In the last few years, a number of books have grappled with the perception that we are experiencing a period of social and cultural decline. We can count in this category Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, and Ross Douthat’s recent The Decadent Society. A new addition to this genre—which however is also about the “rise” that preceded the “decline,” and the lessons we can draw from it in order to move forward—is The Upswing by Robert D. Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett. In an impressive tour de force of sociological research, the authors analyze a vast array of statistical data concerning four areas of American life between 1895 and 2020 (economics, politics, society, and culture), and detect a common “macro-historical” pattern. Across all four areas, during the first half of the period American society moved from “I” (which is used as a shorthand for economic inequality, political polarization, social isolation, and cultural individualism) to “We” (meaning a more equitable economic system, a significant degree of political comity, more social solidarity, and a more communitarian culture). But then, around 1960 “something happened,” and the pendulum started swinging in the opposite direction. By suitably organizing the data, Putnam and Romney Garret are able to trace a general graph (shaped like an inverted U) that summarizes this “I-We-I” trajectory. The ascending leg of the graph starts from the Gilded Age, goes through the progressive era and the New Deal, and culminates in the cultural and political consensus of the 1950s. Deeply imperfect, shortchanging black Americans and women, this settlement was still one of broader social solidarity and decreased inequality than had been the case in the Gilded Age. The descending leg comprises the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, the Reagan revolution, and the last few decades, leading to the current situation of decreased solidarity and comity, and increased isolation and inequality.
Besides being an interesting book in its own right, The Upswing got my attention in my capacity as the English translator of the works of Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce (1910–1989). Del Noce was an insightful social critic and historian of culture, and already in the sixties he was arguing that the years immediately before and after 1960 had marked a major epochal change, what Putnam and Romney Garret appropriately call a “turning point.” Del Noce’s perspective was strictly philosophical and cultural, but I think it complements the analysis in The Upswing in two respects.
First, Del Noce writes from a European perspective, and looks at the evolution of Western culture as a whole, whereas Putnam and Romney Garret focus strictly on the United States. While this is quite justified as far as economics and politics are concerned, it is less so when we must try to understand culture and society: many of the cultural and social transformations they describe (e.g., the sexual revolution, consumerism, the expansion of higher education) took place almost simultaneously across many different countries, and probably are better understood from a more international point of view.
Second, Del Noce, as a philosopher, can focus on the internal logic of cultural and intellectual life to an extent that is not possible in a sociological study. One of Putnam and Romney Garret’s most interesting findings is that in the postwar period economic and social changes appear to have slightly lagged cultural changes: the culture changed first; economic and broader social changes followed. As they explain, this does not allow us to conclude that cultural dynamics alone drove the “turning point,” because material and political interests certainly also exercised causality, in a complex network of feedback loops. Nonetheless, ideas certainly played a significant role. Putnam and Romney Garret illustrate this interlocking causality by quoting a striking passage from Max Weber: “Not ideas, but material and ideal interests directly govern men’s conduct. Yet very frequently the ‘world-images’ [Weltanschauungen, worldviews] that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.”
Weber here makes the distinction between “ideas” and “ideal interests”: what he means is that groups of people may have an interest in preserving a set of ideas, or promoting a new one, that goes well beyond whether or not those ideas are true. For example, academic sociologists have an interest in preserving the idea that academic sociology is a coherent but difficult-to-understand field, which ought to be a high-status endeavor with great job security. Advertisers have an ideal interest in promoting the concept that purchasing decisions can be shaped by advertising. Feminist activists have an ideal interest in promoting the concept that the patriarchy is powerful and sinister and that feminist activists have a great deal of important work to do. Those who want to have a great deal of sex without commitment have an ideal interest in promoting the postulate that monogamy and marriage are oppressive institutions, and that, by extension, acting on sexual desire is a kind of healthy self-expression. It is ideas like these that get built up into “worldviews.” One may well find oneself with a worldview that is remarkably consistent with one’s self-interest.
Groups of people may have an interest in preserving a set of ideas, or promoting a new one, that goes well beyond whether or not those ideas are true…. One may well find oneself with a worldview that is remarkably consistent with one’s self-interest.
Del Noce was a specialist in the study of such “worldviews” as they are found in the works of philosophers, artists, and intellectuals, but also in the media and in popular culture, and of their logical interconnections and developments. In particular, he was convinced that twentieth-century history was to an unusual extent “philosophical history” because of how much it was influenced by ideas and ideologies inherited from the previous century. Thus, I think his insights contribute to the discussion of “culture” in chapter 5 of The Upswing.
In very broad terms, Del Noce observed that mid-century Western culture responded to the tragedies of the previous decades (two world wars, Soviet and Nazi totalitarianism, the Holocaust, the atomic bomb) by rediscovering the mindset of the Enlightenment. This mindset had first surfaced in the eighteenth century, but then had been countered and partially neutralized by the so-called Romantic reaction, which characterized the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth. Whereas Romanticism emphasized a sense of historical continuity, even a love of the past, the attitude of the Enlightenment was marked by the decision to make a break with the past and “start from scratch.” And indeed after 1945 scholars, journalists, and artists gradually rediscovered the Enlightenment “as a disposition to declare a break with traditional structures and criticize them inexorably from an ethical, political, and social standpoint.” Whereas at the time of Voltaire the past was the “dark ages” of religious superstition, in the 1950s it was “fascism.” But the “fascism” that was imagined by the men and women of the 1950s was viewed, for the most part, not as a contingent (and modern!) political phenomenon, but as the expression of “old Europe,” which was a culture imagined to be as indelibly dark as Voltaire had imagined the Catholic Church, marred by nationalism, irrationalism, tribalism, racism, sexism, and so on. The perception was that fascism marked the failure of the European tradition, and was in a sense its true face. That was why, according to Del Noce, the thinkers and writers of the 1950s rediscovered the Enlightenment in its most anti-traditional version, and why their recovery of it took a distinctly anti-authoritarian (“anti-fascist”) flavor. This antiauthoritarianism expressed itself as an emphasis on personal autonomy and independence from social restraints, and in the language of “self-realization,” which became ubiquitous in popular culture. To oppose this was by necessity, they thought, to be in favor of the old Europe that, they fancied, had given us the Holocaust.
Mid-century Western culture responded to the tragedies of the previous decades by rediscovering the mindset of the Enlightenment…. The attitude of the Enlightenment was marked by the decision to make a break with the past and “start from scratch.”
This neo-Enlightenment disposition manifested itself also in a different key, one that was in tension with the first: a commitment to the good of the self-expression of the unique individual went along with an emphasis on universal human values over national or local values. These values, however, were not particularly the universal ethical truths claimed by, for example, Christianity. Chief among the universal values that the bien-pensant of the 1950s looked to was that of scientific rationality, which supposedly provides the only possible way forward away from the horrors of the past, and enables humanity to enter “adulthood.” Accordingly, an attitude that became common in the years leading up to 1960 was scientism, by which Del Noce means not science per se, but rather the philosophical view that science is the only real rationality, and the only sound organizational principle of society. The political counterpart of scientism is technocracy, the idea that society should be directed by “experts”: scientists, technicians, managers, businessmen. This idea had famously been advanced at the end of the “old” Enlightenment by the Count of Saint-Simon, and it punctually resurfaced in the 1950s, the age of the “managerial revolution.” Not by chance, this was also the golden age of the social sciences—sociology, anthropology, psychology, sexology, pedagogy—which came to great prominence not only in academia but also in public policy and even popular culture. At that same time philosophy lost much of its previous cultural prestige, as many practitioners turned away from its traditional fields of inquiry (metaphysics, moral philosophy) in favor of fields that made it a sort of ancilla scientiae (analytic philosophy, philosophy of science). Natural science, after all, was the real source of knowledge. Everything else was speculation.
A commitment to the good of the self-expression of the unique individual went along with an emphasis on universal human values over national or local values. These values, however, were not particularly the universal ethical truths claimed by, for example, Christianity.
For some interesting American illustrations of what Del Noce describes, I would like to refer the reader to chapters 3 and 4 of The Twilight of the American Enlightenment by George Marsden, the distinguished evangelical historian. What Marsden calls the “American” Enlightenment is actually the difficult “marriage” that had marked so much of US history: the marriage between the Enlightenment and Protestantism. Thus Del Noce’s claim must be adjusted to fit the American context by saying that while in Europe the mindset of the Enlightenment was rediscovered, in the United States (where it was already strong) it felt itself strong enough to walk away from its long-standing, uneasy alliance with Protestant Christianity. With that qualification, Marsden agrees with Del Noce on the essential point: “At all these levels of mainstream American life, from the highest intellectual forums to the most practical everyday advice columns, two such authorities were almost universally celebrated: the authority of the scientific method and the authority of the autonomous individual.”
According to Del Noce, another rediscovery contributed to the major cultural turning point at the end of the 1950s: that of Marxism. In European culture Marxism had already made a comeback after World War II, becoming hegemonic, for example, among French and Italian intellectuals. In the United States, of course, during the Cold War, mainstream culture was adamantly anti-Communist. However, in Del Noce’s view Marxist ideas had a much broader reach than Communism as a political movement. If one recognizes as the core of Marxism the affirmation of the causal priority of material-economic factors, the tendency to “explain what is higher through what is lower,” and the theory of “false consciousness” (which claims that appeals to universal ethical and religious values are generally disguises for selfish economic interests), then one must admit that Marxism had a great influence, for example, on the social sciences. While secular intellectuals generally rejected Marx’s philosophy of history (the expectation of the revolution, the messianic role of the proletariat, and so on), many of them broadly subscribed to the scientistic and materialistic aspects of Marxism. Taken in isolation, these tend to persuade adherents to adopt a “total relativism”: all values are reflections of material historical circumstances, group or self interest, and have no permanent validity. It was in this sense, Del Noce wrote, that “the rebirth of the mindset of the Enlightenment and the rediscovery of Marxism have met and compenetrated each other.”
While secular intellectuals generally rejected Marx’s philosophy of history, many of them broadly subscribed to the scientistic and materialistic aspects of Marxism. Taken in isolation, these tend to persuade adherents to adopt a “total relativism”: all values are reflections of material historical circumstances, group or self interest, and have no permanent validity.
As early as 1963 Del Noce diagnosed that this confluence of Enlightenment themes and Marxist ideas characterized a “new” culture, which he variously described as the “technological” or “affluent” society, or as “progressivism.” He also predicted that as this mindset percolated from the intellectual elites into broader society (through the “culture industry,” mass media, public education, etc.) it would produce precisely some of the effects described in The Upswing: growing individualism, social fragmentation, decreased religiosity, growing economic inequality. He based his prediction on the fact that the new culture was radically positivistic, and thus destined to “demythologize” and ultimately destroy the symbolic and religious narratives that glued society together.
To better explain this crucial point, let me refer to the classic cliché “God, family, and country.” This slogan has been exploited by many unscrupulous politicians, and ridiculed by just as many sophisticated intellectuals, but it does point to an important truth. People feel united to other people if they share in what Del Noce called an “ideal dimension,” which inevitably refers to what he called “the invisible” or “the sacred.” In order to be bound together people need to recognize each other as participants in universal experiences and values that transcend immediate individual utility. Religion, family, and nationality are three such fundamental sources of “sacredness.” Now, in Del Noce’s view the affluent society tends to “desecrate” them, and as a result it slowly becomes a “non-society” formed by “atomized” individuals.
In order to be bound together people need to recognize each other as participants in universal experiences and values that transcend immediate individual utility.
As far as “God” is concerned, Del Noce argues that the postwar period saw the rise of a new form of “irreligion” quite different from traditional atheism. Rather than directly denying the existence of God, neo-Enlightenment thinkers professed a form of scientistic agnosticism. This purported to be religiously “neutral” but in actuality undermined religion at a deeper level, by denying the intellectual and practical value of religious questions. From a scientistic perspective “such unsolvable questions are also those that do not interest us; meaning that they do not interest those who want to act in the world in order to improve it in any sense.” Religious questions are irrelevant to social, economic, and cultural life, except as a potential source of civil strife, which must be avoided by accepting that “democratic politics can only be de-mythologized politics.” This attitude relegates religiosity to a strictly private sphere and ultimately leads to radical secularization, “because it erodes the religious dimension until it erases from consciousness all traces of the question of God.”
Moving on to “family,” Del Noce sees a tight link between scientism and the sexual revolution—whose conceptual framework was provided by the renaissance of scientific sexology and psychoanalysis in the 1950s and 1960s. The experience of sexuality has in nearly all cultures been one that is an avenue of transcendence, one so powerful that it must be carefully ordered. Conversely, “science” knows no transcendence. Scientific sexology and psychoanalysis regard human sexuality as a purely natural phenomenon, devoid not only of transcendent meaning, but even of intrinsic finality (e.g., procreation). From a scientistic perspective sexual urges are simply natural phenomena to be studied by biological or psychological methods, but serve no higher purpose and have no objective symbolic (let alone sacramental) value. Accordingly, the men and women of the affluent society are taught not to find in sex anything that points beyond themselves.
In this sense, the philosophy of the sexual revolution is “positivism for the masses.” It views even the most intimate human relationships are essentially “meaningless” except for the meaning “we give them.” Sex becomes a romantic (at best) transaction between autonomous and fundamentally isolated individuals, and marriage becomes very similar to what in the nineteenth century was called “free love”—namely, a free association that lasts as long as long as “love” does, and can be dissolved almost at will. Clearly, this “couple-centered” conception of marriage implies a sort of “de-sacralization” of the idea of “family.”
A similar kind of desacralization applies to the idea of “nation.” I already mentioned the universalist and cosmopolitan character of the neo-Enlightenment culture that emerged around the time of the “turning point.” I will add that also in this case Del Noce thinks that there is a philosophical necessity. Nations were traditionally based on religious or cultural identities, articulated in founding histories, in national “myths” and “heroes,” which embodied a collective purpose. None of these makes sense from a scientistic-positivistic perspective. A nation is just a form of political and economic organization, completely replaceable by more efficient forms. Love of country is at best a romantic relic, at worst a form of bigotry and source of dangerous passion. If anything, a denizen of the affluent society will feel a greater allegiance to the global community of enlightened managers, technologists, philanthropists, and businessmen than to his or her home nation.
Clearly, in the long run this is bound to create a political fracture (within developed countries) between the technocratic elite (typically concentrated around a few great “world cities”) and those who share in the older nation-based sense of identity (typically living in peripheral areas). This is just one aspect of a general phenomenon that Del Noce describes as follows: in societies deprived of an “ideal” (religious, philosophical) common ground “the separation between the ruling class and the masses becomes extreme because the members of the former know that every argument in terms of values is merely ideology as an instrument of power.” Everything, for them, is already debunked, and those for whom it is not debunked are . . . well, they are unenlightened.
To sum up, Del Noce argued that in a radically scientistic-positivistic culture like the one that became dominant in the West around 1960 all forms of “belonging” grow weaker because of the scarcity of ideal common ground. This crude summary, of course, does not do justice to his analysis. For example, I cannot discuss here his views of the internal critics of the affluent society, in particular the protest movements of the sixties and seventies. I will just mention that in his opinion those movements (which can in a way be seen as the parallels of the Romantic reaction to the first Enlightenment) mostly failed to address the philosophical foundations of the new society, and actually often ended up playing into its hands, by criticizing the “traditional” institutions that in reality stood in the way of the “We-to-I” process (the church, the family, liberal education, etc.).
But enough with the analysis of “decline.” Does Del Noce have anything to tell us about the question raised in The Upswing? Namely, what will it take to get through another turning point and start moving the pendulum in the opposite direction: moving back toward solidarity?
In a radically scientistic-positivistic culture all forms of “belonging” grow weaker because of the scarcity of ideal common ground. What will it take to get through another turning point and start moving the pendulum in the opposite direction: moving back toward solidarity?
Clearly, since he believed that culture played a major role in the turning point, Del Noce was inclined to give priority to some sort of “cultural revision” in order to invert the trend. This implies, among other things, that politics can only play a supporting role, while education needs to be a major focus of attention. Not by chance, education is one of the fields that has suffered the most in the affluent-technological society. Deprived of narratives and ideals, education has been impoverished by utilitarianism, which manifests itself as an emphasis on technology in the sciences. Politicization in the humanities seems to be an attempt to retrieve some sense of narrative or ideal, but at the expense of humane and open debate, rigorous curiosity, and a connection to earlier and perhaps richer ideas of justice and human nature. (Or, of course, it may simply be the case that as humanities faculties lose their belief that artistic beauty and philosophic truth are intrinsically worthwhile objects of study and contemplation, they must justify their existence by claiming that their subjects have political, and thus practical, salience.)
Countless attempts at “fixing” K–12 education as if it was a “technical” problem have failed, because there cannot be education without an organic image of what it means to be human, and modern secular culture does not have one, or the one it has is inadequate to the task. So, the real question we should ask is, What cultural resources need to be brought to the educational system, and to the culture at large, to make a new upswing possible?
There cannot be education without an organic image of what it means to be human, and modern secular culture does not have one, or the one it has is inadequate to the task. So, the real question we should ask is, What cultural resources need to be brought to the educational system, and to the culture at large, to make a new upswing possible?
A simple approach is to look at the ideas that drove the previous turning point (that around 1960), and call them into question. Instead of living in a perennially antagonistic relationship with our collective past, we need to make peace with it, which requires being able both to reject its mistakes and to value what was valuable. Instead of rebelling against the constraints of religion, family, and country, we need to recognize what Simone Weil called “the need for roots.” We need to understand that universal values can only be realized in local and contingent forms. We need to learn to accept limits, and come to terms with the fact that human beings cannot have a healthy relationship with the visible (as Del Noce would say) without somehow coming to terms with the invisible. This last observation brings us to the sticking point: a new upswing will be impossible without adequate religious resources. Goodwill, or better policies, or more advanced technical instruments simply will not address the cultural aspects of the crisis. But real religion cannot be manufactured at will. A conversion is necessary. As Del Noce puts it,
A religious reawakening is needed, because religion, country, and family are supreme ideals and not practical instruments. And it is certainly a valid point that the formula corruptio optimi pessima applies to the deterioration that befalls these ideals when they are viewed, at least primarily, as pragmatic instruments of social welfare. In order to be socially useful they must be thought within the categories of the true and the good; the opposite is impossible. Certainly, such a reawakening cannot be a merely human work. But nevertheless it requires, in order to be realized, that the hearts of men be attentive.
Let us, then, attend.