All around us, pundits have turned prophetic; analysts have become purveyors of apocalypse. Trump the beast is on the throne, and the world is falling apart.
Rusty Reno thinks that reports of the world’s end are greatly exaggerated: “We observe a growing divide between reality and rhetoric. Stock markets rise; the interlocking global economic system hums; nations lose their minds during sporting matches. Yet despite so many signs of normalcy, prestige newspapers and magazines trumpet the dangers of fascism at home and neo-Bolshevism abroad.”
What’s ending are not American institutions but the “Heraclitean” consensus that has dominated the spectrum of American politics since World War II. The agenda is to break barriers, undermine stabilities, experiment with creative destruction. Liberals have been cultural “deregulators,” Reaganites of the Left; actual Reaganites removed constraints on economic activity.
We have Left Heracliteans and Right Heracliteans, but debates have taken place within a shared consensus: “Since 1945, our cultural politics has largely been about what, when, and how much to deconsolidate.”
Reno suggests that “The strongest deconsolidating imperative to emerge in this era was anti-discrimination. We are so thoroughly formed by the postwar consensus that we take this imperative for granted, yet it came to prominence for historical reasons. In the early twentieth century, many elites had regarded the exploitation of the working class as the most pressing assault on human dignity. . . . These factors shuffled political priorities within America’s leadership class. Ending racial discrimination emerged as a central bipartisan imperative. Soon discrimination against women became a matter of concern as well, and later, discrimination against gays and lesbians. By the last decade of the twentieth century, anti-discrimination had become a dogma. The slightest heterodoxy brings severe condemnation.”
Heraclitus no longer enflames the political imagination because Heracliteans Left and Right fail to address the needs of the current moment: “Today, our problems almost all flow from too much flux and too little fixity. For this reason, the preoccupations of liberal and conservative establishments are no longer plausible. Their blindness to reality now destabilizes our political culture. An atmosphere of unreality obtains when newspapers preoccupy themselves with stories about female representation in C-suites—as if the great social problem our society faces is whether already very rich women can get even richer.”
Left and Right are looking for stability. Everyone is talking community. Reno sees in the “calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces, as well as denunciations of cultural appropriation . . . a desire for security, repose, and an inheritance that cannot be taken away from us.”
This is what makes the moment seem apocalyptic. The world goes on much as it has; our institutions still function. But the ideology that has animated those institutions for the past several generations isn’t workable: “My wager is that we will remember Trump as a politically and culturally significant figure. He has exposed the fact that the Heraclitean consensus is breaking down and something new is emerging in our public life. He was the first consequential presidential candidate since George Wallace to run against the postwar consensus—and he won.”
Reno has of late become an indispensable public theologian, one of the wisest observers of our current scene. Yet I find myself dissatisfied with this essay, on three grounds.
First: Apocalypses do happen. Worlds do come to an end. Comparatively few observers recognized the fragility of the Soviet system in 1980. Sure, some saw it coming. Reagan’s military buildup was in part an effort to bankrupt the Soviet Union by enticing them into an arms race they could not win. John Paul II knew that no system that systematically violates the image of God could stand forever.
For most of us, the fall of the Berlin Wall felt like a miracle. Overnight, it seemed, a dark threat that had dominated our lives evaporated. This wasn’t just a change of outlook. Gorbachev tried to get ahead of the instabilities he perceived with policies of perestroika and glasnost. But the time was ripe for more than another ripple on the shifting surface of Marxist-Leninism.
Apocalypse happened. A world crumbled – not only behind the Iron Curtain but for all of us on the other side too.
Second: Is there any evidence that we’re on the verge of such a massive structural change? Reno doesn’t think so. But that is partly because he distinguishes too sharply between our social and political structures and the ideology that has informed them for decades.
Left Heracliteans have left their mark on the law (abortion rights, gay marriage) and educational institutions, not merely on morals and habits of life. Right Heracliteans erected a global economic system that simultaneously raises millions from poverty, erodes traditional solidarities, and damages the lives of those who are left out and left behind.
Heraclitus has taken institutional form. Flux has become our fixity. Reno knows this. My question is: Can institutions of deconsolidation persist when we begin to pursue re-consolideration?
Finally: I learned from RJ Rushdoony to curse both Parmenides and Heraclitus. Neither describes the real world, which is a complex amalgam of fixities and fluidities. Contra Parmenides, the arrow does reach the target; contra Heraclitus, we can step into the same river twice (because the river isn’t simply the molecules of water running by at any particular moment).
Against both Parmenides and Heraclitus, Rushdoony advocated a Trinitarian outlook, summed up in his phrase (borrowed from Cornelius Van Til), “the equal ultimacy of the one and the many.” Translated, “the equal ultimacy of stability and change.”
Parmenides is a tough sell politically, and the Trinity is tougher. But we need to accept the challenge. Parmenides is an inadequate response to Heracliteans Left and Right. We need something that acknowledges both flow and fixity.