Imagine a postapocalyptic world. Beside the ruined buildings of our own civilization - St. Peter’s Basilica, the Taj Mahal, those really great Art Deco skyscrapers - dwell savages in mud huts. The savages see the buildings every day, but they never compose legends about how they were built by the gods in a lost golden age. No, they say they themselves could totally build things just as good or better. They just choose to build mud huts instead, because they’re more stylish.
This is the setup for my all-time favorite conspiracy theory, Tartaria. Its true believers say we are those savages. We live in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, Art Deco skyscrapers, etc. But our buildings look like this:
So (continues the conspiracy) probably we suffered some kind of apocalypse a hundred-ish years ago. Our elites are keeping it quiet, and have altered the records, but they haven’t been able to destroy all the buildings of the lost world. Their cover story is that technology and wealth level haven’t regressed or anything, those kinds of buildings have just “gone out of style”.
People say that conspiracy theories are sometimes sublimated expressions of critiques of our society. No mystery what this one is criticizing. Some people don’t like modern architecture. How many? I sometimes see claims like “nobody really likes it”, and certainly it feels intuitively incontrovertible to me that the older stuff is more beautiful. But I know some people who claim to genuinely like the modern style. Are the modern-is-obviously-worse folks just over-updating on their own preferences?
The best source I can find for this is a National Civic Art Society survey, which finds Americans prefer traditional/classical buildings to modern ones by about 70% to 30% (regardless of political affiliation!). In a poll of America’s favorite architecture, 76% of buildings selected were traditional/classical (establishment architects said the poll was invalid, because you can’t judge buildings by pictures). A study of courthouse architecture determined that “[our] findings agree with consistent findings that architects misjudge public likely public impressions of a design, and that most non-architects dislike “modern” design and have done so for almost a century.”
Yet 92% of new federal government buildings are modern. So I think there’s a genuine mystery to be explained here: if people prefer traditional architecture by a large margin, how come we’ve stopped producing it?
While changes in building materials, cost-cutting, etc might have a role, I think it would be myopic to focus too hard on architecture-specific explanations. The shift from Tartarian to modern aesthetics is consistent across art forms:
Older art tends to have bright colors, ornate details, realistic representations, technical skill, and be instantly visually appealing to the average person. Newer art tends to be more abstract, require less obvious skill, and have less direct appeal. Although it doesn't fit in meme format, I would carry the analogy to poetry (cf. The Fairie Queene vs. William Carlos Williams) and certain pieces of high status music (cf. Mozart vs. Philip Glass). Obviously these are broad generalizations vulnerable to cherry-picking; I'm mostly relying on your common sense here.
There is a lot of writing about "the modernist turn" and the origins of modern art, but I haven't been able to find anything that links all these artistic fields and tries to explain what happened in general. I am sure you will link me to great resources about this in the comments. Until then, some speculative responses that one might give the Tartarians:
The Modernist Turn As A Change From Flaunting Wealth To Hiding It
Paul Fussell says that pre-Great Depression mansions were beautiful giant houses in the center of town, where everyone could see them and marvel at how rich the owner was. During the Depression, it became awkward to flaunt wealth while everyone else was starving, and the super-rich switched to a strategy of having mansions in the countryside behind lots of hedges and trees where nobody could see them. I remember somebody (not a historian) claiming that the French Revolution had a similar effect on European nobility - it stopped being quite as cool to rub how rich you were in peasants' faces, and going to court in silks and gold jewelery became less fashionable. The closer you get to the present, the more rich people start to feel like their position is precarious, and other people might resent them - and to act accordingly.
On the other hand, they still want to show off their wealth. So they do it in a plausibly deniable way. They wear a really nice tailored suit or buy an abstract painting that seems completely black until you look closer and see it's a famous piece of modern art worth millions of dollars. This gets the message across, but it's not quite the same kind of "f$@k you poor people" as wearing a suit made of gold thread or building a palace with marble statues of griffins in front of every door. If a poor person were to try to complain about how ostentatious and disrespectful you were by having a painting that mostly just looks black, it would fall flat.
I'm a little skeptical of this explanation because I'm not sure that this is actually fooling anyone. In some ways, it's even more disrespectful to spend millions of dollars on something most people don't even consider pretty. People don't really complain when some billionaire buys a Rembrandt, but they did roll their eyes when someone paid $69 million for an NFT.
…Or As Elites Getting More Out Of Touch Than Ever
A lot of people really angry about modern art say the opposite: that in the past elites made at least some effort to cater to the tastes of common people. But due to declining social technology, now elites prefer to signal allegiance to the elite class, and they do that by making buildings which please elite tastemakers and no one else.
It’s still kind of mysterious why not-generally-popular aesthetics would please elite tastemakers, though. Maybe elites are specifically trying to signal not being commoners, by choosing the opposite of commoners’ aesthetic preferences?
This sounds a little conspiratorial for an explanation we originally came up with to counter a conspiracy theory, but I can’t rule it out. It might be helpful to go through a list of countries, see which have more modern vs. traditional architecture, and correlate that with their system of government and level of inequality. My impression is that the more democratic and developed a country, the more modern its architecture, which would require a lot of additional explanation.
…As A Change From Catholic To Protestant Aesthetics
Catholicism traditionally goes heavy on the ornateness, Protestantism heavy on the plainness. Something to do with a Protestant rejection of wealth as too linked to the powers of this world, and trying to get back to the poverty and humility of the original Church. If Protestant aesthetics "won" in a way that affected even people who weren't thinking in religious terms, that could explain some of the shift.
But the timeline and, uh, spaceline don't really work. The ornate room from Cardiff Castle is from 1880s Britain (albeit deliberately referencing older styles), and modern Milan is hardly Protestant. I think this might have been one of the threads that fed into this change, but it needs further explanation why it stuck around and spread so far beyond people who cared about religious matters.
…Or As New Timeless Aesthetic Truths
One possibility is that, even though normal people prefer traditional architecture, modern architecture is actually better, and good architects know this.
This is not really the way I think of aesthetics, but I guess it’s possible.
A weaker version of this might be the difference between a very sugary soda and a fine wine. Most ordinary people would prefer the sugary soda, but the fine wine has some kind of artistic value. Right? I don’t know, people always tell me this, but I’ve never been able to enjoy it.
This raises the question of what architecture/art/etc are for. Should eg the government, as a representative of the people, build buildings that people will like? Or should it build buildings with objective artistic value? Maybe in the hopes that this will cause people to appreciate the value, even though this hasn’t worked for the past hundred years? I think you would have a really hard case arguing for the last one, but it’s possible in theory.
You could also frame this as architects deliberately choosing some value other than beauty. Maybe beautiful buildings make everyone feel very proud of their country and connected to their past, but after World War II we realized that nationalism and romanticization-of-history are scary things, and now we’re trying to discourage them. Maybe our civilization is still on probation after a multi-decade-long mass murder spree and we need buildings that carefully avoid inflaming our emotions.
…As A Result Of Increased Cost Of Labor
I’ve added this in because people keep bringing it up in the comments, but I don’t think it works. Sure, it might explain architecture. But I don’t think it explains trends in modern clothing, art, poetry, or sculpture, all of which have also shifted towards decreased ornamentation, symbolism, and realism.
…As A Result Of The Split Between Art And Mass Culture
Modern poems don't sound very much like the Odyssey. But modern superhero movies are a little bit like the Odyssey. Modern poetry doesn't have a lot of rhyme or rhythm. But modern pop music does have lots of rhyme and rhythm. Modern gallery art doesn't have colorful ornate realistic-looking scenes. But modern computer games and animation have lots of those scenes.
Older generations didn't have superhero movies, pop music, or animated features. Mostly they were missing the technology, but the genres themselves have also evolved. Maybe the existence of pop music makes people less likely to write poems that are "close to" pop music in some kind of artistic space. If you were going to write this today, why wouldn't you meet up with a garage band somewhere and put it to music?
Or maybe: since pop music is low status, if you want to write high status poetry, you need to make it as unlike pop music as possible, so people don't accuse your poem of sounding pop-music-y. Or maybe: pop music fulfills what people want out of some poetry much better than the poetry itself does, so if you want an audience, you need to write poetry that fulfills some other kind of need.
Maybe all the people who were looking for easy-to-enjoy things left poetry, gallery art, etc for easier-to-enjoy pursuits like superhero movies, computer games, and pop music, and so poetry and high art were left with disproportionately the sorts of people who were looking for more intellectual pursuits (or who wanted to pretend/signal that they were).
I'm a little skeptical of this one too - what replaced architecture? Or fashion? Also, I still very much want poems that rhyme and I don't feel like pop music is a perfect substitute for them.
…As A Change From Signaling Wealth To Signaling Taste
One use of art is signaling wealth. Pharaohs, nobles, and billionaires would patronize artists, funding the creation of masterpieces that sent the message "look how great I am". This only works if making beautiful things is expensive. For example, the clothing of the Kanxi Emperor (first picture on left) required servants to create the intricate patterns, dyes that had to be harvested from finicky insects and rare plants, etc. Displaying your ornate dyed objects let everyone know you were rich. With the invention of sewing machines, industrial dyes, rhinestones, etc, even poor people could dress like the Kangxi Emperor. With the invention of photography and printing, everyone could have realistic pictures of whatever they wanted. Actual rich people needed better ways to distinguish themselves.
One attractive option is to switch from signaling wealth to signaling taste. Rich people are more likely to know other rich people and be plugged into rich people social networks (and if they're not, they can always hire people who are). To signal taste, you need art where the difference between good art and bad art is very hard to discern (if anyone could discern it, then ability-to-discern wouldn't signal having more taste than average). You want some kind of complicated code that makes sense to tasteful people, feels impenetrable to tasteless people, and (if possible) changes every so often so that tasteless people can't just memorize it.
I don't have taste, so I'm agnostic as to the virtues of the particular code that people ended up with. Maybe it involves real but hard-to-explain aesthetic truths, such that far-off civilizations who have no contact with us would independently converge on the same art being better or worse. Maybe it's arbitrary but self-consistent, the same way lots of features of English grammar (saying "was" instead of "be-ed") are arbitrary but self-consistent and it's reasonable to think of that as "good English" and various deviations as "grammatical errors". Or maybe it's all totally made up, and elite tastemakers randomly declare stuff that seems cool to them to be the new big thing, almost as a taunt ("look how socially powerful I am, such that I can make people fall in line and call any old garbage Art, even this stuff"). Cf. the Ern Malley Hoax. Probably all three of these are true in different subfields at different times.
A friend, more in touch with the pulse of rich-people-society than I am, objects that billionaires still like buying paintings by Old Masters. But I don't think that contradicts this. Being able to buy a Rembrandt still signals wealth fine: Rembrandts are in limited supply and everyone knows they're expensive. But a modern painter with Rembrandt's skillset wouldn't be able to make it big - their talents are no longer in short supply.
Why Does This Matter?
Partly because art is nice and we should want more beautiful things or at least try to understand where our beautiful things come from.
Partly because exploring these questions can shed light on broader questions of class, signaling, and how intellectual/cultural/economic elites relate to their social inferiors. It seems like premodern artistic elites and commoners were on the same page. Then something happened to put them on different pages. Why? How does that relate to the formation of classes in general? Is society better off if elites successfully win the support of commoners by patronizing art that they like, or win their respect by surrounding themselves in awe-inspiring trappings of wealth? Or if elites are barred from using that particular propaganda lever?
And partly because modern art and architecture are examples of fields talking to themselves. In a way, this is good - they've successfully implemented a technocracy where the best and brightest are able to pursue their own visions rather than pander to the masses. In another way, it's confusing - public art, architecture, etc is supposed to be to the benefits of residents, but it seems like those residents can’t get their voices heard.
Every field is shaped by some combination of ground truth - the thing they're supposed to be studying - and incentives. Economic theories in capitalist and socialist countries will share some characteristics - there’s a real world with real economic laws that are hard to miss - but they'll also take different paths depending on what the surrounding society celebrates vs. condemns.
And the incentives depend on who they're trying to impress. Sometimes fields are trying to impress the public - Justin Smith writes about so-called "Spiderman Studies" classes where college humanities departments try to look hip and in-touch to attract more students. Other times fields are definitely not trying to do this - you get status by appealing to other experts in your own guild. Doctor Oz might be the most famous and publicly-beloved doctor, but he has zero credibility in the medical field. I may have a popular blog where I write about psychiatry (and I try not to lapse into Doctor Oz style charlatanry) but the blog doesn't raise my status in the medical hierarchy at all, and might actively hinder it. Best-case scenario, you want a field that talks to itself enough that you get status for impressing other experts with your expertise, not for impressing the public with demagoguery.
But if you talk to yourself too much, you risk becoming completely self-referential, falling into loops of weird internal status-signaling. Science has a safety valve here - they've got to at least contact the real world enough to do experiments. But humanities fields (or social sciences where experimentation is hard and wrapped in layers of interpretation) don't have that defense. If their signaling incentives lean too far one way, they surrender to the public so cravenly that it's pointless for them to have expertise at all. If they lean too far the other way, they become actively contemptuous of the public, ignore all criticism, and the whole edifice risks becoming vulnerable to any Sokal-style attack that uses the right buzzwords.
Art is interesting because in some ways it's less "about something" than other fields are. Maybe there are real timeless aesthetic truths, but they're a lot harder to detect than the timeless truths of math or science, and you can do art history pretty well without worrying about them at all. That makes it an unusually clear laboratory for examining the status incentives within fields. Sometimes the definition of "good art" changes. It probably wasn't the discovery of a new timeless aesthetic truth, so what was it?
The turn is an especially vivid example of a shift in the art world. If we understood what factors shaped it, maybe we would learn more about the factors shaping other fields with clearer targets.
The West is currently undergoing a series of political and social upheavals. Attention tends to focus on America, where cancel culture and “woke” corporations are part of a process that’s pulling the country apart. From Sweden this all looks disturbingly familiar.
In 2015, we experienced our own form of cultural revolution, with many of the same symptoms as its more potent sequels in America, Britain and elsewhere. Before “Trump derangement syndrome” was a thing, people in Sweden were denouncing each other, unpersoning each other for wrongthink, and having frenzied public struggle sessions.
At the time heterodox or dissident Swedish thinkers (a group I certainly belong to), almost regardless of political background, thought of the dramatic social and political convulsions gripping our country as stemming from something particular and unique to Sweden itself.
This collective madness gripping Sweden between 2015 and 2018 seemed so uniquely Swedish, that we assumed something akin to it would be impossible to replicate outside of our country. In 2016 and 2017, this argument made sense. The refugee crisis, supposedly the underlying cause of it all, was a Europe-wide phenomenon. Yet our Scandinavian neighbours — our historical and cultural kin — seemed unaffected. They not only took in far less refugees than we did, but also seemed immune to the political polarisation and, quite frankly, the form of social psychosis that became very common in Sweden at the time.
The cause of Sweden’s “special period”, which lasted between late 2015 and late 2018, looked (superficially) simple: the refugee crisis, and the bigger issue of immigration. In this reading, the timeline is as follows: the death of the Syrian boy Alan Kurdi, and the spread of an image of his body washed ashore on a Turkish beach, helped light a humanitarian fire in Swedish society. This in turn caused increasing polarisation and anger directed at the selfish or “backsliding” Swedes who took a different position on refugees. They were too racist, too set in their ways, or too self-interested to heed the humanitarian clarion call.
In this telling, the tumultuousness of Sweden during these revolutionary years comes down to the refugee issue. The now familiar elements of a social panic that became a part of everyday life during those years, such as the public shunning of people over political disagreements, the doublespeak engaged in in order to avoid ending up as targets of social abuse, and the suppression of recent history in favour of constructing a sort of political “Year Zero” were all explained away as stemming from an overabundance of humanitarian enthusiasm. People really cared about refugees, and in their enthusiasm, things maybe got a bit out of hand. But is this really what happened?
There is a grain of truth to these claims of humanitarian enthusiasm. For a short period, donations to — and volunteers for — civil society organisations dealing with refugees exploded. Unfortunately, these explosions often turned out to be fairly shallow and counterproductive. Organisations were inundated with items like toys and clothing meant for small children, even as most of the people coming to the country were older men.
Pointing this out, however, was a risky proposition. The accusation of being a racist, and its attendant risk of social and financial ruin, loomed very large indeed. A lot of things became unspeakable during those years, including the question of demographics, to the immense financial strain that was being placed on various municipalities, to the larger question of what sort of negative consequences, the unprecedented pace and scale of migration to Sweden could lead to.
Ironically, one of the reasons Sweden is far less polarised today than many other Western countries is probably the belated discovery that these consequences of immigration are in fact very real, and that methods of ”shaping the narrative” cannot really change material reality.
More critically, there is the realisation that nobody — certainly not middle class progressives — wants to live with those consequences at all. Crime, overcrowded schools, social and ethnic tensions, and violence toward ethnic Swedish children committed by gangs of immigrants have all conspired to cool attitudes on the subject. Indeed, the word förnedringsrån (literally “humiliation-robbery”) has now entered the Swedish lexicon as a term for robberies that display a particular sort of sadistic cruelty, where the aim of the perpetrators mostly seems to be to inflict pain and humiliation onto their victims. As such, it is hardly surprising that the recent fall of Kabul to the Taliban was not in fact met with calls to increase Sweden’s humanitarian commitment, but rather with conspicuous silence, except for a speech by Prime Minister Löfven promising that the country would “never return to the days of 2015”.
With the benefit of hindsight, immigration now appears not as a question important in and of itself, but as a form of wedge corresponding to a very particular political moment of establishment fear and anger at parts of their own electorate. The Right populist Sweden Democrats entered parliament in 2010, but many were convinced they were a passing fad that would soon be gone. In 2014, however, they had more than doubled their vote share, becoming the third biggest party in the Riksdag. This caused an immense amount of political anxiety among the “chattering classes” in the weeks and months following the election, in a preview of the shock caused by Donald Trump.
Sweden entered a political and social state of exception similar to the one experienced by the US after the 2016 election. Rather than an explosion of blind humanitarianism, the way the refugee crisis affected Sweden should probably be better understood as an explosion of political anxiety of the urban middle classes.
The battle lines drawn up during the refugee crisis were very simple: on the one hand, you had the deplorables (though this term was not yet in use in 2015). They were the enemy. They hated immigrants, gays, and women. This hatred didn’t stem from being the losers of a particular set of economic policies. No, the “hatred” of “those people” came from a general odiousness, lack of education and moral fibre. The professional and managerial classes who opposed the plebs cast themselves as friends and allies of humanity itself.
Sweden was a portal into the future. The intense polarisation of 2015-2018 followed the now extremely familiar Western pattern of rural vs urban, “anywheres” vs “somewheres”. In 2015, the real fear and hatred of the (mostly imaginary) SD-voting country bumpkin could suddenly, miraculously be drawn in stark terms: good versus evil, humanitarianism versus selfishness.
But now, years later, we can see that these battle lines were a fantasy. The narratives of uneducated deplorables meanly trying to keep their children from interacting with immigrants have been replaced by the reality: Swedish middle-class families go to great lengths to avoid their own kids mixing with immigrants in school. They worry about the academic implications — not to mention the risk of violence and disorder — of letting the immigrants into “their” schools. Sweden’s permissive system of private charter schools, though often attacked for reflecting some sort of neoliberal logic, is in practice a way for many parents to self-segregate their children.
Sweden, being a historically egalitarian and homogenous country, never engaged in city planning meant to keep the poor from meeting the rich. The ability of the middle-classes to isolate themselves from the less desirable consequences of immigration has collapsed; with people living in extremely well-to-do neighbourhoods such as Stockholm’s Strandvägen now complaining about street racing, thefts, and drug dealing out in the open.
As a result, some of the fighters for the acceptance of refugees during the crisis years have later partaken in or even led local protests against mixing immigrant and native born students in the same schools. A decision taken in Trollhättan to bus kids from migrant areas to other schools met fierce protests in late 2020. One of the leaders of this revolt? The former liberal party politician, Rita Svensson, who had been on the record in 2016 as advocating for students to be given bus cards in order to break segregation.
Identifying the cause of fighting the deplorables with the cause of accepting immigrants backfired for the urban middle-classes. They find themselves caught between two imperatives. On one hand, the political ”interlopers” who do not share their own sensibilities (or their naked class interests) that have so ominously been ”emboldened” by the Sweden Democrats, represent a threat to the natural political order. Just like in the UK, everyone blithely accepted that globalisation’s losers would have ”no other choice” but to vote for the same parties that engineered their dispossession. On the other hand the middle-classes have discovered, like the parents of Trollhättan, that they do not like the consequences of migration. Their genteel humanitarianism has vanished.
Today Sweden’s cultural revolution finds itself in an odd spot. An uneasy ceasefire prevails in Swedish society now. While the deplorables are still mocked, there is no bite to it anymore. SD voters are no longer at risk of having their careers cancelled. In 2021, an unspoken attitude of ”don’t ask, don’t tell” prevails.
In the areas in Stockholm where most of the country’s journalists live, it is probably less awkward to openly admit to sympathising with SD on immigration than it is to proudly proclaim that Sweden is far from full and ought to take in at least a million more Afghans in the next couple of years. The hard, eliminationist edge of Swedish politics is mostly gone; wrongthinkers should perhaps be subtweeted on Twitter, but they shouldn’t necessarily be fired, driven out into the wilderness, or subjected to violence.
In some ways, this turn toward ”moderation” in Swedish politics is a good thing. Outside of the inner core of the progressive sphere, such as NGOs and universities, you can no longer be summarily fired for sympathising with a party that has the support of between a fourth and a fifth of the nation. The radicals are slowly abandoning their old cancel culture methods, in favour of such quaint notions as having democratic debate (the horror!).
But it’s doubtful that the Swedish example ought to inspire optimism elsewhere. After 2014 the “losers of globalism” made their play for political relevance, pitting themselves against the urban middle-classes who dominated the political scene. A year later, those same urban middle-classes had declared a no holds barred war against the “enemy within”. In Sweden’s case, the casus belli of that war — accepting a historically unprecedented amount of refugees in a very short time, without contemplating the consequences of doing so — created a situation where the issues of immigrant crime, cultural shock, and ethnic violence became more odious than the deplorables themselves.
Sweden was in many ways the first Western country to noisily declare war on a growing segment of its own population. In 2015, the social madness gripping the country made it seem like a fairly unique outlier, briefly confirming the deeply held national exceptionalism that makes up part of our country’s national ideology.
Today, it is clear that Sweden was simply the canary in the coal mine; just a couple of years later, many other Western countries would noisily be at war with their own homegrown ”deplorables”. Political demonisation against the internal enemy continues to grow. “The unmasked”; “the unvaxxinated”; “chuds”; “magatards”; “Brexiteers”. All of these labels, as it turns out, are incredibly malleable and thus politically useful.
And while that war has at least temporarily cooled down in Sweden itself, the way in which it did so looks likely to be the exception rather than the rule.
The other day, I ate a fake burger. It looked, felt and tasted like a burger, even quite a good burger. If you had simply handed it to me and not said “this is a new high-tech vegan burger”, I might not have noticed.
Making fake burgers takes a fraction of the energy and land that making a beef burger does and fewer cows end up dead. But, and this is crucial, I still get to eat a burger.
There was an alternative way around this, of course. Instead of developing a low-impact way of fulfilling my desire for a burger, we could have encouraged me not to want burgers any more, or (more likely) to suppress it. We could have run advert campaigns fronted by earnest celebrities telling me that burgers are bad. We could even have simply banned burgers. And maybe it would have worked.
But then I wouldn’t have got to eat a burger, and I wanted a burger.
On the whole, I think fulfilling human desires is a good thing. Not always, but most of the time, giving people things they want makes them happier. So why not?
But not everyone thinks this is a good thing. There’s a name for it: “solutionism”, the “foolhardy belief that technology can sidestep thorny social and political problems”. People who worry about solutionism say that, instead of finding technological quick fixes for society’s ills, we ought to concentrate on the root causes: to change our social structures, to change our behaviour, to change policy.
I strongly disagree. We should do both.
In the UK after the war, suicide rates went up. By the mid-Sixties, according to the national registry, they reached something like 14 per 100,000 men per year, and about 10 per 100,000 women1. But by 1971, they had dropped significantly, to about 10 for men and seven for women. What happened? Did we make progress in solving society’s underlying problems and make Britain a more tolerable place to live?
Well, maybe. But a more proximate explanation is that in the mid-Sixties — for reasons unrelated to suicide — the British energy supply largely switched from coal gas to natural gas.
At the time, many suicides in the UK involved carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning: putting one’s head in the oven. That became impossible with natural gas, which is essentially free of carbon monoxide. In 1962/3, about 40% of suicides used CO poisoning; by 1970/71, fewer than 10% of them did. Suicides by other means went up, a bit, but nowhere near enough to compensate; total suicide rates went down by about a third. Making it harder to kill oneself stopped a lot of people from doing it; it turned out the impulse to end their life was transient.
Suicide is a problem with many underlying causes. But a simple technological fix — changing from coal gas to natural gas — reduced the problem significantly.
How about other social ills? How about obesity? Somewhere around a quarter of British adults are classed as obese. A subset of people, about 3% of the population, are “morbidly” obese — that is, a BMI over 40, equivalent to a six-foot-tall person weighing more than 20 stone. This has serious health implications, and many of them would like to lose weight, but can’t — their brain fights them, making them feel as though they are starving. Asking them to stop eating is not that different from asking them to stop breathing.
Last week, the neuroscientist Stephan Guyenet wrote a piece about a promising pharmaceutical treatment for obesity: that is, an actually effective weight-loss pill. I thought it was exciting, but several people responding to me thought it was “dystopian” or “depressing”: people should diet and exercise. We should change society and behaviour, not rely on pills.
But again: I think that’s just wrong. Changing society can be good! We should make cities more walkable; we should make food healthier and exercise easier, and doing so would probably reduce obesity and improve health. But for some people that won’t be enough, because not everyone has the same levels of food craving or impulse control. A pill that makes their job easier, that levels the playing field, would also be good.
There are many examples like this. The human papilloma virus (HPV) is sexually transmitted and causes cervical cancer. You can either try to encourage abstinence and safe sex (difficult) or you can vaccinate children before they reach the age of sexual activity (easy). It reduces cervical cancer by more than 90%. And people still get to have sex!
Society is really hard to change. It is made up of millions of people with their own desires and incentives, and there is limited scope for changing it – you can reduce smoking by banning it in pubs, you can reduce drink-driving through education and enforcement (drink-driving deaths are about 15% of what they were in 1979), but you’re battling against what people want.
And people getting what they want is a good thing. You could almost argue that it is the only good thing: what is the point of life, if not being happy and making others happy? If people want to smoke, and if they could do so without harming their health, what’s the problem?
So technological fixes are helpful. For example, vaping represents a way of giving people what they want – the fun of a nicotine high – at a hugely reduced health cost.
The most obvious place where this is relevant is climate change. People want to fly, they want to drive, they want to heat their homes and use electricity. We could try to transform human desires, and make us not want those things, or we could try to make us deny our own wants. For some of us that will be successful and for others it will not. But we could let everyone have the things they wanted, it would be better.
That’s why things like carbon capture are actually pretty exciting, things like the enormous fall in the cost of solar energy, or zero-emission aircraft. This means people getting to travel, getting to live in comfortable homes with light and heating, being able to eat food they like, with fewer negative costs.
I don’t like the tendency to compare movements, such as environmentalism, to religions –it’s too easy and is often misleading. But I do think that for some people, there’s a tendency to confuse motive and means: they think that because many of the things we want and enjoy have harmful side-effects, so the things we want and enjoy are bad in themselves. Like Puritans opposed to hunting not because the animals suffer but because the hunters enjoyed it, we think that because we sometimes need to suffer for noble purposes, that suffering itself is noble.
It’s not. We may have to change our behaviour – eat less, smoke and drink less, fly less – to gain some other good, such as improved health or reduced environmental impact. But that is an unfortunate by-product, not the point in itself. If technological fixes exist, we should use them.
Plant-based burgers are one thing; soon, hopefully, we will see real meat that’s been grown in a lab at an affordable price (although it’s always a bit further away than its proponents claim). People could order steaks or lamb chops that have never been attached to a sentient being, that don’t require acres of land or horrible cruelty. For some people this is a bleak dystopia. But for me it’s a utopian vision: people getting what they want, at a fraction of the environmental and moral cost. Let me have my damn burger.
There has never been a perfect human culture, and any attempt to create one has reliably led to tyranny: to the gulag or the gas chamber, the guillotine or the mass grave. Humans are fallen, or just flawed, and the world is nailed together from our crooked timber. From revolutionary France to 21st century Afghanistan, those who thought they could draw up a rational paradise once the slate was wiped clean have always been violently disabused.
But though there has never been a human culture that is anything but flawed, all lasting cultures in history have been rooted. That is to say, they have been tied down by, and to, things more solid, timeless and lasting than the day-to-day processes of their functioning, or the personal desires of the individuals who inhabit them. Some of those solid things are human creations: cultural traditions, a sense of lineage and ancestry, ceremonies designed for worship or initiation. Others are non-human: the natural world in which those cultures dwell, or the divine force that they worship or communicate with in some form.
We need these roots. We need a sense of belonging to something that is bigger than us, across both space and time, and we underestimate that need at our peril. In her book The Need for Roots, written in 1943, the French philosopher and reluctant mystic Simone Weil puts the case like this:
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future.”
Weil was writing from exile in England, as her homeland was still under Nazi occupation. She saw National Socialism’s perversion of the notion of rootedness, and the evil that was being done with it. But unlike many intellectuals of the Left, the Nazis’ racial tyranny did not lead her to reject the human need for roots in favour of some universalist flavour of “global justice.” She saw that notion for what it was: the same flavour of perfectionism that was leading the USSR to roll out a tyranny that matched that of fascism, right down to the barbed wire that surrounded the camps designated for those who did not fit into the model.
Weil saw beyond: when she looked at Hitler and Stalin, she saw two tyrants leading nations that had already been uprooted — by the industrial revolution, by Bolshevism, by the Great War, by the depression, by the wider process of modernity. Both men promised a return to, or a forward march towards, security, power and meaning through the imposition of a totalitarian ideology which they claimed would speak for the masses. Both delivered hell instead.
Weil’s book was commissioned by the Free French in London, led by Charles de Gaulle. It was intended to be a manifesto for the renewal of France, and Europe, after the scourge of Nazism. Her prescription was radical. Europeans, she said, had been uprooted by industry, by the state and by an aggressive form of pseudo-Christianity (Weil was a sometimes reluctant Christian, but was scathing about official forms of the faith which had, she said, in most cases aligned themselves with “the interests of those who exploit the people.”)
Both state nationalism and state socialism were con tricks, according to Weil: exploiters of the people posing as their liberators. The “totalitarian idol” of grand world-saving ideologies such as communism and fascism was the scourge of the twentieth century. The whole game had to be junked, the terms redefined: “The only punishment capable of punishing Hitler, and deterring little boys thirsting for greatness in coming centuries from following his example,” she wrote, “is such a total transformation of the meaning attached to greatness that he should thereby be excluded from it.”
“A transformation of the meaning attached to greatness”: perhaps this has always been the task, and perhaps it has always been urgent. But it certainly is now. Our idols today are economic conquest, unending “growth” built on turning all life into “resources” for human consumption, scientism disguised as objective inquiry, manic forward-motion, and the same old quest for perfectibility. Charles de Gaulle, when he returned to France victorious, was an effective competitor in this game. He never read the book that Weil aimed at him.
What did Weil mean by this “transformation”? Perhaps the answer explains why she is not as widely read as she should be. Her attachment was to the eternal things, and she could never be boxed in. She wrote in praise of God, tradition, roots, peoples and culture; but also of justice, freedom of speech and thought, honour and equality. She could be equally scathing about fascism, communism, established religion, liberal elites, capitalism and mass education.
One minute she is incinerating the “uprooted intellectuals obsessed with progress” who dominated the cultural elite of her time (and who have entirely conquered ours), assailing the Left for its contempt of the peasantry or asserting that “of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital … than love of the past.” But just when you think you’re dealing with a conservative Defender of the West, you read something like this:
“For centuries now, men of the white race have everywhere destroyed the past, stupidly, blindly, both at home and abroad. If in certain respects there has been, nevertheless, progress during this period, it is not because of this frenzy but in spite of it, under the impulse of what little of the past remained alive.“
Weil wasn’t wrong. We in the West invented this thing called modernity, and then we took it out into the world, whether the world wanted it or not. Once we called this process the White Man’s Burden, and exported it with dreadnoughts. Now we call it development, and export it via World Bank loans and the War on Terror.
But — and here is the point so often missed, especially by the “progressives” currently leading the charge in the culture wars — before we could eat the world, we first had to eat ourselves. Our states and economic elites had to dispossess their own people before they could venture out to dispossess others. The ordinary folk of the “developed” West were the prototype; the guinea pigs in a giant global experiment. Now we find ourselves rootless, rudderless, unmoored in a great sea of chaos; angry, confused, shouting at the world and each other.
Furthermore, this process accelerates under its own steam, as Weil explained, because “whoever is uprooted himself uproots others”. The more we are pulled, or pushed, away from our cultures, traditions and places — if we had them in the first place — the more we take that restlessness out with us into the world. If you have ever wondered why it is de rigueur amongst Western cultural elites to demonise roots and glorify movement, to downplay cohesion and talk up diversity, to deny links with the past and strike out instead for a future that never quite arrives, consider this: they are the children of globalised capitalism, and the inheritors of the unsettling of the West, and they have transformed that rootlessness into an ideology. They — we — are both perpetrators and victims of a Great Unsettling.
This is not to say that “Western” people alone are responsible for the rolling destruction of culture and nature that is overwhelming the world. We may have set the ball rolling, but the culture of uprooting is global now, and was when Weil was writing. You can see it everywhere you care to look. India has been uprooting its adivasi (tribal) people systemically since independence; its government is currently trying to undermine the power and agency of the peasant farmers of the Punjab, and have triggered a rural rebellionby doing so. The Chinese state is increasingly looking like the most efficient machine ever invented for uprooting, resettling and controlling mass populations. The Indonesian state is systematically unsettling the tribal people of West Papua, in cahoots with a cluster of multinational corporations. African governments are corralling the last of the San people. This is what states do, all over the world. It’s the ancient human game of power and control, turbo-charged with fossil fuels and digital surveillance technology.
For the past several centuries, this intersection of financial power, state power and increasingly coercive and manipulative technologies has constituted an ongoing war against roots and against limits. The momentum of the “global economy” is always forward: it demolishes borders and boundaries, traditions and cultures, languages and ways of seeing wherever it goes, and it will not stop until the world has been entirely remade. Record numbers of people are on the move as a result, and as the population increases and climate change bites, those numbers will rise everywhere, churning cultures and nations into entirely new shapes — or, worse, no shapes at all — with all the consequent turmoil and conflict. Even if you are living where your forefathers have lived for generations, you can bet that the smartphone you gave your child will unmoor them more effectively than any bulldozer.
Plenty of people, of course, are quite happy with all of this, and have no time for Romantic Luddites like me when we lament it. Even we Romantic Luddites are here on the internet, lamenting, so perhaps the last laugh is on us. But we are, I think, desperately in need of real culture. We want to go home again, but if we even know where home is to be found, we see that we can’t return. And so a void is created, and into the void rush monsters: toxic imitations of our lost roots. Identity politics, newly rigid racial categories, extreme nationalisms, intolerant strains of religion, endlessly multiplying genders and “identities” constructed online with no reference to reality. The mono-ethnic identitarianism of the far Right or the diversity identitarianism of the far Left: take your pick according to your predilections and fears. But these fake roots can never replace the real thing and the result is an orgy of anger, iconoclasm and rising bile. Meanwhile, the machine of techno-modernity pushes on, relentless.
In all the time I have spent with people who live in genuinely rooted cultures — rooted in time, place and spirit — whether in the west of Ireland or West Papua, I’ve generally been struck by two things. One is that rooted people are harder to control. The industrial revolution could not have happened without the enclosure of land, and the destruction of the peasantry and the artisan class. People with their feet on the ground are less easily swayed by the currents of politics, or by the fashions of urban ideologues or academic theorists.
The second observation is that people don’t tend to talk much about their “identity” — or even think about it — unless it is under threat. The louder you have to talk about it, it seems, the more you have probably lost. The range of freewheeling, self-curated “identities” thrown up by the current “culture war” shows that we are already a long way down the road that leads away from genuine culture.
When a plant is uprooted, it withers and then dies. When the same happens to a person, or a people, or a planetful of both, the result is the same. Our current cultural — and spiritual — crisis comes, I think, from our being unable to admit what on some level we know to be true: that we in the West are living inside an obsolete story. Our culture is not dying — it is already dead. We turned away from a mythic, rooted understanding of the world, and turned away from the divine, in order to look at ourselves reflected in the little black mirrors in our hands. Now, we are living in a time of consequences. Some day soon, we are going to have to look up and begin searching for what we have lost. I have a feeling that this process has already begun.