We are living through an era of epochal change. At few times in history have so many currents of civilizational transformation coalesced and crashed into us at once, and at such speed. To say that we are being unmoored by massive technological, economic, environmental, geopolitical, and socio-cultural shifts would be to insufficiently limit our description of what is occurring. Vast new ideational, epistemological, and arguably even theological frameworks for how to understand and interact with reality have emerged and are now spreading across the world.
Overwhelmed, and with no contemporary experience with which to easily contextualize and comprehend what is happening, our natural tendency is to ignore it, to dismiss, excuse, and normalize. Today is much like yesterday, this week much like last week. The economy continues to grow. Besides, we think, change is normal; political games and cultural fads come and go, life will remain much the same. But in our bones many of us can feel the rumbling of the earthquake, and intuit the terrible truth: we are experiencing a tectonic upheaval, a rending, uprooting, cataclysmic shift from one era of history to another. And in such times there will, inevitably, be blood.
The world is being forcibly reconfigured by at least three concurrent revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former.
Geopolitically, a decent understanding of what is happening, if not of its full extent, has emerged over the past several years. The relentless rise of China, and its Leninist state-capitalist governance model, within the globalized system presents an immense structural challenge to the “liberal international order” that has prevailed for nearly a century, as led by the United States. The economic and military dominance of the Western liberal-capitalist democracies, and the set of political values they have championed, is now under siege from without. This is one mega-trend at least that has managed to thoroughly break through into American and European consciousness. Indeed, in Washington the reaction almost borders on panic.
In contrast, few seem to have actually come to terms with what is now happening within the West. Many now realize, with either terror or glee, that something big is underway in the Anglo-Saxon world, something revolutionary, with America at its epicenter. A new belief system, characterizing all of existence as divisible into a Manichean struggle for power between the oppressed and their oppressors, has emerged and turned itself into a mass movement that is scrambling every aspect of traditional American political, cultural, religious, and even corporate life.
But this ideology seemed to emerge so suddenly, and is in its stark irrationality so alien to the modern liberal mind, that surprised observers and hapless opponents so far struggle even to settle on a name for it. “Cancel Culture,” “Identity Politics,” “Social Justice,” “Wokeness,” “Postmodernism,” “Reified Postmodernism,” “Neo-Marxism,” “Cultural Marxism,” just plain old Marxism in a new guise, the “Successor Ideology,” the cult of “The Elect,” or simply the “New Faith” – whatever its name, what’s clear by this point is that this all-consuming new belief system is exceptionally zealous, insatiably revolutionary, self-righteously brutal, and going ideologically viral with breathtaking speed and essentially no opposition.
The result is that the New Faith, which rejects nearly every fundamental principle of liberal modernity – the existence of an objective and immutable reality that can be discovered by reason; the scientific method; an enduring human nature; the primacy of the sovereign individual over the collective; impartial equality before the law; secular pluralism and the value of freedom of speech; the separation of the private and political spheres – is enthusiastically taking an axe to the decaying pillars holding up liberal democratic civilization just as it enters a potentially existential struggle with a rising authoritarian challenger.
Simultaneously, we are facing a technological revolution the consequences of which we are only beginning dimly to grasp, let alone understand. The evidence seems to be growing that this revolution – which is more accurately a revolution in how information is generated, collected, processed, analyzed, shared, consumed, and understood – may be fundamentally changing not only our relationship with each other, but our individual and collective perception of, and relationship with, reality itself. If so, then we are likely just at the beginning of a period of tech-induced upheaval unmatched since the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century, when a significantly more limited information revolution began with conveniently produced bibles and a craze for blog-like pamphleteering, and ended with the shattering of any consensus on belief, centuries of violent religious strife, millions dead, and a map of post-Christendom Europe that was left almost unrecognizable.
Already, today’s technological revolution appears to be helping to propel and shape upheavals inside and outside the West, including by altering the relationship between public and private, corporation and state, personal and political, media and social media, labor and capital, and more – including ultimately the dividing line between truth and falsehood. This creates a surface-level paradox. On the one hand, we may be entering a “post-truth” era, in which nothing is true and everything is possible. On the other, this is increasingly an age when nothing is private, everything is revealed by the all-seeing eye of Big Data, and total centralized surveillance and control at last seems possible. But the simultaneous rise of the New Faith, with its determination to tear down all barriers to self-creation, and the spread of a digital authoritarianism built on technological tools beyond Stalin’s wildest dreams, seems less a contradiction than complementary evidence of an ongoing resurgence of the age-old totalitarian temptation to remake the world in pursuit of utopia.
What does the combination of these revolutionary forces mean for democratic societies the world over? In the short term, we have already seen their influence in the political convulsions that have divided nations between elites and populists, “center” and “border,” and now Woke and Unwoke, all but completely replacing the traditional but now largely meaningless and irrelevant Left-Right political axis. But, in the long term, the effects are likely to be far more dramatic.
It would be naïve to assume that any liberal democracy (or any society) can long survive with all of its conceptual foundations gutted. Either it will collapse into civil conflict, or those foundations will be replaced brick by brick by the New Faith, until it is transformed into an unrecognizable edifice that is neither liberal nor democratic. Nowhere is this process more advanced than in the presumed leader of the “liberal” order, the United States, a country already riven with vicious political polarization, deep economic inequalities, revivified racial hatreds, and no direct experience of authoritarian or totalitarian ideologies to provide any inhibition to their spread.
So far, there has been no real reckoning with what the “Great Awokening” means for the rest of the world, including America’s neighbors, its allies in Europe and Asia, the U.S.-China contest, or the future of international norms, values, and governance. Observers and scholars of international affairs, in particular, have studiously ignored the inevitable impact of the New Faith on the direction and conduct of U.S. foreign policy (at a minimum), even as it begins to crash through the gates of institutional bastions of foreign affairs and national security like the U.S. State Department, military, and intelligence agencies (the think tanks, NGOs, and foundations having already long since succumbed).
Nothing that happens in the United States is likely to remain contained within its borders. At least for now, America is still the unsurpassed cultural force in the world; whatever positive or pathological ideas it produces are soon spread abroad, whether desired by benighted foreign populations or not. Nor, we should recall, has any ideological revolution in history ever been content to stay within the boundaries of one state – not Marxism, not the French Revolution, not the Reformation, and certainly not a young Islam.
Overall, it is worth remembering that throughout history it has been ideas that have driven great global change as much as material forces, individuals, or happenstance. It may be that the Upheaval is at root the product of the death throes of a 500 year old Enlightenment liberalism, assailed from within and without by younger, more self-confident epistemic paradigms already gearing up to fight over its corpse. If that is the case, then we must be prepared for the possibility that the world in 50 years will be far different from anything we are able to project based on even the past hundred years of our experience. If all of our civilizational first principles, including what constitutes the highest human ends, how to organize our societies to attain that, and even what it means to be human in the first place, are now up for grabs, then little that we take for granted is likely remain stable in the years ahead – least of all something as fragile as the perpetuation of American global power and the “Long Peace” that has characterized the post-WWII era.
No matter where we live in the world, then, it would be wise for us all to think carefully about the global chaos that is only beginning to consume us all. What is happening? Why is it happening? Where are we headed? What, if anything, can and should we do, individually and collectively? These are the questions I intend to try to work through in my writing here at The Upheaval, where I’ll aim to engage in a wide-ranging exploration of current events, historical parallels, and the most insightful writing by authors both past and present that can help us make sense of life amid the madness of the post-modern age. I hope that you’ll join me.