The Right is now having a new version of an old fight. Is a person’s success or failure mainly dependent on his personal choices or on the operation of larger, impersonal forces over which he has no control? The key word here is “mainly.” No reasonable person believes that economics, culture, and history have no influence over human choices. At the same time, no reasonable person believes that individuals — especially in contemporary America — are entirely imprisoned by circumstance.
…The populist wave built, and with it a tale that sounded very strange to conservative ears. The struggling white working class had been victimized. It needed primarily a political rescue. The notion that the government can help at the margins but that self-improvement is mainly up to the individual was replaced by an angry victim narrative. And the victimizers? The “elites,” of course.
History isn’t just “one damn thing after another,” of course; it seems more like “the same few damn things over and over again in recurrent cycles.” In his book The True and Only Heaven, Christopher Lasch complained about the trendy mindset that saw the decade (or perhaps the generation) as the basic unit of historical time. Analyzing history in bite-sized ten-year chunks, he argued, encouraged a shallow perspective better suited to observing fashion trends and consumer goods. And yet, the longer I live, the harder it is to avoid the impression that every “new” idea is just one that’s been out of fashion long enough for an increasingly attention-deficient culture to have forgotten why it was discarded in the first place. The “rational” alternative to the revitalized socialism of both the national and international varieties is a STEM-mongering liberalism in thrall to the technocratic delusions of Auguste Comte. History seems like just as much of an absurd joke viewed through the wide-angle lens.
Schopenhauer, with his usual perkiness, said that human existence was primarily an oscillation between boredom and despair. A less-morbid perspective might say that there is a virtuous mean worth aiming for, however difficult it is to attain it, but most people occupy themselves rushing back and forth between the stupid ideas on either side of it.