The growth of reaction

A thoughtful piece by Andrew Sullivan at New York Magazine takes a look at the global rise of backward-looking reactionaries.

Reactionism is not the same thing as conservatism. It’s far more potent a brew. Reactionary thought begins, usually, with acute despair at the present moment and a memory of a previous golden age. It then posits a moment in the past when everything went to hell and proposes to turn things back to what they once were. It is not simply a conservative preference for things as they are, with a few nudges back, but a passionate loathing of the status quo and a desire to return to the past in one emotionally cathartic revolt.

It will be well worth your time to go read the entire thing.

I think Sullivan’s piece is far more right than wrong, but that he underestimates a couple of things. First, automation has transformed the workplace in ways that make it unrecognizable to many people and leaves them behind and, second, the Abrahamic faiths are dying because their narratives are incontestably false and their ethics are very bad. The simultaneous transformation of work, and slow-motion death of religion — the anchors of most lives — has left many people unmoored and ready to listen to cheap demagogues and nihilistic vandals like Donald Trump. Worse, both transformations have their locus in a single demographic — the best educated, the so-called ‘elites.’

We are reprising today the turmoil of the first century and, as then, there will not be a swift resolution; a serviceable philosophy must emerge and be widely accepted. Let us hope that, unlike Christianity, it can be maintained without bloodshed.

It was 100-years ago that the United States entered World War I — the first mechanized war, with the appearance of tanks, air power, great guns. John Dewey, then and still one of the most penetrating minds America has ever produced, delivered in the early ’20s a series of lectures subsequently published as Reconstruction in Philosophy, and a few years later a second set of lectures published as A Common Faith.

At the heart of both books is anticipation of our present turmoils (rather like Nietzsche) and the rejection of absolutes, recognition that abstractions such as ‘justice’ and ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are provisional, that they emerge out of a social contexts as spurs to action. This is an explicit rejection of the metaphysical claims of the Abrahamic religions, all of which hold that there are absolute rights and wrongs, and that which is which is forever settled. To take the most pressing example, LGBTQ people were persecuted and killed for millennia because of the condemnation of them by Bronze Age anonymities; now, a steadily-growing number of people attach more merit to John Stuart Mill’s Enlightenment-era ‘harm principle.’ Basically, a once universally-accepted convention — kill gays — has been displaced by another — they harm nobody, so leave them alone.

Domestically, and internationally, the primary engine of conflict is the failure of worldviews that don’t explain reality or provide adequate guidance for living peacefully with reality. What is more, embedded in those worldviews is the teaching that living any other way comes with grave metaphysical consequences — in the case of Christianity, bobbing on the lake of fire like a cork for eternity. The people raised on this gunk are psychologically incapable of accommodating an evolved world or absorbing its contrary information.

The global growth of reaction is a failure of philosophy.

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