The Revenge of History

Malcolm Kyeyune  March 2022 Compact Magazine

The world we inhabit would have been almost impossible to imagine at the turn of the millennium. In those days, the United States was the undisputed economic and military hegemon. The dot-com bubble had yet to burst, the great recession loomed distantly. American elites were busy shifting the country’s industrial base to China. And the idea that the Western security order could be challenged, or even outright disregarded without consequence, was unthinkable. This was the West’s halcyon End-of-History moment.

That world is now well and truly dead. The economic model of deindustrializing the West while industrializing China has proved to be economically and politically suicidal. Globalism has broken down, as supply jams, resource shortages, and price inflation conspire to squeeze consumers past the breaking point. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine revealed the West to be incapable of deterrence. Ukraine was promised a future as a part of NATO, but as with so many other promissory notes from the good old days, this one bounced. The future of the Western alliance itself remains an open question, notwithstanding the recent surge of resolve, especially in Berlin. The Continent’s green-driven energy dependence, after all, is a structural crisis without a quick fix.

What is true for Western geopolitics is equally true on the domestic end. Just as Russia and China were biding their time, nurturing their grievances, and waiting for an opportunity to return to center stage, so, too, has real class conflict returned. At the End of History, ideas such as “class struggle” were almost quaint. We already had the perfect society—improving everyone’s welfare was the order of the day, not managing conflicts between mutually opposed groups within society. In 2016, one could still be forgiven for believing that the West was heading toward a “cultural” mode of politics. But in 2022, the notion seems ridiculous.

In an article for American Compass, Canadian trucker Gord Magill coined the term “the email caste” to contrast people like himself, who toil to deliver tangible goods, to those whose work is largely abstract and intangible in nature (mostly within nongovernmental organizations, academe, and endlessly expanding corporate bureaucracies). Magill is hardly the first person to point this out (we used to talk about “anywheres” versus “somewheres”), but he managed to succinctly capture something real: one of the deepest fault lines dividing Western democracies.

What has also become clear is that “wokeness” isn’t just some ideology that can, or should, be fought in the marketplace of ideas. Every woke campaign amounts to nothing more than a demand for added managerial intermediation—that is, the constant creation of new positions for experts, consultants, and commissars of various flavors.

In Hollywood, for example, the demand for more minority characters in film is reinforced by a simultaneous insistence that white people couldn’t possibly write such characters themselves. In fact, they must hire those who have the requisite expertise as “diversity consultants” (who, by the way, expect to be well-paid for their services). In other words, scratch a woke demand for inclusivity, and you will find a jobs program. Even things that appear unrelated to the woke mania, such as with the often-hysterical responses to Covid-19, can’t help but be ground-zero for new, sprawling bureaucracies whose administrators always seem to come around to the conclusion that they ought to stick around for the long haul, even if the pandemic itself were to abate for good.

When James Burnham predicted that capitalists would be replaced by managers as the dominant social class, he did so in the context of the New Deal. While there were certainly signs of it during his lifetime, what with the increased valorization of the role of the expert and the planner, Burnham didn’t see managers making anything close to a unified, systematic claim to rule society. But times have certainly changed. Today’s experts are open in their belief that they deserve to rule over ordinary people, and they find such things as democracy, the popular will, or even basic constitutional and legal protections to be obstacles, if not hateful relics of a dark past. That unblinking arrogance has triggered a ferocious popular backlash, one that is likely to persist long after the wokeness and Covid battles are in the rearview mirror.

History is back, in other words, and it is back with a vengeance. We aren’t merely facing the question of what to do with Russia, or China, or the increasing wealth disparities at home. Rather, every single facet of our system and way of life—from the economy, to culture, to geopolitical security, and democratic stability—are now in a state of chaotic uncertainty. Old wisdoms inherited from the Cold War, old lines denoting political friend and foe, are even worse than useless, as we struggle desperately to try to make sense of the world before it swallows us whole.

My hunch is that the growth of open conflicts between the constituent parts of our own societies —between truckers and managers, commercial pilots and government experts—are likely to be even more significant than our present geopolitical changes. The conflicts that began in the mid-2010s with Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have become even more dramatic and infected, with Canada even declaring a state of emergency in response to protests in Ottawa. Here, the left has found itself completely alienated from the people it claims to represent; today, actual workers appear to the official left more like enemies than subjects to organize.

We will never return to the placid, peaceful world of unipolarity. We are also very unlikely to see much in the way of peace either in geopolitical terms or inside Western societies anytime soon. From all appearances, conflict is the new status quo, and until we fully understand what is eating us from within, we are unlikely to overcome hostility from without. In that light, returning to thinkers like Burnham, as well as mapping out more fully the tensions between Magill’s “email caste” and the people who make their lifestyles possible, are some of the most critical tasks of the age. The official left and right have proved themselves intellectually bankrupt in this regard. This is a time of monsters.