America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without creating a civilization in-between.
— Oscar Wilde
Some time ago, I was at a friend’s house and happened to catch an HBO TV show called Sex and the City. Since I don’t watch much TV, I hadn’t seen it before. But after a few minutes, I was riveted to the screen and remained glued to my chair through several episodes.
The show is, in a word, horrifying. To give the Devil his due, it is also brilliant…in the sense that Hannibal Lecter is a brilliant criminal or napalm is a brilliant weapon. The writing, acting, and cinematography are amazing, the women’s lives are intriguing, and the comedy is truly hilarious.
But brilliance of production aside, Sex and the City has a number of profound socio-political nuances that dovetail with an issue I’ve been kicking around for quite some time; namely, that the Western world is experiencing the final stages of a cultural struggle between two radically different versions of social organization (which I call "organic culture" and "post-modernism"). This struggle is the single dominant issue of our age, and it defines a variety of conflicts both within Western civilization and between it and other civilizations, stretching from the relentless expansion of our government to our misbegotten "war on terror."
For those who haven’t seen it, Sex and the City tells the story of four thirty-something single women living in New York City. They live a life that, while all too common today, is perhaps unprecedented in human history (especially for women). They are completely deracinated and homogenized, having no discernable family, either nuclear or extended. They have no religious convictions. Their life consists mostly of wandering around Manhattan, eating in chic restaurants, maxing-out their credit cards in fashionable boutiques, and engaging in a bewildering variety of casual sexual relationships.
Despite the glitz, I came away from the show with a profound sense of melancholy, especially for the women themselves (and, more importantly, for any real women whose circumstances might actually mimic those of these characters).
In essence, their lives are more akin to that of animals than to anything that could be called genuinely human. They live lives dominated by impulses and sensations rather than by the intellect or the spirit, lives of indulgence rather than of purpose. They reside in the "eternal present," without regard for the future and without reverence for the past. Even more disturbingly, their lifestyle has a spooky passivity to it, a sense of slavery to their vices. If someone takes them to a swanky Thai restaurant, they’ll eat. If someone hands them a martini, they’ll drink. If a handsome guy appears, they’ll copulate.
That is, in a nutshell, the sum total of their existence. Their post-modernism really isn’t a culture, but an anti-culture. It’s what people do in the absence of authentic culture…it is a downward spiral into the abyss. These women are, admittedly, an extreme example. But the beauty of art lies in its ability to harness archetypes for the purpose of making social and political commentary.
At the opposite end of the spectrum lies what I call "organic culture." The most extreme examples of this form of social organization are the Amish and the Hasidic Jews.
Organic cultures are typified most importantly by a "chain of being." In such circumstances, an individual sees himself as one link in a family that extends back through innumerable generations, usually ending in a mythical creation story that connects him with the supernatural (early Romans, for instance, could often recite their ancestry back dozens of generations, ending with one of the Gods or Heroes of their mythology). Such an individual also looks to the future and adjusts his time preferences to account for the needs of future generations. Respect of one’s ancestors and concern for one’s descendants are thus wrapped together in a religious and culture milieu that is of profound importance in everyday life. These families are linked to other, similar families through the bonds of culture and religion. Together, they see themselves as a unique "tribe" moving through history toward some final destiny.
The Western world, beginning with the French Revolution and culminating in WW I (a pointless, fratricidal slaughter if ever there was one), is now drowning in the cesspool of post-modernism. Our intellectual and cultural elites have long since abandoned whatever remnants of organic culture they may have had and now totally embrace this new, dysfunctional cultural Weltanschauung.
This is of importance for several reasons. In particular, like Alexis de Tocqueville, I don’t believe a system of self-government can exist in the absence of an ethical people. A society of self-indulgent, cosmopolitan vagabonds cannot maintain a free republic.
Our system is, in fact, breaking down all around us. To borrow a term from the Marxists, post-modernism carries with it the seeds of its own destruction. This worldview, and its attendant self-destructive contradictions, is causing much of the decay we are now experiencing.
Specifically, post-modernism suffers from three major flaws that are leading to its (and our) demise.
Perhaps the most important task of any civilization is to develop a single, coherent system of morality (and to transmit that system to its youth). A functioning society requires almost continual interaction between citizens. And that, in turn, requires a high level of trust. Without that trust, and without a common set of principles on which to base it, the entire system unravels.
Post-modernism is marked by extreme relativism, secularism, and multiculturalism. In fact, post-modernism prides itself in its disdain for any system of ethics, believing this disdain represents "liberation" from oppressive social structures.
We can see the results of this philosophy all around us. We needn’t sail into the controversial shoals of sexual morality to appreciate the political ramifications of this post-modern view (though a deluge of illegitimacy and the accelerating break-down of the nuclear family are ultimately incompatible with a free republic).
On the contrary, we need look no further than our foreign policy and the status of our political leadership. Our attack on Iraq, based as it was on lies and deception, is exhibit A. Our use of torture, the repeal of habeas corpus, the CIA rendition program, etc. represent the breakdown of a moral compass at the highest levels of our government.
But our domestic policy is not much better. Take, for instance, something as petty as our government’s economic statistics. It is well known that such mundane calculations as our unemployment rate, our inflation rate, and our trade deficit are routinely "cooked" in order to deceive the American people about the true state of our economy. The government intentionally distorts our budget deficit figures to avoid making difficult spending decisions.
And whenever a spotlight is shined on Congress, what do we find skittering toward the baseboards? We see a system based, at its very core, on swindling, backstabbing, and favor-swapping. The Duke Cunningham scandal showed the banality of a culture where votes were for sale to the highest bidder. The Abramoff scandal revealed the dirty world of bribery/lobbying that dominates the halls of our government. The Shays scandal showed the seamy, sordid subculture that lurks around Capitol Hill after dark.
Many of these scandals have, as their common root, the amoral quest for the unearned, which is perhaps the final common denominator of our entire political system. But this represents, itself, a cultural and ethical failing that post-modernism has exacerbated to the extreme.
(As an aside, it is no coincidence that the Clinton and Bush II administrations, perhaps the most systematically dishonest and scandal-plagued presidencies in our history, are also the first two of the baby boomer generation. That cohort is the first generation in American history to have embraced post-modernism in toto.)
I, for one, am not surprised by any of these scandals. Post-modernism is locked into a dysfunctional synergy with statism, and each feeds into the other. Unfortunately, they are sucking all of us down with them.
As for organic culture, I’ve often mused that the Amish are a clear and present danger to our system. As Lew Rockwell noted recently, they take no welfare, they pay for their own medical care (in cash), they save for their own retirement, they don’t join our military on its exciting escapades, and they educate their own children.
At some point, I fully expect to hear of government bureaucrats recommending that Amish children be whisked away from their families and redistributed to urban housing projects for a less "antisocial" upbringing.
After all, if the Amish worldview should spread, our entire welfare-warfare system would literally collapse.
Post-modern culture treats children as an expensive and peculiar hobby, something like a curious fashion statement. Children are, after all, expensive, messy, and they interfere with an active dating life. And if children are seen as a mere fashion accessory or an emotional indulgence, then one will do just as well as two (and much better than three or four). This attitude reveals itself in the demographic statistics of all societies that have adopted post-modernism. Across the Western world (and some unfortunate parts of Asia), there has been a catastrophic collapse in birthrates. Over the next few decades, parts of Europe may see their populations fall in half.
Organic culture views children in a radically different fashion, which was summed up brilliantly by Oswald Spengler in his seminal The Hour of Decision:
A woman of [tribe] does not desire to be a "companion" or a "lover," but a mother; and not the mother of one child, to serve as a toy and distraction, but of many: the instinct of a strong tribe speaks in the pride that large families inspire, in the feeling that barrenness is the hardest curse that can befall a woman and through her, the tribe. Out of this instinct arises the primitive jealousy which leads one woman to take away from another the man whom she covets as the father of her children. The more intellectual jealousy of the great cities, which is little more than erotic appetite and looks upon the other party as a means of pleasure, and even the mere fact of considering the desired or dreaded number of children who are to be born, betrays the waning of the tribal urge to permanence; and that instinct for permanence cannot be reawakened by speeches and writing. Primitive marriage…was anything but sentimental. A man wants stout sons who will perpetuate his name and his deeds beyond his death into the future and enhance them, just as he has done himself through feeling himself heir to the calling and works of his ancestors.
This describes, in the simplest of terms, the difference between the two cultural worldviews. (As an aside, I’ve often assumed that the partisans of post-modernism understand — perhaps subconsciously — that their culture is doomed because of its inability to reproduce, and that this understanding could explain the overwhelming presence of these partisans in our institutions of education and popular culture, where they can corrupt other people’s children into their dysfunctional paradigm and strive to perpetuate that culture without having to actually reproduce themselves.)
Since the West has adopted this model, it has only two choices: It can throw off the yoke of post-modernism and reestablish an organic culture that is capable of reproducing itself, or it will be colonized and overrun by other, more prolific cultures. Western elites believe they can avoid a demographic collapse by importing replacement populations and corrupting them with post-modernism before the newcomers are able to impose their own organic culture on the host nations. This may work for America and its largely Hispanic immigrant population, but its prospects with European Islam are, to say the least, highly suspect.
The death of the sacred
Post-modernism is a materialist philosophy to its very core. By "materialist," I don’t mean greedy (though Heaven knows there is plenty of that), but rather I refer to the Marxist sense of the term. Post-modernism is anti-spiritual. It recognizes nothing beyond the immediate, concrete world. It has no higher aspirations and provides no spiritual sustenance to its adherents. If a man has food stamps, a welfare check, and a place in a government housing project, it believes he has everything he could possibly need or want. (Actually, that is true only as far as the commoners are concerned. For the post-modern elites, they require exotic ethnic cuisine, cheap immigrant household labor, and a custom Maybach…but this is a difference in degree, not kind.)
Despite these materialist assertions, mankind needs a "reverence for the sacred" to inspire him to loftier heights. One need only walk into the Sistine Chapel or enjoy a Bach requiem mass to see the results of an artist’s soul being touched by the divine.
The increasingly ugly and vulgar creations of our contemporary artistic world are, on the other hand, more likely a manifestation of post-modernism’s degeneration to its ultimate endgame: nihilism.
It is difficult for contemporary generations to even imagine what has been lost. One of the reasons I enjoy cinematic productions of Jane Austen novels is for precisely this reason. It is fascinating to see what Western culture actually looked like before the collapse and to see how the people thought and acted. I’m fascinated by their complex manners, their vibrant sense of right-and-wrong, and their organic connection to their history (in Sense and Sensibility, even the bad guy, a total cad, carries a copy of Shakespeare’s sonnets in his pocket). Western culture has been withering since the early 20th Century. Those of us born during or after the sixties social revolution have no living memory of even a vestigial remnant of Western culture, but rather have experienced only the degenerate post-modernism, drenched in stifling humanism, absurd universalism, and fatuous egalitarianism, that has dominated ever since.
As Hans-Hermann Hoppe noted so trenchantly, democracy has led us down the primrose path to decadence, which in turn has provided continuous justifications for yet more statism. This system of decadence, however enticing and delectable it may sometimes be, is unsustainable. This cannot go on. It will ultimately end in bankruptcy, demographic implosion, or Road Warrior-style chaos.
If one believes in Spengler’s view of civilization as akin to an organic life form, then the West cannot recover its earlier, more pristine self any more than a senior citizen can be reborn as an adolescent.
In that case, the die is cast and we are finished. The women of Sex and the City will be our civilizational epitaph.
But if Spengler is wrong, then the possibility of a rebirth exists.
Only time will tell.