Our World: On Culture’s Role in the Economy of Life and the Fragility of Civilization
The lessons of culture: What are they? One of the leitmotifs threading its way through the essays that compose “Future Tense” is the recognition that we are living in the midst of one of those “plastic moments” that Karl Marx talked about. Future tense: not just subsequent, but also fraught. To revise an old song: Will there always be an England? That “will there always be …” is everywhere on our lips, in our hearts. And it’s not just England we worry about. The law; the economy; the political prospects; changes in our intellectual habits wrought by changes in our technology; the destiny that is demography: America, the West, indeed the entire world in the early years of the twenty-first century, seems curiously unsettled. Things we had taken for granted seem suddenly up for grabs in some fundamental if still-difficult-to-grasp way. Fissures open among the confidences we had always assumed—in “the market,” in national identity, in the basics of social order and cultural value. Future tense: the always hazardous art of cultural prognostication seems brittler now, more uneasy, more tentative.
Granted, the parochial assumption of present disruption is a hardy perennial. As Gibbon observed in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, “There exists in human nature a strong propensity to depreciate the advantages, and to magnify the evils, of the present times.” But we know from history (including the history that Gibbon gave us) that there are times when that natural propensity has colluded seamlessly with the actual facts. In Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, Burke (as usual) got it exactly right: