When We Stopped Making Sense
A Review of Desmond Fennell's "The Second American Revolution And The Sense Famine In The West"
Conspicuous changes of official names and symbols were a central feature of modern utopian projects, from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks. Satirists and dystopian novelists that later critiqued them mimicked the heavy handed imposition of the total renaming of everything from places to common language to history itself. But imagine if the Bolsheviks, for example, had instead kept all the symbolism of the state exactly the same while pressing ahead with a revolution in the class structure, values, culture, economics, the expansion of territory and so on, so that the day after the revolution people just woke up in a place still called Russia, with the same flag, the same anthem, some surprising new faces in the ruling class but never from then on any formal recognition that anything had changed, even as people could see all around them that life wasn’t the same. Think of how this would have made it impossible to name and thus to conceptualize as a project that was knowingly created, that began and therefor might one day end. Would the Soviet Union have fallen if it was never understood to have existed?
This is essentially how the writer Desmond Fennell understood post war America. He wrote that the West’s present ethical system is a post-European experiment on a scale far surpassing the Soviet Union, emanating from the USA. It brought into being “experimental systems of human living” which invalidated the entire framework of the existing civilisation by enduringly establishing new rules to purge and replace that which came before it in every aspect of private and public life. He also believed that its continuation rests only on the ever increasing power to buy and provide things to consumers and when that increase ceases “it will devolve into violent social chaos.” To understand this, he argues, we should recognise that there was a Second American Revolution and that we are all living in its economically and militarily victorious creation.
To this day we are still grasping around for words and concepts to describe the thing we sense we are living under - liberalism? neoliberalism? technocratic capitalism? libertinism? authoritarianism? woke-something? - and we still haven’t quite found it. Years ago Fennell wrote an essay in which he tried to theorise the general sense many now feel intensely, that we live under a nonsensical and absurd regime, a permanent revolution of rules built upon a shaky moral and metaphysical foundation that is self-contradictory and mysterious to us or which may not exist in any stable sense. Some now call it Clownworld. Conspiracy theories abound in an attempt to grasp what it is.
Although its vision was distinct from the other utopias and kept American exceptionalism intact, in his view it was the most profoundly radical of the revolutionary utopian experiments, which benefited from having never formally recognised the end of the old regime and the arrival of a new. He compares this to ancient Rome, in which the Republic’s replacement with the Empire was not spoken of as having amounted to a revolution until Ronald Styme’s 1939 book The Roman Revolution. The second American Revolution began in the 1930s, he argues, and was complete by the early 1970s. All the other radical 20th century experiments perished, he says, “only that resulting from the Second American Revolution - the system in which we now live in the West - remains.”
When Fennell uses the term sense or sense-making he is describing a binding and holistic system of values through which a people make sense of the world and their lives, which is strong enough to outlast all the other changes and crises. He defines civilization as “a grounded hierarchy of values and rules covering all of life and making sense, which a community’s rulers and ruled subscribe to over a long period… because the community is motivated to keep reproducing itself by the sense, and therefor goodness, that it finds in its framework for life.”
Before I get into the essay, what fascinated me about it was that Fennell was writing at a time when Western society must have seemed more stable than it does now, well before the rise of populism, and most of us were oblivious to the chaos of nonsensical elite rules that have become obvious since “the great awokening”. It must have seemed gloomy and out of step with the time. I can’t say with much certainty whether Fennell is ultimately correct but I think the framing of the piece has aged well. I also think Western elites on some level understand the possible truth in what he’s saying here, that if military power and consumer power are not kept in constant growth, there is no foundation to stop the society that has been created from collapsing.
Fennell is not well known outside of Ireland because he dedicated most of his life in writing to Irish national questions, particularly to the nature of partition in the North. He was also an Irish language enthusiast who lived for a time in the Irish speaking region known as the Gaeltacht but travelled widely and was able to write on the very small and the very large scale about human societies. A noticeable theme running through his writing, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, originated most likely in his philosophical travel writing in Japan. He also once had the bad manners to point out a truth secretly suspected by all in Ireland but never uttered publicly - that Seamus Heaney just wasn’t that great. As soon as I discovered this, I knew I had to go on a mission to find everything he had ever written and I’m still working my way through it. I found this essay in an out-of-print book I had to order directly from the small independent original publisher.
He begins with the election of FDR and the New Deal, which marshalled the state to relieve the poverty and unemployment of the Great Depression but also began the process of expanding into all spheres of life including things like the arts. (Don’t worry, this is not a silly “free market” screed.) He says dispassionately that it was a totalitarian vision in the original meaning of “a state that involved itself in every aspect of people’s lives authoritatively in tandem with a non-religious teaching authority” while also keeping American exceptionalism intact by denouncing all non-liberal-democratic forms of government engaging in the totalitarian model. It brought about an end to official Christian morality as a “determinant of behavioral rules” and replaced it with “a fraternity of individuals raised and lowered to legal equality”. According to its vision, all citizens must be “equipped with buying power and the desires of individuals must be recognised as rights and realised as far as possible.”
“When twelve New Deal measures were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, Roosevelt threatened to appoint extra judges who would approve them. Eventually, with the help of left-liberal judges appointed to fill the vacancies, the Court was rendered compliant. Between 1937 and 1946, it reversed thirty-two of its earlier interpretations of the Constitution, extending back over a period of 150 years. In effect, therefor, the Supreme Court presented the revolutionary government with a new Constitution tailored to its needs. In 1940, in disregard of the American precedent, Roosevelt was elected President for a third term.” Having consolidated emergency powers, it “reached its apogee with the manufacture of the atomic bomb” and defeated its rivals Germany and Japan, emerging as the unrivaled superpower of the world.
Its legitimisation of the atomic massacres in Japan “licensed the American state and by extension its British and French allies to construct thousands of even more powerful weapons of massacre.” From then on at home “the general aim of their programme - given the backing of a powerful, active state - was to bring about, by pedagogical, legislative, financial and scientific means, a perfect human condition.”
The Truman years saw some conservative backlash preventing progress but “the breakthrough came, and the revolution entered its culminating phase when, at the end of the 1950s and in the following decade, the US government and manufacturing industry needed urgently to increase consumption, with its dual yield of revenue and profit.” While weapons manufacturing and military technology to fight the Cold War massively increased technological capabilities for consumer production in excess of market demand, they saw in the as yet unfulfilled vision of the radical progressive utopians a great potential for expanding consumption via feminism, the unleashing of individual desires, and the opening up of the markets to ever younger people through youth culture, the values of globalisation and so on. By the 1970s a set of progressive cultural values we still live with today had been established in the universities, the media and among the intelligentsia and from this time on, a “substitute clergy” or ethical teaching body was created to teach society its post-European values and “regardless of which party was in government, this collective would retain its pre-eminent teaching status… The principle preaching space allotted to the liberals was in the mass media, including films, which they dominated pedagogically”.
Today we still scratch our heads at the seeming contradictions of the egalitarianism of progressive elites, or at “ethical consumerism” or at what is now referred to as “woke capitalism” and continue a public pseudo-debate about the free market versus the welfare state, but Fennell places this in historical context as the ruling order of the American post-European utopian experiment since the unspoken revolution. He describes it also as tapping into timeless human dynamics of power:
“Rulers who wish to increase their power regardless of the rules, while continuing to rank as virtuous, find substantial common cause with innovative idealists who want a society shaped by new rules that empower people. The rulers increase their political power by enacting the idealists’ new rules to their own advantage, while the idealists celebrate them as enlightened and virtuous rulers. The idealists end up powerful in a semblance of their envisioned life that has been tailored to suit the ruler’s interests” which he says requires an inequality of living conditions and political power as extreme as any previous societies it was supposed to be an improvement on “along with an inequality of financial power.” As long as military and some mass consumer power persists, however, the system goes on.
Through a hybrid of military-fueled technological innovation and consumer goods with an empowered ethical teaching class advancing individual liberation from all previous ethical restrains of Christian European civilisation, a massively increased consumption became the engine of the whole society. “It was, and remains, the culminating realisation of the centuries old drive… to acquire, collectively and individually, ever greater ethical power, in the sense of the ability to do more things and bigger things, including things previously illicit, and be justified.”
He goes on to describe how the American utopian model spread to Europe and now dominates there too.
He then says this new collection of values does not constitute a civilisation because “it lacks the sine qua non of a civilisation: it does not make sense to the human collective it is presented to and imposed on, thereby ensuring emotional attachment to it and durability. Thrown together to promote justice, virtue, consumption and power, its hybrid sponsors treated overall sense as superfluous… The collection constitutes… a theoretical experiment.” The rules lack “any supreme value from which subordinate values and their attendant rules derive” and instead appear in daily life as an undifferentiated collection of do’s, don’ts and do-as-you-likes he says, administered by the teaching class in a senseless manner. So for example, the rules say don’t prevent a woman from having an abortion… don’t smoke in an enclosed space… don’t engage in military aggression without the permission of the United Nations. He goes on to say that “because the consumers don’t have available a grounded exposition by the Correctorate of which of these incorrectnesses is gravely, less gravely, or only somewhat incorrect, they must perforce try to gauge this from the Correctorate’s reactions or non-reactions to incorrectnesses as they occur… the teaching thus delivered is bafflingly dual… In all human communities, for the most serious of reasons including collective survival, the use of the human reproductive organs has been subjected to strict and intelligible grounded rules. Note, by contrast, the Correctorate’s rule: provided that minors and adults use their reproductive organs separately, that if more than one user is involved there is mutual consent, and that a condom is employed unless conception is intended, do as you like in private or in public.” This “chaos of rules” provides only a flimsy “ersatz sense” in place of the powerful and clear religious moral codes that have allowed civilizations across the world to endure over centuries.
The Covid crisis is the latest thing to bring what Fennell was talking about to the surface. If the mysterious ethos behind the rules were to be applied to other areas of life modern society would cease to function. For example we could never drive a car again because that causes road deaths. But the rules seemed to be undergirded by the moral conviction that saving lives is more important than freedom. At the same time, thousands dying of drug-related deaths is morally acceptable as long as it can be done legally because that’s the price of freedom, a thing we value above merely saving lives. Those are the rules. You have to accept both simultaneously and nobody can really understand or explain why.
The ethos of the sexual revolution is today simultaneously ultra puritanical and ultra libertine depending on the context, so that the abandonment of your wife and children is now less of a social faux pas than asking someone out on a date at work - you can only get publicly disgraced and fired for the latter. Most just trundle along confused but hoping that we can survive unscathed through correctly intuiting what elites decide the new rules will be in any individual case. This now reaches into every aspect of life and the imposition of new rules is becoming ever more strange to us, which is already manifesting in ways that Fennell alludes to, and will one day bring the experiment crashing down, he claims.
“For the most part we experience it as senseless unreflectively, in that depth of our being where countless generations of human beings before us have trained us by heredity to assess - in a combined act of reason, feeling and intuition - any presentation purporting to be a framework for life. And that encounter with senselessness, when our minds and hearts are seeking sense, sends distress, a pain of the soul, pressing into our consciousness.” Nothing more natural, then, he says, than that we would want to stop reproducing this society altogether by becoming childless and sterile and to commit self-injury and the annihilation of consciousness through drugs, self-harm and suicide, even as we simultaneously believe this is the greatest model of life that has ever existed.
Having surpassed “its more conservatively post-western Soviet counterpart” he says “for as long as the buying and doing power of governments and consumers continues to increase, and the teaching that this contemporary western life is morally the best life ever known continues to have some force for some, the West’s senseless post-European system will continue to function.” But “with no sense-making respected set of rules to fall back on as a comforting matrix of order in the reduced material circumstances, the inevitable will happen. The chaos of the prevailing values and rules will be transformed into a violent social chaos without many precedents in history.”
He ends by saying that this period of experimental modern utopias and beyond the collapse of the American liberal utopia “future historians will call ‘transitional’ and compare it to the transitional period between the civilisations of ancient Rome and Europe… It will end in a new civilisation, or new civilisations, in the West. The plural is the more likely outcome… But that civilisation in one form or another will return in the West is certain. The ineradicable human craving for sense in life will ensure that.”
I’m sure readers will find things to disagree and agree with in Fennell’s framing and no doubt there’s plenty for historians to nit pick in this sweeping narrative. It is similar in some ways to many other declension narratives but what I found most compelling is the language it gives us to describe what is wrong. His use of “sense” and “sense-making” at first struck me as vague but the more I have thought about this essay the more it seems the most truthful and profound way of understanding this thing we struggle to describe. I wonder if the increasingly forced and heavy handed renaming practices of progressive elites today upon a confused public is also a sign that they’re losing the cleverness of the past American progressive idealists. The recent conspicuous fusion of the cultural revolution with the military apparatus showcased in the new “woke CIA” suggests they may be preparing for the potential outcome he suggested, entrenching further because they can’t solve the fundamental problem. Can a sense-making framework as durable and holistic as that of the great civilisations ever be created in the absence of religion? And can this experiment survive without endless military and consumer growth? And if the technocrat-designed continued growth of the system fails, as it surely must at some point, what is that going to look like?