I have, both for my own edification and as research for my book, A Century’s Last Catholics, been reading Mark Mazower’s Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century. An “alternative” history in the sense that it presents the twentieth as a series of ideological and culture “close-calls” instead of as the resounding triumph of Western liberalism, in which democracy, in many ways, barely squeaked by, it’s been a remarkably productive read, if slow in the places where he gets bogged down in economic indicators and production figures; I’ve never been interested in those sorts of numbers. The book’s thesis, though, isn’t so simple as “we only barely got here” as much as it is “we could just as easily have been somewhere else.” He discusses the roots and appeal of fascism, the crisis of democracy, the USSR’s strategies in Eastern Europe, and the excesses and existential crises of Western success.
In particular, as I work through the last hundred pages of this red tome, it becomes apparent to me that he’s describing something profound, that the twentieth century changed the world in a way we very rarely consider: the end of the working class, and thus, of classical Leftism, with the concurrent rise in “identity politics” in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Class differences had diminished in the obscene prosperity of the postwar world, and all, from the richest to the poorest, had essentially been reclassified as consumers, their economic interests secondary to their material wants. With no class solidarity, no mass action anymore, and an economy no longer driven by production growth but by consumption, the age of the power of labor was over. Essentially, the class conflict that had pretty much defined the modern age from the Industrial Revolution onward was over. There simply was no more proletariat, as some socialist and communist thinkers lamented.
The end of this class struggle — which ended with a firm victory for the middle class, the bourgeois having firmly annexed everybody else — marked the rise of new concerns for the Left and Right alike. Suddenly class couldn’t be appealed to. Suddenly wages weren’t a political issue. Political ennui set in, voters became famously disaffected, and societal concerns changed. It seems a form of subtle chaos set in. The old order of modernity having been swept away, societal cohesion became passé. Social roles came under suspicion; with no sense of class, familial, or societal obligation, everything became a matter of choice. As Mazower tells it, what was once “living in sin” became “cohabitation.” Marriage rates soared — but then, so did divorce rates. Illegitimate births doubled in West Germany, Portugal, Greece, and Austria, Mazower reports; they tripled in the UK, Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and France. The victory of the bourgeois meant the victory of abject middle-class individualism.
Everything was now a matter of consumption. In every aspect we became consumers. Beyond simple materialism, we became lifestyle consumers. We could be punks or hippies or rebels or teddy boys or yuppies — and it all amounted to a different set of costumes and products for us to consume. The “teenager” of the fifties and sixties vanished; in its place lay a vast expanse of subcultures in which to participate, complete with their own specialty shops. Rebellion was coopted and marketed back. So was conformity. And so we began to identify with these groups; where once class, job, and religion served as primary social markers, there began to emerge new identity groups, from sexual orientation to the sort of music you listened to, and all of it caught up in the language of rights. With authoritarianism thoroughly discredited, two severe recessions undermining economic confidence and collective identity, much of the sense of community had dissipated. A societal duty was a shucking of individual choice.
I can barely understand the change the world went through during the Twentieth. I’ve liked to say before that my generation is uniquely placed to understand and learn from it, but it seems more and more like the only generation fully capable of that was the Boomers, and they’re the very ones who were caught up in it to begin with. My cohort emerged into this world fully-formed. Perhaps we can never look back on the past with any real sense of understanding; perhaps we can’t ever be much more than people of our time.
Of course, if I believed that was true, I wouldn’t study history, and neither would I think Catholicism — both in its eternal, salvific capacity to help people turn to God and be transformed, and in its strictly social communitarian aspect — a salve on mankind’s self-inflicted injuries. But the culture we face now is still very new and something unlike anything the Church has ever encountered. Even the Church’s social teaching — which is amazingly brilliant — was enunciated primarily in the world of class and employment-based social solidarity, not the modern world of individualist consumers. I’m not sure how we can deal with that world, except sound preaching and deliberate rejection of the world’s values, and that doesn’t just mean itspolitical values.
It drives me insane sometimes, that the perception we have of rejecting the world’s values seems to extend no further than not being liberal and keeping a sense of sexuality being powerful and not a toy. That’s all well and good, but the culture goes deeper than that, and there are absolutely aspects of it that need to be rejected that we can barely see, like the unrestrained consumerism, not simply for material things, but inevery aspect of our lives. These need to be addressed and considered. We need to be really countercultural, and not just superficially so. And as far as I can tell, that means an embrace of communitarian values over individualist values; the end of material self-definition.