Nothing is more common in many intellectual circles today than laments about the rise of a certain mad king to the highest office of the land. If I interpret the idiom correctly, these plaints are suffused with a distinct distaste for the way a man with authoritarian instincts and demagogic capacities rose to the position of leader of a world that is, in its self-conception at least, both free and democratic. A recurrent feature of many such laments is an account of the rhetoric and political instincts Donald Trump shares with other leaders around the world (e.g., Viktor Orbàn, Vladimir Putin) whose style and substance are marked by a tendency toward authoritarian disregard for the rule of law. Call it the identification of global illiberalism.
There are interesting variations in how today’s illiberal leaders rose to power and consolidated their grip on their respective states. And there are useful debates to be had about what we should name the various processes that have carried world politics to this moment—the resurgence of right-wing populism and ethno-nationalism, the rise of illiberal democracy, the consolidation of authoritarianism by electoral (or party-political) means. The news provides us with near-daily reminders of the illiberal turn, as the disregard for supposedly established norms and attacks on the rule of law pile up. Hungary’s news media, largely servile to Prime Minister Orbàn, ritually attack the employees of nongovernmental organizations, independent journalists, and professors as “agents of Soros”; in a speech to the United Nations (written by White House policy adviser and immigration restrictionist Stephen Miller), President Trump seeks to awaken a supposedly long-lost notion of “sovereignty”; and—how could an essay originating in Charlottesville not mention it?—actual Nazis and avowed white supremacists march on the lawn of my university the evening before one of their cohort commits murder on the nearby town mall, shouting, among other taunts, that “Jews [whose numbers include the author of the present essay] will not replace us.”
It is the sense of foreboding produced by these moments, combined with actual harm, done by actual governments, at the direction of actual leaders, to actual human persons, that leads us toward the terminology of crisis. But a crisis of what, exactly? A crisis of global capitalism, of Pax Americana, of liberal democracy? If, as was recently argued in this journal, we are witnessing the end of the end of history,11xJay Tolson, ed., “The End of the End of History?” [theme], The Hedgehog Review 19, no. 3 (Fall 2017). we should perhaps be inclined to ask which historical transformations and dislocations are emerging to constitute the end of the end.
The anxious construction of interpretations in the face of crisis has arisen from myriad positions on the political spectrum. Trepidation commingles with possibility and even hope. And the need to interpret also arrives in a more general and diffuse sense, one that does not directly track politics in the sense of party and position, but, rather, intuits a lack of intellectual light with which to illuminate the historical trajectory on which we find ourselves. We are living through a vertigo in political culture, ultimately traceable not only to the political melee in the United States but also to intellectual sources. In an intellectual register, vertigo arrives when the imperative to evaluate the present shifts from the question of how to actualize values and make effective judgments in a flawed and fallen world to the articulation of the very meaning of, and commitment to, supposedly shared visions of human worth that appear to be disintegrating before our eyes. That this disintegration may have been going on for a long time does not reduce the validity of the subjective sense of crisis. Intellectual life has its own rhythms, until certain long-term trends in culture and society attack and disrupt the settled projects of thought, arriving like an ancient dragon we both remember and forget, the accumulated mass of history burning the present with fire. In American society, we are witnessing an “unwinding,” wherein the institutions that gave structure and meaning to collective life collapse “like pillars of salt across the vast visible landscape.”22xGeorge Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013), 3. Such a collapse demands new interpretations. And so, shadowed by tragedy yet also the possibility of greater peace and freedom, it becomes the intellectual’s responsibility to ask what the deeper significance of this mood of trepidation, and this sense of crisis, really is.
The dynamics of modernity are the ultimate source of both the current crisis and the difficulty we have in interpreting it. Modernity is a contested term, and I intend to contest it further in the present essay. We can begin with the hypothesis that the current unwinding is not only about the trajectory of economy and society since World War II, but also about those transformations of human life that have occurred during the last five hundred years. Collectively, these changes have bequeathed to us a world in which to be human is quite different from what it ever was before. Credit or blame can be attributed, variously, to such causes as the vast expansion of technological capacity (industrialization and beyond); the construction of an economic system that links together the entire globe via the market; and the emergence in our political and moral life of an essential tendency toward self-making in both individuals and communities.