The following is a talk I gave July 10, 2023 at the Roman Forum conference in Gardone Riviera, Italy:
The Italian Catholic philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910-1989) is not well-known in America, mostly because his writings only started to become available in English a few years ago. When they did become available they aroused a great deal of interest among some Catholics. One reason for that is that early on—by 1970 or so—they were presenting an analysis of post-1960s Italian society that mirrored what we have been seeing in America since then but from a very different perspective. It seemed they should have something to tell us about our present situation.
Contemporary paganism as seen from America
But I would like to start by discussing contemporary paganism—the outlook that dominates present-day society—as it appears to me as an American.
Some speakers have called that outlook Enlightenment naturalism and treated it historically. I am more inclined to describe it as technocracy and analyze it logically. Others have other approaches. Regardless of which you pursue, it evidently involves turning away from God on principle. For that reason it is much more radical than traditional or classical versions of paganism.
Rejecting God disorders everything. It leads to denial of objective goods and ultimately any sort of objective reality. How can we grasp objective reality when there are no shoulds, so it makes no sense to say we should believe this rather than that?
That makes contemporary paganism purely destructive. Unlike classical paganism, it has no room for wisdom and virtue. It does not give rise to beautiful myths, poetry, statues, or buildings. A superhero movie may present a myth and involve a sort of poetry, but it is never particularly beautiful or profound. What contemporary paganism gives us is commercial pop culture, political insanity, mutual suspicion and hatred, and a physical and social environment that drives people to addiction, self-mutilation, and suicide.
Even so, it cannot avoid a religious aspect. We need to see our world as somehow ordered, and abolishing God means God cannot order it. Abolishing Him also throws nature into disorder, since it eliminates reason from the universe. Aquinas’s fifth proof tells us that regularities in the universe show the existence of God. If that is right, then abolishing God means universal anarchy. It gives us the world described by Samuel Beckett, in which nothing connects to anything and meaningful words and actions increasingly∖ become impossible.
So without God the order of nature cannot give us an ordered world either. But as Descartes noted, if we leave out God and nature we still have ourselves. So if that is the situation we are in, we become the ones who decide what things are and what they mean. In other words, human choice determines the nature of things.
But all men can choose, and they can do that equally. So everyone constructs his own world by deciding what things to recognize and how to classify them, and he becomes its supreme judge by deciding for himself what they are worth. The present-day religious tendencies other speakers mentioned, with their glorification of technology, emphasis on will, and indifference to truth, are a way of glamorizing that situation.
The United States Supreme Court has put the basic principle this way: “At the heart of liberty,” which is considered the basis of the American legal order, “is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”1
That principle is radically transforming all traditional understandings. To deny the equal standing of all desires, saying for example that some sexual practices are not as good as others, is now felt as blasphemy. It is a denial of the power every human being has to create his own moral reality. In the alternative, it is a claim that another human being is not really a human being, because he lacks the thing that gives us our human dignity: the right to decide such things for ourselves.
The same goes for denial of our ability to choose who we are. Saying that a man who chooses to be a woman remains a man is denying his divinity and thus, since man is divine, his humanity. It is even a kind of genocide, the destruction of a people, since the denial destroys in principle the existence of transsexuals as they understand themselves. Thought makes things what they are, so the destruction is considered real. That is why people take the idea of “trans genocide” seriously.
That ability to change sex is a clear example of the magical thinking others have mentioned. I can become a woman simply by saying I am one. And once I do so, I am truly a woman and must be treated as such for all purposes. By the simple use of words I have instantly transformed fundamental human and natural realities.
Man, of course, is not good at being God. He cannot really create anything. It follows that the longer contemporary paganism lasts and the more it develops the more it depletes human life. It destroys the things of God and leaves the things that are purely of man, which amount to less and less as the memory of God dissipates.
That is why the abolition in the 1960s of any residual social principle of traditional and transcendent authority in the name of freedom, creativity, and the future meant the end of any freedom, creativity, and future worth having.
Tradition had lost all authority and no longer pointed to anything beyond itself. That made it just a collection of senseless and oppressive habits—of “deeply rooted social stereotypes,” as the expression is—that as such was at odds with rationality and justice. So building a better world required not development of tradition but its destruction to make way for something new and discontinuous. That is why people in the 60s talked so much about revolution. The past had to be done away with.
So the 60s brought revolutionary changes, at least in concept. Even so, they did not bring a better world. People say they did, mostly because in principle they abolished traditional social distinctions like those relating to race, sex, and inherited cultural community.
But whatever the problems of vulnerable people, the changes of the 60s did not make life better for them. Instead, the weakening of marriage and informal social standards generally made life worse for women, children, and poor people. Homosexuals began dying of AIDs, women went from being more happy to less happy than men,2 and black people in America stopped advancing out of poverty3 and started getting robbed, murdered, and imprisoned much more. When society becomes less functional, it is the people with the most problems who suffer the most.
Otherwise, things have mostly gone nowhere. Pop culture today is basically what it was in 1968. It just goes farther in the same direction, with more money and less talent involved. It is not just popular culture that is dead. High culture has become irrelevant. People do not care about it. Where good work is still being done, it is mostly at the institutional fringes.
Even the museums are ashamed of their collections and are intentionally undermining their cultural significance. That is not surprising, because the cultural tendencies now dominant are opposed to culture simply as such. After all, how can culture exist and function without boundaries, standards, authorities, and stable forms—otherwise known as deeply rooted stereotypes?
Liberal political thought, another destructive manifestation of modern paganism, drives not only God but human nature and the human good out of politics.
In theory it bases social order on a social contract: on agreement among the people composing the society, each pursuing his own interests. That sounds like a safe political strategy, but there are hidden problems. For example, if people believe in objective goods or substantive moral principles that are binding even if they want to reject them, contract stops being the supreme principle.
So to establish its authority a society based on contract has to suppress belief in objective standards. Such things are said to be illiberal, intolerant, oppressive, and so on. Liberalism began with rejection of transcendent authority in the name of freedom, rationality, and human autonomy. It ends by enforcing that rejection as necessary for its own security. Rejection of transcendent principle thus becomes compulsory as the new transcendent principle.
Liberalism says it lets us recognize whatever goods and gods we want, but it insists that every conception of ultimate things must accept the equal validity of every other conception. In other words, they all have to stop claiming to be true. But then there is nothing ultimate about them.
That is thought to be acceptable to all reasonable people, because anything else would subordinate what some people want to what other people want. So the system depends on seeing the deification of individual man as a neutral principle that stands above the fray and supports everyone equally rather than as a particular ultimate view that conflicts with other particular views. But why should someone who holds one of the other views accept that?
Such questions matter, because contemporary paganism is utopian. It views man as the creator and the world as raw material, so it believes we can turn the world into anything through will and technology—perhaps, as in the case of transgenderism, with the aid of word magic. But if we can do anything, why not create the perfect world?
We obviously should, so politics becomes everything. Man is divine, and through politics he creates his world. Paradoxically, the result is the abolition of politics. The social world must be transformed to meet the demands of abstractions like equal freedom. Since the goal is abstract perfection, these demands cannot be left to political give-and-take. If they were, who knows what would happen?
Instead, what is needed must be determined by experts and enforced by bureaucracies insulated from popular concerns and ways of thinking. Equal freedom thus turns out to mean comprehensive control of human life by irresponsible administrators. Otherwise people will oppress each other. People have to be made passive and apolitical, and told what to do and think.
Nonetheless, what justifies the system is still the theory that the people’s will is the source of all government, law, and social order. The result is a demand that they support whatever is done in their name. If they do not they are opponents of freedom and equality who should be barred from political participation. Basically, they are Nazis. The result is a regime of nonstop propaganda, censorship, suppression of dissidents, and manipulated or fraudulent elections.
Even so, utopia never appears. That is why people have become so depressed and outraged. All respectable thought tells them they are building the best of all possible worlds. They look around and do not like what they see, and as time goes by things do not seem to be getting better. The official theory cannot be blamed, so everything is blamed on malign forces supposedly lurking everywhere.
It is the same response as in Stalinist Russia. Progress is hard to find, but the system cannot be questioned, so the problem must be sabotage. Today people blame deplorables rather than kulaks, MAGA Republicans rather than Trotskyites, Russian rather than Japanese or British agents, and white supremacists rather than members of the former exploiting classes. But the story is the same: the same kinds of bad people are standing in the way, so they must be unmasked and crushed—or as people say today, called out and canceled.
So the contemporary divinization of man has turned everything into politics, and locked politics into a single destructive theory whose obvious problems mean that no discussion can be allowed. That is the point of political correctness and the claim that non-progressive social and moral views are simply expressions of “privilege”: to make discussion impossible. Once you start asking questions the whole thing falls apart.
This outlook has its own very simple internal logic, which I have tried to outline, and we will discuss later how it serves institutional interests, but the question remains how it arose and what can be done about it when it seems to have settled into something so immune to correction.
An American view
As an American my view has been that the current state of affairs is a natural consequence of making equal freedom the supreme political principle. It is what happens when you take Thomas Jefferson’s vision of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and Abraham Lincoln’s vision of a nation “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” and apply them persistently without reference to concerns like human nature and the common good.
What you get is a sustained single-minded attempt to make people equal and liberate them from each other so they can pursue their own self-defined interests without friction. That attempt leads to an inhuman society in which moral community disappears and basic human goods like stable family connections become all but impossible to achieve.
But that is just one view. There are a variety of perspectives on what has happened and what to do about it.
If you look at the system from within, the current dead end looks more like the triumph of progress. For example, the neoconservative political scientist Francis Fukuyama claimed shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union that the event marked the “end of history,” meaning the permanent end of fundamental political development. Liberal democracy, which seemed at that time to have triumphed over all competitors, had established the principle of universal equal recognition of all human beings. He thought that this development ended the struggle for recognition that he said was at the heart of serious political conflict.
On this view, which was not original with him,4 it was not economics or tribal loyalties or differing views of good and evil that drove politics, it was the battle for prestige. The principle of universal equality made that an individual rather than social battle, so it put an end to struggle over social fundamentals.
Fukuyama worried, again following some European thinkers5, that the end of conflict over fundamentals would mean cultural decline. People would lose their edge, and spend their time watching Netflix or playing video games. But he did not think the problem would be severe enough to bring the system down. Among other things, he thought there was nowhere else for politics to go.
As a neoconservative he also assumed that the development of abstract principles like equal recognition could be stopped when convenient without the need for authoritative concepts of human nature and the human good to limit them. So he did not foresee present-day identity politics, transgenderism, and so on.
Other people agree that a line of political development has come to an end, but argue that what has ended is a particular line of historical development rather than history in general. That perspective allows them to step back from what happened, see it for the disaster it is, and talk about what has gone wrong and what to do about it.
Augusto Del Noce is an example of someone with a detailed theory about what happened and what to do about it. His discussion relates to Italy, but what he says makes it clear that America has reached very similar results by a route that seems quite different. For that reason his writings bring out aspects of what has happened that might not otherwise be apparent to Americans.
His account emphasized philosophical considerations, which he viewed as inseparable from political life and especially twentieth-century political life. That of course makes sense: how men act socially depends on how they understand themselves and the world. And he agreed with Fukuyama that the disintegration of Marxism was a decisive cause of the situation we see today.
Del Noce thought the story of that disintegration was long and complicated. According to him, the dominant philosophical position among Italian intellectuals from the 19th century down to the end of the Second World War had been philosophical idealism, represented for example by Benedetto Croce.
That position had very little to do with “idealism” as the term is used in America. Basically it held that there is a progressive tendency in history toward freedom and enlightenment. That tendency has developed by stages in such a way that what had been achieved in earlier stages is preserved in later stages but in a different form.
In particular, its followers thought that in modern times the historical tendency toward freedom and enlightenment has involved secularization. That meant, they thought, that the transcendent Christian God was disappearing from social consciousness, but what was valuable in Christianity was nonetheless being preserved in a this-worldly form, for example in the general recognition of human dignity. That, by the way, is something Fukuyama would agree with.
Basically, their theory was that modern history meant secularization without loss. That was called immanentization, and if you did not accept it they said you were trying to step outside the movement of history and were not to be taken seriously.
The supposed justification for that position was the explanatory power of the historical evolutionary view. It could explain e.g. orthodox Catholicism as a historical development and show how what was worth keeping in it had been integrated into what succeeded it, but orthodox Catholicism could not explain the actual tendency of history away from the Church and her teachings without simply rejecting the world and declaring it an unmitigated disaster. And that is not a view many people would want to live with.
The rise of Marxism
That justification depended on treating “history” as a unitary one-way process that nothing could escape that determined all human reality. In effect, it depended on deifying history, or perhaps treating it as the process through which the divine realizes itself. But the rise of political violence during the interwar period and the catastrophe of the Second World War meant problems for the vision of history as unitary, progressive, and cumulative, with modern Europe at the forefront.
Modern Europe had fallen into barbarism, and when put to the test intellectuals had not offered effective opposition and some had even tried to justify it. They had viewed their outlook as the summation of long centuries of culture, and that outlook had evidently failed, so they concluded that European culture had failed. So it seemed to most intellectuals after the Second World War that something radically new was needed.
These people ignored the explicit revolutionary character of fascism and Nazism. Instead, they interpreted them as reactionary movements that were attempting to do violently what traditionalists had been trying to do through other means.6 Traditionalism, they thought, is simply opposition to change, in the name of a sacralized vision of the past, inspired by the desire to hang on to unjustified privilege, and it eventually turns to violence in a desperate attempt to stop the movement of history. So they thought that attachment to the European heritage in the end meant fascism.7
Marx offered an alternative that rejected the discredited heritage of the past while maintaining faith in historical progress by adopting the idea of total revolution in place of the idea of carrying forward past cultural achievements in different form. The experience of resistance against fascism supported that alternative, at least psychologically. The Resistance had been an all-consuming struggle. For that reason it was hard for people, especially young people, to think of it as a practical alliance among those who for various reasons opposed barbarism. They wanted to see it as part of a single world-transforming movement for liberation. The communists had played an important role in the Resistance, and their goal was the transformation of the world, so it seemed impossible to exclude them from the definition of what that movement would be.
Such attitudes seemed to be in the air. Prewar middle-class society really did seem to have failed. Del Noce himself had thoughts of a Catholic/Marxist alliance, but gave them up when he saw how violent and amoral the communists were in practice, and realized that rejection of God was basic to their position rather than just a reaction to particular evils within the Church.
The nature of Marxism
Marx was a thoroughgoing atheist. For him there would be no preservation of the essence of Christianity in culture after the disappearance of the Christian God. Once God was canceled He, like everything else in pre-revolutionary society and culture, would be gone permanently.
That disappearance would have radical consequences. In particular, people would have to create their own values. Marx thought that would happen naturally as part of the communist revolution. In that revolution people would take back the powers they had alienated from themselves and projected onto something external. So they would take back the political power with which they had endowed the state, and the state would disappear. In the same way, they would take back the creativity and other qualities they had projected onto a deity, and become like gods.
So Marx believed in a truly radical transformation of the world based on absolute human autonomy. But—and this is a very big “but”—he was also a historical materialist. That side of his thought is the side of his thought that turned out to last, so I will go into some detail to show how mechanical it was.
He believed in man the maker rather than man the thinker. Basically, he thought that circumstances like the state of technology determined how economic production had to be organized. That in turn determined who was in a position to control the process, pocket the profits, and hire priests, poets, professors, and journalists to explain why the resulting state of affairs was the way things ought to be. So he thought that material considerations determined not only politics but religion, culture, social ideals, and so on. All those things were subordinate to the process of production.
As time goes by the way goods are produced changes, and so does the class able to dominate the system. In ancient Mesopotamia it was whoever controlled the irrigation system. In medieval Europe it was the barons, who owned the land and provided protection against raiders. In modern times it is the industrialists and financiers. Changes in manner of production meant class struggle as newly powerful classes tried to overthrow those previously established. These struggles, Marx thought, were the engine of history. The French Revolution, for example, expressed the triumph of capitalism over feudalism—that is, of industrialists and financiers over landowners.
He thought that in the future capitalist exploitation fueled by technology would lead to ever greater misery for an ever larger part of the people in the midst of ever greater wealth. Eventually the class at the bottom, the proletariat, would include almost everyone and produce everything. But they would own nothing, and they would not be happy.
So they would revolt, seize the means of production, and do away with the existing structure of society. Since they would be by far the largest class there would be no one for them to exploit. Their seizure of power would therefore create a society without exploitation—and incidentally of material abundance because of the advance of technology. And that would be the communist revolution.
So Marxism combined two things: belief in historical progress, which would be achieved through struggle and lead to absolute human autonomy, and also a wholly materialist understanding of the world. Both implied radical debunking of existing traditions, ideals, and culture. These were human inventions, since man is autonomous, and the ones we have today were invented to justify the position of the ruling class, so no one else had any reason to accept them.
That debunking made it impossible to use current ideals to form an image of the better world supposedly to come. For that reason Marxists emphasized action, but without assigning it a definite ultimate goal other than destruction of the existing society to hasten the advent of an unknowable but somehow better future. So they saw violence—lawless destruction—as creative. The very act of destroying what exits of necessity brings something new into existence.
Problems for Marxism
Not surprisingly, the whole theory fell apart repeatedly. If history is a purely material process, why think the outcome, which is admittedly unknowable, is going to be so wonderful? If it is entirely mechanistic, where does the absolute human autonomy fit in? Also, how is the proletariat, which is made up of millions of people who have been fed nothing but ruling class propaganda, going to figure out how to bring about this wonderful but unknowable future that does not correspond to anything in today’s ideals?
Beyond that, Marxism did not believe in ideal goals or objective truth, it believed in actual consequences. The point, Marx said, is not to understand the world but to change it. So when Marxism did not work as promised, it fell apart.
Basically, Del Noce thought that the history of the twentieth century was the history of that process in its various aspects. Quite early, he says, Mussolini and the idealist philosopher and fascist theoretician Giovanni Gentile had adopted the activist aspects of Marx’s thought while getting rid of its basically inconsistent historical materialism. The result was Italian fascism, which was strong on action but weak on ultimate goals.8 Somewhat later the inevitable real-world consequences of efforts by a self-appointed vanguard to push the Marxist revolution forward led to Stalinism and its mirror image Nazism—which, incidentally, Del Noce like many others viewed as quite different from Italian fascism. All these movements eventually destroyed themselves because of their radical failure to deliver what they promised.
As time went by Marxism also had to compete with what the West was becoming, and the West was invading its intellectual territory by becoming more materialistic. The leaders who emerged in Western Europe after the war were often devout Catholics like Adenauer, Schuman, and De Gasperi. Quite naturally, their vision of reconstruction involved spiritual and cultural themes.
Later the themes that dominated discussion of the nature and future of Europe shifted to things like economic prosperity and the open society. These seemed better able to compete with communism on its own material and radically secular ground. They were also more in line with the concerns of Western elites, who had no interest in religious or spiritual considerations that might prove inconvenient. And they drew support from Western progressives, who wanted to reconcile liberalism and Marxism by eliminating all residue of tradition from liberalism and the prophetic element from Marxism.
So Marxism was accumulating problems. Once widespread postwar prosperity eliminated the possibility that working class misery would lead to revolution, its vision of social transformation vanished altogether. The revolutionary aspects of Marxism had thus refuted themselves by its own pragmatic standard. What was left of Marxism were its materialist aspects, including its debunking of religion, culture, civilized standards, and so on. And these were perfectly consistent with what bourgeois society was becoming. So the two in essence merged.
General nature of the new society
And that, according to Del Noce, is how we got our present society. That society, which had became fully defined by the end of the 1960s, thus comes out of the disintegration of Marxism, which had itself come to intellectual dominance because of the collapse of what had been in effect a religion of progressive cultural evolution.
As such, our present society is based on what Del Noce called scientism and eroticism, along with a theology of secularization that gives religion a this-worldly focus. To explain: scientism is not science. Instead, it is an attempt to limit knowledge to what modern natural science can tell us. The attempt makes no rational sense, because science cannot tell us whether scientism is correct. So its basic principles tell us that it is an arbitrary assumption. Even so, our rulers like it because it justifies a wholly materialistic view of the world.
Eroticism is important because it stands, Del Noce says, for the increase of vitality, and in the absence of any objective conception of the good that becomes the goal of life. Abolishing sexual taboos also promotes a materialistic view of man. It wrecks the family, and with it the ideas of tradition and authority. So it has the effect of eliminating the social presence of the transcendent. That seems to be one reason for Del Noce’s comment that “the problem of sexuality and eroticism is today the fundamental problem from the moral point of view.”9
And finally, a theology of secularization is needed to make the religious impulse support a totally secularized order rather than raising spiritual issues that would put it in question. The practical aspects of that have of course become extremely prominent during the current pontificate, for example with the growing alliance between the Vatican and institutions like the World Economic Forum.
It is worth commenting on some particular qualities of the new society.
Like Fukuyama, Del Noce considered today’s Western society the end point of a line of political development. But he thought that it did not offer final resolution for anything because it is essentially fraudulent. Its rationality is irrational, because it imposes an arbitrary limitation on what counts as knowledge. It is totalitarian, because it does not allow people to question it by raising the possibility of standards higher than scientism and eroticism. And it is thoroughly mendacious, because it must deny what it is.
So it refutes itself. Del Noce says that Marxism, which judges by results, always brings about the opposite of what it intends. Its triumph in Russia meant radicalization of the features of the old Russian Empire progressives had complained about most—absolutism, messianic nationalism, the secret police. Similarly, its intellectual triumph in the West after the Second World War meant its dissolution, and the triumph of the tendencies the Marxists complained about most in middle-class society.
Total victory of the bourgeois spirit.
Del Noce uses the expression “bourgeois spirit” to refer to the tendency to treat everything as an object of individual acquisition and use. He says that the current society “push[es] to the limit … the [materialist] aspect of Marxism that makes it a form of absolute relativism.” For that reason it abolishes common goods and so deprives human ties of any solid basis. So Marxism, which began by talking about class solidarity, turns “upside down into … absolute individualism”—that is, into individualism that has become altogether asocial, leaving people no motive for action other than using what is around them to advance their individual goals.
That attitude extends to human relations as well. The universal equal recognition Fukuyama made so much of turns out in practice to be universal equal reduction of each person to a means to the goals of other people. As an example of what has happened, consider the kind of feminism that is now reflected in law, which emphasizes equal careers and depends on easy divorce, easy abortion, and publicly-funded childcare. Fukuyama would say that it enables women to participate fully as equals in modern society and so allows them to share in the universal equal recognition promised by liberal democracy.
Someone on Del Noce’s side might point out that instead it subjects women to universal equal instrumentalization, because it makes them wholly available to business and government as consumers, taxpayers, and human resources. It also leads them to treat their closest human connections instrumentally, as something to maintain or cut off in accordance with their changing goals. That is the meaning of abortion, divorce, and universal daycare. And it means that women are always having to sell themselves in some way, whether as employees or in a more personal manner.
I have touched on eroticism. An aspect of the transformation of Marxism once the revolutionary vision is stripped away is the replacement of the economic and social revolution, which involved class solidarity, by the sexual revolution, which by its nature destroys stable human bonds and treats other human beings as objects for acquisition and use. Instead of fighting economic exploitation, progressives fight repression. We can see the results of that change today in the attitude toward homosexuality and transgenderism. Progressives will sacrifice anything before they sacrifice their position on those issues.
The sexual revolution thus radicalizes what Del Noce calls the bourgeois spirit, which is the spirit of acquisition and use. It also tends to make people politically inactive—disconnected from each other and concerned only with their impulses and personal complications—and so tends to stabilize the new form of society. It thus acts as a powerful conservative force, in the sense in which progressives understand conservatism.
Total victory of conservatism and the right.
As mentioned, the left does not see tradition as a vehicle for transcendent goods because they do not believe in transcendent goods. That is why they identify traditionalism as incipient fascism. It is also why they see the concerns of the political right generally as simply the defense of the status quo, whatever that may be. Establishment Republicans in America provide an example: they give lip service to cultural issues but do not care about them because they have no vision of the good society. They will go along with any progressive cultural initiative as long as it does not injure the interests of donors and is carried out in a step-by-step way.
Given that understanding of the political right, Del Noce notes that the post-60s world stands for the “climax of conservatism, because it professes a complete relativism about values,” and without values that go beyond the here and now whatever exists becomes the final standard simply because it exists. There can never be a reason to change anything that matters.
Under such circumstances politics becomes a “management technique at the service of the strongest.” So the disintegration of Marxism has turned it from a radicalism that says everything must change to a conservatism that ensures nothing can change. That is the reality behind in Fukuyama’s claim that history ended with the collapse of Soviet communism.
And finally, the new materialism, by its destruction of tradition and culture and its radical individualism, abolishes what Del Noce calls fatherlands—nations seen as moral entities to which the people born and raised in them owe loyalty and support. But when they are gone, Del Noce tells us, the only centers of effective power are large economic organizations. So pure economic power runs everything, including government, which becomes basically its servant. That is what Marx said government was in capitalist society. Our discussions last year about the Great Reset and World Economic Forum confirm that it is even more true in the present-day societies that Del Noce says result from the disintegration of Marxism.
Similarity of accounts
In the modern world all roads lead to a sort of anti-Rome. The disintegration of Marxism in Italy has had the same outcome as persistent single-minded application of the principles of consent and equal freedom in America. It appears that analyses that focus on particular national histories may slight more fundamental tendencies that apply to the West as a whole.
In both Italy and America the absolute sovereignty of man drove objective human goods out of public discussion. The results have included utter relativism, destruction of human connections, a startling emphasis on sexual matters, and a society that delivers exactly the opposite of what it promised. That situation makes no sense, so awkward questions have to be suppressed: people have to be shut up, religion neutered, a comprehensive system of lying established, and scapegoats picked out and persecuted.
Although the specifics were different, and the Italians were more interested in theoretical questions, the basic processes at work were similar in America and Italy. As in Italy, American politics during the industrial age started with ideas of progressive reform. Down to the 1960s they tended toward a reformist progressivism that wanted to blur religious distinctions and doctrines and organize the world in a more comprehensive, technologically rational, and materially beneficial way. At the same time people thought they could maintain what was of value from the past, including traditional family relations and understandings of morality.
That approach lasted somewhat longer in America than Italy, largely because we were a less divided society and we avoided the political violence of the interwar period and the extreme violence of what came after. But in the 1960s it fell apart when student rebels adopted a revolutionary outlook that viewed all established institutions as evil. Not everyone agreed with them, but eventually their view prevailed because the authorities had no solid arguments to put forward against it. In principle, they were mostly in agreement.
As in Italy and Europe generally, the revolt began mostly as a reaction against the technocratic consumer society that had grown up since the Second World War. The students experienced that society as oppressive. They complained about materialism, careerism, blandness, and superficiality—to “plastic people,” as the expression was—along with inequality and militarism.
Since they could not explain the problems or what to do about them, they decided all established institutions were bad, traditional as well as technocratic. The result was that they rejected them all in favor of vivid experience and generalized rebellion. That, they thought, would enable them to “break on through to the other side” and create a new liberated society.
Of course it did not work. The destruction of tradition meant technocracy came back stronger than ever, resulting in even more commercialism, bureaucratization, alienation, and sexual and racial rancor—not to mention unhappiness and wrecked lives. The basic principles of public thought made it impossible to recognize the causes, so the failure of the anti-traditional outlook led only to redoubled efforts to extirpate tradition and the transcendent that have continued down to the present.
Lessons from Del Noce
So what can Americans learn from Del Noce?
Different perspectives make different things visible, and I have mentioned some of Del Noce’s insights, for example with regard to the sexual revolution, that should be helpful to us. But more generally he can be helpful through his emphasis on theory.
An example of how a more theoretical approach can be useful is provided by his comment that “historical materialism is valid, but precisely only as an explanation of the secular forms of thought and of their sequence.” What that means is that excluding transcendent goods and truths from public thought ultimately reduces it to what Marx said it was: an expression of the interests of dominant social and economic classes.
That seems believable: without standards of truth, beauty, and goodness that transcend this-worldly purposes, life becomes a battle of wills, and moral claims become slogans, battle flags, or opportunistic maneuvers rather than principles held as true. In the resulting struggle, it is strength and not justice that wins.
Such a view makes it easy to explain why ideas like the Great Reset have become so influential. But it also explains woke progressivism as a ruling class ideology.
Wokeness claims to stand up for traditionally subordinated social groups. It attributes all inequalities that affect them to discrimination: if there are not many Native American particle physicists, that is oppression. Some voices are being excluded from discussions of the basic nature of physical reality.10
It therefore demands the elimination, by whatever means are necessary, of all such inequalities. That demand goes far beyond personnel policies. Disproportionate representation and even outright discrimination are innate to all natural and historically-evolved social arrangements—national distinctions, religious and cultural communities, settled family forms, understandings of the sexes and their relationships.
For example, the United States Constitution was intended to promote the common welfare of Americans, and Christianity to bring salvation to those who accept it—that is, to Christians. The Constitution and Christianity therefore treat undocumented Muslim immigrants unfavorably. For example, they are excluded from central rituals of belonging like voting in U.S. federal elections and receiving communion in Catholic churches.
Woke progressives therefore view the American constitutional order and Christianity as structures of exclusion, and demand their transformation to put inclusiveness at their center. Anything else would, in a predominantly white and Christian country like America, support white Christian supremacy—which is now considered the worst sin possible.
America must therefore open her borders and provide special support for newcomers, and Christianity must transform itself into nonjudgmental outreach, dialogue, accompaniment, and promotion of secular social causes. Both—we are told—are here to listen, learn, change, and “do better” as allies to the excluded and marginalized.
But what then? Traditional religions, and cultural communities guarded by national borders, had functions. They told people how to live and gave them ways to cooperate with others. All that must somehow be replaced.
Of necessity, it is replaced either by money or by government, and by bureaucracies and commercial enterprises supervised by government. These latter lend themselves to regulation intended to bring them in line with the standards that now count as just. As a result they become the only social institutions with legitimate authority in woke progressive society. The others are too opaque and resistant to control.
As for the people at large, in the absence of traditional connections they become a disconnected mass of consumers, human resources, and clients of social programs with no ability to think, act, or organize on their own. Any such action would involve “bigotry”—reliance on connections like national and cultural community that do not include everyone equally—and rejection of “the science”—the view of things promulgated by official functionaries like Anthony Fauci.
The effect of woke progressivism, then, is to make ordinary people powerless and transfer all power and social functioning to money and bureaucracy. Progressives say that the arc of history bends toward justice. That appears true at present only if justice involves rule by billionaires and bureaucrats.
So it is entirely believable that woke progressivism is best understood as a ruling class ideology. Its weakening of traditional institutions has the predictable effect of increasing inequalities in wealth and power. And it supplements the theology of secularization Del Noce mentions, along with the magical thinking other lecturers have discussed, as a way of lining up the religious impulse in support of the regime.
And that is just what Marx would have predicted: expressions like “social justice,” “human rights,” and “equity,” in the mouths of secularists, are masks for ruling class interests. They mean that the rich and powerful run everything.
Actual results support that analysis: we have been hearing a lot about equity recently, but the more we hear about it the more we become unequal in wealth, power, social standing, and basic goods like life expectancy and stable family connections. And the more woke progressivism claims to support the excluded and marginalized the more support it gets from the wealthy and powerful.
Like Marxism, it delivers the opposite of what it promises. Transgenderism, certainly a woke cause, has multiplied the problems of emotionally confused young people,11 and the biggest result of the Black Lives Matter movement in America has been more dead black people.12 The woke solution to the problem of people feeling powerless and excluded is to tell them they are powerless victims and suppress the traditional social networks that normally connect them to others and enable them to carry on with their lives. That of course makes them more isolated, vulnerable, nonfunctional, and quite possibly victimized than ever—which both refutes and increases the appeal of woke ideology.
What to do
We have been ruled by a string of philosophies or ideologies that have rejected God in favor of history—in everyday political language, progress—but have failed historically and so refuted themselves. Whatever our current world may be, it is not, as Fukuyama claimed, an End of History that definitively satisfies the fundamental goals of politics. Nor does it appear stable, since it is dominated by abstract demands that multiply endlessly in ways ever more divorced from reality. Instead, it is demonstrating the correctness of Del Noce’s comment that modernity is “the period in which the phenomenon of atheism manifested itself and burned itself out.” Men turned away from God, and not surprisingly their world disintegrated.
The institutional and cultural forces supporting the current state of affairs are immensely powerful. Its critics have been unable to articulate a contrary vision that a propagandized, browbeaten, and hopelessly and intentionally divided public finds compelling. Even so, current tendencies cannot last forever. People ultimately need to find a way to live that is better founded, and they will do so.
To help with that we will need, among other things, to explain what has gone wrong and how to put things on a more solid basis. We need, as some have pointed out, to find a way to look at the present situation without falling into the assumptions that led to it. Secular modernity claimed it could explain and surpass the Church. In opposition, the Church must be able to explain and surpass secular modernity. We, working for the Church, must show that it is eternal truths and not historical evolution—that is to say, the things that God and not man has made—that enable us to make sense of our past, present, and future.
That should be possible, since progressivism has reached what appears to be a final dead end. And here Del Noce says he can help. He says the rejection of divine transcendence, classical metaphysics, and the order of being—which is needed to distinguish justice from violence and authority from power—are at the root of our modern difficulties. And he attributes that rejection to defects of understanding that could have been and still can be avoided.
He thought the way forward had already been indicated by Antonio Rosmini, an early nineteenth century priest and philosopher from Trentino whose views at one time ran into difficulties in Rome but has now been beatified. Whether he was right about that I am in no position to judge. But Del Noce’s efforts were clearly in the right direction, and similar efforts are urgently needed. For their part, Americans can deepen their grasp of the issues by studying his perspective.
Alexander, Scott. “What Caused the 2020 Homicide Spike?” Astral Codex Ten, June 2022.
“Discussions Intensify on Systemic Racism in Physics.” https://www.aip.org/fyi/2022/discussions-intensify-systemic-racism-physics; American Institute of Physics, July 2020.
Garrett, Shaylyn Romney, and Robert D. Putnam. “Why Did Racial Progress Stall in America?” The New York Times, December 2020.
Gentile, Giovanni, and Benito Mussolini. “The Doctrine of Fascism (1932).” http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm, n.d. Accessed June 16, 2023.
Noce, Augusto Del, and Carlo Lancellotti. The Crisis of Modernity. 1 edition. Montreal Kingston London Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.
“Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. V. Casey,” 1992.
Shrier, Abigail. Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2020.
Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. “The Paradox of Declining Female Happiness.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 1, no. 2 (July 2009): 190–225. https://doi.org/10.1257/pol.1.2.190.
“Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. V. Casey,” 1992.↩︎
Shaylyn Romney Garrett and Robert D. Putnam, “Why Did Racial Progress Stall in America?” The New York Times, December 2020.↩︎
He got the basics of the theory from the French/Russian philosopher Alexander Kojeve, who got his views from his interpretation of Hegel.↩︎
For example, Alexis de Tocqueville and Friedrich Nietzsche.↩︎
There were indeed Catholics and other traditionalists who had aligned themselves with fascism as a way of opposing the communists and maintaining order when parliamentary liberalism did not seem able to do so.↩︎
Today’s progressives seem to accept a simplified version of that view that simply identifies even the mildest traditional attachments with fascism. If you think there are only two sexes, you are a Nazi.↩︎
Giovanni Gentile and Benito Mussolini, “The Doctrine of Fascism (1932)” (http://www.worldfuturefund.org/wffmaster/Reading/Germany/mussolini.htm, n.d.), accessed June 16, 2023.↩︎
Where not otherwise identified, quotations are from Augusto Del Noce and Carlo Lancellotti, The Crisis of Modernity, 1 edition (Montreal Kingston London Ithaca: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015).↩︎
“Discussions Intensify on Systemic Racism in Physics” (https://www.aip.org/fyi/2022/discussions-intensify-systemic-racism-physics; American Institute of Physics, July 2020).↩︎
Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2020).↩︎
Scott Alexander, “What Caused the 2020 Homicide Spike?” Astral Codex Ten, June 2022.↩︎