Systems of meaning all in flames

The Crystal Palace burning down, 1936

The Crystal Palace burning down, 1936

The first half of the twentieth century was awful. Not just materially; Western systems of meaning—social, cultural, and psychological—were falling apart. The glorious accomplishments of the systematic era could not hold civilization together, and seemed likely to be lost entirely in a global conflagration.

Many people even came to think those systems were the cause of all the catastrophes. We who live in the aftermath—we who have never experienced an intact system—we cannot fully appreciate how awful that loss of meaning felt.

This page analyzes the first phase of meaning’s disintegration, roughly 1914–1964. It should help explain the new positive alternatives offered by the countercultures and subcultures, which came next, and also why those failed.

All the events I recount will be familiar, but the way I relate them to my central themes of eternalism and nihilism, and to problems of meaning in the domains of society, culture, and self, may seem novel.

We still have no adequate response to these issues. Any future approach—such as fluidity—must grapple with problems that first became obvious in the early twentieth century.

Society in crisis

Lenin addressing a crowd, 1920

Lenin addressing a crowd, 1920

The period was marked by two social crises: class conflict and world wars. The systematic ideologies that were supposed to resolve these horrible problems seemed, by the end, to have made them worse, or even to have been their principal causes.

Greatly increased division of labor during the 1800s created numerous specialized occupations. This drove great advances in the standard of living and enabled increasing cultural sophistication. However, it also created psychological alienation (discussed below) and social conflicts. The existing social system, which had been stable for hundreds of years, functioned only in an agrarian economy of peasants, aristocratic landowners, and a small class of skilled craftspeople. It had no way of accommodating the newly created classes, such as urban industrial workers and entrepreneurial commoners—who sometimes became richer and more powerful than most aristocrats.

Theorists proposed new systems of social organization: nationalist, socialist, democratic, totalitarian. Advocates made supposedly-rational arguments for why each was right; yet supporters mostly just chose the system that might benefit their in-group against others. Conflicts between them tore societies apart, often even into civil war.

Different countries tried each of the new systems, and all produced vast disasters:

  • nationalism led to World War I;
  • capitalism caused the world-wide Great Depression;1
  • fascism was to blame for World War II;
  • communism killed tens of millions with engineered famines and the mass murder of supposed dissidents.

WWI marked the end of naive faith in the systematic mode. Most countries went into the war confident of quick victory, confident of its necessity and ethical rightness, confident that war was an opportunity for glory, heroism, and unity. God was on our side.

For Europe, it was the first industrial war,2 with the new social and mechanical technologies of mass production turning out deaths instead of automobiles. Four years later, after tens of millions of casualties, extraordinary horror and suffering, the traumatized survivors asked not “was it worth it” but “what was that all about, anyway?”

In retrospect, WWI seemed completely pointless. Or, if it had any meaning, it was to point out that the pre-war systems of meaning must have been disastrously wrong. The 1800s had seemed an era of rapid moral progress as well as economic and scientific progress. That was no longer credible. This disillusionment increased support for alternatives, including socialist internationalism, fascism, explicit anti-modernism, and explicit nihilism.

One pointless, catastrophic world war might be a tragic accident. To fight another, even worse one—the worst human-created disaster ever—just twenty years later, goes beyond carelessness. When the victors of WWII immediately began preparing to fight WWIII among themselves—this time with potentially billions of deaths from nuclear weapons—it was widely regarded as a bad idea. Yet Cold War belligerents on both sides felt justified by their systems of meaning: benevolent socialist internationalism versus benevolent liberal democracy.

Systematicity itself was a major cause of the catastrophe. Leaders and peoples took their rational ideologies far too seriously, and acted on flawed theoretical prescriptions.

Why did they choose not to see the systems were failing? Eternalism. The only alternative to blind faith in the system seemed to be nihilism.

From the standpoint of each ideology, the others looked nihilistic:

  • For democratic capitalism, communism and fascism looked nihilistic in denying civil and human rights and the ultimate value of the individual.
  • For communism, capitalism and fascism denied the ultimate value of solidarity—the brotherhood of all—and the economic rights of the working class.
  • For fascism, the economic focus of communism and capitalism denied all values other than material ones. They denied the ultimate value of nation-state-ethnicity. They subordinated the noble, high culture of the elite to the vulgar, degenerate culture of the rabble.

Any relaxing of the defense of the system could only lead to the nihilist apocalypse. And, indeed, many thought the World Wars were the nihilist apocalypse—although in reality they were caused far more by eternalism than nihilism. On the other hand, a few thinkers started to suspect that it was systems as such that had been the problem. Among these were forerunners of the countercultures, such as the existentialists and Beats.3

Culture in crisis

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2

Art falling apart.
Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2, 1912
(a/k/a “Explosion in the tile factory”)

While the systematic mode worked—up to WWI—the role of “high” culture was to express and reinforce the values of the system. Great art was, by definition, morally improving. The arts tried to be pure, inspiring, and uplifting. They provided an idealized vision of the smooth workings of meaning as it was meant to be.

High culture expressed the sacred eternal values of the elites—the “bourgeoise”—who were its patrons. Popular culture sometimes ignored or mocked elite values; but that was ephemeral rubbish.

Starting in the late 1800s, and accelerating after WWI, artists flipped all that on its head. High art began instead to expose the cracks in the system. It articulated the widely-felt sense of disintegration, of loss of certainty. It spoke to the anxiety, confusion, and even horror that came from the failure of all foundations; but also the freedom and joy that came with liberation from eternalism.4

Artists, in all media, systematically rejected past artistic systems, and the rational structures that justified them.5 Painters rejected geometrical perspective, the great achievement of Renaissance art. Composers rejected tonality, which had been the foundation of music for several centuries, and experimented with severe dissonances. Writers abandoned grammar, punctuation, prosody, sense, and all other “restrictive” forms.

At the extreme, the arts became entirely anti-sense, incoherent, or explicitly nihilistic. (This anticipates the incoherence of the atomized mode most of a century later.) Artists hurled globs of paint at a canvas; composers arranged notes by rolling dice; writers cut individual words out of a book, shook them up, pulled ones out at random and called the result a poem. Beyond even this random art was anti-art—seeming to be outright nihilism. An empty picture frame declared to be a painting; John Cage’s four minutes and 33 seconds of silence declared to be music; a blank page, a poem. Tristan Tzara, a key theorist, wrote “I am against systems; the most acceptable system is on principle to have none” and “logic is always false.”

Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917

Is this art? How can you tell?
(Marcel Duchamp, Fountain, 1917)

High art also increasingly rejected all existing social systems. Biting the hands that fed it, it adopted the attitude épater la bourgeoisie: scandalize polite society!

The new job of art was not to uplift, but to overthrow. Eventually, you could not be a serious artist unless you constantly proclaimed your contempt and hatred for the middle and upper classes, for capitalism, for Victorian morality, for religion, for any sort of taboo or restriction. To be an artist was by definition to be a revolutionary. Simply maintaining an oppositional attitude became sufficient; art and social critique became inseparable.

Popular and high art now changed places. The middle and working classes had growing spending power, and entrepreneurs discovered that popular culture could be profitable. Commercial culture came to represent the “traditional values” of the systematic mode, where high art—the avant-garde—satirized and undermined them. Theorists proclaimed that all popular art was just kitsch—the cultural expression of eternalism.

Here began the “culture war,” which became particularly important in the countercultural mode.

The self in crisis

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times, 1936

Systematic society required, and made partially possible, systematic selves. Systematic persons were rational individuals who conformed to, and enforced, systematic social values. This advance began breaking down in the first half of the twentieth century, due to systematicity’s harmful side-effects. Its requirements came to seem oppressive, meaningless, and for some, impossible. Selves fractured and broke under the stress.

Work in the industrial economy felt dehumanizing. Extreme division of labor made most people tiny, interchangeable cogs in a vast, incomprehensible, relentless machine. The functioning of the economy as a whole became opaque, so it was impossible to see the meaning of one’s own work, and the system’s demands seemed senseless. And, indeed, working conditions often were not only awful, but pointlessly awful.

Urban, industrial social organization increasingly alienated people from each other and from nature. The systematic self—based on a rigorous self/other boundary—made this worse, and even separated people from their own everyday experience. It became possible, for the first time, to feel lonely and isolated while in a crowd.

The mid–1800s introduced a new “Victorian” sexual morality and a new culture of the family. These addressed genuine social problems with some success. In the absence of reliable contraceptive technology, and limited food production, sexual restraint lessened the rate at which children died of starvation. The new concept of a private home life developed partly as refuge from the stresses of the work world, and was closely analogous to the new enclosed interiority of the systematic self.

However, these innovations also caused stress and misery for many people. For example, England had large, persistent surpluses of women, making it mathematically impossible for all to conform to the demand that they marry. Many people (men and women, adults and children) found the regimented ideology of duty-filled family relationships an onerous grind at best, and in some cases intolerable. Yet they were nearly inescapable. The newly private nuclear family could also conceal pathology and abuse that earlier, more open extended families might have successfully intervened in.

Increasing social complexity requires you to act as several different people in different places. Some of those partial-selves are false fronts; others may seem natural. If your personality is quite different at work and at home, which is the real you?

Ecstasy is the natural antidote to the sense that administering the systematic self—holding everything together—is exhausting. Choiceless cultures periodically celebrate with joyful non-ordinary states of consciousness, produced by community ritual, intoxicants, and relaxation of social role norms. Systematic cultures deliberately banned these as threats.6 Even this temporary escape route was cut off.

Many people began to ask: Why? For what? Given the rigidities of the system, even the best possible life outcomes would be quite unsatisfactory for most people. The restrictions seemed arbitrary, unnecessary, and unfair. When you ask “why?”, a system is supposed to always have an answer; but as the twentieth century staggered from crisis to catastrophe to breakdown, religious and political platitudes no longer seemed adequate. Rationalist certainty had also collapsed. Justifications based on abstraction and generality are sterile; when the systems they support are visibly failing, they come to seem meaningless.

In the anxiety of relativism, as eternalism disintegrates, one doubts everything. Yet the system has to reject doubters. They are criminal, mad, degenerate, lazy, undesirable; and punished or cast out accordingly. What then? Perhaps I am mad? Or a criminal? Perhaps “good” and “evil” no longer have any meaning? Perhaps meaning itself is impossible…

And so there developed new words for problems of the self, reflecting the new possibility of nihilism:

  • Alienation, in the mismatch between social roles and internal experience
  • Anomie, the feeling that social norms have broken down and become irrelevant
  • Neurosis, theorized to be caused by failure to adapt to stifling social requirements
  • Identity crisis, the feeling of loss of any meaningful self
  • Existential angst, the feeling accompanying nihilistic doubt

Many people adapted easily enough to systematic requirements, and constructed reasonably functional systematic selves. Others found it difficult, and were miserable; some failed altogether.7 In breakdown, the self is experienced as fragmented, incoherent, and hostile to itself.


Freud’s enormous influence during the first half of the twentieth century was due to his pioneering explanations—however incomplete and incorrect—of these problems.

A fully systematic self, he argued, is biologically impossible. The ideal of the self as the rational chief of a smoothly functioning internal bureaucracy is unrealizable. Not only is the self not an in-dividual, it is always actually divided. Most of what happens inside ourselves we cannot even know about: it is unconscious. The ego—what we most think of as self—is a hapless clown, caught between vastly more powerful forces.

The monstrous, irrational, amoral, chaotic id mainly does as it pleases; then the tyrannical, persecutory superego punishes us for desires and acts beyond our control, inducing constant anxiety and guilt. The ego’s mechanisms of defense against them, such as repression, denial, regression, and projection, are themselves mainly violent failures of rational self-management. They mirror the mechanisms of social oppression.

Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), perhaps Freud’s most influential work, argued that because the conflict between social demands and individual desires was unavoidable, deep dissatisfaction was inescapable. The best we can hope for is to “replace neurotic misery with common unhappiness.”

Despite this profoundly gloomy conclusion, psychoanalysis functioned as a para-religion for millions of people. As a system for making sense of meaning in all its dimensions, it often fit lived experience better than Christianity.

During the middle of the century, psychoanalysis evolved away from orthodox Freudianism, in several productive directions. Object-relations theory recognized that relationships had great human value, not just instrumentally but intrinsically. It also developed more sophisticated and accurate understandings of the internal structure of the self and its fragmentation. Psychoanalysis also hybridized with existentialism, arguably deepening each. Both hybridized with Marxism, producing trenchant new analyses of the failures of the systematic mode, and suggesting new revolutionary possibilities. These were a major impetus for the 1960s–70s counterculture.

Responses: totalitarianism and existentialism

The main alternative, while all systems were failing, appeared to be nihilism—the end of meaning. However, two other responses developed during 1914–64: totalitarianism and existentialism.

These had some of the characteristics of countercultures, as I’ll define them on the next page. Both proposed alternatives to the failing mainstream, and were often anti-rational.8 Each contributed to counterculturalism: existentialism especially influenced the monist counterculture, and totalitarianism the dualist counterculture.


By “totalitarianism” I mean attempts to make a system work by force. (This is not quite the standard definition, but it’s close.) This includes fascism, actually-existing communism,9 and theocractic fundamentalism.

Totalitarianism is now mostly discredited in the West, so it’s important to understand why it made sense in the mid-twentieth century—and why it still makes sense to billions of people elsewhere.

Any serious system has a network of justifications that answer all “why” questions—not perfectly, but well enough for most people most of the time. So it ought to work. Moreover, systems mostly did work, for several centuries. Even in the 1950s, many liberal Western economists and political scientists considered that the Soviet bloc had an unfair advantage, because its leaders could simply order everyone to do what had to be done. They favored democratic institutions on ethical grounds, but believed that communism was more efficient economically—so the West might be doomed. (It wasn’t until the 2000s that the reasons non-systematic economies outperform started to be commonly understood.)

Like all eternalism, totalitarianism is based on the fantasy of control; it promises salvation if you conform to the dictates of the system. That promise is enormously appealing, and explains why Hitler, Stalin, and Mao had broad popular support—and why Islamic fundamentalism has broad popular support now.

The totalitarian intuition is that society would work if everyone just did what they were supposed to. And this is largely correct. Despite nearly opposite ideologies, Norway and Singapore are now among the highest-functioning countries in the world, because there is a general agreement among their citizens to do the right thing. In low-functioning countries, there is a de facto agreement to ignore pro-social norms in favor of personal or clan advancement. So why not just make everyone behave?

Totalitarianism’s flaws become apparent when it collides with nebulosity. It then uses all the eternalist ploys to maintain allegiance in the face of failure. Most obviously, totalitarianism is armed and armored to restore order by force. This requires purification, eventually by killing everyone who impedes the operation of the system (kulaks, Jews, apostates, profiteers, perverts, oppressors, idolators, elitists, degenerates, running-dog capitalist-roaders, intellectuals, counter-revolutionaries, etc.). Totalitarian leadership is typically addicted to magical thinking and pretending to believe. For the masses, they encourage thought suppression and kitsch.

Speaking of kitsch, all totalitarian movements see it as job one to suppress and destroy avant-garde art.10 Avant-garde art points to nebulosity and mocks systematicity—as such, not just specific systems. The Soviets declared it “counter-revolutionary,” and made “socialist realism” the only legal style. (That was state-worshipping propaganda kitsch in a style crudely imitating late–1800s Academic painting.) The Nazis declared the avant-garde “degenerate,” “nonsensical,” and “Jewish,” and banned it in favor of their own Classically-inspired propaganda kitsch. Nowadays, fundamentalists preach against it, ban it where they can, and promote religious kitsch.

In the social realm, I mentioned two problems: class conflict and world war. Totalitarianism deals with the first by banning it. (That was easy, wasn’t it? If you kill everyone responsible for class conflict, it will just go away.) Totalitarians love world wars—eternalism deludes them that they are fated to win and establish a global Soviet / Reich / Caliphate11—so that’s not a problem either.

Totalitarianism requires a self that is systematic but transparent. Choiceless selves—embedded in local community relationships—cannot conform to the will of a national or global system. Individuals—who have a private mental realm—may choose to resist the system, or hide dissenting thoughts from the system. The totalitarian self must be submerged in the State, or surrendered to God, renouncing personal boundaries. That is attractive, for many people, by relieving them of the burdens of choice. (Eternalism simulates choicelessness.) However, complete surrender is impossible to accomplish, which is one reason totalitarianism has not been more successful.


Existentialism rejected all systems of meaning in favor of choosing personal meanings. I’ve analyzed that extensively earlier in the book,12 so here I’ll say only a little.

Systematic eternalism tries to make meaning objective. During the twentieth century, this became obviously unworkable. Many saw nihilism as the only possible alternative, but (rightly) considered it unacceptable. Existentialists tried to create a third possibility: that meaning could be subjective rather than objective. In fact, they said, “authentic” meaning had to be subjective: a purely individual choice or creation, without any justification. They claimed that perfect internal freedom of choice made this possible, whatever the external circumstances.

This can’t work. Meaning is a collaborative activity. It is neither objective nor subjective. It is created by interaction, and abides in that space-between. Also, we do not have perfect internal freedom. Selves are constituted by biology and by society and culture. People cannot become ideal independent rational agents with perfectly-crisp boundaries and unlimited free will.

Bizarrely, while advocating total rejection of social values, several of the most important existentialists also advocated totalitarian social systems. For example, Heidegger supported Nazism and Sartre supported Soviet communism. Camus, last and best of the existentialists, was left to diagnose both its failure modes. He explained how purely subjective meaning slides into nihilism, split with Sartre over communism, and consistently denounced totalitarianism.

Unfortunately, existentialism’s incoherent combination of extreme individualism and extreme collectivism carried on into the countercultures a couple decades later. That was a main reason for their failure.

  • 1. Or, at any rate, this was widely believed.
  • 2. The American Civil War was the first industrial war overall, anticipating most of the features of WWI on a smaller—but still appalling—scale.
  • 3. Around the same time—1951—Kenneth Arrow proved mathematically that there is no such thing as a “fair” system of government. This could be seen as part of the general collapse of rational certainty in the 1914–1964 period. I suspect Arrow’s proof significantly influenced elite decision-makers, as the general crisis in rationality did, even though there’s never been any public awareness of it.
  • 4. This movement in the arts was called “modernism”. As I mentioned earlier, in other contexts “modern” refers to different periods. In particular, “modernism” in the arts corresponds to the breakdown of the “modernity” that prevailed from the 1400s through the 1800s.
  • 5. Artistic modernism grew out of Romanticism. Romantic art was sometimes explicitly anti-rational, but still mainly worked within the Classical forms. It maintained strong emotional coherence, and was more-or-less realistic. Generally it also supported existing social structures, or at most sought to reform them, rather than destroy them.
  • 6. Calvinism pioneered this move, but you see the same in communist prudery, for example. Romanticism, in both the artistic and spiritual realms, revolted against puritanism—and so was a precursor to the 1960s counterculture.
  • 7. Of course, success in adapting to systematic requirements depended both on one’s personal capacity and predilections, and on one’s position in the social structure.
  • 8. On the other hand, fascist ethno-nationalism was not exactly universalist, where the 1960s–80s countercultures were; and communism at least pretended to rationality.
  • 9. Some communists argue that all supposed communist regimes were not really communist, and true communism would not be totalitarian. I find this unconvincing, but have added “actually-existing” to avoid arguing about it. I wonder whether anyone argues that true fascism would not be totalitarian?
  • 10. Not coincidentally, my page on eternalist kitsch draws heavily on Kundera’s analysis of totalitarian kitsch.
  • 11. As I write this, ISIS—the global caliphate—is just about to conquer Rome. According to the caliph, as quoted in his press releases today, anyway.
  • 12. Actually, as of the time I’m writing this early in 2015, those sections of the book exist only as notes, and do not yet appear on the web. Existentialism is relevant to many of the themes of Meaningness, and I will discuss it in—at minimum—the chapters on meaningfulness, boundaries, self, and purpose.


Literary references

Pobop's picture

I would be very interested in hearing some references for all this. How much of this is your own conclusions and what got you thinking along these lines? Is this well known in some field, or are these novel ideas? I don’t mean this in the sense that loosely referenced output is non-academic and thus bad. If I understood correctly, you’re writing this partly because a satisfactory account of meaning(ness), or meaning in a general, non-academic thinker compatible sense has not been written. So maybe a nice general book about it doesn’t exist.

Still, I would be grateful if you could point to some of your favorites, particularly about changes in meaning on a societal level.

Just boring standard history

Yeah, this page was just standard, uncontroversial early-20th-century cultural history. Meaningness and Time will continue to be standard history up to the 1980s, when I start to develop analyses that are a little unusual. Unfortunately I can’t recommend a specific book on the subject; I think you’d find that any history of social developments in that era would cover these topics. If there’s specific points of interest, even the Wikipedia would probably be adequate. But if there are particular ones you’d interested in, let me know, and I might be able to say more.


Lawrence D'Anna's picture

capitalism caused the world-wide Great Depression*
*Or, at any rate, this was widely believed

It’s kind of amazing the extent to which this is still widely believed. In this case it seems totally obvious this is wrong. The great depression was caused by monetary policy, not “capitalism” or “regulation” or whatever word you want to use for the opposite of capitalism is.

But it’s not just this case, we wind up in the same epistemic tarpit with almost every economic woe. Our actual system is not either purely capitalistic or purely anti-capitalistic, so whenever anything goes wrong, both sides can make up their own counterfactual to justify why capitalism is the problem or the solution. But I think usually the real problem is something technical like monetary policy, rather than something that fits on the ideological spectrum of bigger vs. smaller government.

That’s not to say I don’t have an opinion on the bigger vs. smaller government ideological tug of war, I just don’t think it’s has the importance people generally attribute to it. A big but well run government will outperform a small but ineffective one.

Ecstasy as the Antidote

fiona's picture

Hi David, I’m really enjoying this series!

Something you mention (that “ecstasy is the natural antidote to the sense that administering the systematic self… is exhausting”) to me points to the source of our culture’s myriad addictions and obsession with all other forms of externally induced choicelessness (like falling in love, becoming a follower of a cult, etc.). Maybe this is similar to your argument about eternalism “simulating” choicelessness.

In a world where everyone is conditioned to act out multiple irreconcilable selves, there’s this urge to be seized by a passion or intensity or desire (by whatever means) that renders us unable to make choices… That gets us off the hook and lets us revert to a one-dimensional self that makes decisions unconsciously.

The systematists are right to have misgivings about addictive/compulsive/thoughtless behavior, but banning cults and drugs and whatnot doesn’t really address the problem. Maybe I’m going off on a tangent here. Basically, I think the problem with “fluidity” is that it’s mostly experienced as terrifying groundlessness, which just drives people to seek out choicelessness, which of course doesn’t work in a post-choiceless world, which just results in more turmoil!

Future Shock

Greg's picture

David, I was wondering if you are familiar with Alvin Toffler’s book, “Future Shock?” Seems like humans are continually trying to ‘replicate’ their surroundings as a means to psychological security (predictability gives some comfort that things are just right).

I’m thinking that the rate of change that the industrialized world experiences, would make it almost impossible to latch onto any thing of permanence or certainty. I wonder if the sense of permanence is connected our sense of meaningfulness?

Anyway, good topic!

Present Shock too

Hi Greg—Thanks; I haven’t actually read it, but I’ve read multiple summaries at various times.

Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shock is an interesting follow-on, describing what I call the atomized mode. (I find some parts of the book more persuasive than others, but there’s useful insight within.)

Your observations (which I think are right) remind me of All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity, which is a classic on the subject. (I haven’t actually read it, either!)

Centres, Science

I find it slightly odd that your history here seems largely centred on changes in Europe. At other times you focus solely on America. What is happening in America at this time?

Empires funded the development of European systems and wars in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Britain nowadays could not afford to fight a major war! We can not really afford our minimal contribution to the Imperialist wars in the Middle-East. As European imperialism was falling apart and Europe becoming more inwardly focussed, America was rising as an imperialist power and taking an increasingly active and interventionist role in other nations. You don’t seem to cover this.

The first “modern” war fought by multiple global powers was 1795 to 1815, in which America was a bit player for a brief period ca 1812. France may have had its revolution, but they also had Napoleon. America did not have a Napoleon! The break down of systems in Europe and America is a wholly different social dynamic isn’t it? America does not start from a Feudal base. In WWI the leaders of half the major powers are first cousins whose grandmother was Queen Victoria! In this time USA rises to become a world power, rather than falling away from being one like most of Europe.

The post WWII years were a time of economic boom in the industrialised West, and the USA had no rebuilding to do! Apart from Pearl Harbour, no bombs fall on USA in either war. Industrial production is never interrupted. As Bill Bryson says in his memoirs of growing up in the 1950s, the USA when straight from making tanks and bombs, to making cars and fridges without any pause. Liberalism meant that the wealth was spread around. Keynesian economic theory meant that general prosperity increased dramatically (which is why increasing inequality now looks so heinous). Access to education improved. Child labour was eliminated. Longer schooling and delayed entry into the workforce produced the teenager. Unionised labour produced the weekend and leisure time. Mass media emerged. Women joined the workforce enmasse. The standard of living rose, especially in the USA. How do these major themes in society relate to a view of society tearing itself apart?

Under “ecstasy” you don’t mention the millennia long practice of drinking alcohol. Its a problematic lacuna, isn’t it?

Another distinction is between American and European philosophy. In the early 20th Century Europeans to gravitated towards positivism or nihilism; Brits retreated into solipsism; Asia was still largely mired in mysticism; the Middle East revived fundamentalist theology; but American philosophers became pragmatists (and thank goodness for that!).

However, the thing that most struck me about this account was what was happening in science during this period. As social systems were supposedly breaking down, we see major paradigm shifts in science, but these lead to greater and greater systematicity. Building on evolution, studies of electro-magnetism, and atomic theory, from 1900 we see the emergence of relativity, quantum mechanics, electronics, radio communications, big-bang cosmology, DNA and NeoDarwinian genetics, plate tectonics, and so on. The defining knowledge and tech of our times emerge during this period. Unification is a major project. Time & space; matter & energy; etc.

My sense is that this essay is not history so much as rhetoric. You seem to be selectively retelling history in order to fit the narrative you have already outlined. You’re trying to convince us that general history supports your social theory. You can’t really do that by cherry picking.

More specifically your comments on avant-guard art do not convince me. Take Duchamp for example. He might have shocked a handful of insiders at the time, but he remained unknown to the masses until he was assimilated by the mainstream, commodified, and reproduced enmasse. Commodification and mass-production are far more important and significant in the history of art than the avant-guard. Mass-production democratised art, but also rendered it banal and two-dimensional. Arguably, this is the most important historical theme in 20th Century art. The antics of artists have become more extreme in the effort to be noticed, but the art-world continues to commodify art without a blink. And now social media commodifies our lives.

As for John Cage, well, other American composers come to mind. Elvis Presley was a far more significant influence on society than Cage was. Woody Guthrie was far more radical in his sensibilities. Duke Ellington a more interesting composer. Cage was a one-trick pony, and ironically his one famous piece– 4’33” –is perhaps the least understood work in the art music canon, e.g. it’s not about silence, it’s about ambient sound. Cage wanted to take the composer out of composition, and the results are largely execrable. His reputation as an exciting composer is all too abstract, because there was nothing exciting about the actual music, which was routinely awful. Elvis by comparison was extremely exciting, if not terribly original. Listen to some of those early Elvis recordings and they still fizz! Guthrie was more truly selfless because he was focussed on other people and their struggles rather than lost in an individualistic intellectual pursuit of non-existence. Ellington, though popular in his day, innovated in ways that influenced music outside his own genre and across time, e.g. without Ellington, Gershwin wouldn’t exist.

I also would say the invention of cinema and the rise of Hollywood is a more significant cultural phenomena than any of those you chose to highlight. But it runs counter to your narrative, because it united people at a time when you say they were fragmenting.

I don’t disagree with the premise you are exploring. Society clearly is atomising. And maybe fluidity is the answer (though fluidity is a higher level property so the metaphor of decreasing structure breaks down at that point). The trouble is that you’ve long since stated the conclusion that you intend to reach in your writing and I think this has doomed you to agreeing with yourself as you fill in the gaps.

A history of breakdown

Thank you for the long comment!

It seems that I wasn’t clear enough about the goal for this page—and, actually, for the history of meaningness overall. It’s meant to provide just enough background knowledge to understand how we got to atomization, and the problems of meaningness atomization responded to, and then the ones it creates.

So, two things. First, this isn’t meant as a general overview history of the period; it’s highly selective, in surfacing themes that in some cases may not have been particularly important at the time, but became so decades later. (For example, the early-20th-century anti-art movement was minor then, but anticipates some nihilistic features of subcultural and atomized art.) More generally, it emphasizes breakdown, because the countercultural mode was a response to that breakdown. Without understanding how meaning had fallen apart, you can’t understand why the countercultures tried to put it back together.

Second, nothing in this was meant to be original or controversial or tendentious. It’s a recitation of what I take to be well-established facts, that are well-understood by anyone who has studied the cultural history of the period, but which some readers (particularly younger ones) may not know. I’ve written it up for their benefit as background, rather than just saying “go read a mainstream history book.” Because most of what’s in that book would be irrelevant to my story, and I could fit everything people need to know into one long web page.

I find it slightly odd that your history here seems largely centred on changes in Europe. At other times you focus solely on America. What is happening in America at this time?

Later parts of the story are primarily about America; but the pre-WWII cultural developments that led to the American countercultures were mainly European. Specifically: Romanticism, Marxism, Freudianism, and existentialism were the main intellectual influences on the monist counterculture. Also on the dualist one, although fundamentalism was an indigenous American development.

I share your admiration for American philosophical pragmatism, but it wasn’t a significant influence on any of the major post-1960 American cultural or social movements, so far as I know. (Unfortunately!)

The standard of living rose, especially in the USA. How do these major themes in society relate to a view of society tearing itself apart?

I cover this, in passing, in the countercultures chapter. The standard view—which seems right to me—is that 1950s American culture was an elaborate make-believe attempt to paper over the disintegration of meaning that was continuing beneath the surface. The 1960s counterculture was a refusal to go along with that, which was feasible in part due to the unprecedented material prosperity of the period.

Under “ecstasy” you don’t mention the millennia long practice of drinking alcohol. Its a problematic lacuna, isn’t it?

I’m not sure—problematic why?

During the “glory days” of systematic modernism, i.e. the Victorian era and later 1920s, the temperance movement was huge, and it was directed mainly at “reforming” the working class, who got drunk instead of working reliably in factories like they were “supposed” to.

we see major paradigm shifts in science, but these lead to greater and greater systematicity.

Yes; but at the same time, science and mathematics undercut their own foundations. The Victorian rationalist-eternalist view that they could provide Absolute Truth, absolute certainty, complete understanding, and perfect control—that conclusively failed. The page immediately following this one, “The collapse of rational certainty” will cover that (but there’s only a brief summary there now).

So, science was greatly increasing “horizontal” connections in its structure of justification, but at the same time cutting off the vertical ones that rooted it in Absolute Truth. (And, as you’ve written, the reductionist project of grounding “higher level” sciences with vertical connections to “lower level” ones also failed, although that realization came somewhat later.)

Mass-production democratised art, but also rendered it banal and two-dimensional. Arguably, this is the most important historical theme in 20th Century art.

Yes; I return to this point repeatedly later in the history. Recognition of this pattern of commodification was one of the main drivers of subculturalism, starting with punk’s rejection of the “corporate rock” in the late 70s.

I agree that Cage was doing “performance art” or “conceptual art” rather than music, and that the mid-20th-century artistic avant garde was generally awful. In “Counter-cultures: thick and wide” I write (quoting Hobsbawm):

By the 1960s, [the avant garde] had degenerated into knee-jerk negativity and empty simulations of creation, “a series of increasingly desperate gimmicks by which artists sought to give their work an immediately recognizable individual trademark, a succession of manifestos of despair.” Meanwhile, “popular” culture was mainly trivial; and so neither could provide thick meanings. Nihilism seemed a plausible consequence of the loss of the meaning-defining classical high culture of the systematic mode at its zenith.

The countercultures deliberately addressed that nihilism by creating new cultures as serious, positive mass alternatives. This is perhaps the most valuable legacy of the countercultural era.

The countercultures obliterated the obsolete high/pop distinction. Their new art started from popular forms, but also borrowed from the avant garde. Overall, it had greater depth, heft, sophistication, and broad appeal than either.

You hit the nail on the head here:

fluidity is a higher level property so the metaphor of decreasing structure breaks down at that point

This diagram illustrates that. It shows fluidity as a motion away from atomization’s quasi-nihilistic denial of structure, toward a renewed recognition of pattern—but this time without the eternalistic denial of nebulosity.


I can’t help wishing that this book was finished, in print, and able to be read from beginning to end. But at least I can harass the author via comments :-)

Your expanded comments on history only reinforces my view that you are telling the story to fit the conclusion you have already arrived at. This is called confirmation bias.

The Victorian rationalist-eternalist view that they could provide Absolute Truth, absolute certainty, complete understanding, and perfect control—that conclusively failed.

This failure only began to dawn on me in the last couple of years, and to be clear only this year when I started reading about antireductionism. I studied science at school and university, not the history or philosophy of science. I liked science precisely because it provided definite answers - though, it must be acknowledged, not always to the actual questions I had. My dissatisfaction on this score was inchoate for a couple of decades.

I would guess that most people have never heard of this failure and still see science as in pursuit of the ultimate answers. I’m sure some scientists still see themselves in this way also.

"Lights all askew in the heavens"

Your expanded comments on history only reinforces my view that you are telling the story to fit the conclusion you have already arrived at.

Yes. I’m not pretending otherwise. That’s exactly what I’m doing on this page. I’m not trying to persuade, but to inform.

I would guess that most people have never heard of this failure and still see science as in pursuit of the ultimate answers.

Yes—but there were major cultural wobbles around this before we were born (and even before our parents were born). Arthur Eddington’s confirmation of Einsteinian relativity in 1919 had an enormous popular impact, not because it proved the new theory true, but because it proved classical mechanics false. (It’s interesting reading a newspaper announcement from the time; I have a copy here.)

Its impact was disproportionately large because it came shortly after WWI, at a time when there was already a widespread sense that meaning had fallen apart. The popular understanding was that science had disproved itself and that now nothing made any sense.

In retrospect, this is hard for us to understand, because relativity was consolidated into the scientistic worldview, but it was a very big deal at the time. Mid-century cultural theorists described it as an epochal shift in the way people understood meaning. As late as the 1960s, hippies, when confronted with any inconvenient fact, would still say “Hey, man, don’t you know everything is relative? Einstein proved that!”

I’m sure some scientists still see themselves in this way also.

I think most do! Eternalism is such a powerful attractor that science’s numerous demonstrations that it is wrong get shrugged off.

Arrow's Impossibility Theorem

It’s a bit tendentious to say that “Kenneth Arrow proved mathematically that there is no such thing as a ‘fair’ system of government.” Arrow proved that for one (albeit fairly broad and intuitive) set of fairness criteria and one particular model of voting system.

Sorry for quibbling with a footnote, but hopefully it can be taken in the spirit of pointing out nebulosity :)

No fair system of government

Thanks, yes, that’s a useful technical corrective.

If Arrow’s Theorem had the impact I suspect (but am unsure of), it would have been because it was understood as a broad proof. Whether that understanding is accurate is another question.

I think it probably is: despite extensive effort, no one has proposed a system that avoids Arrow’s Theorem and that has gained significant support as an adequate response.

Link Broken

Vinod Khare's picture

The link in “In the anxiety of relativism, as eternalism disintegrates, one doubts everything. ” seems to be broken.

Links to the future

Thank you very much!

Unfortunately, this is one of very many “links to the future” in the book. They reference pages in my outline that are not yet on the web, even in “stub” form.

I don’t have a good technical way of suppressing these. Maybe I’ll write some code for this purpose at some point!

However, it also created

Bad Horse's picture

However, it also created psychological alienation (discussed below) and social conflicts. The existing social system, which had been stable for hundreds of years, functioned only in an agrarian economy of peasants, aristocratic landowners, and a small class of skilled craftspeople.

This is a Marxist myth.

First, there has never been any evidence or logic to the claim that workers experienced more “alienation” during the industrial revolution than that experienced by artisans in the Renaissance, serfs during the Middle Ages, or slaves under Rome. In all cases people were necessarily “alienated” from the product of their labor when that product was sold, even independent craftsmen. Marx’s definition of “alienation” makes no reference to the ownership of the means of production, so it makes no sense to claim it’s specific to “capitalism” or would vanish if the factories were owned by “the workers”. Someone bolting carburetors onto Fords all day will not suddenly find that more fulfilling if issued a few shares of company stock.

Also, the last time the existing social system in Europe had been stable was 300 A.D.. Europe had had massive dislocations and social disruptions in the 4th (Roman civil wars), 5th (entire Roman Empire taken over by Germanic tribes), 6th (Byzantine and Arian wars, Europe devastated), 7th (Islamic invasions, North Africa cut permanently out of the European sphere, continued wars over Arianism), 8th (Frankish wars, more Islamic invasions, widespread enslavement, destruction, and forced conversion to Catholicism), 9th (Charlemagne’s construction of the Holy Roman Empire), 10th (collapse of Charlemagne’s empire), 11th (establishment of feudalism, general chaos), 12th (establishment of nobility, dynasties, social classes, and land ownership; crusades), 13th (more crusades, scholasticism, absolute power of the Catholic church), 14th (collapse of Papal power, the black death, the Italian Renaissance, rise of the middle class, the 100 Years War, many peasant uprisings), 15th (age of naval exploration begins, beginnings of nationalism, the Byzantine Empire falls, the Spanish Reconquista, African slave trade begins, printing invented, rise of the cities and city-states), 16th (intellectual Renaissance begins the labor specialization being attributed here to the industrial revolution; the Reformation; rise of absolute monarchs and royal power), 17th (the wars of religion, American colonization, agricultural revolution begins to cause unemployment among farm workers), and 18th (American and French revolutions; family farms have trouble competing in the new British free market system; the enclosure movement, mechanization of weaving, and fertilization all also decrease rural employment).

"actually-existing communism"

Andrew Cady's picture

Your line about “actually-existing communism” is incompatible with communism as defined by Marxist thought. That is because communism is, according to that definition, a state of society. It does not refer to a society ruled by a communist regime.

You might consider the difference between a society that has abolished slavery, and a society whose ruling regime professes (authentically or not) abolitionism.

Another similar distinction would be that between “cosmist” and “terran” regimes – a cosmist regime would be one that seeks to colonize other planets. It organizes its society and economy toward the goal of colonizing other planets. That is distinct from both a terran regime, which does not seek to do so; and from an interplanetary society, which has actually accomplished colonization.

Communist regimes sought to create communism, with the understanding that this would require decades or centuries to accomplish. No communist regime ever did claim that they had created communism, only that it was their goal.

"actually-existing communism"

Bad Horse's picture

Andrew: David’s sentence on actually-existing communism already has a footnote attached to it to try to discourage people from making your irrelevant reply about states that never have and never can exist.

I read the footnote. Hence

Andrew Cady's picture

I read the footnote. Hence my explanation of what Marxists mean by the word. Seems the author is unfamiliar with the terminology.

Re: I read the footnote. Hence

Bad Horse's picture

Andrew: David is discussing the nature of different belief systems, and in particular the nature of systems of centralized power in which individual liberty is devalued. Claiming that we should consider the “ideal communist state”, rather than the states actually brought about by communist doctrines, is like claiming we should evaluate feudalism as a political system judging by the conditions that would prevail after Christ’s return and reign on Earth.

Bad Horse writes:

Andrew Cady's picture

Bad Horse writes:

Claiming that we should consider the “ideal communist state”, […] is [dumb]

I agree.

Note, however, that nobody here made such a claim.

evaluate feudalism as a political system judging by the conditions that would prevail after Christ’s return and reign on Earth.

I’m glad you brought up Christianity. It is useful to explain the point I was making before. Hopefully more clearly this time. Christianity, like Marxism, has words in its nomenclature that refer to states that have not come into existence. In particular you refer to “Christ’s reign on Earth,” also known as the eschaton, or the second coming, or the rapture.

Now, I would claim that if we were going to talk about feudalism, we should not call it by the name of “the second coming,” or by the name “the eschaton,” or by the name of “Christ’s reign on Earth.” Instead, we should call it something else (perhaps “feudalism,” perhaps not, but just not something from Christian ideology that refers to a future state).

In the case of communism, I wouldn’t even go so far as to make the analogous claim. I just point out that if we do call (e.g.) the USSR “communism,” we’re simply using different terminology than Marxist terminology. The USSR didn’t refer to itself as “communism” because it used the Marxist terminology.

Therefore, when Marxists say something like “the USSR was not communism,” they are saying something that is true, but that you (and others) are not understanding, because you do not understand what they mean when they use the word “communism.”

I will add that the Marxist definition is well-justified by the fact that it exists in a category along with capitalism and feudalism. We define feudalism and capitalism in terms of the structure of the society and its economy, not in terms of the ideology of the ruling class or the future intended for it by that ruling class. Communism, according to Marxist theory, is a classification in the category of such classifications. There are lots of other terms in this category. (Several of them, including “capitalism,” share with “communism” the unfortunate homonym of the ideology sharing the name of the status that the ideology promotes.)

It’s acceptable to have more than one meaning for a word, but to accept that is also to recognize that it is unacceptable to insist that other people are using the word in the same way you are, especially when it helps you interpret what they’re saying as dumb.

Andrew: I understand your

Bad Horse's picture

Andrew: I understand your point. But the communists who say we should use “communism” to refer to the theoretical final state are being dishonest, for at the same time they associate the term with their own party, their own current government, and their current political plans. It is a cheap ploy to shine up their totalitarian states with unearned reflected glory from a future every bit as fictitious as the Second Coming.

To avoid confusion, “communism” must apply to governments formed by people who call themselves communists. If they say it should not, then they should stop calling themselves communists.

I will also note that the term “capitalism” has also never been defined in a way that is consistent with the way Marxists use it. To conform to the Marxist myth of history, “capitalism” would need to refer to free-market institutions of the 19th century and later, yet most Marxist definitions would define the earlier absolute monarchies of Europe and the Roman and Egyptian Empires as “capitalist.” Some Marxists even call fascism “state capitalism”, which is particularly revealing as fascism is economically quite similar to communism.

The fact that you think it's

Andrew Cady's picture

The fact that you think it’s “revealing” betrays ignorance. “State capitalism” was originally coined to describe the USSR. That is the whole point of that term. Describing the USSR has always been and still remains the #1 use of the term by Marxists/communists/leftists/etc.. The similarity is not some kind of irony that you picked up on as an original observation.

To avoid confusion, “communism” must apply to governments formed by people who call themselves communists. If they say it should not, then they should stop calling themselves communists.

No, to avoid confusion, you must interpret other people correctly no matter whether they use words the way that you think they should. What you are doing here is not avoiding confusion, but trying to justify being deliberately confused when people don’t use words in the way you demand. I don’t really get it. Your attitude makes discourse impossible. You are violating the rules of rational discourse, so to speak.

Your argument about how the word should be used, though moot, is also poor for two reasons:

  1. We don’t consider a “republic” to be a government formed by people who call themselves republican, we don’t consider a “monarchy” to be a government formed by people who call themselves monarchists, or a “democracy” to be a government formed by people who call themselves democrats, or “capitalism” to be the economy in a nation where the government calls itself “capitalist,” etc., because it is much more useful to categorize governments (and economies, social structures) according to their structure rather than according to beliefs in ideals. It is also not really possible to be unambiguous about beliefs or ideals (whose beliefs count? What does a given person “really” believe? How do you handle compromises between conflicting ideals which necessarily exist in real world societies?).

I am confident that you possess the ability to distinguish between the two homonym uses for ideology and social structure that exist for every one of these terms, and therefore you could acquire the same ability for the term “communism” if only you made a choice. That is, there would be no confusion if you chose not to be confused.

  1. Communism is supposed to exist in the category of economic and social structures, but not government structures.

(I used a lot of government structures in my list of ideologies that have the same name as social structures, but “communism” belongs in a separate list along with “capitalism.”)

Andrews: The term "communism"

Bad Horse's picture

Andrews: The term “communism” refers to that done by communists and communist governments, and those goals and doctrines taught by communists and in writings that identify themselves as communist.

The fact that scattered here and there throughout these writings are vague references to a mythical perfect future state, does not mean that we should use the term “communist” to refer to said fantasy. Everyone, communists and non-communist, uses the term “communist” to refer to the beliefs and objectives of communists.

Yes, to beliefs and

Andrew Cady's picture

Yes, to beliefs and objectives. But that’s not at issue at all. Nowhere have we been talking about that, at all. The question is whether the economy of the USSR ought to be referred that way. (Hence “actually existing” – actual governments, economies, etc. – not “beliefs and objectives.”)

Actually, it is not even that – we don’t need to be arguing about the best use of vocabulary. That would be pointless.

The real question is whether we should misunderstand the economic idea of communism as being represented by the economic actuality of the USSR. This misunderstanding is a powerful rhetorical weapon against communist enemies, stripping them of their ability to be understood, but (I claim) by employing deliberate obtuseness we sacrifice too much. After all, we are dumbing ourselves down, in order to dumb down others on our own side, so that they cannot understand the communication of the enemy. Their incapacitation in this regard cannot truly strengthen them; knowledge is stronger than ignorance. Besides, we risk losing trust if/when we are found out.

In any case, we are certainly not arguing about whether communist “beliefs and doctrines” are “communism.” That is the homonym I mentioned before – a completely different word, spelled identically.

Capitalist beliefs and doctrines are similarly capitalism, but that “capitalism” is not a state of economic organization – it is an ideology. It is a homonym, a word with multiple definitions which nevertheless remains completely unambiguous because the context/category of ideologies is distinct from the context/category of systems of economic organization.

It is also unambiguous in the analogous case of “communism” and you can make the choice to understand that term consistently with all these other terms if only you are willing.

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This page introduces a section containing the following:

This page is in the section How meaning fell apart,
      which is in Meaningness and Time: past, present, future.

The previous page is Invented traditions and timeworn futures.

This page’s topics are Eternalism, History of ideas, and Systems.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2020 David Chapman. Some links are part of Amazon Affiliate Program.