The Significance in Populism, Jihadism and Communism

Why do individuals turn to extreme solutions in their quest for a life of significance?

There is a current running through right-wing populism which links with the insecurity experienced by those in the Middle East who have lashed out against the West. People yearn for a life of significance. To belong to something greater than themselves. This is the offer of religion, which cannot be matched by atheism, scientism or any -ism which strips the sacred from daily life.

Rod Dreher recently reviewed a book titled Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich, who won the 2015 Nobel Prize for Literature. The book is an oral history of life in post-Soviet Russia. From Dreher’s column:

In the US, most of us figured that all Russians, aside from Communist Party officials, would be thrilled to be done with the Soviet Union, and that they would rejoice in their new freedom. It wasn’t true. What is most fascinating about this book is the interviews with the people who know Communism was evil and unsustainable, but who miss it — or parts of it — anyway. Why? Lots of reasons, but so far, mostly because it gave them a sense of order, purpose, and meaning.

Soviet Russia offered some of its citizens a project greater than their lives. It was a lie but a convincing one because it held a certain gravitas. Now consider modern right-wing populism and anti-immigrant sentiment. These are responses to the free flow of capital and people into regions not used to housing diverse populations. Consider the rise of middle eastern jihadism. This is a response to Western incursions into middle eastern sovereignty and western economic power. Which ladder leads to significance?In these cases, belonging and purpose play central roles.

The particular solutions offered by Soviet communism, right-wing populism, and jihadism matter less than the overall sentiment given to their followers.

A sense of community in a world which pays only lip service to it. A sense of significance in a consumerist global order which eschews meaning. A set of rules, codes and mores which order the world. No fumbling around in the dark. Trust the party apparatchik, trust the strongman, trust the mullah. Again from Dreher:

The doctor preferred Soviet life because it gave her meaning, purpose, an identity, and order. It did not matter to her that that order meant mass slaughter, and the Gulag archipelago. Or to be precise, it mattered, because she knows she can’t simply deny its existence. But she compartmentalizes it such that those horrors cannot taint the perfection of her Soviet memories.

The German philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said, “I must find a truth that is true for me.” While perhaps applicable to certain individuals, such an approach would leave most people cold. There is a certain darkness to existentialism, which is mirrored in the modern capitalist consumerist mindset. We cannot find significance in things but we pursue them nonetheless. House, car, xmas presents, valentine chocolates, job, promotion, an addition on the house, another promotion…

Libertarian technocratic solutions cannot replace the societal ties that have been destroyed by the advance of global capitalism.

People can endure a lot of pain and hardship if they believe that they are part of something greater than themselves. And they will be easy — too easy — to trust those politicians who say they will get it back for them. On the other hand, those politicians and leaders who believe that the sum total of politics is hammering out policies to maximize efficiency and material comfort ought to take a lesson from this too.

Although Donald Trump’s solutions sound technocratic, he has framed them so as to create a community among his followers. Us vs the Other. Real Americans vs Libruls. It’s not as simple as immigrants taking American jobs. “Those people” also have no regard for American culture and seek to change it in ways that destroy what people had, for generations, felt was the definition of American. Similarly, the push-back against western influence in the Middle East serves to create an Other out of the West. There have been reports of Europeans converted by ISIS journeying to Syria or Iraq to fight against Western forces. ISIS, like Soviet Communism, orders its violence around purpose and the pursuit of a life of significance.

It is true that large communities such as our cities or the EU itself are ostensibly ordered economic activities. However, they will ultimately fail if they do not place any significance around religion or culture. As Dreher so astutely puts it, “Nobody dies for a cube, so nobody lives for it either.”

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