There has never been a perfect human culture, and any attempt to create one has reliably led to tyranny: to the gulag or the gas chamber, the guillotine or the mass grave. Humans are fallen, or just flawed, and the world is nailed together from our crooked timber. From revolutionary France to 21st century Afghanistan, those who thought they could draw up a rational paradise once the slate was wiped clean have always been violently disabused.
But though there has never been a human culture that is anything but flawed, all lasting cultures in history have been rooted. That is to say, they have been tied down by, and to, things more solid, timeless and lasting than the day-to-day processes of their functioning, or the personal desires of the individuals who inhabit them. Some of those solid things are human creations: cultural traditions, a sense of lineage and ancestry, ceremonies designed for worship or initiation. Others are non-human: the natural world in which those cultures dwell, or the divine force that they worship or communicate with in some form.
We need these roots. We need a sense of belonging to something that is bigger than us, across both space and time, and we underestimate that need at our peril. In her book The Need for Roots, written in 1943, the French philosopher and reluctant mystic Simone Weil puts the case like this:
“To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future.”
Weil was writing from exile in England, as her homeland was still under Nazi occupation. She saw National Socialism’s perversion of the notion of rootedness, and the evil that was being done with it. But unlike many intellectuals of the Left, the Nazis’ racial tyranny did not lead her to reject the human need for roots in favour of some universalist flavour of “global justice.” She saw that notion for what it was: the same flavour of perfectionism that was leading the USSR to roll out a tyranny that matched that of fascism, right down to the barbed wire that surrounded the camps designated for those who did not fit into the model.
Weil saw beyond: when she looked at Hitler and Stalin, she saw two tyrants leading nations that had already been uprooted — by the industrial revolution, by Bolshevism, by the Great War, by the depression, by the wider process of modernity. Both men promised a return to, or a forward march towards, security, power and meaning through the imposition of a totalitarian ideology which they claimed would speak for the masses. Both delivered hell instead.
Weil’s book was commissioned by the Free French in London, led by Charles de Gaulle. It was intended to be a manifesto for the renewal of France, and Europe, after the scourge of Nazism. Her prescription was radical. Europeans, she said, had been uprooted by industry, by the state and by an aggressive form of pseudo-Christianity (Weil was a sometimes reluctant Christian, but was scathing about official forms of the faith which had, she said, in most cases aligned themselves with “the interests of those who exploit the people.”)
Both state nationalism and state socialism were con tricks, according to Weil: exploiters of the people posing as their liberators. The “totalitarian idol” of grand world-saving ideologies such as communism and fascism was the scourge of the twentieth century. The whole game had to be junked, the terms redefined: “The only punishment capable of punishing Hitler, and deterring little boys thirsting for greatness in coming centuries from following his example,” she wrote, “is such a total transformation of the meaning attached to greatness that he should thereby be excluded from it.”
“A transformation of the meaning attached to greatness”: perhaps this has always been the task, and perhaps it has always been urgent. But it certainly is now. Our idols today are economic conquest, unending “growth” built on turning all life into “resources” for human consumption, scientism disguised as objective inquiry, manic forward-motion, and the same old quest for perfectibility. Charles de Gaulle, when he returned to France victorious, was an effective competitor in this game. He never read the book that Weil aimed at him.
What did Weil mean by this “transformation”? Perhaps the answer explains why she is not as widely read as she should be. Her attachment was to the eternal things, and she could never be boxed in. She wrote in praise of God, tradition, roots, peoples and culture; but also of justice, freedom of speech and thought, honour and equality. She could be equally scathing about fascism, communism, established religion, liberal elites, capitalism and mass education.
One minute she is incinerating the “uprooted intellectuals obsessed with progress” who dominated the cultural elite of her time (and who have entirely conquered ours), assailing the Left for its contempt of the peasantry or asserting that “of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital … than love of the past.” But just when you think you’re dealing with a conservative Defender of the West, you read something like this:
“For centuries now, men of the white race have everywhere destroyed the past, stupidly, blindly, both at home and abroad. If in certain respects there has been, nevertheless, progress during this period, it is not because of this frenzy but in spite of it, under the impulse of what little of the past remained alive.“
Weil wasn’t wrong. We in the West invented this thing called modernity, and then we took it out into the world, whether the world wanted it or not. Once we called this process the White Man’s Burden, and exported it with dreadnoughts. Now we call it development, and export it via World Bank loans and the War on Terror.
But — and here is the point so often missed, especially by the “progressives” currently leading the charge in the culture wars — before we could eat the world, we first had to eat ourselves. Our states and economic elites had to dispossess their own people before they could venture out to dispossess others. The ordinary folk of the “developed” West were the prototype; the guinea pigs in a giant global experiment. Now we find ourselves rootless, rudderless, unmoored in a great sea of chaos; angry, confused, shouting at the world and each other.
Furthermore, this process accelerates under its own steam, as Weil explained, because “whoever is uprooted himself uproots others”. The more we are pulled, or pushed, away from our cultures, traditions and places — if we had them in the first place — the more we take that restlessness out with us into the world. If you have ever wondered why it is de rigueur amongst Western cultural elites to demonise roots and glorify movement, to downplay cohesion and talk up diversity, to deny links with the past and strike out instead for a future that never quite arrives, consider this: they are the children of globalised capitalism, and the inheritors of the unsettling of the West, and they have transformed that rootlessness into an ideology. They — we — are both perpetrators and victims of a Great Unsettling.
This is not to say that “Western” people alone are responsible for the rolling destruction of culture and nature that is overwhelming the world. We may have set the ball rolling, but the culture of uprooting is global now, and was when Weil was writing. You can see it everywhere you care to look. India has been uprooting its adivasi (tribal) people systemically since independence; its government is currently trying to undermine the power and agency of the peasant farmers of the Punjab, and have triggered a rural rebellion by doing so. The Chinese state is increasingly looking like the most efficient machine ever invented for uprooting, resettling and controlling mass populations. The Indonesian state is systematically unsettling the tribal people of West Papua, in cahoots with a cluster of multinational corporations. African governments are corralling the last of the San people. This is what states do, all over the world. It’s the ancient human game of power and control, turbo-charged with fossil fuels and digital surveillance technology.
For the past several centuries, this intersection of financial power, state power and increasingly coercive and manipulative technologies has constituted an ongoing war against roots and against limits. The momentum of the “global economy” is always forward: it demolishes borders and boundaries, traditions and cultures, languages and ways of seeing wherever it goes, and it will not stop until the world has been entirely remade. Record numbers of people are on the move as a result, and as the population increases and climate change bites, those numbers will rise everywhere, churning cultures and nations into entirely new shapes — or, worse, no shapes at all — with all the consequent turmoil and conflict. Even if you are living where your forefathers have lived for generations, you can bet that the smartphone you gave your child will unmoor them more effectively than any bulldozer.
Plenty of people, of course, are quite happy with all of this, and have no time for Romantic Luddites like me when we lament it. Even we Romantic Luddites are here on the internet, lamenting, so perhaps the last laugh is on us. But we are, I think, desperately in need of real culture. We want to go home again, but if we even know where home is to be found, we see that we can’t return. And so a void is created, and into the void rush monsters: toxic imitations of our lost roots. Identity politics, newly rigid racial categories, extreme nationalisms, intolerant strains of religion, endlessly multiplying genders and “identities” constructed online with no reference to reality. The mono-ethnic identitarianism of the far Right or the diversity identitarianism of the far Left: take your pick according to your predilections and fears. But these fake roots can never replace the real thing and the result is an orgy of anger, iconoclasm and rising bile. Meanwhile, the machine of techno-modernity pushes on, relentless.
In all the time I have spent with people who live in genuinely rooted cultures — rooted in time, place and spirit — whether in the west of Ireland or West Papua, I’ve generally been struck by two things. One is that rooted people are harder to control. The industrial revolution could not have happened without the enclosure of land, and the destruction of the peasantry and the artisan class. People with their feet on the ground are less easily swayed by the currents of politics, or by the fashions of urban ideologues or academic theorists.
The second observation is that people don’t tend to talk much about their “identity” — or even think about it — unless it is under threat. The louder you have to talk about it, it seems, the more you have probably lost. The range of freewheeling, self-curated “identities” thrown up by the current “culture war” shows that we are already a long way down the road that leads away from genuine culture.
When a plant is uprooted, it withers and then dies. When the same happens to a person, or a people, or a planetful of both, the result is the same. Our current cultural — and spiritual — crisis comes, I think, from our being unable to admit what on some level we know to be true: that we in the West are living inside an obsolete story. Our culture is not dying — it is already dead. We turned away from a mythic, rooted understanding of the world, and turned away from the divine, in order to look at ourselves reflected in the little black mirrors in our hands. Now, we are living in a time of consequences. Some day soon, we are going to have to look up and begin searching for what we have lost. I have a feeling that this process has already begun.
A longer version of this essay originally appeared at The Abbey of Misrule.