Nowhere Fast. Democracy and Identity in the Twenty First Century

The latest book by Brian Bolger has just been published. Nowhere Fast. Democracy and Identity in the Twenty First Century is a close and thorough analysis of the structural and cultural decline of western democracies, particularly the UK. The book examines the economic crisis of globalization, the emergence of a new “knowledge class,” and the phenomenon of populism. We are happy to bring you an excerpt from it.

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There seemed to be an inevitability in the talk of globalisation and the ‘end of history’ which ushered in the twenty first century.  This emanated from the post World War 2 era of New Deals and free trade, and of a dollar hegemony supposedly built on a dichotomy of liberalism and democracy. There was a broad consensus amongst academics and liberals, combined with a myopic belief in the progressive benefits of technology, that a brave new world consensus was forming and that war and discontent was ebbing away like the tide from an old broken Empire. 

Economists tend to measure globalisation in ‘Trade in Goods’ and FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) flows across borders. Yet this is like sailing a passenger ship in the North Atlantic with ‘Icebergs’ disabled from the navigation system. There are Icebergs floating around… and lots of them. ‘Trade Openness’ (calculated as Exports plus Imports as a % of GDP) grew steadily from 1945 onward. It reached its peak in approximately 2005 and has since begun to tumble.  There is now a trend to onshoring with the dual impacts of Covid and Ukraine. There are declining rates of return on investments  and the problems of geopolitical uncertainty. The world, effectively, is splintering into blocs (Grossraums, ‘great spaces’) and the result is chauvinistic assertion manifested in military conflicts. But the reasons for the collapse of interrelated economies goes deeper. It is not purely economic. There is an underlying shift in what Carl Schmitt called the ‘Nomos of the Earth’.

Whilst the twentieth century may have been one of globalisation and trade, it was also one of a ‘total mobilisation’ of resources and human resources for a system of capital accumulation – which heaps excessive demands on international relations. 

In political philosophy it often takes a period of nuanced reflection to assess the real ‘telos’ or ‘nomos’ of what occurred before or what is transpiring. At first Colonialism appears as a philanthropic and mercantile escapade. The ‘nation state’ appears to be the solution to the Holy Roman Empire and the despots of monarchical Europe. Democracy appeared to be the solution to the woes of the nineteenth century. However,  when the dialectic unfolds, we are left with the real ‘Nomos’ (law, ‘lex’ in Latin or ‘right to the land’). The ‘Nomos of the Earth’ was the concept which Schmitt outlined which, having begun with the discovery of the ‘New World,’ the Americas  replaced the ‘Old World’ of Europe and Asia. The ‘nomos’ is the real title to land, to a culture, and it is beyond International Law. In this however came the ambivalent nature of US policies of interventionism and isolationism. Establishing an American ‘Grosssraum’, as in the Monroe Doctrine, becomes problematic. The maritime Empire of the British was another ‘Grosssraum’. The nation state, however, works in contradistinction to this reality. It only works out in an international system of agreed law, of equal liberal nation states. When this breaks down, we have the polarisation of ‘Grossraums’ and the casualties of diminutive nation states. So ‘nomos’ means the real original title to land and when conflicts arise, it is usually a consequence of this disputed title, as in the Ukraine or Israel, or in Taiwan.

From the Middle Ages there developed a code of civil and ecclesiastical law to regulate conflicts of Church, Republic and Prince. The Holy Roman Empire acted as a type of ‘Katechon’ or protector against the antichrist. It was therefore more of a guiding ethos, or telos regarding Empire, an ideology even. The ascendancy of nation states in the nineteenth century sees the demise of the ‘Katechon’ or ethos. As in Washington’s final address the emblem of the modern era becomes ‘As little politics as possible, as much trade as possible’. So, nation states become largely conduits for trade, for globalised trade. Such a myriad of conflicting interests, mostly economic, has resulted in a ‘forgetting’ or rational/technical society without an underlying ethos. Now civilisational states, such as Russia’s ‘Holy Rus’, Chinese ‘Tianxia’, or Islamic states see themselves as unified (however corrupt). The American ‘Grossraum’ on the other hand, consists of liberal contradictions, the weakness of representative government, a confusion of foreign policy and an anarchic domestic world of anomie. Yet the liberal elites act as though they hold some higher moral ‘progressive’ framework. Hegel had said that there was no real American ‘state’, that it lacks a commonality of culture. 

It is not in effect a process of deglobalisation which is occurring, but the fundamental dissolution of the de facto independence of nation states and its replacement with regional Grossraums, akin to Empire. The current dying pains of economic globalism are ringing around the world.  Notions of International Law break down when its implementation is unequal and sporadic or when the civilisational states and empires resent encroachment. Schmitt envisaged, presciently, a world, not of globalisation, but one of differentiated ‘Grossraums’. He contrasted fixed ‘culture’ states such as Germany with flighty mercantile sea empires such as Great Britain. Land based realms, close to the soil, to nature are more stable. Again, there is a contrast between Kantian notions of universal international states based on a system of International Law and its opposite in civilisational Eurasian states who emphasise local and particular cultures. The Westphalian   world, which ushered in the modern notion of nation states is under threat.  The problem for modern nation states is that the sovereign no longer is able to wield the ‘exception’, to secure the safety of the state. This is due to the decadent form of liberalism which runs amok inside nation states. The absolutely sovereign Hobbesian state is in abeyance. The liberal state, based on economy, rationalism and progressive universality is unable to defend itself. The Katechon is under threat, not ostensibly from warring civilisational states, but from inside. 

The liberal and Marxist world envisaged an unfolding progress to a Utopian end of history schema and its naivete is now visible. It is more akin to Hegel’s development of spirit but one rooted in nature and culture. The liberal world must accept the particularity of cultures and their equal jurisdiction; there is no universal human rights, no good and evil. Man has moved from land to sea to air, to space. Yet we need to return to the land and a ‘jus gentium’ (law of nations) based on natural law rather than positive law which protects peoples rather than land borders. This, in itself, involves a sea change to real democratic participation in the polis and a move away from nationalism to community. In the middle ages there was a recognition of an authority that existed, be it the Emperor or the Pope,  and an informal common law. There were no wars between states, only competition between nobles. They largely concerned the pushing out of terrain rather than defending ‘borders’. We are now encompassed by borderlands and all its ensuing strife and war. Modern globalisation only concerns matter rather than spirit. Competition between modern states is delineated by a type of economic piracy. We have a version of maritime colonialism dressed up as globalisation. It is merely the naming which has changed. 

This international sea like empire is rootless. It imagines ownership of titles rather than ownership of culture. It is extractive rather than productive or creative. It provokes ‘ressentiment’ from the poor and disenfranchised. It creates borders and division because it has no underlying theology. The theoretical underpinning of the Chinese’Tianxia’ (all under heaven) of a cultural Chinese empire is its, according to the Chinese, opposite. In this argument the empire must understand the relevant cultures it ascribes to. It is not one off dominion but understanding, however far-fetched that might seem with the present Chinese incumbents. 

War has an economy of its own. When the underlying ‘telos’ to nation states is economic only, then this permeates all aspects of life. It is like a plague of sorts jumping from one realm to another: it invades healthcare, education, and war.  So, war has become Keynesian in an era of diminishing capital rate of returns ( r>g).  Capital follows a pattern of osmosis- seeking any host. Stocks in defence industries are booming. There seems to be no limits on technology and capital. War is not incidental to the modern era – it is a fundamental part of the ‘wealth of nations’. An International Court of Justice should be based on fundamental natural law, not allied to political institutions and particular states. Multicultural states are unrooted and their capital elites unmoored. There is in essence a dysfunctional quality to modern occidental states. Economy must be subservient to theology and telos.

Much of modern and late modern conceptions of Democracy and Identity are general, universal assumptions about how scientific research is done. Scientists and liberal philosophers start from the premise of how things ‘should’ be, not about what they, in fact, are. Our quest, then, is to find this dominion and how ‘Being,’ as an ontological concept, is not objective or fixed, but phenomenological, that is it is local and particular, in flux all the time. This conception nullifies any universalist attempts to ‘categorise’ or objectify other cultures. It therefore renders invalid much of the liberal assumptions on universal law, democracy, human rights and identity.

The map of the dominion, I believe, can be travelled in four domains, that of Political Economy, the ‘Polis’ (Democracy), Elites and Identity, although they all share common terrain. We follow Clifford Geertz in ‘believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.’ Therefore, I approach these subjects from the position of phenomenological description and hermeneutics to give access to meaning. Since Plato, philosophers have established forms, or categories, noumena or Gods, as a framework of usurping nature. These ‘systems’ have imprisoned culture in artificial reason or metaphysics, divorced from nature, from the reality of good and evil. By analysing a ‘forgetting’ of the underlying assumptions of morality (and how they have been overtaken by reason), democracy and identity can be removed from obscurity, from a hermeneutical hiding since the Enlightenment.

Only a God Can Save Us

The modern occidental world, roughly from the Renaissance onwards, sprang from a secularization of culture and its culmination is the main reason for the polarization of the contemporary world. The modern phase of culture has seen an antinomy of opposite values squeezed together, like a nuclear fission, a building of energy and dissonance and spewing out its contents in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. This was the ambivalence of the Platonic- Christian world against the spectre of “reason” raging like tectonic plates. After Plato had brought man down from a cosmic order of the “holy city,” and introduced reason to the world, it was only left to Kant to make God immanent in the human mind. The death of God was then accomplished by Marxism and exhibited in its sibling—liberalism. Nietzsche had articulated where this “decadence” came from, and in his mind, decadence was the affirmation of the nihilism of the liberal world and all its monstrous contradictions. It was for him, beyond good and evil. He had foreseen the “polemos of night” creeping in, manifested in the blackness of the twentieth century, from the First World War to Stalin, to technological death. It was the secularization of the world, a period of “total mobilization” where the human subject (the worker) becomes one of industrial atrophy, mobilized in work and in war. Total mobilization is achieved by incorporating every facet of life into technics. It is not the end of history, but the apex of a Spenglerian cycle of decadence.

Carl Schmitt noted the essence of values of modernism in that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” So, the fundamental questions such as God, of morality, of society are secularized theological ideas. Liberalism being the successor to Christianity. At the same time this secularization of salvation was seen in the parallel contortions between democracy and liberalism: democracy coming out of a Greek emphasis on participation in the polis and Liberalism as one of limiting participation (representative democracy) and community. The culmination of the tensions, this build-up of energy in the twentieth century, its decadent nature, is the “secularization of man.” The events of the twentieth century (the First World War, the Russian Revolution, Mao and Stalin), are the manifested practical events of a political philosophy shedding its vestments for the lore of materialism. Our modern world is nothing other than the secularization of worlds. But in this was the overarching dominion of reason; a dominion which Kant himself had forbid, as he stated that the quest for the limits of knowledge was to “make room for faith.” Although he later went more secular with his Opus postumum, Kant had calibrated the point at which reason becomes self-defeating. Therefore, liberalism is based on an erroneous conception of its own origins; the Albertian monks after a nuclear winter, adrift in the wasteland, with no books, drawings or tragedies—would assume that the liberal world was, in fact, completely irrational.

So, there is an encompassing heuristic secularization from the Russian revolution onwards, yet one based on the ghosts of Christianity; theology then secularized. The contemporary liberal sentiments, of diversity and equality, adrift in this sea of anonymous individualism, cling to the flotsam of Enlightenment values, the residues of Christianity. Del Noce called it the “history of the expansion of atheism.” Yet we are not here talking of organized religion. We are highlighting the turn from the sacred to the profane. What Patocka called the loss of the “care for the soul.” Liberalism adopts quasi-religious symptoms and constructs a diabolical otherness: “populism,” ”Catholicism,” “community,” are denoted as “heresies” from orthodoxy, hiding this painful denouement to the twentieth century. History is shrouded then in the motifs of secularization and progress. Anything else is “unreason.” Whilst the French Revolution started the motifs of Christian relical values in liberalism, transposed to Russia, and then rolled out through liberalism and materialism—the Cold War was merely a logical outcome of materialist Grossraum competition. This was only realized late on by Marxists such as Adorno, Horkheimer, when they realized that liberalism was a partner of Marxism. So liberal faith has morphed into purely cultural realms, i.e., sexuality, gender, race. Marxism realized then the paucity of a material philosophy and resorted to abandoning the working class for the now ephemeral values of the contemporary milieu. The variations on a theme in the liberal canon are all rooted in one source: the valorization of Christianity into liberalism, and its resurrection into nihilist secularity. The sacred has been firmly buried. What began as the Schmittian inheritance of theological concepts has descended into pure secularity.

The “truth” and the “good” are taken down from the altar of the sacred, from a metaphysical position. But what replaces it? Nietzsche had proclaimed that a new set of values are necessary amidst the death of god. Historicism comes alive, there are no metaphysics anymore. The explanation is rooted in the “now,” there are no permanent features of morality or values, they are constantly transcended, it is the Heraclitan river rushing and formless, the “eternal return,” a punishment by the gods for abandoning them. The transcendence from the sacred involved three steps. The first was the Copernican scientific revolution. It was followed by the grounding of liberalism in this scientific ethos. And the final step was the contemporary ennobling of economic liberalism into cultural liberalism. It is the final phase of the Liberal Cycle which began during the Renaissance. Yet there is a forgetting. The triumphs of cultural liberalism are assembled like relics on a cold alabaster altar with no knowledge of their origin, except for a vague remembrance that it is right, or correct, or should be: a Kantian imperative with no forefather. For there is no real essence to secularization or now its hybrid forms of LGBTQ and gender shaking, a peculiar softness and sensibility surrounds liberal rights; easily offended by a remark, a gesture, whilst bodies stack up in a graveyard near Bakhmut.

Now it seems nothing is sacred against the liberal behemoth. In a recent address the Pope took aim at “conservative” thought, especially those inclined to sacred thinking within the Catholic Church:

I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals that allows for Catholic doctrine to progress over time.

Secularization works by a continuous dismantling of tradition and the sacred. In this all innovation, art, AI, works by constant “progress.” These features, like theatre, literature, art, only have value if they are constantly seen to be moving, shaken. This becomes so vacuous that only a nihilism is left behind, devoid of eternal truth or good. In fact, any form of morality is in an eternal revolution. The west’s liberal Marxism is engrained into institutional settings, in government, in corporations: this march through the institutions by the Frankfurt School, opposing democracy and populism, a trojan horse of secularism, is merely the elites mutatis mutandis: having opposed liberalism they then set up and work for it. So, opposition to liberalism and secularism, in all arenas, blends with the original, due to its essential nihilism.

These two plates then, Christianity and Liberalism clash in this confusion of modernity. Russia, never at home with Marxism, clung to orthodox sacred values. The present conflict is, in fact, a residue of the two plates still in opposition. Russia having residual claims to the sacred, whereby the true intellectuals of Russian life, like Dostoevsky, Ilyich, espoused a rural, blood-and-soil sacredness. Therefore, homo progressivus is not universal and this can be seen also in Chinese Tianxia in the way it expresses a cultural reformation rather than a colonial one. In essence it is particularity which opposes the tsunami of secularization and liberalism works by a push back against any heresy. Islam, Tianxia, Pan-Slavism, Eurasianism, Communitarianism, are always “the other”—the savage in the colonial jungle, that sickly border post with Captain Kurtz surrounded by skulls.

The complete dismantling of Plato; the separation of polis and God, marks the modern secular world. It is democracy, however, which should be sacred, which needs the “holy city” as a sacred guide. Yet liberalism removes democracy, community, participation. Plato had envisaged the “city of God” where the polis is enlightened by the sacred, by the good. But in the contemporary occidental world only echoes of the theological remain, in a vast ocean of secularity. A practical example lies in the prelude (and cause) of the war in the Ukraine. The US-Ukraine Charter on Strategic Partnership was, de facto, an alliance for secularization. As well as a military alliance and potential incorporation of Ukraine into NATO, it spoke of “fighting racism, xenophobia, antisemitism, and discrimination, including against Roma and members of the LGBTQI+ communities.” This is universal secularization in action; it has little to do with strategy or geopolitics. It is colonial exchange. It fights against the heretics, imposes a world view which attempts to negate the theological Platonic world of the sacred. Therefore, the Ukraine war is not seen as merely a resource war, but a war about culture, a war about the triumph of secular values. The odd championing of nationalism of the Ukraine seems contradictory in the light of domestic opposition to such movements (the Basque, Republicanism in Ireland, Populism). However, as long as it serves in the secularization crusade, then the Ukraine flags will wave from the town halls of Europe and America. On a philosophical, historical stage of Spenglerian cycles, the war will be seen as a battle for the “value” of the world, between secular liberalism and the remnants of a holy sacred city.

The human polis, separated from the sacred, reverts to the ordinary, to the secular. Life becomes a simulacrum of the sacred, the values of Christendom replaced with the values of a liberal secular credo. Art, politics, religion become a daguerreotype of secularization. The Holy City, replaced by Bentham’s circular “Panopticon” prison, is defunct. On the contrary, there is pushback by the civilizational states against this conquering secular monism. That is, states such as Iran and Russia, see the survival of their cultural realm, their civilization, as existential, and not in the limits of their state frontiers. Civilization consists of an idea, a telos. States consist of artifice and progress, of material scarcity, of the borderlands.

In Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of the characters exclaims:

“You’re not Dostoevsky,” said the Citizeness, who was getting muddled by Koroviev.

“Well, who knows, who knows,” he replied.

“Dostoevsky’s dead,” said the Citizeness, but somehow not very confidently.

“I protest!” Behemoth exclaimed hotly. “Dostoevsky is immortal!”

Brian Patrick Bolger studied at the LSE. He has taught political philosophy and applied linguistics in Universities across Europe. His articles have appeared in various magazines in the US, the UK, Italy, Canada and Germany. His latest book is Nowhere Fast: Democracy and Identity in the Twenty First Century.

Featured: The Burning of Troy, by Agostino Tassi; painted ca. 16th-17th centuries.