Specific place, personhood, culture and individual context are all being savagely assaulted by the omnipresence of the internet and the fracturing of Western societies into total anticulture, places where there is no commonality between people. This must be said, until it is understood: we are all phantoms, everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
We’re living through something like a rotten enlightenment. The Buddhists won – the human self has been severed from its corporeal prison. No longer are our communities, friends, homes or bodies what define us. But what does define us, we fitful spirits, dancing and whining, being poked and prodded inside the glass jar where we float?
We are aimlessly embedded in the most vital moment in all of human history: the question of whether the human personality will endure technology, or whether we will be forever mutated into a thing unlike any person that has been known to previous generations. We are being eaten spiritually by our own prosperity. The classical liberal conception of a marketplace, of course, was a physical location, a real place within a community where goods were bought and sold. They never foresaw Amazon, and the idea that a marketplace could emerge in virtual space. In the 1700s, as well, it was common wisdom that financial speculators were charlatans and criminals. Today, selling and buying back debt and bonds to manipulate money is the very backbone of our abstract, global economy – and classical liberals don’t see it as a fatal issue.
The contradictions were implicit in liberalism from the start. As the timely book ‘Why Liberalism Failed’ by Patrick J. Deneen argues, classical liberals destroyed tradition, community and personal belonging by abstracting membership in a community into a relationship of contracts mediated by the state. The state became the sole purveyor of authority, and the community, and its unique regional ideals, always lost to the state, and to the merchants it chose to subsidize. US foreign policy is dedicated to making all the world into a digital marketplace, and commentators decry the effects as either globalism or gentrification. Both these terms refer to the same meaning: abstract contracts being leveraged above human cultures and communities. Now, we atomized liberals rent-seek in anonymous cities, wherever we can be paid. Deindustrialization is causing a massive remaking of cities without decent blue collar jobs. Chronic homelessness marks the morning commute with a dull lack of empathy that views the city and state as just a place filled with unaccountable people, not a genuine community. The cosmopolitan impulse has created an impersonal world defined by contracts – the end state of liberalism. Perhaps it was always meant to arrive at this end: the loss of personal meaning for virtual clicks and contracts. But it doesn’t seem to have made us wiser, and it has cost us our communal and cultural meaning. Instead, the toxic anticulture defined by Star Wars and Netflix is the replacement of generational stories, and memes are the replacement of self.
We are thus at a crossroads as a species: the state-corporate leviathans that have sculpted humankind to its current status as technological masters of nature have also deprived us of fundamental stores of human tradition, obligation and otherwise old tribal village-based concerns. Sheldon Wolin’s monumental ‘Politics and Vision’ concludes that democracy and liberalism have failed at the altar of a political system that subsidizes major corporations, shifting away from the liberty that both the left and the right want out of a society. We have lost both our freedoms and our communities in the acceptance of totally rootless global capital as the thing that brings us all together. It does not bring us together – it pushes us apart.
The center will fail as long as the center is not personalized, individual. This is why Jordan Peterson has gained so much popularity: he has returned myth and heroic personality to a bloodless, depersonalized political and technological moment. Unfortunately for Peterson, the machine right now is infinitely more powerful than the individual. Perhaps it always has been, but at least Christ had twelve disciples – today, the equivalent is one’s Twitter followers crying out that their ringleader got shadow-banned.
I watched Erica Garner die on the Twitter timeline at the start of this year – her community was measured then in retweets. Is that real community? Is that lack of serious community the reason why activism has failed? But can activism even succeed on a national level if our own citizens are asbtractions, a photo and a few lines of text? That is not a human being.
Perhaps we will return to more tribal, regional modes of living. Perhaps the global infrastructure we’ve created has come at too high a cost. The Congress and the President will never unify America again, that much seems certain – we are polarized to the extent that we desire entirely different societies than our neighbors and family members do. So perhaps the answer is to allow the leviathan to fragment, and for a decentralized world of tribes to return once more.
We created Babel, and it’s left us feeling empty. Now it’s time to return to these scattered tribes, lost in modernity. A union based on abstract contracts won’t satisfy the raging beast of human nature for long – the touch and the meaning of community is what we want, not a larger state or more expansive corporate options.