Between Brexit and the election of Trump, Erdogan, Duterte, Putin and Bolsonaro, we are supposed to be witnessing the approaching of the great era of popular revival, a time when strongmen lead and nations return again to being independent and free.
In truth, the Trump election and Brexit referendum result have registered barely if at all on the progress of the great modernist project that the world is currently witnessing.
The ballot-box shocks do point however to a sense that people have that we are not living in the “greatest economy ever” and that most people in so-called developed economies have a deep malaise about the nature of their lives.
While modernity bears some of the blame for this malaise, not all popular malaise is a response to modernity, although the malaise caused by modernity is the least well-understood. Specifically, the absence of specific protest against the modernist project does not mean that people are content and fulfilled living in developed economies. Not everyone living in a developed economy is similarly situated in relation to the modernist project, but all are touched by it to some extent.
If you visit today’s Austrian Alps, you will see this counterplay in full swing. Traditional architecture, old families and heritage breeds of mountain goat brush shoulders with tourists in garish nylon wintergear and advanced haymaking equipment. Even in all but the most centrally-planned modernist metropolis, there is still some felt-rather-than-known understanding of the value of the inherited. Even here, you will still find the occasional archivist dutifully protecting some ancient manuscript, or a member of an old banking family warning against reckless investments.
And yet the drums beat on.
Seemingly ubiquitously, it is the modern that is celebrated.
Why is the smartphone considered progress, and not two old colleagues enjoying a bottle of wine together over lunch?
Why do we celebrate the series of lifeless boxes that makes up the New York skyline over the Aleppo old town before its destruction by technojihadis?
Why are the modernist metropolises taking pride in their diversity while becoming ever more indistinguishable from each other?
We are told that we are now more prosperous than ever before, but people feel a deep sense of spiritual malaise at the soullessness of modern life. Of course, you can be deeply unhappy living in an old stone barn, or strangely content surrounded by glass and metal skyscrapers, but, in the main, it is modernity that is contributing most fulsomely to our unhappiness, while the technocracies’ propaganda machines are telling us that we’ve never had it so good.
Now, increasingly, human non-flourishing is being baked into the cake. Take Japan’s recent experiment with ‘smart cities’. As any Peter Scott reader would tell you immediately, any city driven by its Danish architect’s ego and the Toyota CEO’s ambition rather than organically reflecting the inherited wisdom and concrete needs of hundreds of generations of rooted Japanese will fail the ‘consumers’ of that place.
But the dreams beat on. ‘This is what the good life looks like!’ they say to a people who do not know their neighbours, who have no culture of their own, who have sacrificed their soul on the altar of materialism, who consider children a lifestyle choice, who sell out their posterity’s inheritance, who have never set foot in wilderness, who have never hunted an wild animal, who cannot mount a horse, who have no physique, who live consumed by debt and worry, who breathe terrible air, who live in anonymous tower blocks, who know not love, and who have never wept at the wonder of the cross.
Our souls atrophy most living furthest from “Nature and Nature’s God”.
Western Europe, more than elsewhere, has abandoned God and thus has been abandoned by Him.
Like the Babel builders, modern-day Canutes are seeking to achieve divine-like mastery over nature, but rather than overcoming nature, they are overcome by it, because, nature always wins.
Human nature is a response to a complex complex of needs, so complex that it belies description. The developer or central planner knows that there must be a certain density of housing to allow her boss to make a profit, and that each apartment must have a certain amount of light, and that the building code demands this or that standard of construction. But what does she know of buildings’ need to breathe, or people’s need for the right aesthetic balance of consistency and variety?
The cult of the new demands unlearning built wisdom, and the continual deterioration of all that makes a city human. No new house was ever demolished to make way for an historic one.
Similarly, the cult of the central brain is killing the wisdom of the crowd. This is the central conceit not just of communism, but also neoliberal capitalism. Modernity has some internal dynamo, be it the ideological struggle or profit motive, that infects resistant realms of human existence.
Postmodernity heightens the stupidity. While traditionalism is not salvific, it does correct a wrong.
So, whether smartphone or conversation, stone or plastic, loaning or lending, choose, if you can, the natural over the unnatural, or risk being consumed by a struggle against your own soul.