Over at the online magazine Quilette, a Shakespeare scholar at a minor English university, Neerna Parvini, commenting on the Brett Kavanaugh appointment hearing, that turmoil of identity politics fuelled by partisan cynicism, raised a very dire prospect.
“If I was being pessimistic, I’d say it was a moment in which the left chose a nuclear option that threatens to turn the culture wars into a civil war.”
That is certainly a dire prediction. It resonated with my Spenglerian pessimism just a little, and so let us consider a few of the reasons to take this point of view seriously, and then some reasons perhaps to set it aside.
Parvini quotes with approval Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, in which Murray invokes earlier prophets of civilisational decline, such as Spengler and Stefan Zweig. There he writes that Europe has “lost faith in its beliefs, traditions and legitimacy,” and, I would add, of great importance as a defence against civil war, its institutions. This loss of faith springs in part from the loss the “tragic sense of history.”
“They have lost what Zweig and his generation so painfully learnt: that everything you love, even the greatest and most cultured civilisations in history, can be swept away by people who are unworthy of them. Other than simply ignoring it, one of the few ways to avoid this tragic sense of life is to push it away through a belief in the tide of human progress.” Murray The Strange Death of Europe (2017) p. 3
It is through this disavowal of its deepest culture that, Murray argues, “Europe is committing suicide.” It no longer mounts a defence against its own acts of self-harm. Without those defences, can violence be that far away. We already see some forms of early violence which our institutions are pusillanimous in protecting themselves from. Activists and protestors de-platform and intimidate people whose ideas they disagree with. The police respond by charging the organisers of the talk protection money. Antifa protestors in masks confront alt-right demonstrators in balaclavas, and scuffle on the streets. On twitter armies of trolls dehumanise their enemies, and call for their symbolic death. A few fixated individuals take it further, and shoot their enemies.
These scuffles and cells of fanatical tweets are a long way from civil war; but we are deluding ourselves if we do not hear dark trembles beneath these events. Social media is the feral city of our culture. It is dominated by warlords and vicious tribal loyalties, and it unleashes a spirit of murder into the speech of our times. The culture wars are in this way already the beginning of civil war. However minor this violence now, the signs of cultural decay are real, and without strong institutions of respectful civil disagreement, where will the resistance to civil war come from?
The defence of a cultured peace will not come from the political elites. Their studied indifference to their own traditions was on display in the Kavanaugh affair, as with many other scandals in political institutions outside of the United States of America. The new nomenklatura of political professionals have become parasitical on the institutions of government and justice they purport to lead. No institution, no convention, no tradition of importance is safe from the conduct of a political stunt, to project an image of partisan favour to the great megaphone of stupidity, social media. As Oswald Spengler wrote: “Through money democracy becomes its own destroyer, after money has destroyed intellect.”
Indeed, the culture wars do represent a form of intra-elite competition that if it becomes more intense could lead to civil war. As Peter Turchin the historian and practitioner of vast cliometrics has written:
“Elite overproduction in the US has already driven up the intensity of intra-elite competition. A reasonable proxy for escalating political competition here is the total cost of election for congressional races, which has grown (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from $2.4 billion in 1998 to $4.3 billion in 2016 (Center for Responsive Politics). Another clear sign is the unraveling of social norms regulating political discourse and process that has become glaringly obvious during the 2016 presidential election. Analysis of past societies indicates that, if intra-elite competition is allowed to escalate, it will increasingly take more violent forms. A typical outcome of this process is a massive outbreak of political violence, often ending in a state collapse, a revolution, or a civil war (or all of the above).”
I want to temper, these reasons affirming the possibility of a descent into civil war and cultural destruction with some grounds for hope. Perhaps, here again I am warded by Spengler’s aphorism that optimism is cowardice. I do not wish it to be, but that does not mean it will not be. Already our societies seem ungovernable. Our political and democratic institutions in decline. Our disputes more acrimonious and spurious that matters that can be settled through civil discourse. Identity has asserted itself over all other values, and identity does not brook difference. What weak reeds then are these grounds for hope.
“There is a vast difference, which most people will never comprehend, between viewing future history as it will be and viewing it as one might like it to be. Peace is a desire, war is a fact; and history has never paid heed to human desires and ideals …” Oswald Spengler
Still, there is some antidote in knowing that our culture is not the United States, and that the militant enthusiasms of identity politics leave most people cold. We may quietly succumb to grief, rather than die a bloodied, horrible death in war. We might also rescue from the ruins enough fragments of the culture that sustained our best institutions to keep the infinite conversation alive for another generation and another era.