When Jean Baudrillard, the French postmodernist, travelled through the US during the Reagan era he described a country in which, he said, reality had been lost to its imitation. It was, he wrote in America (1988), a country without culture and without hope, a land of “space and the spirit of fiction”.
The class and generation I belong to grew up absorbing the pleasures, obsessions and anxieties of American popular culture. It inhabits our nostalgia and our dreams, and defines us, even in our rebellion against it. Our contact with the irrational spirit of Dionysus, the life force in all its creative and destructive energy, has been vicarious; controlled and structured by the films, music and icons of the American leviathan.
Despite our deep inequalities we have been the most financially and physically secure generation in history, more so than will be our children and grandchildren. We have not had to fear anarchy and sudden random violence. We imagined the world was made in our own interests, and so we have taken order for granted and made a virtue of flouting authority. We have chipped away at the social norms that constrain our pursuit of self-realisation. CS Lewis describes in The Abolition of Man (1943) how the last part of nature to surrender to man will be human nature. We have rejected the idea of human nature because it limits our self-realisation. As Lewis foresaw, we have been willing to sacrifice our share in traditional humanity in order to “devote themselves to the task of deciding what ‘Humanity’ shall henceforth mean… We will ‘be free to make our species whatever we wish it to be’.”
It is not only the constraints of human nature we have rebelled against. In an attempt to control our fate we have turned Christian providence into a mechanistic natural law of history. In an echo of the pilgrim’s progress, we have convinced ourselves that history too journeys towards the City on a Hill. In the past this eschatology informed scientific rationalism, nationalism, liberalism, utilitarianism, positivism, socialism and Marxism. Each promised a better world in the future. Faith in progress provided the moral force of the middle classes driving forward the Industrial Revolution. It has underpinned liberal political economy and provided the dynamic of revolutionary socialism. In recent decades it has infused the political and cultural elites with the idealism of a progressive disposition.
Our rebellion against time and human nature has created a capitalist modernity in which nothing is fixed or held in place. A progressive politics that is socially and economically liberal has occupied the centre ground, promoting the individual over society and consumption over production. It has constructed imaginary enemies out of patriotism, solidarity, parochialism, local cultures, tradition and people’s desire to belong. These have been associated with intolerance, ethnocentrism, racism, nostalgia and a general backwardness. The new, the diverse and the exceptional have been valorised over the familiar, the same and the ordinary. It has left in its wake an intangible sense of dispossession. We are like strangers who do not quite feel at home, uncertain of who we are and of our relationship to the past we have come from.
In this progressive world social dissolution masquerades as social order. The glimmer of its utopian dream was present in Margaret Thatcher’s desire to “change the soul” of the nation. As the 1980s advanced, signs of change were everywhere. Globalisation surged ahead. Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocratic Iran included a place for the adverts of Sony and Hitachi. Japanese department stores played Beethoven. And there were unmistakeable shifts in the intellectual climate of the two communist world powers. China had turned its back on Maoism and the Soviet Union was undergoing the transformation of perestroika.
But the hubris of progressive faith brought about its own downfall. In its global triumphalism it chose illusion over reality. In order to secure a vast source of compliant cheap labour, the US brought China into the World Trade Organisation, so creating a new rival power. In Britain we forged ahead with liberal globalisation, gravely weakening our national resilience and the ability to sustain our national defence. The West humiliated the former Soviet Union with the shock therapy of free-market economics, creating untold suffering and enduring enmity. The invasion of Iraq led to anarchy, numberless dead and the growth of Iranian regional power. In Afghanistan we ignored history.
The advocates of progressivism failed to recognise that their embrace of constant change, the extension of market forces into society, their promotion of large-scale immigration and the ceding of power and authority to global corporations and supranational institutions, and their reifying of the borderless, the mobile and those who uprooted themselves in the name of aspiration, had a devastating impact on those without the resources to live an individualised life. It caused a sense of irretrievable loss. And with loss came grief and bereavement.
Progressive politics became incurious, intolerant and naive, dismissing the loss as nostalgia and instead offering exhortations to value equality, sustainability and social justice. These provide a tolerant, pluralistic conception of society, but are meaningless abstractions in sustaining people’s everyday lives. The rise of populism was the blowback against progressive politics.
Baudrillard was wrong about America. In its social carnage and political hostilities, America has become a tragedy. The US once promised a more generous world, but it broke its own rules and now it is destroying its own dream. As it turns from Europe to the east it leaves in its wake the rancour of its culture wars. It is time for us in Britain to live without empire and without illusions and forge a new relationship with the world.
There is no law of providence that guarantees a better world, nor sunny uplands that can be reached without effort and sacrifice. Human beings do not choose the circumstances of their lives. We have no control over where we are born or who we are born to. We are thrown into the world and propelled into the future by forces beyond our control. We need to understand fear and so learn foresight, for the task is to create a social order and navigate this new more dangerous world as best we can. We will need to learn how to do so.
[See also: Is neoliberalism really dead?]