Reasons must be found for everything, from looting, to breaking lockdown, to running battles in the streets with the authorities. A detached observer might think that the world is teetering on the edge of a chaos from which it might not recover and utopia is further away than ever.
I rarely post the thoughts of others here, but Melanie Phillips in her quite astonishingly prophetic book ‘The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God, Truth and Power published ten years ago, offers remarkably prescient insights into the causes of the dystopian crisis in which we now find ourselves.
If you do not believe there is a crisis and all is well, then read no further – this isn’t for you. I have added my own thoughts and edits to the following excerpt.
In many ways the modern world is no different from the world of the past, insofar as mankind has attempted to better his lot by either ingenuity, subterfuge or force. The condition of the modern world, however, provides emotional fuel for the growing yet hubristic belief that it can be transformed. Furthermore, the ‘can’ has now been replaced by ‘must’, sometimes at any cost. Anomie, that state of radical rootlessness caused by existential detachment in a post-religious age which leaves people without meaning or purpose to their lives, can find its antidote in apocalyptic causes or beliefs which galvanise people en masse into collective resonance, making them feel more alive as they join with their comrades and put their united shoulder to the wheel of progress.
Yet, there is a dark, sinister downside.
As Eric Hoffer observed in ‘The True Believer’, his classic analysis of mass movements: ‘Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find context not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both’.
Unlike, for example, the Crusades, the mass movements of today are not so much religious or political as cultural: anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, environmentalism, scientism, egalitarianism, anti-racism, libertinism and multiculturalism to which we might in our day add the toxic mix of LGBTQ+++. These are all quasi-religious movements, however, in the sense that they are inherently passionate, evangelical, dogmatic, fanatical and with enforcement mechanisms ranging from demonisation by social media through ostracism to expulsion in order to stamp out any heresies or dissent. They are also millenarian and even apocalyptic in their visions of the perfect society and what needs to be swept aside in order to attain it. In such visions, the requisite ‘pros’ to replace the ‘antis’ are usually unformed and nebulous as if by mere striving as in a modern day ‘Mein Kampf’, they will magically crystallise them into achievement.
… The crucial element in all millenarian movements is the reaction that sets in when the prophecy of utopia fails – which of course it has done every time throughout human history. The inevitable outcome is that the disappointment turns ugly; adherents create scapegoats for this failure, upon whom they turn with a ferocity fuelled by acute disorientation, anger and shame – all of which they do not recognise – in an attempt to bring about by coercion the state of purity which the designated culprits have purportedly despoiled.
When the classless utopia failed to materialise in the Soviet Union, Stalin murdered dissidents and sent them to the gulag; when Germany failed to achieve its apparently rightful place as the defining paradigm of Aryan purity in Europe, Hitler committed genocide against the Jews and others; when Mao failed to bring about universal justice and the Confucian ideal of harmony, he had millions of Chinese killed, jailed or terrorised into submission.
Today, the failure of the environmental vision of spiritual oneness between man and nature has seen mankind blamed for despoiling the planet and imperilling the survival of life on earth. The failure to arrive at a perfect state of reason in which all injustice and suffering are ended has been blamed on religious believers. The failure of the apparatus of international law and human rights to prevent war and tyranny has been blamed on America. And the failure of the existence of Israel to bring about the end of ‘the Jewish problem’ has been blamed on those same Jews for its continuation.
Having identified these scapegoats upon whom they can project their anger and shame, disappointed millenarians have tried to carve out their perfect society through coercive measures against the people they hold responsible. In the French Revolution, when religious folk showed too much attachment to their old ways, the revolutionaries tried to do away with Christianity altogether, desecration of churches was commonplace. This was in accordance with Rousseau’s dictum that if the universal good of the ‘general will’ failed to be accepted, the people would have to be ‘forced to be free’. Where I used to live near Paris, a fourteenth century statue of the Virgin and Child was discovered buried in the garden, tossed there in the heat of revolutionary fervour – how ironic that people are pulling down statues in our time, albeit for different reasons.
… In our own time, the Left forces people to be free in a myriad different ways. In Britain, left-wing totalitarianism wears the pained smile of ‘good conscience’ as it sends in the police to enforce ‘hate crime’ laws, drags children from their grandparents to place them for adoption with gay couples or sacks a Christian nurse for offering to pray for her patient. In America, school textbooks are censored by ‘bias and sensitivity’ reviewers who remove a reference to patchwork quilting by frontierswomen in the mid 19th century because it stereotyped females as being ‘soft and submissive’.
Some who perhaps think more clearly would call this tyranny. But to the progressive mind, tyranny happens when utopia is denied. Virtue has to be thus coerced and then enforced for the good of the people. And there can be no doubt that it is virtue, because progressivism is all about creating the perfect society and is therefore incontestably virtuous; and so – like the Committee of Public Safety, like Stalinism, like Islam – it is incapable of doing anything bad. Animal Farm’s ‘two legs bad, four legs good’ is easy enough to learn, binary symbolism defines the sheep from the goats very successfully.
… Hoffer believed that at the root of the ideological ‘true believer’ invariably lay some kind of deep self-contempt; and that self-contempt was transmuted into hatred of others, since ‘mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without belief in a devil’.
In other words, it is essential for the true believer to have someone or something to hate. The believer is defined by what he or she is not. Not racist, not sexist, and so on. Positions are then taken not necessarily because they are believed or even believable, but principally because the alternative is unthinkable.
… For the millenarian, the high-minded belief that creating a perfect world requires the present imperfect world to be purified by the true believers. From the Committee of Public Safety to Iran’s morals police, from Stalin’s purges of dissidents to British and American ‘hate crime’ laws, utopians of every stripe have instigated coercive or tyrannical regimes to save the world by ridding it of its perceived corruption.
The symmetry today is as obvious as it is striking. At a time when radical Islam is attempting to purify the world by conquering it for Islam and thus create the kingdom of God on earth, the West is also trying to purify the world in order to create a secular utopia in which war will become a thing of the past, prejudice, hatred and selfishness will be eradicated from the human heart, reason will replace superstition, humanity will live in harmony with the earth and all division will yield to the brotherhood of man.
…And for all these millenarians and apocalypticists and utopians, religious and secular, the target is the West. As Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit write in their book ‘Occidentalism’ , the West is seen as a threat ‘not because it offers an alternative system of values but because its promises of material comfort, individual freedom and dignity of unexceptional lives deflate all utopian pretensions. The anti-heroic, anti-utopian nature of Western liberalism is the greatest enemy of religious radicals, priest-kings and collective seekers after purity and heroic salvation’. How very Orwellian.
That’s why the West is squarely in the sights of all who want to create utopia and are determined to remove all the obstacles it places in its way. For environmentalists, that obstacle is industrialisation. For scientific materialists, it’s religion. For transnational progressives, it’s the nation state. For anti-imperialists, it’s American exceptionalism. For the intelligentsia, it’s Israel. And for the Islamic world, it’s all of the above plus the entire un-Islamic world.
All of us, religious or not, crave redemption from both our own nagging deviance from a moral compass and a realisation that the world is both imperfect and frequently deeply hostile. In this Manichean desire for redemption and the totalitarian suppression of dissent from the one revealed truth and the path of virtue, Western progressives and radical Islamists are uncomfortably closer than they might imagine.