Volume > Issue > The Root Causes of the Dislocation of Our Times

The Root Causes of the Dislocation of Our Times


By Richard Upsher Smith Jr. | June 2021
Richard Upsher Smith Jr., a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is retired from teaching classics and honors at Franciscan University of Steubenville. After serving for 19 years in the Anglican ministry, he converted to Catholicism in 2001. He is finishing an edition of Civil War letters, which he hopes to publish soon.

Imagine a dislocation in men’s lives so deep that common sense no longer makes sense. Now consider the fantastic positions, the fictions, held to be true by those on the Right and the Left in America today. Is there a correlation? Twentieth-century political theorist Hannah Arendt, were she still alive, would identify the former as the root cause of the latter. A current example of such fictions is the story former Republican president Donald Trump and his highly placed allies continue to spread — recently, for example, at the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, held this past February in Orlando, Florida — that the Democrats stole the 2020 presidential election from him. Since this past November, this story has been believed and propagated by Trump’s supporters from all walks of life and all regions of the country, to the point that thousands of them descended on Washington, D.C., on January 6, the date of the election’s certification by Congress, to “Stop the Steal.” They stormed the U.S. Capitol Building, and in the ensuing chaos, more than 140 people were injured and one woman fatally shot.

This violent episode is but one of many in recent years organized or inspired by either the Alternative Right (Alt-Right) or the Anti-Fascists (Antifa). These two loose associations of individuals and groups operate at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they hold worldviews that are equally unreal and equally destructive.

The Alt-Right, which received its name in 2010 but has roots as deep as the Ku Klux Klan, has diminished as a public movement since the violent August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which one person died and 19 were injured (five critically). But the Alt-Right retains influence through such organizations as the National Policy Institute in Atlanta, such online influences as QAnon, and such gangs as the Proud Boys.

The Alt-Right phenomenon has largely been spearheaded by a loosely associated group of anonymous Internet “trolls,” those who purposefully agitate and anger others in online forums. These trolls, who avoid political parties and institutions, are mostly male Caucasians, frequently college-educated, tech savvy, and often under- or unemployed. In a word, they are socially atomized, politically dispossessed, and rootless individuals. They believe in white supremacy and the separation of the races into different polities. They are anti-Semitic, believing in a Jewish world conspiracy. They are anti-immigration. Many are anti-feminist yet pro-choice. They despise the mainstream conservative movement associated with the Republican Party. They believe that contemporary society, culture, economics, and politics are organized against the white “race,” and they are convinced that not only their economic future, but the existence of their race and culture, is in jeopardy.

Antifa began in Minneapolis in 1987 among a multi-racial skinhead crew that was a subset of the post-punk music scene. This crew, influenced by European anti-fascists, whose history goes back to the interwar period, formed Anti-Racist Action (ARA), a decentralized network of militant far-left political cells. Largely anarchist in philosophy, these left-wing skinheads favored direct action: street fights with right-wing, neo-Nazi skinheads and breaking the windows of merchants who sold racist merchandise. ARA spread throughout North America in the 1990s and early 2000s and began to draw adherents from the counterculture beyond the post-punk scene. Quiescent for ten years, ARA’s influence revived in the Trump era, though under different names and with new tactics, particularly “doxxing,” the outing of anonymous Alt-Right trolls by publishing their private personal information online. Antifa adherents — still largely anarchists, though they’ve attracted some communists and socialists too — are “anti-authoritarian” and despise the mainstream liberal movement associated with the Democratic Party.

In addition to being anti-racist or anti-fascist, as were their forebears in the 1930s, Antifa operatives nowadays are pro-abortion, pro-gay, pro-immigrant, anti-imperialist, anti-Israel, and anti-government. They are, in fact, the left-wing mirror image of the Alt-Right: frequently college-educated, tech savvy, and often under- or unemployed. In a word, they too are socially atomized, politically dispossessed, and rootless individuals. And they believe a fiction about the United States that is as fantastic as the Alt-Right’s: that contemporary society, culture, economics, and politics are organized “systemically” to oppress people of color, the working class, women, and homosexuals.

In the Alt-Right and Antifa we can see, beyond the will-o’-the-wisp of Trump’s election mendacity, two fictions about our country with historical roots and troubling implications. One fiction is of an embattled, native-born white race and culture, and of a sex displaced from leadership. The other is a fiction of elite white males conspiring to retain social, economic, and political control of public life. Though these convictions — one about race (or nature), the other about the power structure of our country (or politics and history) — are most often found among the extreme elements on our political scene, they exist on a continuum, the center of which is getting smaller and smaller. The Trump supporter’s sense that the America of his forebears is being dug up by the roots has some continuity with the Alt-Right. The Bernie Sanders follower who believes that American egalitarianism is being strangled by self-interested “one percenters” has some affinity with Antifa.

The cause of the fictions on the extreme Right and Left is an incapacity for commonsense thinking, and for judging, which follows from it.

In our time, as in the early 20th century when totalitarianism was ascendant, common sense is in short supply. “Common sense,” Arendt wrote in Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (1961), “discloses to us the nature of the world insofar as it is a common world; we owe to it the fact that our strictly private and ‘subjective’ five senses and their sensory data can adjust themselves to a nonsubjective and ‘objective’ world which we have in common and share with others. Judging is one, if not the most, important activity in which this sharing-the-world-with-others comes to pass.” For example, it is common sense to trust appearances, for the most part, and to make judgments based on them; not naïvely or without caution, but with confidence, say, that though Caucasians are diminishing as a percentage of the U.S. population, they are still extremely powerful and will be for generations, or that most laws and regulations are intended to serve the public good and are not simply the self-serving fiats of the white-male elite. We judge our world by common sense, that is, by a prudent assessment of the circumstances around us in which we make our lives.

To the European masses of the 1920s and 1930s, who had been cut off from the organizing social principles of the prewar years and the givenness of reality enjoyed by their forebears, the world seemed so intolerably arbitrary that they demanded an explanatory system, which the Nazis and Stalinists provided. If one accepted the primary fictions of the Nazis’ world conspiracies of the Jews (a fiction about nature), or the Stalinists’ of capital (a fiction about history), then the fragmented, incomprehensible world began to make sense again. As Arendt wrote in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1959), “What the masses refuse to recognize is the fortuitousness that pervades reality.”

Mass man and mass society developed after the First World War with the failure of the party system in European politics and the apparent meaninglessness of the class system. “The revolt of the masses against ‘realism,’ common sense, and ‘all the plausibilities of the world,’” Arendt wrote, “was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense.”

An incapacity for commonsense thinking and prudential judgment characterizes mass man and affects mass society. In Between Past and Future Arendt describes the masses as “a society of men who, without a common world which would at once relate and separate them, either live in desperate lonely separation or are pressed together into a mass. For a mass-society is nothing more than that kind of organized living which automatically establishes itself among human beings who are still related to one another but have lost the world once common to all of them.”

The postwar masses consisted not only of poor and working-class people. Many members of the elite, already disgusted with the bourgeois order in 1914 and beguiled by violence in their experience of combat, abandoned what was left of prewar society and amalgamated themselves to the masses. Of course, both Hitler and Stalin eventually liquidated such elite followers because the docility of their intelligence could not be trusted. However, members of the fragmented bourgeoisie were also among the atomized and dispossessed, and they sought their own advantage in the police forces and administrations of the totalitarian regimes. At their worst, they were Himmler’s men, such as Adolf Eichmann, the banal bureaucratic murderer of millions.

Thus, for these groups from which mass man was formed, the “escape from reality is a verdict against the world in which they are forced to live and in which they cannot exist,” Arendt observes in Origins. It was a world in which “coincidence” and “chaotic and accidental conditions” were the defining day-by-day characteristics. Offered scientistic, explanatory fictions, such as the competition of natural species or the warfare of economic classes, the masses believed them in order to give stability to their persons and their lives.

In America today, we are on a similar arc. As Robert D. Putnam demonstrated in his book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), American “social capital” has seriously diminished. By social capital he means the “stock,” so to speak, that Americans have in their families, friends, community institutions, and political forums, stock from which they draw “dividends” in living together in ways that are healthy and productive. Americans might bowl more nowadays, but they join bowling leagues much less. Membership in most civic and religious organizations — for example, rotary clubs and parish churches — is down across the board. Add in the extreme mobility of the white-collar class and the diminishing employment opportunities for the blue-collar class, and it is easy to see that Americans, by and large, have become atomized, dispossessed, and rootless.

These symptoms are similar to those Arendt highlighted in early 20th-century Europe as allowing the rise of totalitarianism. Currently, the majority of Americans, whether on the Left or the Right, do not believe what they read and hear from the mainstream media. On the Right, they say, for instance, that COVID-19 is a conspiracy of left-wing elites to control the citizenry through lockdowns. On the Left, they say that police brutality is rooted in systemic racism. Conspiracy. Systemic. No room is left for contingency and accident. As Arendt said of the masses in her day, “They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations…. What convince masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably a part.”

The causes of the development of mass man in America also resemble those in Arendt’s analysis. We have seen already that the adherents both of the Alt-Right and Antifa are socially atomized and politically dispossessed individuals. Moreover, millions of jobs were lost during the Great Recession of 2008, and more during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 and beyond, and many have not been replaced. Folks across the country have seen their cities, towns, and villages implode from the opioid and meth epidemics. And, as Putnam reports, work (ten percent as a cause), commuting (ten percent), electronic entertainment (25 percent), and generational change (50 percent) have dissipated American social capital significantly since the 1970s. Moreover, the cost in deaths and physical and mental health from 20 years of Middle Eastern wars has been high, especially among Americans living in “flyover country” and inner cities. As the egalitarian structure of our society has changed more and more into a stratified class system of haves and have-nots, our two-party system has come under dramatic stress, as did the party systems in most of Europe in the 1920s.

Moreover, as in Arendt’s day, the masses do not include just the poor and working class. Members of our country’s elite suffer too from the characteristic atomization and dispossession of the masses. One need only think of those involved in Breitbart News on the Right or Jacobin magazine on the Left. Also, many American businessmen and politicians have succumbed to right-wing or left-wing pressure or have exploited extremism on the Right or Left for the sake of their careers, much as the bourgeoisie did with the totalitarian regimes.

It seems clear that the masses now comprise a large fraction of our population, very possibly a majority. And the masses, not able to judge their circumstances by common sense, are more and more prone to politicians’ lies, which they buy willingly for the sake of having a rock on which to stand amid the shifting cultural sands.

For example, former President Trump offered his followers a political vision that amounted to a consistent fiction. He knew his followers believed that foreign trade, immigration, foreign wars, unemployment, globalization, international elites, successful minorities, urban decay, and rural blight had diminished our country’s greatness. Trump offered as explanation a fantastic story of a world organized in a giant conspiracy against them: China’s “theft” of our jobs, NATO’s “parasitism,” the global corporate culture’s “indifference” to American job losses, Islam’s “war” against the West, Central American elites who “send” their poor north, and tribal nations that “drain” the blood of our sons and daughters into their rocks and sands. Though these might be true enough in themselves, and quite comprehensible as examples of contingent self-interest, Trump nevertheless presented them as parts of a web of conspiracies against the dislocated masses of America.

Similar lists of grievances and explanatory fictions could be compiled for the progressive elements of the Democratic Party: police brutality; systemic racism in law, academia, business, and education; a low minimum wage coupled with runaway corporate greed; women’s social and financial inequality in the face of enduring male chauvinism; and so forth.

Now that the masses and their leaders have begun to dominate American life, what can we do? How can Americans find enough common ground so that common sense can again govern political judgment?

We have to learn to live anew, Arendt entreated her readers. “Human dignity needs a new guarantee which can be found only in a new political principle” that would replace the Rights of Man from the French Revolution. This principle, or “new law on earth,” she said, “must comprehend the whole of humanity while its power must remain strictly limited, rooted in and controlled by newly defined territorial entities.” What Arendt suggested sounds a lot like the Catholic principles of solidarity, the notion that social justice should foster human interdependence and flourishing, and subsidiarity, that social issues should be resolved by the communities affected. Just possibly, she said in an essay in the posthumous compilation Thinking Without a Banister: Essays in Understanding, 1953-1975 (2018), this new political principle might be found in the “council system,” a form of direct democracy, which was tried in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and gave Arendt a degree of hope for the future, until the Soviets crushed the uprising.

Also known as workers’ councils, these institutions have been associated with socialist and communist rebellions since 1848. However, Arendt saw precedent for them in Thomas Jefferson’s idea of a “ward system,” resembling the New England townships of his day, and of my own young days. In fact, a Catholic might see in the councils’ concern for human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity something to admire. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict option,” which proposes the withdrawal of traditionalists from secular politics to instead fortify sectarian enclaves, would not quite be the model here. The idea would rather be the re-establishment of our present secular communities on the principles of human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity.

We do know of one instance of the workers’ council system in operation among Catholics today. The municipal region of Cherán in Mexico, an indigenous Catholic community, has been governing itself on the model of workers’ councils since 2011. They chose this model after they drove corrupt, exploitative government officials, police, and murderous gangsters out of their municipio by force. As indigenous people, the local Purépecha have the right to self-government and an indigenous police force under the Mexican Constitution. They chose to establish a direct democracy, with a 12-member executive council and 180 “community campfires,” as well as other representative bodies for such groups as women and young people. No political parties or political campaigns are allowed. The Purépecha practice community policing. While most of them are farmers, a collectively owned sawmill, greenhouse, and concrete factory do exist. The local forest and water sources are managed by the municipio, as are other elements of the infrastructure and the schools. Within the framework of the national constitution and the state, the Purépecha have taken over the direction of their lives and resources for the individual and the common good.

Perhaps there is, indeed, hope for the brave. Perhaps we could do something similar here in Steubenville, Ohio, my own community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and maybe you could do it in your own community, too. For the essentials of human flourishing are at stake.


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