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The Modernity Loop

Has the drive for equality trapped the West in a cycle of fervor, terror, and disillusionment?

As part of my fellowship in Budapest, I had a conversation with a Dutch sociologist named Eric Hendricks-Kim, who suggested that, since the French Revolution, the West has been trapped in a cycle of fervor, terror, and disillusionment—or what might be called the “modernity loop.” In this theory, Western societies have relentlessly pursued equality, only to be disappointed when these social movements collapse into chaos. Is the woke revolution part of this pattern? And can Western societies escape the loop?

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I’m spending a few weeks in Budapest where I’m giving some public lectures, doing media, and meeting with other conservatives from around the European Union. I had a conversation recently with a Dutch sociologist named Eric Hendricks-Kim, who’s a resident fellow at the Danube Institute, the organization that is hosting my stay. And he proposed a provocative theory: he said that in the West, we’re trapped in a “modernity loop,” which has been our basic political cycle since the French Revolution.

It’s a three-part loop: there is a beginning with revolutionary fervor, going into a period of violent terror, and then collapsing at the end of the cycle into a period of disillusionment. The goal, of course, is always equality, and this changes from generation to generation—that is, the specific timbre, flavor, or ideology shifts as historical conditions change.

I think what this is, at heart, is a Burkean analysis of the excesses of left-wing revolution. There are historical examples, of course, starting from the French Revolution, going from Robespierre to Napoleon, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, going from Chairman Mao all the way to Deng Xiaoping, when the Chinese communists retrenched, stopped some of their most revolutionary activities, and adopted the principles of capitalism. And even in the US, you can see 50 years ago, 60 years ago, with the New Left coming to fruition and the violent revolution of the Black Panther Party eventually leading to Richard Nixon’s resounding reelection in 1972. And the lesson here, I think, is that the pursuit of equality often ends with unintended consequences. And the period of chaos is then followed by a period of stabilization, retrenchment, or, in some cases, counter-revolution.

For some analysts and thinkers, this loop is always bad. These would be “reactionary” thinkers who want nothing more than to escape the modernity loop and escape from the definitional conflicts and polarization of the French Revolution. And there are I think two flavors of reactionaries. First, there are European reactionaries who want to look to the past. They dream of restoring the aristocratic system, restoring the hereditary monarchies, restoring a kind of pre-French Revolution tradition. And next, if you look at American reactionaries, they have a different perspective, they are actually looking toward the future, at some kind of techno-monarchy or post-democratic system.

And, of course, my own view is that some of these analyses are correct in that this modernity cycle is perhaps inherent in a democratic system. But I think that the reactionaries of the Right are wrong in their universal judgment. And in fact, a more balanced view, a more accurate view, would look at this and say that sometimes it is good—for example, American abolitionism was a revolutionary fervor or a drive for equality that was morally just and led to more just outcomes. And, of course, sometimes it’s bad. If you look at the Chinese Cultural Revolution, they tried to radically level society, they divided into “oppressor” classes and “oppressed” classes, and it ended in bloodshed, chaos, hardship, destruction, starvation, and murder in the streets. And certainly, when Deng Xiaoping came in at the turn of the 1980s, as China adopted a more capitalist economic system and a more moderate cultural position, things improved incrementally for the Chinese people.

The Revolution at the End of Equality

During our conversation, Eric Hendricks-Kim asked me: “Chris, does the woke revolution fit into this schema? Does it follow this cycle?” And, tentatively, you could say yes. Certainly, this fervor of revolution has taken on a new tone and specific content. This is the drive not for French revolutionary “equality,” but for American “racial equity.” That’s the new interpretation of this cycle. The violence, the descent into a period of terror, you have in the summer of 2020 the George Floyd riots— mayhem, looting, chaos, murder, rioting throughout the United States, the largest civil unrest since the last cycle in the late 1960s. This certainly can be categorized as a period of violent terror.

And I think now we’re entering a period of retrenchment. If you look at Black Lives Matter as a movement, it is in total disarray. The BLM leadership has turned into a scam. They’re draining money out of their nonprofits. Their organizations are under lawsuits. And the money has stopped flowing into BLM’s coffers. And their signature policy priority, which was “defund the police,” which was really the mantra of 2020, has been thrown into shambles. Even those very left-wing municipalities, such as the City of Seattle or the City of San Francisco or the City of Minneapolis, they’re now desperately trying to rehire police and expand their police presence. And, of course, with public opinion polling, even at that time—2020, 2021—they were never able to convince a majority, or even a significant plurality, to support such a nonsensical policy as abolishing police departments.

So, maybe the question is: Why? What are the dynamics of this part of the loop? And in my view, the woke revolution faces a crucial paradox. In the United States, we have achieved full political and legal equality for now close to 60 years. You have in 1964 and 1965, the finishing elements of full legal equality: the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act. And, in fact, you now have, in some cases, legal discrimination on behalf of racial minorities against white and Asian Americans. This is something we see in college admissions and other facets of our society—we have legalized what some might call “anti-racist” discrimination.

And so, if you take it as the goal of the Declaration that “all men are created equal” and deserving of equal rights, we’ve realized that in our positive law over this long and sometimes painful process. We now have achieved full legal equality. There is no legal discrimination against racial minority groups; there is no legal discrimination against women. And so you’ve created the conditions of full political equality, and yet you do see, of course, social and material inequalities on a whole host of measures from some social conditions, like family structure, to some economic conditions, such as household income, to some criminal justice conditions, for example, crime rates, arrest rates, and incarceration rates. Those things are different on the basis of statistics. Those things are unequal.

I think the woke revolution is, in a sense, a revolution at the end of equality. They have nothing else to fight for in the realm of law, in the realm of equal individual rights, and so, they’ve created a new revolutionary slogan for “racial equity,” which means that we’ve abandoned the regime of equal individual rights. We’re no longer fighting for that. We’ve achieved that, and, in fact, that’s insufficient. So what they’re trying to cobble together is a new ideology that says that we want to categorize people based on group identity and then equalize outcomes across every axis—predominantly, the economic axis, health axis, employment axis, criminal justice axis—and then formalize and enforce a general leveling.

But they face a paradox. This is actually not very easy. This is very difficult, and. in fact, I think is somewhat impossible. If you look at even the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, they could tell you what to do, they could throw you in prison, they could tell you where to work, they could toss you out of power, they could drag your family out into the streets, they could steal all of your goods, they could kick you out of your house. They had a program of economic and social leveling that was more totalitarian and more drastic than anything that had ever happened in the past. And after it collapsed, after the period of retrenchment, social scientists looked at the data and discovered that the families who were in power—who were maybe more prominent or wealthier prior to the Cultural Revolution—even after this disaster, in which their assets were seized or they were sent into the countryside in famine conditions, if then fast forward a generation later, those initial inequalities had somewhat stabilized. Whether that’s just or unjust, we could even leave it aside, but the point is that forced leveling is very elusive. It’s very difficult to achieve, even when you are doing it at the tip of a spear or at the point of a gun.

And so, the woke revolution is really a revolution for equality, but also against equality. It posits a future that is egalitarian when it’s really looking at a terrain and a status quo that has been fully egalitarian for quite some time. And one way of thinking about this is that the American regime, in the words of Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, is a “democracy that democratizes.” And consequently, it’s never satisfied. And perhaps it was an illusion to think that it would be satisfied at the level of political equality.

I think the Founders saw this coming. They envisioned the abolition of slavery, envisioned a system of equal rights that would have to be done prudentially over time. But the Founders envisioned a mixed regime. They envisioned a constitutional republic and they thought that what you needed was a democratic system mixed with an aristocratic system. Jefferson has these beautiful passages in which he says that you want an aristocracy of talent, an aristocracy of merit—not people by birth, not people who are sanctioned by wealth or by an appointment through the clerical structure as it was in the old countries of Europe—but an aristocracy that took the best people from all over society who had immense talent, immense learning, immense capacity, a vision of the good, that could then serve as a leadership class.

And, of course, the woke revolution is for absolute leveling. They’re against any kind of aristocracy of merit because they want to have equality of outcomes. They want to have an absolute democratic leveling. And this, even in the American context, is impossible. They’re going up against something very difficult. And if you look at what happened in the 1960s, you have full legal equality, but you also had the Great Society programs that were passed and signed by President Lyndon Johnson. These programs, most importantly the War on Poverty programs, have grown over time to the point that now, according to my friend and colleague Robert Rector at Heritage Foundation, the United States government spends more than $1 trillion a year on means-tested welfare programs that, in a racial grouping analysis, go disproportionately towards racial minority households. And so you’ve spent trillions of dollars over time, you’ve deployed a trillion dollars a year in ongoing spending, in order to abolish poverty, in order to create equality of opportunity, in order to yield more equal outcomes.

And, in essence, this project has failed. The country is not more equal. Poverty has not been alleviated. And the social conditions that are the greatest contributors to poverty—family structure, educational attainment, and participation in means-tested welfare programs—have only grown. For many of these measures, such as family structure, we’re in much worse conditions than we were 70 years ago.

The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

In the face of this overwhelming evidence, in the face of this basic political problem, I think the woke revolution amounts to a program of nihilism.

During the George Floyd moment, what you didn’t hear a lot of were positive policy ideas for alleviating conditions of poverty, for repairing family conditions, not just in black families, but also Latino and white families, who are increasingly resembling one another in the dissolution of a two-parent family. You didn’t hear any kind of grand economic vision, whether it was reminiscent of FDR or LBJ, for transforming the country, for beautifying the cities, for creating job opportunities for the unemployed or the disadvantaged. You heard “defund the police,” “abolish the family,” “destroy systemic whiteness.” These aren’t serious political priorities. These are nihilistic and operate on pure negation. They want to destroy systems, they want to create villains. And they’re so captured by the destructive side of the revolution for equality that they didn’t even feel the need to propose any substantive policy priorities that honestly probably wouldn’t have worked anyways if we used the past as a judge. But they didn’t even see the program of racial equity as doing something in that way.

And so the question for the future is: Are we at the end of woke? Are we at the beginning of woke? Where are we on this cycle? Was 2020 enough to move us into that cyclical change toward disillusionment, retrenchment, and stabilization? And I think that 2024 will, in a sense, provide us with something of an answer to that question. You have Trump, you have DeSantis, you have Biden, all of whom offer a unique proposition, a unique answer to that question which they will then pitch to the American people. Then the American people will have a chance to vote.

I think it’s a plausible scenario that you could have a victory on the conservative side with someone like Ron DeSantis, who could usher in an overwhelming Nixon-style victory—that’s something that I certainly think is possible. You could also have a Trump-driven acceleration, a reinvigoration of the left-wing racialist ideology, fueled by Trump’s combative media style, that leads us deeper into that cycle. Or you could have Joe Biden, who on the surface level plays with left-wing ideology, but really would function as a caretaker government that would be stabilized by congressional opposition. What do I see as the most likely scenario? I think we are probably already in a period of stabilization. I think there are certain things that could change that, but I don’t think that the BLM movement can regain some of its most powerful media narratives and most powerful public support. I think they’ve already burned many bridges with the public.

There is, however, a danger that is latent in this new system that we have. The revolution at the end of equality does not operate at the surface as an explicit political movement. It operates laterally through the bureaucracy and it filters its revolutionary language through the language of the therapeutic, the language of the pedagogical, or the language of the corporate HR department. And then it establishes power anti-democratically, bypassing the democratic structure, using this manipulative and soft language in order to continue the revolution within the institutions. This is something that we’ll have to fight and we’ll have to get more sophisticated in fighting because if we’re going to have truly a period of stabilization—a period of realization that we have an ideal of political and legal equality matched with a sense of civic virtue and private charity in order to improve some of those underlying social problems that could yield more substantive equality over time—we’re going to have to contend with this problem of bureaucracy. And there may be, in some cases, more collapse of standards, more periods of chaos, more acceleration before we’re actually able to fight this fight.

And so what I think will happen ultimately, if the woke revolution proceeds at any pace, you’re going to see a decay of standards, you’re going to see a rejection of merit, you’re going to see even some serious dysfunction in all of our industries and all of our companies and all of our institutions of education. And so we’ll be continuing this fight. It’ll be a tactical fight for now. And so I would say for anyone who is a supporter of political equality, a supporter of a constitutional republic, and a supporter of an aristocracy of merit or talent that could guide the democracy that we have in the United States, get ready for a fight, get ready to push back, because it’s probably not over. These things happen to go in small as well as large cycles. And I think that’s what’s to come.

Christopher F. Rufo is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.

This video is sponsored by Manhattan Institute.

Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo
Christopher F. Rufo