In common with other populists, Donald Trump and Steve Bannon appeal to visions of the past, particularly nationalism. This is mistaken and futile. They would be much better off offering future-oriented strategies for the global world of Postmodernity.
Writing fifty five years ago, the famous British historian, Eric Hobsbawm, saw Modernity, the era in which the world has increasingly been living for the past two and a half centuries, as being ushered in by two parallel revolutions. The first was a series of political revolutions, above all the American (1776) and French Revolutions (1789), which provided a radical alternative to the way societies formally organised themselves. The second was the Industrial Revolution, which, in many ways even more profoundly than the political upheavals, changed societies from their very foundations upwards, initially in Britain, then in Western Europe and North America, before going global in the 20th Century. These two different revolutions were largely based on a new way of thinking about and seeing the world, a movement which, though long in gestation, achieved critical mass throughout the 18th Century. We call it the Enlightenment.
In a seminal essay on the Enlightenment, written in 1784, the philosopher, Emmanuel Kant, summed up the essence of what it meant in a two word aphorism, taken from the ancient Roman poet, Horace; Sapere aude, Dare to know! It is, above all, a change in mental attitude which has fundamental consequences in the way people understand themselves and the world they live in. It is an attitude of fundamental questioning, a refusal to blindly accept truth as that which is given by some kind of unchallengeable Authority – be that God, or a king, a pope, or a lord. As such, the Enlightenment is that intellectual environment which gives rise to such concepts as Human Rights, the State as an entity founded somehow on the consent of its members, the Division of Powers into Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary, constitutionalism, as well as what we would now call the whole scientific method.
Modernity, then, is born out of the twin political and societal revolutions, whose intellectual roots are to be found in the Enlightenment. But, it is my contention, there is something missing in this explanation. Early modernity was a time of great upheavals, of deep uncertainty, of feelings of profound uprootedness; often the results of an awful lot of concrete human misery caused by violent revolution and cataclysmic, all-changing wars (the French Revolution gave rise to a quarter of a century of more or less continual warfare, mostly concentrated on Europe but also including India, North Africa, and the Americas, and ending only with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815), as well as the misery of millions of the new, burgeoning working class under the atrocious conditions of early industrialisation. This experience of profound alienation (to use a term favoured by Marxists) gave rise to a reaction to what was perceived as the cold, rational intellectualism of the Enlightenment. This reaction is what historians call Romanticism.
Romanticism is – like many terms used by cultural historians – not so easy to define, particularly as it meant different things to different people who are associated with it. But, generally speaking, it can be used to describe an attitude which stressed the primacy of emotion, feeling, sentiment, as well as a deep sense of nostalgia for some imagined, perfect past. It served to fill a gap in what could be seen as a cold, inhuman world. It also incorporated some very ambiguous elements into the new, emerging modernist world.
Romanticism realised that it was not enough to simply appeal to people’s intellects, you had to get their feelings and passions as well. Ideas were not enough to move people, you had to give them something concrete, things to feel passionate about, things to love, things to hate. And so, modern nationalism was born.
Men had fought for hundreds of years for their lords, or kings – concrete human symbols you could take oaths of loyalty to, be subjects of, love (or hate). They had, to be sure, also fought for God, which you could describe as an abstract idea – but almost all who felt called to fight for him saw him as a concrete reality with whom they experienced an existential, personal relationship. And, playing on instincts going back to the hundreds of thousands of years humanity had spent as small groups of hunter-gatherers, men could also be easily moved to fight against others because they were other, and thus both inferior and threatening.
For the new kinds of states, trying to establish themselves on new bases other than simply obedience and loyalty towards a monarch (an essentially personal relationship), the challenge was the same; how did you unite people, inspire and enthuse them for an idea? The answer was in the romantic idea of the nation, all its members having a common identity, sharing a common, usually dramatic, history, rooted in noble beginnings (mostly far back in the mists of time). In competition with the others around them, but, naturally, superior to them and therefore destined for victory. No matter what your situation in life, you were united with your countrymen through the sacred highest reality of your common nationality, something that made you better than all others. To use a modern term (actually a postmodern term, but we’ll come to that shortly), a shared narrative.
“I thank the goodness and the grace
Which on my birth have smiled,
And made me in these Christian days,
A happy English child.”
(Jane Tylor, 1810[i])
One way to see the history of the 19th Century is as a story of ever sharper competition between rival nations, finally erupting into cataclysmic war in 1914, when the diplomatic brinkmanship practiced by all the great European powers finally failed.[ii] The failure to adequately address the deeper-lying national conflicts at the end of WWI[iii] – particularly the sense of unfairly thwarted national aspirations in defeated Germany[iv] – then led to the even greater catastrophe of WWII, barely twenty years later.
In the wake of the Second World War, the inhabitants of Western Europe were acutely conscious of the negative consequences of nationalism. With the horror of the war only a few years in the past, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries initiated the process of agreeing to a treaty of cooperation, sixty years ago this month, resulting in the founding of the Common Market, which ultimately evolved into the European Union[v]. The primary aim was to make war between the member states, particularly between France and Germany, whose national rivalry had caused so misery, impossible. In this goal it has been spectacularly successful.
The EU has been a conscious attempt to go beyond the romantic nationalism which had had such disastrous consequences for Europe. It is, above all, a rational project, a reasoned response to the awful lessons of history. In this sense, it is very much an Enlightenment idea, expressed perhaps most aspirationally in its chosen anthem, the musical setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” by Beethoven in the final movement of his 9th Symphony; “Alle Menschen werden Brüder” [“All men shall become brothers”].
And it has the same weakness as the original Enlightenment ideas, before they became contaminated by Romanticism. It just isn’t sexy. It doesn’t have that kick-ass, drag-you-out-of-your-seat, tears-streaming-from-your-eyes, visceral pull that nationalism has. “Allons enfants de la Patrie, Le jour de gloire est arrivé! …” And, as such, it’s an easy target when populists chose to appeal to nostalgic nationalist fervour, as happened last June in the United Kingdom.
Modernity has one more defining characteristic. The force driving it, its motor, as it were, is Capitalism. Whereas agriculture and individual artisanship was much more important in the pre-modern era[vi], increasingly growing capitalism moves to the centre of the stage with the beginning of modernity. As such, it is, perhaps, not entirely coincidental that 1776 saw not only the outbreak of the American Revolution, but also the publication of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, the first great modern work of classical economics. And that capitalism was the central motor of modernity was the fundamental insight of Karl Marx, who spent his whole life studying it[vii].
If most of us were asked in what era we lived, we would, perhaps unthinkingly, answer the Modern Era. Yet more and more of those who think more deeply and study such questions would disagree. There is increasing consensus that the Age of Modernity has, in fact, ended, and that we now find ourselves in a new historical period, that of Postmodernity.
Postmodernity (or postmodernism) is a fiercely argued concept[viii]. Without going into all the academic debate, we can describe its basic contours as follows. Our world today is increasingly being defined by new conditions, which have been clearly emerging in the past fifty years or so. I have already referred to these in my first and second posts on this site. Globalisation of trade and supply chains. Incredibly complex worldwide financialised markets. Urbanisation, with the polyglot, multicultural, multi-ethnic populations of major “world” cities. Post-industrialisation (in which production is being increasingly automated, networked and robotised) and the move towards service-based economies (with all the convulsions of labour markets these changes imply). Technology in every corner of our lives. A continuous demand to repeatedly train, retrain, to adapt to new situations, to submit ourselves to a regime of life-long learning, with a constant willingness to change or develop within professions and careers in a hectically market-driven world of work (accompanied by a continuous, low-level fear that one’s skills could still at any moment become superfluous). Above all, perhaps, interconnectivity. We are in touch with each other, all over the world, with levels of intensity (or non-intensity), complexity, and variety which would have been unimaginable even twenty years ago[ix]. A global population of 7.5 billion (and still growing by around 80 million per year). Increasing migration and continuing pressure for migration to grow further. And, perhaps the most defining of all as the future unfolds, climate change.
Influenced by, interconnected with, feeding and being fed by all these material changes is a fundamental change in attitudes, in the way we perceive and understand ourselves and our world – or worlds. The culture wars which began in the 1960s[x] have led to a growing acceptance of multiple definitions of identity, of a fluidity in the way we describe and experience ourselves, our environments and societies. The key word here is plurality. Nowhere is this clearer than in the area of sexuality and gender identification. The postmodern attitude sees no need for a defining hegemony of traditional heterosexuality; the old expression “different strokes for different folks” is so obvious as to be unquestionable. But this extends into many more areas. One of the founders of “postmodernism”, the French philosopher, Jean-François Lyotard, described it in a famous phrase as characterised by “incredulity towards metanarratives”[xi]. Put into ordinary language, this means that a postmodern attitude is doubtful about grand theories which claim to explain everything, and instead regards life with an open, sceptical attitude, willing to see that there can be many approaches to, and partial explanations for things, and that inconsistencies and contradictions do not automatically disqualify a particular way of seeing a thing (telling a story/narrative) from having any validity whatsoever[xii]. (A possible criticism of postmodernism is also that it can provide a philosophical basis for “post-truthiness”, or “alternative facts”.)
All this, taken together, seems to me to justify the claims of those who argue that we are, in fact, at the beginning of a new era. If some of the contours are still unclear, this is normal for a situation which is still in the process of birthing and defining itself[xiii]. Still, I think that the world and the attitude I have described would be both familiar and comfortable to most hipster millennials (or even a lot of millennials who aren’t hipsters). It is the world of cities like New York and Berlin, London and Seattle, Hong Kong and Milan, Miami and Prague, San Francisco, Sydney and Seoul. It is not (generally speaking) the world of flyover America, South Eastern Poland, or the post-industrial cities of West Yorkshire.
And, as in any period where a paradigm shift is taking place in the way the world defines itself and our own attitudes and very identities, there is great uncertainty. There are also a great many actual and potential losers. If one of the defining characteristics of Modernity was change (particularly in contrast to the preceding pre-modern[xiv] era, where the basic conditions of most people changed little from their birth to their death), the Postmodernity which follows and builds on it is characterised by hyperchange, continuous and accelerating change, all the time. In this sense, the fluidity of the postmodern attitude is a reflection of the concrete material conditions in which postmodern individuals find themselves[xv].
This is the uncertainty and anxiety which political populists are able to exploit. One of their main tactics is the appeal to and the promise to restore old, reputedly lost, certainties. And so, finally, I come to Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
In a rambling speech (the one with the weird reference to Sweden) in Melbourne, Florida, on February 18, Trump declaimed, “You’re all part of this incredible movement. This movement that we talk about so much. That’s been written about on the cover of every magazine all over the world. It’s a movement that is just sweeping. It’s sweeping across our country. It’s sweeping frankly across the globe. Look at Brexit. Look at Brexit. Much smaller example, but it’s still something you can look at. People want to take back control of their countries and they want to take back control of their lives and the lives of their family. The nation state remains the best model for human happiness and the American nation remains the greatest symbol of liberty, of freedom and justice on the face of god’s earth[xvi].”
A detailed exegesis of many of Trump’s utterances is generally superfluous. Most of them are just variations on the narcissistic theme, “By the way, look at me! I’m so great! It’s true!” (frequently accompanied by the modifier, “Anyone who is against me/criticises me __________ [fill in the appropriate name] is a liar/loser/cheat/criminal! So sad!”). A lot of what remains is just superficial stream-of-consciousness spouting about what he recently saw on TV or read on the web (this seems to be the source for his strange Sweden comments on this occasion, or his most recent tweeted allegations concerning an Obama wiretap).
But then there’s the rest remnant, into which category the excerpt above falls. Here, I believe, we can see two influences. The first is easily dealt with. Nigel Farage is a former leader of UKIP, a typical example of a populist politician, who was one of the leaders of the Brexit movement and who announced his resignation from the leadership of his party in July last year, shortly after the UK had voted to leave the EU, effectively leaving others to deal with the consequences of the decision he had campaigned for. Since then, he has assiduously courted Trump, attending the Republican Convention, being received by Trump after his election[xvii], and ultimately Trump rewarded him by trampling all over diplomatic conventions with a tweet that Britain should appoint Farage as its ambassador to the US. It is therefore little wonder that Brexit is a theme which occasionally crosses Trump’s mind.
But in the Melbourne speech, Trump refers to Brexit as an example of what sees as people taking back control of their countries and goes on to praise “the nation state … [as] the best model for human happiness.” This is not Trump’s usual style (it has a degree of intellectualism about it which is quite foreign to him), which makes me suspect that he had it written down in front of him[xviii]. And this leads me to the conclusion that the sentence itself may well stem from Steve Bannon.
If so, it certainly fits in very well with Bannon’s views. Bannon’s precise positions are not always easy to pin down, partly because, although he spent a number of years (from 2012 onwards) at the helm of Breitbart, this does not necessarily mean that he personally subscribes to all the alt-right views expressed there. But his world view definitely encompasses a particular version of the “Clash of Civilizations” theory, which sees the West in a life-and-death struggle with Islam. But Bannon also rejects what he sees as an increasing “secularism … [which] has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals.” He seems to look back to a Golden Age in the mid-20th Century, when, in the wake of the Second World War, a benevolent Pax Americana ensured peace and prosperity for the West.
This is the key to Bannon’s thought – and Trump’s liking for him and decision to utilise him as his intellectual vizier. It resonates with Trump’s “America First” and “Make America Great Again” slogans. And it is perfectly in accord with the nostalgic look backwards, and the promise to restore lost certainties which, as I pointed out in the first two articles of this series, is the core of the message populists are peddling worldwide, the message which has been gaining them such success.
Old fashioned nationalism is an essential part of that message. “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors,” Bannon said, “and I think it’s what can see us forward.” In fact, his whole vision harkens back to a romantic dream of High Modernity, when Ike ruled in Washington, and a man could drive to his own home after work to find his loving wife waiting for him, his home-cooked dinner ready on the table, ready to be enjoyed in the company of his happy, obedient children after Howdy Doody was finished on TV. Before the 60s came, with long-haired peaceniks, civil rights, women’s lib and all that other stuff, and everything started slowly going to shit.
It’s not clear how deeply Trump himself identifies with this fantasy (for that is, in the end, what it is). Not particularly, I suspect, for Trump truly believes only in himself and that leaves little room for anything else. But Trump has chosen these memes as his way to win and keep supporters and power. For Bannon, however, the conviction is genuine, something to be aimed for in a social-darwinist world, where groups, peoples, and nations are in brutal competition, and the only way for America to thrive is to close itself off, and protect its prosperity and way of life by slapping down all competitors and enemies (and, when you get right down to it, there’s not much difference between the two) whenever necessary, by whatever means necessary. All in the name of American, Judaeo-Christian values.
It’s futile, of course, as futile – ultimately – as the appeals of Kaisers and Tsars to pre-modern ideas like the divine right of kings in the 19th Century (we should, however, note that they did manage to survive for quite a long time[xix]). I would even go so far as to agree with a number of the points of criticism Bannon finds for aspects of contemporary society – particularly the baleful influence of international, neo-liberal financialised capital[xx]. But to try to return to an idealised Modernist world-order is illusory. The postmodern global society I have sketched above is already a reality. You might as well try to put toothpaste back in the tube.
Trump’s and Bannon’s appeal to an idealised past of strong nation states is a useless look backwards. The real challenge (and chances) are posed by the postmodernist future. Global warming and the consequential climate change it brings is a threat a thousand times more potent than that of radical Islam. And it is a challenge which cannot be solved by individual nations, but only by the entire global society, acting cooperatively. Otherwise, we will finish up leaving a catastrophe for our children and grandchildren to deal with. To deny it, and instead sell people solutions based on romantic dreams of the past is nothing less than an admission of bankruptcy of vision.
[Author’s Notes (i) At the end of my last post, I promised an exposition of economic and social ideas which a rejuvenated liberalism might present for the future. I haven’t forgotten. On reflection, however, I felt that it was first necessary to deepen and extend the context in which these ideas should be presented. Thus the necessity of this exploration of the meaning of Postmodernity.
(ii) I am grateful for Trevor Irvin’s permission to use his cartoon as an illustration for this article. Trevor, your pictorial comments on the Trump presidency are awesome!]
[i] The same author also composed “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”.
[iii] Wodrow Wilson, in particular, had very strong views on the subject. See Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, pp. 53-62
[iv] I must stress here that this is a purely factual description of how the Peace of Versailles was perceived in Germany; it is by no means to be taken as my personal position on the subject.
[v] With, at the time of writing, 28 members – soon to be reduced to 27, (if and) when Brexit finally takes place.
[vi] This is, of course, a very generalised statement. Capitalism was developing – and was important – throughout the whole of the Middle Ages and in the early (pre)modern era, but not on the all-encompassing scale it began to assume in the 18th Century. For a marvellous description of premodern capitalism, see Fernand Braudel’s classic 3-volume Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, particularly Volume II.
[vii] Though Marx is generally remembered historically as the founder of Communism, during his lifetime, he himself would always have described himself as a student of Capitalism. It is, therefore, no surprise that he titled his magnum opus “Das Kapital”.
[viii] In fact, postmodernity and postmodernism are, strictly speaking, not quite the same, the second usually being used to designate particular (mostly academic) philosophical or cultural-theoretical schools of thought, while postmodernity is a wider description of the state of the world in general.
[ix] Facebook was launched in 2004 and introduced open membership in September 2006. Both the iPhone and the Android OS will have their tenth birthdays this year. In 2007 Nokia dominated the world mobile phone market with around 66% of the total units sold, businessmen organised their lives with PDAs, and (in February) Netflix first began to stream films online.
[x] The term “culture war” is often used in the American context to describe the fierce debate which has been going on between “conservatives” and “progressives” since the 1990s (the seminal work here is James Davison Hunter’s Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America). I find this much too narrow, and prefer a view which sees a developing societal dialogue concerning a nexus of themes involving freedom of expression, values, traditions, sexual identity, aesthetics, and generational questions, beginning with the emergence of the “counterculture” in the 60s.
[xi] This kind of language is typical for the academic vocabulary used in discussing the subject, indeed, Lyotard’s language here is simple compared with the obtuseness of many others in the field. The best comment on it is probably the parody called The Postmodernism Generator by Andrew C. Bulhak, which uses an algorithm called the Dada Engine to automatically generate superficially intelligible but ultimately completely meaningless texts. Try it out, it’s great fun!
[xiii] The same problem would also have faced someone trying to define Modernity in 1817.
[xiv] The term here is defined by the era of Modernity which followed it; historians more usually refer to the period from the 15th to the 18th Century as “Early Modern”.
[xvi] The italics are mine.
[xviii] A closer analysis of the speech offers a certain amount of support for this suspicion. At an earlier stage, Trump seems to be building up to it, then distracts himself, only to come back to the same point later.
[xix] Though with ever less emphasis on their divinely given rights. Rather, as the 19th Century progressed, the (more or less) absolute monarchs of Germany and Russia presented themselves as personified symbols of national unity (in Austia-Hungary, an empire containing many ethnic groups, the Kaiser was seen as a symbol of trans-national unity).