Cornelis Anthonisz, The Fall of the Tower of Babel. Image credit: @Pinterest.
We now treat every issue—from the European Union to Covid to Afghanistan to Russia’s attack on Ukraine—through a lens of culture wars. We are currently experiencing a radical reorientation of economy, society, and politics. We imagine all those changes as the dramatic clash of two principles or philosophies which we think we know about, but which in reality we can’t fully comprehend.
The underlying ideas are packaged in apparently simple words. Globalism, cosmopolitanism, internationalism, multilateralism, alternative ways of describing a commitment to openness. On the other side there is particularism, localism, and nationalism. Adding to the intensity of the argument, a globally contagious virus in 2020 became the face of globalization. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated many developments that were already well advanced: on a broad scale, it pushed the application of technology into new, and often more personal, areas of daily life, even as it intensified a (provisional) backlash against globalization. It created more suspicion, produced economic and social strains, but also new and peculiar psychic burdens.
Over a century ago, the philosopher William James created widespread outrage when he suggested that the test of ideas lay in how they were evaluated, or in what he provocatively called “truth’s cash-value in experiential terms.” Ideas had no innate quality for individuals, but only generated their worth by being accepted in a broader environment, in other words through a general circulation in a marketplace. The presentation was excoriated by philosopher John Grier Hibben, who claimed—immediately after the destructive financial crash of 1907—that it “would certainly precipitate a panic in the world of our thinking as surely as would a similar demand in the world of finance.” Alexander Solzhenitsyn diagnosed the crisis of Russia—and the world—in the First World War as a language collapse: “Words get worn out and often obscure meaning. What does it mean nowadays—being a Narodnik, a populist?”
Classical antiquity wrestled with these issues too. Daniel Sutton has analyzed how the Roman historian Sallust in Bellum Catilinae described the problem of imperialists as lying in the misuse of words and moral language to describe and then to justify the origins of the wars they fought. Thucydides too gives a striking account of the Corcyraean civil war of 427 BCE as originating from the abuse of language: “the use of fair phrases to arrive at guilty ends was in high reputation. Meanwhile the moderate part of the citizens perished between the two, either for not joining in the quarrel, or because envy would not suffer them to escape.”
The debate is just as current today, and many people are panicking as the moderate part of the citizens is squeezed between rhetorical extremes. First there was the financial crisis of 2007–8; now there is the linguistic crisis. Society has arrived at Hibben’s panic. Financial panics destroy value and values; so do linguistic panics. When people use the key terms, they literally don’t know what they are talking about.
The best understanding of a liberal open society relies on the concept of a marketplace of ideas. According to that vision, everyone should be free to develop, express, examine, revise, contradict, refute, and confound ideas. Debate becomes a testing ground, in which approval raises the price or value of ideas, and makes them more attractive and compelling, while confusion or contradiction lowers the acceptance.
If this approach were correct, it should lead inexorably to a victory of superior ideas, and the world would be a better governed—perhaps a generally better—place. There would be a gradual tweaking of the prevalent framework of belief as circumstances change, and—very occasionally—radical epistemic breaks, in which a new mental world which appeared to have a better correspondence with reality would arise. John Stuart Mill thought that “as mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the increase; and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of truths which have reached the point of being uncontested.” It does not take much familiarity with history to see that this picture is completely unrealistic, and that many very bad and destructive ideas have won out, at least for substantial periods of time. In the battle of ideas, the best do not necessarily or usually win. The twentieth century was a vast experimental field in which the marketplace did not seem to work out well at all.
The experience of the twenty-first century is equally distressing. An increasingly obvious feature is that debate—which is essential to the marketplace concept—has become impossible. In deeply polarized discussions in many countries—about Trump, or Brexit, or EU austerity programs, or Erdogan, or Putin, or the anti-drug program of the Philippines—there is no room for any nuanced exchange of ideas. There is simply an antagonism. The world is divided into friends and enemies, in the manner that the twentieth-century anti-liberal German philosopher Carl Schmitt thought to be characteristic of politics and the political process.
Moments of profound social transition produce new questionings and new vocabularies. A vocabulary is a way of summing up ideas, and ideas package visions of what is reality. They translate experiences from an individual perspective into a more general, or even universal, applicability. Ludwig Wittgenstein famously made a central point of his philosophy that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Humans have always been divided by languages: one of our most powerful myths is the story of the Tower of Babel, or how God destroyed an edifice that would create a universal language or understanding because that would give the humans power themselves to be God (“let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth”). Since then, there have been attempts to create a universal language: there was esperanto and volapük, but they have been largely forgotten. Instead we have largely assimilated the idea that translation is possible, even if all sorts of nuance are lost in translation.
Often translation is made by thinking of an analogy with money, which establishes equivalences between goods, services, or even promises. A series of improperly priced terms are used in current political debate: capitalism, socialism, democracy, imperialism, multilateralism, geopolitics, populism, technocracy, globalism, globalization, and neoliberalism. They have become the standard munition that is fired between the sides in today’s culture, policy, and economic wars. They are above all negative labels: ways of blurring and blaming the arguments of the other side.
The terms are batted back and forth between advocates and critics. When they look like descriptive successes, they are extended in a sort of ideational inflation to cover more and more ground. They become gigantic snowballs, that then either get icy or begin to melt. They are no longer precise analytical tools.
The words that we use today were born out of previous upheavals: capitalism and socialism in the early nineteenth century to come to terms with the early industrial revolution; globalism, geopolitics, and multilateralism in the early twentieth century in the era of imperial great power politics and of the Great War. But then, like viruses, the terms mutate.
For instance, the terms capitalism and socialism describe continually evolving ways of understanding how the world was, and should be, organized. But now both have just become scare terms. Both the right and the left conventionally demonize capitalism: it’s woke capitalism, or hyper-capitalism, or monopoly capitalism. Socialism, like globalism, was the go-to term of abuse of Trumpism.
Capitalism was recognized very early as a phenomenon that crossed state borders, becoming a global reality. Socialism, like its mirror image, was also international. But with socialism, the place for realizing the political order was dictated by the character of the state system, which increasingly relied on a belief that the nation-state was the normal form of existence. National politics and the international or cross-border phenomenon of capitalism or socialism, then, lived in constant tension with each other.
Capitalism began as the description of a system that facilitated exchanges—of property, of labor—and increasingly commoditized the subjects of those transactions in a way that broke down traditions. As more was exchanged, capitalism as a principle became increasingly diffuse, permeating every aspect of individual behavior. Market principles were applied to dating behavior, spousal choices, sports management, cultural production, and so on. Everything looked as if it had financial equivalents. Money served as a mechanism for translation, or a way of storing memories—and much like a language, it was, and is, being continually reinvented. There was a further paradox: capitalism relies on decentralized decision-making, but as capital becomes increasingly concentrated, decisions look as if they are made in a few central nodes: surely that opens the way to planning? Doesn’t it look just like socialism, with Facebook and Google taking the place of old state planning authorities, shaping our social behavior as much as our economic actions? Neither version is really controlled by individual choices, or by the people.
Before the virus, four starkly opposed binary choices set the terms of every debate: globalization or return to the nation-state; capitalism or socialism; technocracy or populism; multilateralism or geopolitics. Those debates are now outdated. In each case, there is a need to move to something else. The increasingly popular prefix “post” helps somewhat: post-globalization rather than deglobalization; post-national rather than renationalization; post-capitalist in combating large concentrations of capital; post-socialist in escaping from the limits of the nation-state and from the controls inherent in traditional socialism; post-technocratic in allowing everyone to be a technocrat; and post-populist in the sense that the opposition of “the people,” or “the real people” seems surreal and destructive to everyone else (who is unreal)? “Post” societies require a new set of terms.
The uncertainties about meanings have become an obstacle to productive debate, and to the application of rigorous logic. To solve pressing problems, each term needs to be rethought in what can be thought of as an act of intellectual decluttering. The lifestyle guru Marie Kondo created a highly successful practice of cleaning up people’s homes, achieving a minimalist aesthetic. She holds that items that no longer “spark joy” should be discarded. The Kondo principle involves families collectively sifting through items left by previous generations. That really is not a bad agenda for an act of intellectual hygiene. The equivalent to the family cleanup would be a national as well as an international debate, leading to a decluttering that would create more room for new ideas—ways of repackaging reality—that truly “spark creativity.”
James, W, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, 1907
Hibben, J.G. “The Test of Pragmatism,” The Philosophical Review, 1908
Solzhenitsyn, A. (transl. H. T. Willetts), August 1914: The Red Wheel, 1989
Sutton, D. The Language of Revolution: A Study of Language Change during Stasis in Ancient Greek and Roman Thought, Oxford DPhil thesis 2022
Thucydides (transl. R. Crawley), The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 BCE
Mill, J.S. On Liberty, 1859
Wittgenstein, L., Tractatus Logicus-Philosophicus, 1922.
This essay was first published in Culturico May 3, 2023, in a slightly different format.
Harold is Professor of History and International Affairs at Princeton University and the author of The War of Words.