Religious awakenings or re-awakenings are common in human civilizations, particularly in the West. They manifest themselves in different ways, but the root is always a sense that society has lost its way and strayed from the moral path. When enough people come to this conclusion, a cascade preference begins and a mass movement forms to start the return to that moral path. It may be a restoration of the old faith or it can be the rise of a reform movement. Of course, it can also be the start of a new religion entirely.
Social cycle theory holds that a return to the old faith, maybe tuned for the age, is part of the end phase of society. The beliefs that were part of the young culture, but faded away in the middle age of the people, makes a comeback of sorts in the winter of the culture. It’s not nostalgia driving the revival, but a sense that the thing that inspired the best years of the people has been lost. The religious revival we have seen in the Islamic world is a good example. They are trying to recapture a lost golden age.
In the English speaking world, particularly America, another religious phenomenon has been observed. The Great Awakening was a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain and the colonies in the 18th century. It was the emergence of Anglo-American evangelicalism within the Protestant churches. While considered a singular event, historians have noted that America has undergone subsequent revivals, where a blend of strong social activism and religious revival sweep the nation.
An argument made here, from time to time, is that the spasms of Progressive activism we have seen over the last century are an extension of this cycle. The New Deal was more than just about political reform or addressing the economic crisis. After the war, a period of relative social harmony led to the great cultural upheavals of the 60’s and 70’s, which were clearly spiritual, as well as political. These were no longer explicitly Christian, but “Judeo-Christian”, reflecting the new composition of the elite.
These periods of social activism are described as revolutions, as if they are led by plucky outsiders trying to ignite change in a resistant society. In reality, these efforts, including the current spasm we are experiencing today, are top-down and within the ruling elite itself. If you look at these movements, going back to the Great Awakening, you see they are not led by outsiders. Instead, they were led by people of high status, who first sought to reform the top of society, then society as a whole.
The political face of the New Deal, for example, was the result of an intellectual competition within the ruling elite of America. It was argued between the radicals, who embraced ideas from the old world, versus those who embraced the uniquely American sense of social reform. If you go back and read the early Progressives, many salted their language with Christian references that only a believer could grasp. The Left became anti-Christian, but it has its roots in the 19th century evangelicalism.
The other side to these spasms of social reform and spiritual awakening is a militarism that sees itself as missionary work. America’s involvement in the Great War was due, in part, to Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt casting it as a moral duty. “Making the world safe for democracy” is not a practical goal. It is a religious aim. Similarly, the fight against fascism was seen and is still seen, as a moral crusade. Of course, the neoconservative effort to democratize the Muslim world was a spiritual crusade.
These spasms of religiosity, spiritualism and social activism, within the context of Christian belief, had some built in limits. Within the Christian context, utopianism could be avoided, as that contradicts Christian dogma. By the 20th century, however, American elites were losing their Christianity. The arrival of Jewish intellectuals in the early 20th accelerated the secularization of the elite. As a result, the Progressive spasm of the 60’s and the current one, was and is anti-Christian and utopian.
This lack of a limiting principle in the “new religion” of the ruling class, and that’s what multiculturalism is when you think about it, inevitably leads to excess. The 60’s ended with excessive drug taking, social unrest and pointless terrorism. This current spasm appears to be burning itself out in mindless self-destruction, assaults on reason and self-mutilation. The race to stake out the most extreme position leads to an embrace of increasingly self-destructive behaviors by the people leading the revival.
Getting back to social cycle theory, where Spengler and others may have gone wrong is in their scope. Perhaps what we are seeing in America with these revivals is the end of a cultural phase, rather than the culture as a whole. The New Deal era closed the door on the post-Civil War period. The cultural revolution of the 60’s closed the door on the New Deal consensus. This current spasm is closing the door on the New Left consensus that defined the late Cold War and post-Cold War period. This the end, not the beginning.
The question then is what comes next. There’s not much in the way of intellectual development, in terms of moral philosophy or political philosophy, on either side of the Progressive order. The liberals are mostly shrieking primitives, defending their privileges from anything they see as a threat. The conservatives are just a nostalgia cult, telling each other stories about Reagan and Bill Buckley. Their beloved principles are just a map to a room off to the side where they can reminisce about the old days.
Baring some revolution at the top, whatever comes next for America after this awakening is going to be external to it. Perhaps that is what we’re seeing with the various dissident movements percolating in the West. With the fading of the American empire, new ideas are springing up at home and abroad. At some point, a new moral framework will coalesce to challenge the brittle dying orthodoxy. Alternatively, maybe what comes next is a new dark age. Perhaps this Progressive spasm the last one before the lights go out.
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