government. Yet habitually they think that their favourite program is an exception that proves the principle. Or else they find it too tiring to translate abstract principles into restrained programs. They prefer cultural warring to public policy-making.

Modern political economy seems unable to resist the appeal of archaic patrimony and deeply-buried tribal impulses. These old drives encourage states to turn inwards, away from the world, away from friends and enemies alike. Security lies in the fortified homeland, not on the high seas. The fort also is a larder. Behind its ramparts, states behave like chiefs used to behave —with largesse. Their role is to pool the tribe’s surplus of food and goods and distribute it among the people who, if they are lucky, get to feast on the chief’s gifts.[58] So military alliances turn into redistributive systems, with responsible states subsidising reluctant contributors. Pension spending crowds out arms spending. Even the objections to this focus on sharing, not on doing. So on all sides, allocation replaces achievement.

The archaic-style “big man” who slices up portions has not gone away but rather lurks just beneath the surface of modern societies. The paradox is that those same societies in varying degrees have abandoned tribe-like behaviours. The modern miracle rests on that. Productivity, not distribution, is crucial. Industries, markets and cities multiply productivity. As Goldberg puts it, human beings at home behave like communists. Families pool resources. They share most things. They give gifts to each other; they don’t price their mutual contributions.[59] But in the wider world, household sharing is replaced by market exchange. There, what matters most are the things that make productivity tick: making, inventing, discovering, pricing, costing and calculating.

Human beings are settled at home; they like their attachments and their familiar things. But the modern miracle assumes that settling is complemented by moving. We happily rest and abide at home. But we also explore, travel and move for jobs. Likewise we don’t just accumulate power behind a moat or fortification. We also project power and confront enemies over great distances. The balance between the inner and outer, the domestic and the public, our intimate castles and the projection of world power is tricky to establish. Worse than getting the balance wrong is to sacrifice it altogether—believing that, somehow, the arduous expansion of the artificial civilisation of modernity is too taxing psychologically and that we should abandon it for the archaic pleasures of the chief’s gifts and the feudal lord’s fortifications. We discover then too late like those at Pearl Harbor in 1941 that fortifications are readily penetrated by determined foes and that gifts, while lovely at Christmas, do not make an economy and certainly not one that creates the magnificent cornucopia of things that we, the beneficiaries of the modern miracle, put under our festive trees at year’s end. As Goldberg suggests, we ought to have immense gratitude for the great gifts of modern life. That some of us prefer the gifts of the chief, however meagre, is astonishing.

Peter Murphy is the author of Civic Justice: From Greek Antiquity to the Modern World, and the co-author with David Roberts of Dialectic of Romanticism. His latest book, Limited Government: The Public Sector in the Auto-Industrial Age, is due to be published soon




[1]              The modern miracle is rooted in a flinty classical view of the world, one that is inherently anti-romantic. The Australian poet A.D. Hope (The Cave and The Spring, Sydney, Sydney University Press, 1974, 151) compared the classical and romantic outlooks. “[Classicism] views man and the universe as he is, the other as he might be; the one we could call the tradition of being, the other the tradition of becoming; the one views the world as a system, the other as a process.” Those who view the world “as it is” are realists. Those that view the world “as it might be” are romantics.

[2]              The break, I’d argue, was not entirely without precedent. Though Goldberg tends to suggest it was. He underestimates how some of the key building blocks of the modern miracle are present in the unorthodox history of mixed constitutions and city states that runs from classical Athens and Rome to the Hansa cities onwards through Venice and Florence to Calvin’s Geneva, the Dutch Republic, and England’s mixed government. I discuss this route to the successful modernity in Civic Justice: From Ancient Greece to the Modern World (Amherst NY, Humanity Books, 2001). One can quibble about the degree to which the miracle is an immaculate conception or not. I’m sceptical of claims of creation out of nothing. But irrespective, what occurred was profound. A number of things mark off the modern miracle from prior history. One is technology. Ocean-going vessels changed the nature of trade and human settlement. Second, industrial technology magnified human productivity. Third, the focus of life shifted from the country to the city.

[3]              James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution, New York, John Day, 1941.

[4]              The most influential philosopher of the twentieth century was Martin Heidegger. For a number of years he was barred from university teaching while Germany was de-nazified. He returned to university teaching in 1953, having been officially classified as a Mitläufer or fellow-traveller of the Nazi regime—as indeed he was. In a 1949 lecture, later published, Heidegger declared: “The revealing that rules in modern technology is a challenging which puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy that can be extracted and stored as such. But does this hold true for the old windmill as well? No. Its sails do indeed turn in the wind; they are left entirely to the wind’s blowing. But the windmill does not unlock energy from the air currents in order to store it. In contrast, a tract of land is challenged into the putting out of coal and ore.” (“The Question Concerning Technology”, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, New York, Harper, 1977, p. 14.) So it came to pass that the philosopher, whom the Nazis briefly appointed Rector of Freiburg University in 1933 and who was a member of the Nazi Party from 1933 to 1945, formulated a regressive-romantic agrarian-peasant conception of energy that would eventually become the official policy of numerous governments around the world, including Australia’s Rudd and Turnbull governments.

[5]              On the reality as opposed to the fantasy of indigenous society, see Roger Sandall, Culture Cult: Designer Tribalism and Other Essays, Boulder, Westview, 2001. Keith Windschuttle in The Break-Up of Australia: The Real Agenda Behind Aboriginal Recognition, Sydney, Quadrant Books, 2016 discusses the bleak reality of traditional culture (pp. 78-109) and how policy intellectuals in the 1970s were seduced by the romantic ideology of indigenous self-determination, separation and segregation (pp. 292-308) and enticed to argue that Europeans were maladjusted to industrial society, alienated by the division of labour, and subject to the terrible misery of economic growth.

[6]              Until attempted reforms in Mexico in 2008, a teacher could pass on their occupation to a child, and if the child did not want to be a teacher, the office could be sold to someone else. “Throughout history, the sons of carpenters have become carpenters.” Mexico’s teachers unions controlled this ancien regime style of inheritable and saleable appointments. The going price for the sale of a post in 2008 was $6000 in a country with an average annual income of $9000. Marion Lloyd, “Striking Mexico teachers see jobs as things to inherit, sell”, Houston Chronicle, October 13, 2008.

[7]              This is one of the many subtle inheritances from Christianity. As Calvin put it in the Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (1550): “Christ also teaches us we must live as strangers and pilgrims in this world, that we may not lose our heavenly inheritance…”

[8]              The importance of civilization’s “artifice”, as opposed to the “authenticity” of romantic culture, was a key theme in the book on romanticism that I wrote with David Roberts. Peter Murphy and David Roberts, Dialectic of Romanticism, London, Bloomsbury, 2004.

[9]              Patterns of cohabitation between generations and inheritance distinguish family types. These have great social and economic significance. Sitting in varying degrees of structural opposition to the absolute nuclear family are the following models of the family: stem, endogamous, anomic, polygamous, egalitarian, and communitarian family types. The modern miracle emerges on the basis of the absolute nuclear family. Its structure fits neatly with property relations that are simultaneously dynamic and certain. One of the latent long-term uncertainties posed by large-scale late twentieth-century migration was the degree to which migrant groups with non-nuclear family patterns would adapt once they entered nuclear-family-based common law and settler societies—the heart of modern capitalism.

[10]             As long as “several men assembled together consider themselves as a single body” then they have only “one will” directed towards their “common preservation and general well-being”. That being the case then all the animating forces of the state will be “vigorous and simple” and its principles “clear and luminous”. There will be no incompatible or conflicting interests. The common good will be manifest. J-J. Rousseau, Of the Social Contract, book IV, chapter 1, paragraphs 1 and 2.

[11]             J.G. Fichte, The Science of Knowledge, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991 [1982].

[12]             J.G. Fichte, The Closed Commercial State, New York, SUNY Press, 2012 [1800]; Addresses to the German Nation, Indianapolis, Hackett Publishing, 2013 [1808].

[13]             In Rousseau and Fichte—and far beyond—culture is the antidote to civilization. The French aristocrat Arthur de Gobineau and the British-German Wagnerite Houston Stewart Chamberlain were among many for whom the numerous social anxieties triggered by the modern miracle were placated by culture. For them, culture was the work of superior races. In Oswald Spengler, in contrast, culture is something provincial. It is rooted. Where civilization is moored to the non-provincial world city, culture is anchored in peasant-like wisdom. It “grows” while civilization only “expands”. Civilization is bourgeois rather than aristocratic, nomadic rather than dynastic, outwardly-focused rather than inwardly-facing. Culture produces meaning and enchantment. Civilization produces alienation and disenchantment.

[14]             This is the term used by the great Singaporean statesman Lee Kuan Yew. See for example, Speech to students of Canterbury University, Christchurch, New Zealand, 15 March 1965; Proceedings, Political Study Centre, Goodwill Hill, Singapore, 15 April 1965.

[15]             In his more philosophical mode in The Science of Knowledge, Fichte understood that while the source of all reality is the absolute self, the absolute ego also creates the “not-self”—a reality that in some sense must check or limit the absolute self’s self-determination. Such a reality-check might apply by analogy to the closed commercial state, except that the “non-self” lies outside the national super-ego—in the form of other states. The philosophical delusion that the self-determining subject is both limitless and limited by virtue of its own activity neatly encapsulates the ruin of all post-colonial failed states that got drunk on the wine of national self-determination after the Second Word War.

[16]             Rousseau imagined “a form of federal Government as shall unite nations by bonds similar to those which already unite their individual members, and place the one no less than the other under the authority of the Law… [This form of Government would combine] the advantages of the small and the large State, because it is powerful enough to hold its neighbours in awe, because it upholds the supremacy of the Law, because it is the only force capable of holding the subject, the ruler, the foreigner equally in check.” He further argued that:”…the Federation must embrace all the important Powers in its membership; it must have a Legislative Body, with powers to pass laws and ordinances binding upon all its members; it must have a coercive force capable of compelling every State to obey its common resolves whether in the way of command or of prohibition; finally, it must be strong and firm enough to make it impossible for any member to withdraw at his own pleasure the moment he conceives his private interest to clash with that of the whole body.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A Lasting Peace through the Federation of Europe (1756).

[17]             J.G. Fichte, The Closed Commercial State, New York, SUNY Press, 2012 [1800].

[18]             The national unification of German-speakers left four problems. First, what to do with those who didn’t speak German as a first language? That is, the significant number of Poles, Sorbs and Danes in German principalities. Then what to do with German speakers who also had a parallel experience, tradition, history and memory—namely German Jews? Third what to do with German-speaking provinces that identified with France and French Catholic culture, e.g. Bavaria. Fourth what to do with the German-speakers who headed a multi-national Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and were uninterested in German unification? Nazism provided answers to all the above. It slotted the Poles and Sorbs into a racial hierarchy that treated Slavs as an inferior race. It conquered Denmark. It exterminated the Jews. It occupied Austria and Hungary.

[19]             Middle European pan-nationalism is represented by the Wilhelmine German Empire (1871-1918) and later the Nazi Third Reich.

[20]             About the Romantic composer Richard Wagner, who he had known well, Nietzsche observed: “He is one of the late French romanticists, that high-soaring and heaven-aspiring band of artists, like Delacroix and Berlioz, who in their inmost nacres are sick and incurable…” Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (1888). Yet even while Nietzsche castigated romanticism, he created his own steely version of it.

[21]             “…nationalism, this national neurosis from which Europe is sick…” Ecce Homo (1888).

[22]             “that great free spirit, that genius among German emperors, Frederick II” The Anti-Christ (1895).

[23]             “God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. –And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too.”; “God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” The Gay Science (1882).

[24]             “Man is something that shall be overcome. Man is a rope, tied between beast and superman—a rope over an abyss. What is great in man is that he is a bridge and not an end.” Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883). “Those large hothouses [Treibhäuser] for the strong, for the strongest kind of human being that has ever been, the aristocratic commonwealths of the type of Rome or Venice, understood freedom exactly in the sense in which I understand the word freedom: as something one has and does not have, something one wants, something one conquers …” Twilight of the Idols (1888).

[25]             Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, New York, Oxford University Press, 1991 [1926, 1918].

[26]             Nietzsche’s views filtered into the English-speaking world through the work of W.B. Yeats, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw in England and Ireland; Norman Lindsay, Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and Christopher Brennan in Australia; James J. Huneker, H.L. Mencken, Theodore Dreiser, Benjamin de Casseres,   Eugene O’Neill, and Jack London in the US. In East Asia, Nietzsche entered Japanese culture via the work of Natsume Sosek, Yukio Mishima, Tobari Chikufu, Ikuta Choko, and Watsuji Tetsuro. Nietzsche’s passage into China was mediated by Lu Xun, Chen Duxiu, Li Dazhao, Mao Dun, Guo Muruo, and Li Shicen.

[27]             Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1987.

[28]             Goldberg once noted, amusingly, that in the 1980s he stopped reading Bloom’s book when it got to the chapter on the Nietzscheanization of the universities at the end of the book. Ironically, this campus transformation—totally obscure at the time—probably had the greatest social effect of any of the changes on American campuses. From professors it progressed to students and then into the wider culture, its influence trickling down over four decades. On his foreshortened reading of Bloom, see, Jonah Goldberg, “Goldberg’s Conservative Canon”, National Review, February 9, 2001. The anecdote is repeated in the August 20, 2018 edition of his podcast The Remnant in conversation with the literary agent Jay Mandel, where author and agent ruefully acknowledge that people often only read bits of the books they buy.

[29]             He is not, as Conrad Black’s book title puts it, Donald J. Trump: A President Like No Other (Washington DC, Regenry, 2018).

[30]             Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2012, pp. 6, 15-18.

[31]             One of the best analyses of the social and cultural spirit of the 1970s is John Carroll’s Puritan, Paranoid, Remissive, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977. Carroll captures the reckless nihilistic play-power style anomie of the times together with its paranoid spirit. The latter was the result of institutions and individual psyches that asserted control yet were unable to achieve control of the world around them. Their romantic claims of “autonomy” were routinely undermined by the external world triggering feelings of persecution. The absurd revolutionary pretensions, masochistic liberalism and hustling resentments of the era are vividly portrayed in the non-fiction books of Tom Wolfe.

[32]             Often the explanation offered is that contemporary American politics is exceptionally polarised. Goldberg is among those who point to polarization as a reason for the contempt, scorn, derision and condescension that propels much American political debate today. But intense polarisation is not new in American politics. What Abraham Lincoln’s political opponents said about him is far worse than most of the bad-mouthing that goes on in public today. It is true that in the mid-twentieth century there were liberals and conservatives in both the Democratic and Republican parties. This allowed members of Congress to “reach across the aisle”. That’s gone. Liberals and conservatives now sort themselves into politically homogenous electoral districts and parties (Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded American is Tearing Us Apart, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2008). Excepting that the parties are not homogenous. Think of it like a grid. There is a neat division between Democratic and Republican parties. Superimposed over the top of that grid is another division. It used to be between liberal and conservative but that split has been reduced to the basic party division. If you tend to be liberal, you vote for the Democrats. If you tend to be conservative, you vote Republican. However another schism has replaced the liberal-conservative divide in turn splitting liberal and conservative opinion. This is the schism between romanticism and anti-romanticism.

[33]             “The nations which were worth something, became worth something, never became so under liberal institutions”; “[The] war for liberal institutions, which, as a war, permits illiberal instincts to continue”; “Freedom means that the manly instincts which delight in war and victory dominate over other instincts, for example, over those of ‘pleasure’.” “Once we have lost all the instincts out of which institutions grow, we lose institutions altogether because we are no longer good for them.” Twilight of the Idols (1888).

[34]             Moses also reiterated the maxim of the New York Times Stalinist apologist Walter Duranty that you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs (a reference to the devastating famine that Stalin engineered in the Ukraine and elsewhere). S.J. Taylor, Stalin’s apologist: Walter Duranty, the New York Times man in Moscow, New York, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 185, 207-208.

[35]             Remarks by Obama on the occasion of Caro being presented with the National Humanities medal. See Robert Caro, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, New York, Knopf, 1973.

[36]             David Mendell, Obama from promise to power, New York, HarperCollins, 2007, p. 61. Obama also cited Emerson’s essay on self-reliance as a favourite. He would have recognized himself in Emerson’s line from that essay: “And truly it demands something godlike in him who has cast off the common motives of humanity and has ventured to trust himself for a taskmaster.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance” in The Portable Emerson, New York, Penguin, 1981 [1946], p.156. In an email to New York Times writer Jon Meacham, Obama remarked that: “Emerson’s philosophy as expressed in ‘Self-Reliance’ embraced a combination of non-conformity to social trends, and the belief that what made one’s own heart beat faster was a universal trait.”

[37]             Arguably the closest parallel for Donald Trump in American history is the media magnate William Randolph Hearst, a two-time Democrat Congressman, presidential candidate, builder of Hearst Castle at San Simeon (an aesthetic match for Trump Tower), a New York populist progressive and revolving-door isolationist-interventionist imperialist-nationalist turned anti-Communist pro-Hitler “America First” editorialist. Like Trump he was a bad manager of money and notorious for his affair with the Hollywood film star Marion Davies. It’s also noteworthy that the American Nietzschean journalist, Benjamin de Casseres, was chief critic for the Hearst newspaper chain. See David Nasaw, The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

[38]             “My task is to throw a light on that which we must always love and revere, of which no subsequent knowledge can rob us: man in his greatness.”; “…philosophy starts by legislating greatness.” Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks (1873 notes). “To ask strength not to express itself as strength, not to be a will to dominate, a will to subjugate, a will to become master, a thirst for enemies and obstacles and triumphant celebrations, is just as absurd as to ask weakness to express itself as strength.”; “To be incapable of taking one’s enemies, one’s accidents, even one’s misdeeds seriously for very long—that is the sign of strong, full natures in whom there is an excess of the power to form, to mould, to recuperate and to forget.” On the Genealogy of Morals (1887). “The stronger becomes master of the weaker, in so far as the latter cannot assert its degree of independence—here there is no mercy, no forbearance, even less a respect for ‘laws’.” The Will to Power (posthumous).

[39]             Nietzsche described his own philosophy as a “schooling” in “contempt” (Preface, Human, All Too Human, 1878). “You look up when you desire to be exalted. And I look down because I am exalted… Courageous, untroubled, mocking and violent—that is what wisdom wants us to be: wisdom is a woman and loves only a warrior.” Thus Spoke Zarasthusa (1883-1885). “Are we not always seated at a great table for play and mockery?” Human, All Too Human (1878). “…some day, in a stronger age than this decaying, self-doubting present, he must yet come to us, the redeeming man of great love and contempt…”; “In all talk there is a grain of contempt.” Twilight of the Idols (1888).

[40]             The schism between realist and romantic conservatives, as Goldberg attests, is lacerating. The split came to the surface during the Republican primaries in 2016 as support for Donald Trump grew. Many erstwhile friends parted company over the Trump candidacy.

[41]             It’s ironic but a President under siege may well garner rather than lose support. This happened to Bill Clinton in the late 1990s after Congressional Republicans tried to impeach him. In mid-2018, it looked like Republican voters were circling the wagons around Donald Trump in the face of an often hysterical opposition. Aims and outcomes rarely align in politics—and sometimes they’re completely at odds.

[42]             The kind of contempt he had was not just a function of political battles but also of progressivism. Contempt, Nietzsche observed, is built into the act of speaking for when we speak “we have already gone beyond what we have words for” (Twilight of the Idols, 1888). This is true of progressives for whom, as John Dewey emphasised, once a political goal has been reached, another one begins. The fate of the progressive is to be bored, as Obama was, by seeming achievements and disdainful of them because as soon as they come into being they are already out of date.

[43]             Carl Schmitt managed the apparently impossible—to be a brilliant political theorist, a de Maistre-style Catholic conservative, an admirer of Thomas Hobbes, and an opportunistic Nazi sympathizer. In any event he was one of the sharpest minds of the Weimar Republic. In Political Romanticism (1919), he faulted political romantics for the inability to make decisions, consumed as they were by the prospect of endless becoming and possibility. One advantage of John Dewey’s translation of romanticism into pragmatism was that he envisaged decisions as being anchored in “ends in sight” which, once consummated, are replaced by new “ends in sight”. This became a template for an American left-liberal politics that combines an infinite ever-receding horizon of change with a taste for practical outcomes of a partial kind. Obama embodied to a tee this mix of political messianism and administrative amelioration in one persona.

[44]             Probably the most lucid attempt to capture the emergent post-70s campus synthesis of redistributive state liberalism and American Nietzschean post-structuralism was the work of Richard Rorty, notably in Contingency, Irony and Solidarity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1989 and Essays on Heidegger and others: Philosophical papers Volume 2, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1991.

[45]             See for example Niebuhr, “The Church and the Modern World” in The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986.

[46]             With roots in religious movements inspired by Mary Baker Eddy, Emma Curtis Hopkins, Prentice Mulford, William Walker Atkinson and Elizabeth Towne. Towne’s maxim “You are what you think, not what you think you are” sums up its view that the power of a person’s mind can deliver them power, freedom, health and prosperity.

[47]             Norman Vincent Peale, The Power of Positive Thinking, 1952. “It brought to mind a phrase that my pastor, Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., had once used in a sermon. The audacity of hope.” Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Melbourne, Text, 2006.

[48]             Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, New York, Penguin, 1994 [1943].

[49]             La Raza or “the race”, referring to a mixed Iberian-American race or ethnicity.

[50]             In the decade between 2008 and 2017 the highest-grossing films in their first year of release included three super-hero movies and two Star Wars movies. In 2018 it looked like yet another super-hero movie would be the highest-grossing movie. The films include The Dark Knight, The Avengers, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Captain America: Civil War, Star Wars: The Last Jedi (and Avengers: Infinity War).

[51]             The practice of race-based admissions is widespread in American elite universities. Take the case of Harvard University: in 2013 19 percent of its admissions were students from Asian-American backgrounds. If entry had been based on academic scores alone, that figure would have been 42 percent. A. Hartocillis, “Harvard Rated Asian-Americans Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says”, New York Times, June 15, 2018. The “diversity” defence of this racial apartheid was originally minted by Johann Herder as an argument for the incomparability of cultures and later racialized including not least of all among leading figures in the first generation of American progressives and reflected in systemic anti-Jewish university admission discrimination in the early twentieth century.

[52]             Goldberg (p. 294) suggests that Franklin Roosevelt came up with the phrase “the forgotten man”, most recently popularised by Trump as “the forgotten people”. Without a doubt Roosevelt heightened the popularity of the phrase. But it was coined by the nineteenth-century American market liberal and Yale sociologist William Graham Sumner for his book What Social Classes Owe to Each Other, New York, Harper, 1883.

[53]             The desire to invert values takes many forms. Some of them are directly anchored in Nietzsche’s own works. Take for example the preference among today’s Nietzschean left for Islam over Christianity. This was originally advocated by Nietzsche in The Anti-Christ (1888) where he claimed that “Christianity destroyed for us the whole harvest of ancient civilization, and later it also destroyed for us the whole harvest of Mohammedan civilization. The wonderful culture of the Moors in Spain, which was fundamentally nearer to us and appealed more to our senses and tastes than that of Rome and Greece, was trampled down… The crusaders later made war on something before which it would have been more fitting for them to have grovelled in the dust—a civilization beside which even that of our nineteenth century seems very poor and very ‘senile’.”

[54]             As the Irish-British playwright, Nietzschean and Fabian-turned-fascist-admirer George Bernard Shaw conceived in his philosophic treatise-cum-drama, Man and Superman (1903). This kind of inversion echoes today in the style of British Labour Party politics under Jeremy Corbyn that seeks to replace armament with disarmament, philo-Semitism with anti-Semitism, markets with the state, etc.

[55]             Nietzsche’s admirer, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, observed how Nietzsche’s “revaluation of all values hitherto” became a system of “perpetual reversal” (Heidegger, Nietzsche, volumes 1 and 2, HarperCollins, San Francisco, 1991, 29).

[56]             One of the more ironic examples of this is the case of equality in Sweden. Sweden as a society is conspicuously “egalitarian”. The result of its equality policies? Over time the country’s gendered division of labour has intensified. Swedish women on the whole prefer female-dominated occupations.

[57]             Bryan Caplan, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2018.

[58]             The term “trade surplus” rests on the seventeenth-century mercantilist theory of political economy (Thomas Mun, Jean Baptiste Colbert, Philipp Wilhelm von Hörnigk) that a state should aim for a positive trade balance in finished goods so it could maximise its financial reserves (of gold and silver) in order to conduct wars. It could do so by tariffs (taxes) on finished goods, prohibition of goods, rules on imports, and so on. When war fell out of favour with mercantilists, it was replaced with the idea of state aid to weak industries. Taxes on imports and a “trade surplus” in finished goods would finance this state aid.

[59]             Likewise friends. As Aristotle put it, friends don’t need justice, for they share what is common. But the just person needs friends.

2 thoughts on “The Rage Against Modernity’s Miracles

  • pgang says:

    Humanism, by any other name, is still humanism. We have come to the end of an empty, dialectic philosophy that confuses rather than solves the dilemma of god-less ultimacy and the tension between nominalism and realism. Philosophers since Descartes have been have chipping away at a mined-out lode, discovering only fools’ gold, and in the process polishing the turd into all sorts of equally meaningless shades of brown.

    Philosophy is no longer a serious branch of study, having been usurped by psychology, which frantically attempts to deal with modernity’s failures and the inability of inward-looking humans to face up to reality. We live in an age that comprehends only the ‘now’, and thus we have no concept of ourselves, no confidence in our establishments, and we persistently fear for the future. These are the signs of the end of a culture. Economics? That requires a place in history, and a meaningful ‘other’. It is incomprehensible to people whose only hope is to live comfortably until tomorrow.

    A new age is dawning, but of what? What the ‘ultimacy of man’ has provided us (and I doubt that it was ever much), is doomed. Man is dead. Long live God.

  • whitelaughter says:

    This is hardly new. I cannot recall who made a remark along the lines of “those who praise Sparta most would not have survived there” but the problem has been going on for centuries.

    And the solution is to give them a taste what they praise. The easiest would be to have the Attorney-General recommend a general royal pardon to any Islamacist who forces an Islamophile to live under Sharia Law: this would immediately weed out the Islamophiles as they were forced to live under one of the most miserable systems none to man.

    Similarly anyone praising the squalid existence of primitives should be offered the chance to exchange places with one, and point out that by accepting the exchange they’d be letting another immigrant in.

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