Writing in First Things, R. R. Reno has a beautifully written piece titled “Return of the Strong Gods”. Reno puts forth a basic ‘Death of the West’ case, albeit one that has unfolded (especially after 1945) as a growing sense of disenchantment.
The populisms and anti-establishmentarianisms we are currently witnessing around the Western world are due to a longstanding “desire for metaphysical density”. He writes:
“Neoliberalism” is the word that gets tossed around to describe our current system. It describes an economic and cultural regime of deregulation and disenchantment. The ambition of neoliberalism is to weaken and eventually dissolve the strong elements of traditional society that impede the free flow of commerce (the focus of nineteenth-century liberalism), as well as identity and desire (the focus of postmodern liberalism). This may work well for the global elite, but ordinary people increasingly doubt it works for them. The disenchantment and weakening that define the postwar era liberate the talented and powerful to move fluidly through an increasingly global system. But ordinary people end up unmoored, adrift, and abandoned, so much so that they are fueling an anti-establishment rebellion that demands the return of something solid, trustworthy, and enduring.
The metaphysical character of today’s populist revolt is clearest in calls for renewed national identity in the face of perceived threats. These threats are brought into sharp relief by anxieties about mass immigration, especially in Europe. Our political establishments have inherited the postwar imperative of disenchantment. We are socialized to believe that we have a fundamental moral duty to resist populist calls for a more nationalist politics. Our establishment defends diversity and inclusion, promising that the world will be more at peace if we affirm multiculturalism. A politician or public figure who stands for something strong, whether it’s nationalism or even traditional morality, invariably gets described as “authoritarian.” In Europe we’re warned that we must prevent a return of fascism. In the United States, the inherited fear concerns renewed racism. I’ve heard sophisticated intellectuals offer sincere analysis of contemporary populism in terms of Hitler, Mussolini, and the Ku Klux Klan. This is a sign of how deeply invested our establishment is in the postwar era, encouraging us to meet every challenge with still further disenchantment.
The populist rebellion is likely to intensify. As it does, establishment resistance will increase as well. The postwar consensus marshals cultural and political power to condemn the return of the strong gods in the strongest possible terms—racist, xenophobic, fascist, bigoted. Political correctness has many forms, but they are united in a shared repudiation of anything solid and substantial in public life, whether in the form of nationalism or strong affirmations of constraints that human nature places on any healthy society, constraints that get articulated by all forms of traditional morality. The growing ferocity of the establishment’s denunciation of anything strong further enflames the anxieties of populists, who fear that they are losing whatever remains of any solid place to stand.
This dynamic of redoubled disenchantment designed to discredit a growing populism will precipitate a series of political crises in the West. What forms the crises will take I cannot predict. The EU Court of Human Rights may reverse a national vote in the next few years, declaring the election of a right-wing candidate a violation of human rights. Or perhaps there will be some other nullification of populist sentiment. But crisis is coming. Put simply, populism wishes for something sacred in public life. National heritage is the obvious example. Yet our political culture has been so thoroughly shaped by a pattern of weakening that it cannot accommodate this desire for the sacred.
Reno’s essay includes one of the most powerful, gut-wrenching anecdotes I’ve heard in a very long time:
I was recently in Europe for some discussions, and some of what was said redoubled my concerns. During a debate about immigration, a young woman from France made an impassioned speech that opened my eyes to the deeper issues at stake in populism. She told her listeners that she was middle-class and therefore could not afford to live in neighborhoods that have no Muslims, as the rich French do. And so she knows their ways, which include a tradition of returning to Tunisia or Algeria during holidays to visit relatives. They are explicit, she said, in how they describe these trips. They are cherished opportunities to go “home.” At that moment her voice broke with emotion. She asked, “If I lose France, where can I go?”
One is reminded here of François, the protagonist and indigenous Frenchman in Michel Houellebecq’s Submission (2015), a 44-year old heterosexual white male academic (and symbolic surrogate for the indigenous Frenchman) exhibiting the usual moral relativism and disenchantment of that social milieu. Later in the novel, he says goodbye (for the last time) to Myriam, his young Jewish girlfriend, the latter of whom is emigrating to Israel out of fears of growing anti-Semitism from a Muslim immigrant community wielding a growing political clout. “But what about you?” she asks François, “What will you do?” François pauses, then reflecting the default nihilism that aimlessly propels him, responds: “There is no Israel for me.”
This is what’s at stake.
Reno doesn’t go Alt-Right, and, at first, he seems to embrace a muscular civic nationalism:
As the postwar era’s imperative of disenchantment has weakened the civic covenant, our societies have become more divided. Today, elites are more remote from the rest, and also wealthier and more powerful. This is not a coincidence. A meritocratic mentality supplants the civic covenant as a rationale for wealth and power, and this way of thinking regards social rewards as an entitlement of the credentialed. The future of liberal democracy depends upon the renewal of our civic covenant and a restoration of solidarity between the leaders and the led, as well as among the many citizens of our diverse nation. Multiculturalism only works in empires. For a democracy, it is an impossibility.
Those last two sentences are nice. But then, towards the end of the essay, his First Things Catholicism enters the picture and the powerful weight of the essay’s first 4/5 sinks into mushy ‘Love Heals’ Christianity:
The religious covenant relativizes our other loyalties. It smashes idols not by relying on the postwar pattern of disenchantment, but instead by romancing our souls with a higher, more powerful enchantment. The most reliable protection against a false and dangerous sacralization of ideology, nation, Volk, or any other populist perversion is not multiculturalism or post-national globalism. It is instead love and loyalty ordered toward the highest good, which is God…
To a great degree, the banishment of love from our politics is creating the populism that presently troubles us…
Sacralization of ideology or especially nation-as-ethnic-boundary is not ‘false and dangerous’. From a Darwinian ‘selfish gene’ POV, it might just be essential and necessary.