We live in times of radical change, so if we want to understand what’s going on why not start with the sayings of revolutionaries?
In the most basic of modern revolutionary texts, the Communist Manifesto (1848), Marx and Engels tell us that in modern industrial society “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned.” People with a variety of political orientations have agreed: neoliberal economists praise the “creative destruction“ worked by free markets, while Russell Kirk’s depiction of the automobile as a “mechanical Jacobin“ recognizes the same tendency but views it as disastrous. So it seems the comment points out something real.
As revolutionaries, Marx and Engels liked the process, because it meant that “man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.” In other words, they thought that modern conditions strip away the mask and show what life is really about: the quest for material gain, the organization of production, and the struggle between dominant and subordinate classes for wealth and power.
That struggle would, they thought, end in communist victory, a classless society, and an economy of abundance. Events of course did not work out that way. Instead, the Marxist way of thinking spawned horrendously destructive fantasies that, even today, seem impossible to kill. It appears that the conditions that (as Marx and Engels noted) profane all ideals and melt traditional arrangements into air also do away with thought and replace it with mindless ideological fantasy masquerading as unblinkered realistic analysis.
Evidently, modern radicals—and modernity tends toward radicalism—leave important points out of the analysis, routinely and as a matter of principle. They do away with God, nature, and history, because they view everything as a matter of artifice. They want us to live not in the world God created, or in a world formed by a combination of human nature and history, but in a world constructed by the open-ended will and cleverness of man applied to material realities.
In other words, their approach to life is technological. That is now the mainstream approach, and our surroundings make it seem inevitable and justified. Today all things work together to separate us from reality in the name of practical effectiveness. Our physical setting is ever more artificial. Advances in transportation and communications abolish distance. Lighting, heating, and air conditioning abolish day, night, weather, and seasons. We eat the same packaged and prepared food year round all over the country. And electronic media dissolve objects and events into fragmentary sounds and images that can be reassembled however people want. Under such circumstances, the world seems a self-contained man-made production, and God, nature, and history drop out of the picture.
The situation is mirrored in accepted and even official ways of thinking. The standards for goodness and reality today are how I feel and what authoritative experts say. Anything else—tradition, religion, common sense—is considered ignorance and bigotry. But what the experts say is determined by the workings of the institutions that declare them experts. In a technological age knowledge is power, power establishes the goals and rewards of expertise, and what experts say reliably harmonizes with the interests of their employers. Anyone who reads the New York Times knows how rare it is for “what experts say” to differ from the story the writer, who got where he is by pleasing the very powerful institution that employs him, wants to tell.
In spite of its current acceptance the view that the world is what people feel and make it to be is madness that leads straight to tyranny. The madness of classical twentieth century totalitarianism, which tried to recreate the world through terroristic violence, has disappeared except in a few eccentric places like North Korea. Nonetheless, we see equal or greater madness all around us. Its reign is softer, perhaps, but it can be softer because it is more pervasive and radical. In Orwell’s 1984 the protagonist had to be physically tortured into accepting his interrogator’s decision to identify as someone holding up five fingers when he was only holding up four. Today even stranger self-identifications are enforced by fines, lawsuits, public shaming, loss of livelihood, and so on.
So people who run things and dominate public discussion today believe at bottom what Marx and Engels believed, in the disappearance of God, history, and the limitations of nature in favor of a world of supposedly equal freedom created by will and technical skill applied to everything. Radical revolution in favor of technocratic utopia has become the mainstream.
What do we do in such a setting? How do we restore ourselves to reason and reality in a world that has turned human choice into a divine principle? We hope ultimately to do the same for our fellow citizens, but must start with ourselves.
Since the problems go so deep we need to turn around the whole way of life into which almost all of us have been educated. One basic necessity is independence from an insane culture. Instead of going with the flow, turning on the tube, and keeping up with what people are talking about, we should drop pop culture, media addiction, and the sayings of pundits. Most of it’s illusion and distraction, junk food and opiates for the soul made even more unhealthy by its propagandistic and manipulative dimension.
Instead of all that we need to attend to things that better connect us to the world and human life: real history, with people and events that don’t fit the mold of current fantasies; good literature—there’s some for every taste—to expand our imaginative grasp of persons, events, and ways of life; actual science, so we can know what it says and does not say; and music and other disinterested joys that focus and illuminate instead of deaden.
No man is an island, and it’s hard to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so we also need to surround ourselves with living influences that pull in the right direction. Our family, neighbors, and relatives are who they are, and give us a slice of life as it is lived today. The to and fro of daily life put much more of the same in our way. In such settings we must do our best with people as they are and hope for the best.
Voluntary associations can be more selective, and we need to consider which way they point us. Our friends guide our topics of thought and standards of conduct, so we should take care that the way they lead us is worth going. And we should read publications and associate with groups that are constructive—which may of course include those that are contemplative or dissident in the right way.
Such groups especially include the Church, at least when she is being true to herself. Man is social, thought and efforts need a focus, and God is the Most Real Being, so the Church is the natural setting for an attempt to return to reality. Without her, independence from the world around us is all but impossible, and reorientation toward what is best and most real yet more so. We are talking about conversion, after all, and where apart from the Church can that reliably be found?