I promise, I didn’t time this sequence of posts so that this one would come out the morning after one of the most bitterly fought midterm elections in memory. Nor, of course, did I have advance notice of the outcome, though it wasn’t a surprise to me that the much-ballyhooed “blue wave” would flop as badly as it did. In place of the sweeping rejection of Trump’s presidency that the Democratic Party called for, the usual first-term midterm reaction that brings the minority party back into power in Congress gave the Dems only a thin majority in the House of Representatives. Meanwhile they lost badly in the Senate, where an expanded Republican majority can continue to ratify Trump’s judicial nominees and block any attempt to use the constitutional mechanism of impeachment to remove him from office.
In the weeks ahead we’ll doubtless see any number of attempted analyses of what did or didn’t happen in the midterm elections, spinning an equivocal election to support one or the other side of a savagely divided electorate. Popcorn vendors will have plenty of business as those of us not committed to either of these two contending forces watch the posturing from a comfortable distance. Back beyond the momentary passions of politics and personalities move broader forces, and it’s important to try to sense those now, as the smoke of the election clears and it becomes possible, for those who are willing, to look past the present moment and catch some glimpse of the deeper cycles of history in which elections play a transient role.
So far in this series of explorations we’ve used the insights of Oswald Spengler as our primary framework for understanding these deeper shapes of history, and I’d encourage those of you who are following along to keep Spengler’s basic concepts in mind as we proceed. This week’s post, though, will draw a little more heavily on another student of historical cycles, Spengler’s English rival Arnold Toynbee. In his massive twelve-volume work A Study of History, Toynbee took up Spengler’s comparative method and applied it with encyclopedic scope to the history of every culture on which he could assemble adequate data.
The overall theory that Toynbee derived from his study is to my mind less convincing than Spengler’s, but then he had a much larger personal stake in the question than Spengler did. Where Spengler supported himself quietly as a high school teacher and pursued his polymath’s banquet of studies in deliberate obscurity, Toynbee was a member of Britain’s governing caste, working as the managing secretary of a prestigious nonprofit with close ties to the British governments of his day, and his historical research was carried out with the support of elite groups in Britain and America. Spengler could look calmly at Britain as a fading Athens, eclipsed by a Rome he thought would most likely be located in either New York or Berlin; Toynbee backed away from so ruthless a clarity, and retreated into handwaving at exactly the point where Spengler went forward to his (so far, mostly successful) predictions.
When it came to the fine details, though, Toynbee was the more precise and thus in many places the more useful. He noted the phenomenon that Spengler called pseudomorphosis—the process by which a rising culture takes on the political, economic, religious, and social forms of an older and more prestigious culture—and took it apart, examining the whole range of encounters between civilizations in space and time. In the process, one of the things he highlighted was the role in such encounters of an intelligentsia.
That’s a Russian word originally, by the way, but it came into being—as plenty of words in many languages come into being—by taking a word from one language and slapping onto it a grammatical suffix from a different language. This is roughly the process by which an intelligentsia comes into being, too. The intelligentsia, in Toynbee’s terms, are those people who belong to one culture but who are educated in the ideas, customs, and practices of another.
That can happen because the first culture is conquered by the second, and the new overlords proceed to impose their own cultural forms on their new domain; it can also happen because the elite classes of the first culture, in order to compete in a world dominated by the second culture, adopt the second culture’s ideas and habits as far as they can. For an example of the first category, think of the native schoolteachers and minor bureaucrats recruited by European colonial empires all through the nineteenth century; for an example of the second, think of those Third World nations today that have parliamentary democracies, build skyscrapers in their capitals, and outfit their elite classes in business suits and neckties.
The intelligentsia are the foot soldiers of pseudomorphosis. They’re the ones whose task it is to take the foreign cultural forms they themselves have embraced and impose them, by persuasion or force, on other members of their society. There are inevitably sharp limits to how far they can take this process; there is always pushback, and since the intelligentsia are always a fairly small minority the pushback can’t just be brushed aside. That’s where you get the standard pattern of a colonial society, with a cosmopolitan elite class (either foreign or native), a native intelligentsia aspiring to a cosmopolitan status they will never attain, and the vast and sullen laboring classes that regard with smoldering hostility both the intelligentsia and the foreign culture it promotes.
The position of the intelligentsia, privileged as it is, has its bitter downsides. On the one hand, they are hated and despised by the members of the vast and sullen laboring classes just mentioned; on the other, they can never quite win the approval of the foreign elites whose ways they so sedulously imitate. Neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat, the intelligentsia are caught in the gap between cultures, and within the limits of the worldview that emerges in a colonial society, there’s no way out of their predicament: they never succeed either in converting the masses to the ways of the foreign culture they’ve embraced, on the one hand, or in being fully accepted by the people who belong to that foreign culture on the other.
What breaks they intelligentsia out of their predicament, rather, are precisely those things that they fear most. To begin with, there’s personal failure. It so happens that, as I noted a few months back, it’s normal for the education system of a mature society to train far more people for managerial positions than the society’s institutions can absorb. In a society of the kind we’re discussing, the numbers of the intelligentsia inevitably balloon far beyond what the job market for schoolteachers, minor bureaucrats, and other similar positions can take in. The result is an explosive far more dangerous than mere dynamite: an educated underclass that has been cast aside by the system, after its members have been trained in all the skills necessary to understand their position and organize opposition to the existing order of things.
Then there’s the second factor, which is that no dominant culture retains its dominance forever. One way or another, the high tide of political power and cultural charisma is always followed by the running of the waters back out to sea. As the dominant culture loses its ascendancy, the intelligentsia no longer has a ready market for its only stock in trade, and the pushback from the laboring classes gains in strength.
The first thing that happens then is that the educated underclass, composed of people who have been trained for the intelligentsia but failed to claw their way into the jobs for which they have been prepared, makes common cause with the laboring classes. Look at the twilight years of Europe’s Third World colonies and you’ll find that dynamic at work. What pushes things over the edge into rapid change is that members of the intelligentsia who aren’t part of the underclass, who got the good jobs and the prestigious positions under the colonial regime, notice what’s happening, weigh their options, and side with the underclass and the masses. You’ve probably heard of a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi; read the first half or so of any good biography of him and you’ll see that dynamic written in letters ten feet tall.
This, in turn, brings us back to the theme I’ve been pursuing in recent weeks. North America and Russia are still, culturally speaking, European colonies; the elite classes in both nations ape the fashions and habits of wealthy Europeans just as sedulously as do the elite classes of so many Third World nations; the architecture of both nation’s major cities, the art forms the urban elites consume so avidly, even the clothing styles on display, are all European inventions. That’s par for the course in cultural colonies or, to put the same thing in Spengler’s terms, in societies under the influence of pseudomorphosis from a dominant culture.
It doesn’t actually make that much of a difference that political power slipped out of the hands of European elites most of a century ago, and they and their nations play second fiddle to the rulers of the really important nations. The same thing happened more than two millennia ago when Greece fell under Roman domination. Roman patricians still vied with one another to parade their knowledge of Greek culture, and decorated their villas with statues bought in Greece the way American millionaires used to snap up the European paintings that decorate art museums in Pittsburgh and Omaha today. The cultural charisma of the older society remains in place, at the level of the privileged elite and the intelligentsia that members of the elite hire and fire at will.
As I’ve never lived in Russia, and my exposure to Russian culture mostly involves literature written by dead people, I can’t state from personal experience how precisely the colonial structure of society fits what’s going on there. Here in America, on the other hand, I’ve got the advantage of lifelong residence spent in a variety of regions, and the match is exact. We’ve got our cosmopolitan elite class, wallowing in the absurd displays of extravagance common to any empire in its diminuendo phase; we’ve got our intelligentsia, caught in the usual bind, fretting at their exclusion from the classes above them, and unable to convince the classes below them to adopt the European ideas and habits that are their only stock in trade; and we’ve got the vast and sullen laboring classes who regard the intelligentsia and their ideas with the usual mix of hatred and contempt, and whose pushback against the pseudomorphosis being thrust on them has become a political fact of immense importance.
The American intelligentsia, it’s worth noting, has been caught up in a specifically European pseudomorphosis for as long as there’s been an American intelligentsia. The specific focus of their dreams has shifted over the course of its history, to be sure; from colonial days to the beginning of the twentieth century, members of the intelligentsia here aped the English; during the first two-thirds or so of the twentieth century, France was the usual focus of such obsessions—I’m thinking here among many other things of the wry offhand comment by British author Somerset Maugham, in his novel The Razor’s Edge, that France was where good Americans hoped to go when they died.
These days it’s usually the Scandinavian countries that provide the model on which members of the American intelligentsia consciously or half-consciously model their dreams of what they want the United States to become. (It’s a habit that my Scandinavian friends find baffling, for whatever that’s worth.) A few years ago a book, The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia by Michael Booth, tried to disabuse readers in the English-speaking world of their habit of idolizing the Nordic countries; as far as I can tell, it didn’t accomplish much, and if it had, the people at whom it was aimed would simply have found some other European country to hold up as an ideal.
In America, it’s essential to the self-concept of the intelligentsia to pretend not to be American, and to make a studied show of contempt for their own cultural and ethnic background. That’s how they prove to themselves that they don’t belong to “those people,” the ordinary Americans the intelligentsia love to despise. (I’m old enough to remember when the words “those people,” spoken by middle- and upper middle-class white people with exactly the same tone of voice and curl of lip, invariably meant people of color; the fact that it now means white working class people is a useful testimony to the way that class bigotry has supplanted racial bigotry as the prejudice du jour among our privileged classes.)
The difficulties faced by the American intelligentsia in their hopeless quest to Europeanize the United States, however, go beyond the usual factors that render such projects exercises in futility. Crucially, at the ideological core of European civilization lies the conviction that all human history is a prelude to Europe; that what Europe is now, all other societies will inevitably become; that Europe is uniquely modern, and any society that isn’t copying Europe down to the fine details is backwards and needs to catch up to the cutting edge of the future, which is (again) Europe. No doubt that’s very comforting to believe, but it doesn’t happen to be true.
The pervasive confusion that equates “European” to “modern” and consigns everything else to a notional past, is an immense barrier to understanding just now. Europe is what it is, and has the habits it has, because of the immense legacy of a couple of millennia of extremely idiosyncratic history. Wherever that history didn’t happen, the forms of European culture form a shallow veneer over a very different substrate, and show no signs of taking deeper root. It’s essential to the worldview and the self-concept of the American intelligentsia that this should not be the case, since their worlds revolve around the conviction that someday Arkansas will have the attitudes and cultural habits that Boston has today—by which time, of course, Boston will presumably be indistinguishable from a European city, or more precisely from the fantasy of what a European city ought to be that haunts the American intelligentsia’s collective imagination.
Now of course the cities of Europe, even those in Scandinavia, don’t have much in common with the fantasy just indicated. Europe is going through its own hard transition right now, driven by conflicts of a sort we also have over here—the inevitable struggle, discussed at some length by Spengler, between elitist plutocracy disguised as democracy on the one hand, and populist Caesarism backed by the masses on the other. (May I risk a spoiler? In the long run, this isn’t a struggle the plutocrats can win.) But there’s another factor, and it’s the one that we discussed last week: the pervasive link, hard to define but perilous to ignore, that binds a civilization to the broad region in which it arose.
Here in the United States, it’s not hard to catch the difference between those regions that were part of the preindustrial European world, such as the old coastal settlements of the Atlantic seaboard, and the vast hinterlands left all but untouched until Europe had finished its cultural development (in Spengler’s view, this happened around 1800). As the Eagles sang back in the day, in Providence “the old world’s shadows hang heavy in the air;” walk the streets of Providence today and you’ll taste something distinctly half-European in the ambience there. You can feel it even more strongly in old towns such as Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which were spared the ravages of twentieth-century urban renewal.
Go west into the mountains or beyond them and that vanishes utterly. What replaces it is a sense of something still raw and unformed, moving in the dark silent soil under the strip malls and subdivisions, reaching clumsily as yet toward some fulfillment whose shape has not yet become clear. That’s something that writers and poets have been sensing in the American land for a couple of centuries now. Back in the days of frontier expansion, that sense got taken (or in my view, mistaken) for an awareness of the vast potential of the European-American settlement; later, in the heyday of US empire, it got tangled up in a collective daydream that saw an Anglo-American imperium as the Universal State that would bring peace to a Europeanized world.
The frontier closed a century and a quarter ago and the temporary hegemony of the United States over most of the world is cracking around us as I write this, but I’ve felt the same thing stirring as I’ve walked various corners of the American land: the “Buffalo Wind” that Ernest Thompson Seton wrote about so movingly in his essays, the sense of a land pregnant with the future that Robinson Jeffers explored just as powerfully in his verse. I’ve never had the chance to walk along the Volga and see if something parallel stirs in the earth and the wind, offering a foretaste of another great culture on its way to manifestation—but I’d be willing to bet that it’s there.
The political convulsions we’re witnessing right now in the United States are part of the process by which the European pseudomorphosis will be shaken off. That a large part of our intelligentsia is appalled by this comes as no surprise, though I’m not sure why so many of them seem to think that a nonstop tantrum of the sort made famous by spoiled two-year-olds is a meaningful or effective response to it. (I suppose it’s mostly that acting out has become fashionable in avant-garde circles these days.) They’re going to have many more opportunities for shrieking in the years ahead, and some opportunities for celebration as well; the process we’re discussing isn’t something that will be accomplished in a few years, or even in a lifespan, but to judge by the evidence of history, it will play out in the usual fashion, in something fairly close to the usual time scale.
We live in the interval between a death and a difficult birth. We’ll talk in future posts about some of the way the rest of that interval may play out.
By the way, there’s been a running conversation about vaccination during the last few posts on this blog, and though I’m glad to provide a space for controversial topics to be discussed in a polite fashion, it’s getting way off topic at this point. I’ve therefore established an open post on my Dreamwidth journal on this topic, and all further discussion about vaccination should go there. Thank you!