The purposeless anomie behind today’s anarchy, violence and chaos
Want to understand why so much of the western world seems to have lost its collective mind and descended into anarchy, violence and chaos? What follows below is what I wrote in my book The World Turned Upside Down: the Global Battle over God,Truth and Power. It was published in 2010, and I believe it describes precisely what has now erupted in America, Britain and elsewhere.
The very condition of the modern world provides emotional rocket-fuel for the belief that it can and must be transformed. Anomie, that state of radical rootlessness caused by the snapping of attachments in a post-religious age which leaves people without meaning or purpose to their lives, can find its antidote in apocalyptic beliefs which galvanise people and makes them feel alive.
As Eric Hoffer observed in 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 a new content 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’.
The mass movements of today are not so much political as cultural: anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism, anti-Zionism, environmentalism, scientism, egalitarianism, anti-racism, libertinism and multiculturalism. These are all not merely quasi-religious movements — evangelical, dogmatic, fanatical and with enforcement mechanisms ranging from demonisation through ostracism to expulsion in order to stamp out any heresies. 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.
… 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 single 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 in an attempt to bring about by coercion the state of purity which the designated culprits have purportedly thwarted.
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 paradigm country in Europe, Hitler committed genocide against the Jews; when Mao failed to bring about universal justice and the Confucian ideal of harmony, he killed, jailed or otherwise terrorised millions of Chinese.
In current times, the failure of the environmental vision of spiritual one-ness 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. 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’.
… 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 women on the western frontier in the mid 19th century (stereotyping of females as ‘soft’ and submissive’); an account of a heroic young blind mountain- climber (bias in favour of those living in hiking and mountain-climbing areas but against blind people); and a tale about growing up in ancient Egypt (‘elitist’ references to wealthy families).
Some would call all this tyranny. But to the progressive mind, tyranny occurs by contrast only when their utopia is denied. Virtue has to be thus coerced for the good of the people at the receiving end. And there can be no doubt that it is virtue, because progressivism is all about creating the perfect society and is therefore inherently and incontestably virtuous; and so – like the Committee of Public Safety, like Stalinism, like Islam – it is incapable of doing anything bad. Unlike everyone else, of course, for whom it follows they can do nothing but bad.
… Eric 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. Positions are then taken not necessarily because they are believed or believable, but principally because the alternative is unthinkable.
… For the millenarian, the high-minded belief in creating a perfect world requires the 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’.
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. For anti-imperialists, it’s American exceptionalism. For the western intelligentsia, it’s Israel. And for the Islamic world, it’s all the above and the entire un-Islamic world.
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 would like to think.