Onward, Post-Christian Soldiers.
Ukraine and the secular apocalypse.
Of all the aspects of the Ukrainian crisis, the hardest to understand is why western political elites and their hangers-on remain so obsessively determined to destroy Russia with sanctions, and to support the Ukrainian regime to the hilt with weapons deliveries, when these tactics clearly aren’t working, and threaten, indeed, to destroy the West economically and politically. I have a possible answer but, be warned, it involves a detour into the Bible, and the Book of Revelation.
Historians of the next generation, if there is one, will no doubt shake their heads in disbelief that the political, intellectual and media classes of the West are, even now, totally obsessed with the destruction of the current political system in Russia, even as their attempts are getting nowhere, and the blowback from them threatens the West’s economic and political survival. But this obsession is, of course, very a very limited one: it is largely confined to what I call the Professional and Managerial Caste (not Class, because they don’t all have the same economic function). Ordinary people may be worried about the crisis, fearful of what might happen, and, if pushed, mumble something about supporting Ukraine. But it is the PMC, almost to a sex-neutral being, which is leading this war, encouraging and cheerleading it. Intellectuals, journalists, pundits, historians, politicians in or out of power, scientists, billionaires, tank-thinkers, private companies, financiers, Youtube influencers, software developers … the list goes on and on and on. And it’s not just people currently in positions of responsibility or influence, either. Glance, if you can bear to, at the comments in media sources like Guardian, the New York Times or Le Monde, and you will see presumably intelligent, presumably educated, people demanding nuclear war against Russia, the destruction of Russian property and the murder of individual Russians. Nothing like this wave of obsessive hatred has ever appeared in modern history. Why?
It’s tempting to point to traditional anti-Slav racialism, and the eternal Enemy from the East that I wrote about a few months ago. It’s tempting also to point to the stresses of modern society, to Covid, global warming and societal breakdown, and it’s true that the level of internal hatred in most western societies is so intense that in some of them, at least, widespread violence seems a real possibility. Thus, you can argue, the need to externalise all these violent hatreds, and find a scapegoat, to avoid the famous escalation towards apocalyptic violence that René Girard talked about. Oh, wait: park that word “apocalyptic” for a moment, we’ll come back to it.
But whilst that may be part of it, it can’t explain everything. After all, the violence of words, and the violence what is urged, are indeed confined to a relatively small part of society. There are no popular demonstrations against Russia, no sacking of Russian restaurants and shops, no popular burnings of Russian books. This is an elite cause, not a popular one. But again, why?
I’ll take as my point of departure a news story which appeared a few days ago on the estimable Naked Capitalism site, which you should all read, and where I comment most days under another of my noms de clavier. On 26 October, they reproduced a tweet by an obscure US politician, whom I will not dignify by naming, urging everyone to support Ukraine because the Deputy Minister of Defence is a woman, and because “sexual minorities are represented in the Ukrainian armed forces.” Whereas Russia is a “world centre of antifeminist antigay antitrans hatred as well as the homeland of replacement theory.” So, that’s what it’s all about then. Leaving aside the somewhat tenuous grip on the real world evident here, we can still consider the symbolism of this nonsense important for understanding the unwavering hatred of the PMC for Russia, and their willingness to see very large numbers of (other) people killed to destroy that country.
The PMC has an ideology, remember. I refer to it as radical social liberalism, although some dismissively describe it as “wokism” and others more analytically as the “successor ideology.” But I prefer my formulation, because we are looking here at the logical end-point (keep that word in mind) of social liberalism as it has historically developed. Now as I’ve pointed out before, Liberalism itself is an ex nihilio type of ideology, in which certain things are given, and just have to be accepted as true. There is no appeal to divine law, since Liberalism excludes a divinity, or at least an active one, and no appeal to custom and tradition, because Liberalism seeks to undermine and overthrow custom and tradition. Thus, Liberalism is only capable of imposing its ideology by force or intimidation.
Among other things, this ideology fills the two pragmatic functions of a religion, which is to say functions that remain effective whether or not the religion is “true.” One is to structure society, with rituals, significant dates, ceremonies, and systems of morality and behaviour. The other is to structure the world, such that we think we understand what is happening, and do not start to despair that we live in a world without meaning. Modern radical social liberalism obviously fulfils both these functions for the PMC, but it has also inherited from Christianity a special and peculiar way of thinking about the world and history. Put simply (because no-one imagine that creators of this ideology have any precise idea of where they got it from) Christianity differs from most other religions in that it presupposes a purpose to history, and an end to history itself. The idea of an “end” (telos) was not new —Aristotle discusses it at length— but Christianity applied it for the first time to history itself: “God is working his purpose out” as the English hymn has it. Unlike earlier religions, which had seen the world as static, circular or endlessly repeating, Christianity promised the End of History, as it were, in the lifetime of those Jesus preached to, or at least soon afterwards. And as this End became further delayed, the new Church developed an entire eschatology (from eskhatos,“last”), describing in some detail how this would happen. (Islam and later-Judaism have similar ideas.) All history therefore had a purpose, and history itself had an end, with the Second Coming of Jesus, the descent of the City of God to Earth, and the exaltation of the virtuous and punishment of the guilty.
These intellectual habits of thought, lasting so long and being so deeply embedded, are not quickly forgotten. (After all, few people are as obsessed by religious ideas as the militant atheist.) But whereas Aristotle had imagined the telos of a person or a thing, and whilst the Church had seen God as the agent of the cosmic telos, Liberalism saw the world evolving organically and implacably (with a bit of help from enlightened individuals) towards a happier and more rational future. For the first time, indeed, the idea of “progress” in all its many senses began to take root.
Modern western culture and politics is soaked in the idea of progress, and movement towards an end-state. It is everywhere in literature—as Frank Kermode showed in The Sense of an Ending—as well as in popular culture with its ever-recurrent fears of millennial disaster. Marxism is not a Christian heresy, whatever Bertrand Russell may have thought, but its central idea, of the progression of history towards an end-state defined by a non-exploitative economic system (“Communism”), would not have been possible without the monotheistic religious eschatological heritage. The Theory of Evolution was accepted so promptly, because it seemed to confirm that the blindness of nature had a purpose after all, in Darwin’s Ascent of Man. The Market, that divine figure of Liberal beliefs, is supposed to become more and more perfect over time as competition becomes more and more refined. Above all, these processes have an End, and a Purpose, and it’s impossible to understand modern western culture and politics without realising that.
But ideas and principles evolve as well, in this way of thinking, towards the same type of end-state. Society improves, people become more rational and tolerant, ignorance and superstition are progressively banished. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, Liberalism has taken on the universalist pretensions of Christianity, and seeks to expand and promote its ideas throughout the world, until the world is full of the Glory of Liberalism as the waters cover the sea, to adapt the prophecy of the Book of Habakkuk slightly. And indeed this is what happened: the rush to acquire colonies in the late nineteenth century was accompanied by a massive programme of education and social improvement, to bring modern Liberal ideas to the unenlightened natives. These days, development ministries and NGOs have taken up the baton, continuing St Matthew’s injunction to “teach all nations.”
Of all the purpose-driven political institutions in the world, the greatest example is the European Union. From the days of Schuman and Monet in the 1950s, “Europe” has had an ideological sense distinct from and additional to its geography. This Europe has to be “constructed” according to the jargon, because it does not exist already, and the language of European construction has, since the beginning, been one of religious symbolism and allegory. The symbolic purpose has always been to re-establish the Holy Roman Empire, and to overcome at last the centuries of political and religious division in Europe. Now the vocabulary of European integration has always been in French, which is one reason why the British have never understood it properly. The word that was used to describe the progress of “Europe” through “ever-closer union” towards the end-state of a harmonious political and economic space, untroubled by conflict and division, the City of God on Earth, was finalité. And finalité is the usual French translation of telos. The expansion of the EU is thus more than geographic: it represents the working-out of history, and the progressive approach towards a perfect Liberal political space, where nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more, and there shall be no more suffering.
However, in religious eschatologies, and in secular ideas that have been inspired by them, the road to the City of God is never automatic and easy. We are familiar with the idea of a Final Conflict at some point along the way from popular culture, but in fact its origins are in religious myth: not only Christian, but Islamic, Jewish and even Zoroastrian. Which requires us at least to nod in the direction of the apocalyptic traditions, and the Book of Revelation in particular.
Now, hardly anyone except specialists has read apocalyptic literature for a very long time: even among professing Christians, for example, almost nobody has read the Biblical Book of Revelation, which the Christian Church has always treated with some squeamishness anyway. There is no point in going into the detail of the tradition, therefore, even if I were qualified to do so. Let me just refer interested readers to an episode of the estimable SHWEP podcast on the origins of the apocalyptic tradition, and a lecture by Dr Bart Ehrman on “the” Apocalypse in Christianity and its influence.
But there are a series of images and strands of narrative which have escaped from these complex and allusive traditions into popular culture over hundreds of years. The time of trial, the persecutions, the plagues, floods, wars, signs in the sky, the opposition of the virtuous and the wicked, the final apocalyptic battle, the saving of the virtuous, the signs and marks upon the faces of each side, the Beast, the descent of the holy city or something similar … all these and more have escaped as independent memes, so that even people who have never opened a sacred book of a monotheistic tradition are familiar with them. Thus, European teenagers who went off to fight for the Islamic State in Syria seem to have genuinely believed that they were going to take part in a gigantic battle at the End of Time which would settle the future of the Universe. They may never even have opened a copy of the Koran, but they were familiar from popular culture with the main tenets of apocalyptic thinking. Thus, also, the current fixation with the possibility that the Ukraine crisis will turn into a nuclear war, or at least that nuclear weapons will be used.
The context does not have to be specifically religious. The Lord of the Rings, for example, features this meme heavily, but in an epic fantasy register. (Though Tolkien was a devout and learned Catholic, and when Frodo comments after the destruction of Mordor that they are “at the end of all things” he clearly intended a glancing reference to eschatology.) The context can, indeed, be profoundly secular. Nazi Germany thought in terms of a race-dominated finalité itself, and its ideology was full of apocalyptic imagery (where did the Thousand Year Reich come from, if not from the Book of Revelation)? The old Soviet Union believed as part of its official ideology that as Communism successfully spread through the world, then in one last desperate attempt to avert its triumph, capitalist nations would launch a final, terrible war against the Soviet Union and its allies. This war would quickly go nuclear, bringing the attendant fire and destruction, but the mechanisms of purposive history themselves guaranteed that the Soviet Union would emerge victorious, even from nuclear war. In a twist which no writer of fiction would have dared to invent, the last missiles to be launched in the Last Battle would have contained bubonic plague spores, to slow down or stop the reconstruction of capitalist countries after the fire from the sky and the destruction of cities and peoples. No wonder the during the Cold War we associated nuclear weapons with Biblical Armageddon: (the SF writer Norman Spinrad even wrote a story about it, The Big Flash, where a rock group called the Four Horsemen bring about a nuclear apocalypse).
In all of these accounts, the virtuous, who will be saved, are marked out from the wicked, who will be destroyed, primarily by their beliefs, rather than their ethnic or national origins. Orthodoxy was thus critical. The Revelation of St John in the Bible, for example, opens with messages to seven churches in Asia Minor, some of which are accused of ideological backsliding under Roman persecution. (The modern equivalent for the PMC would be Twitter assaults on individuals thought to be insufficiently ideologically pure.) But there was always going to be an external battle as well, a final battle against the Beast and the forces of evil, where those forces would be totally destroyed. If in John’s time the enemy was clearly Rome, today, the PMC’s enemy is Russia: much more so, paradoxically, than during the Cold War. What’s going on?
As I’ve suggested many times, because the foundations of Liberalism are based on nothing more than assertions, it has always been a deeply insecure ideology, lashing out all the time at potential competitors. Economic and military power has, however, enabled the spread of Liberal ideas through much of the world, at least at the level of lip-service. In Europe, the triumphant eastward march of Liberal economic and social ideas seemed unstoppable until a few years ago, just as the stranglehold of Liberal ideology on domestic politics seemed to have become absolute. But this appearance was deceptive, because ordinary citizens often lacked enthusiasm for the finalité and the onward march of history. From the French referendum of 2005, through the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, the rise of nationalist political parties, Brexit, to the strains within the EU itself, it was becoming uncomfortably clear that the post-national, post-biological, post-cultural, post-everything ideology of Brussels had little appeal outside its PMC heartland. Yet as long as the problem was internal, as long as the PMC-dominated media could shape the popular discourse about it, the situation was not that disastrous. True, countries far away like China had very different ideas, but they were, indeed, far away and not obvious models.
Russia, on the other hand, was nearby. It is a large and powerful country with a particular and distinctive history, which has sometimes been seen in the West as an enemy, and sometimes as a potential “western” power itself. But precisely because it has a long history and a particular culture, and because Liberalism was never a powerful force outside the disastrous Yeltsin years, it represents a culture different from ours, and one which is therefore a competitor and a threat to be destroyed. What is particularly aggravating is that, as seen from the West, Russian culture has preserved precisely those elements—nationalism, national culture, language, religion, society, patriotism, a sense of history—that the Brussels ideology has so impatiently rejected. Moreover, the Russians are freely accused of trying to influence western politics in their direction. Whether this assessment is true or not is irrelevant: it is deeply, if somewhat incoherently felt. Russia is thus an obstacle to the finalité to the otherwise irresistible onward march of Liberal ideas towards the creation of the New Jerusalem.
Now, we can see some of the bits coming together. Many people have been puzzled at the insistence of European elites on the continuation of sanctions and support to Ukraine, even as their own economies suffer, and they exhaust their stocks of military material. Moreover, the decades-old European discourse of the importance of dealing with underlying causes, of involving all sectors of society in an inclusive dialogue and prioritising the search for peace, has been abandoned without so much as a gesture of farewell. In desperation, some have offered trivialising accounts of obedient European elites marching to orders from Washington as an attempted explanation.
But it makes much more sense if we realise that this is, in fact, an existential Final Battle, against the one power in the world which could obstruct the fulfilment of the historical process and the building of the New Jerusalem. (The irony of a post-religious culture thinking in classically religious terms is almost painful.) So the correspondences are obvious: Russia is the Babylon of the Book of Revelation, Putin is the Beast, and the Mark of the Beast is the “Z” on Russian equipment. And the new Russian General commanding the troops in Ukraine, is nicknamed “General Armageddon.” No, seriously, you can’t make this stuff up. Actually, there’s a lot more correspondences you can have fun with, but that will do for now.
Victory, however, is assured, because this is not a real battle, but a symbolic one. Just as God frequently gave the Israelites victory over massively superior forces through supernatural intervention, so the war in Ukraine will assuredly be won, not by mundane things like military superiority, but by the power of ideas and norms. After all, the Deputy Defence Minister of Ukraine is a woman, and NATO has a full-time diversity officer. Thus, even if the short term involves suffering and trials, even if the Covid plague still has to be endured, even if parts of the Earth are baking, even if the weather has gone mad, even if, above all, people freeze in the winters to come, all these ordeals must be accepted, because victory and the coming of the New Jerusalem are assured thereby. Indeed, all these things are actually positive signs because they mean the End is Near.
We also need to remember that the Book of Revelation is essentially a revenge fantasy. The Roman oppressor is cast down, the city of Rome destroyed and all of those who do not carry the mark of Jesus are annihilated in various terrible ways: yes, women children, new-born babies and everyone, there is no Geneva Convention in the Book of Revelation. So, with history on our side, we can look forward to the overthrow of Putin, the destruction of Russia and the final victory of radical social liberalism, even if we can’t quite explain how this is going to happen. And of course, because this is the Apocalypse the same terrible justice will be meted out in the world as a whole, to all those who do not display the mark of Jesus (in this case, of course, the Ukrainian flag). For the self-appointed champions of the marginalised and persecuted who symbolically see themselves as the persecuted Christians, this is the perfect exterminatory power fantasy. Like the Christians after the return of Jesus, they can look forward to ruling over others with a rod of iron.
Yet as I have suggested, little of this is consciously understood. That is why, perhaps, governments and their supporters are so nervous and insecure, and why they insist, like John of Patmos writing to the seven Churches, that we must endure these afflictions and keep faith, without really understanding what they are doing. If you have vaguely imbibed the concept that you are on the right side of history, and that the finalité does indeed exist, you will have some instinctive belief that victory must be yours in the end. The alternative—that the worldwide triumph of Liberal ideas is not guaranteed—is too painful to contemplate.
Yet what are you going to do after the apocalypse? After Russia has been defeated and Liberalism has triumphed everywhere, life will have to consist of more than just eternal Twitter persecution of the insufficiently ideologically orthodox. Well, you’re going to live forever, or at least the PMC are. Because the really big PMC technological subject at the moment, beyond AI or self-driving cars, is Transhumanism. That’s to say, huge amounts of money are going into the idea that we can upload our brains into silicon and live forever. (Neal Stephenson, with his finger on the pulse, has just written an SF book about this.) There, we can (or they can) enjoy the benefits of eternity that first-century Christians merely yearned for, while their every want is met by arrays of Non-Playing Characters; for, as the Book of Revelation promises, Death will be no more. And the rest of us back on Earth will have to deal with the aftermath of the Failed Apocalypse as best we can. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but an upload.