Why is Greta Thunberg wearing a keffiyeh? The Swedish activist is the poster-girl for climate change. The keffiyeh, though, symbolises a wholly different cause: solidarity with Palestinians in the current conflict with Israel. What does that have to do with global warming? 

It’s not just Greta who sees a link. When the current conflict in Gaza began, the climate activist group, Just Stop Oil, known for polarising, clickbait-friendly protests, such as blockading the M25 or throwing soup at Van Gogh paintings, promptly organised a sit-in at London’s Waterloo Station. 

 This sort of campaign creep is far wider than just climate and Palestine: all contemporary radical causes seem somehow to have been absorbed into one. A protean animating energy seems to ingest every progressive issue it encounters, to create a kind of ever-spreading, all-encompassing omnicause.

But what is it trying to achieve? Right or Right-adjacent figures as ideologically disparate as James Lindsay and Bronze Age Pervert have suggested it is the destruction of America. Or, perhaps, of “Western Civilisation”. And there may be something in that, at least if you conflate “Western Civilisation” with the American empire. After all, a great many ethnic-cleansing events are casually ignored, even as the state whose existence is explicitly underwritten by American hard power gets taken to court over such allegations. 

“Participants often seem hazy at best about what they’re actually protesting.”

Given this, one might be forgiven for suspecting that Gaza’s absorption into the Omnicause really is due to its role as a proxy for hostility to the American project: a suspicion unlikely to be allayed by the sound of Palestine supporters from Yemen to Harvard Yard chanting “Death to America”. And yet, the fact that this chant is heard not just in overseas territories hostile to the American project, but also (and perhaps even more vociferously) within Ivy League campuses, suggests something more ambivalent at work. 

It might seem bewildering to hear young scions of the empire calling for the destruction of the very order that nourishes them. But that’s not what’s happening here; not really. Rather, in calling for “Death to America” they’re breathing new life into the idea they claim to deplore, and expressing a modern version of the same impulse that drove America’s original founders to leave the Old World behind, with its weight of authority and tradition, and seek to begin again in a purer, higher register.

It’s hardly original to notice the Puritan streak in modern progressivism. During the BLM riots in 2020, numerous commentators made that connection. The critic Alan Jacobs characterises this form of progressivism — the moral matrix that now marches as the Omnicause — as religious in this sense: less a precise set of doctrines than a style of believing. A “mythical experience”.

Further out on the neoreactionary fringes, the writer Curtis Yarvin argues that this “nontheistic Christian tradition”, which he calls “Universalism”, has become “the dominant modern branch of Christianity”. And the philosopher Nick Land maps this secularised-but-triumphant Puritan-heritage Christian sensibility squarely onto the American empire:

“After its military victories in the American Rebellion and the War of Secession, American Puritanism was well on the way to world domination. Its victories in World War I, World War II, and the Cold War confirmed its global hegemony. All legitimate mainstream thought on Earth today is descended from the American Puritans, and through them the English dissenters.”

The secularisation of this tradition began in earnest after the Second World War, along with its embrace by the engines of commerce. That was the point where American marketers coined the term “teenager”  — and created modern “youth culture” with it. For, strange as it may seem, after nearly a century of American cultural hegemony, the notion of adolescents challenging their forebears is not universal. Rather, it propagates in tandem with American culture: for example the Inuit community on Victoria Island, Canada, experienced no youthful delinquency until television was introduced in 1980. In the context of the American paradigm, by contrast, rebellion is not just normal but natural, whether presented “compelled” by culture or an inevitable consequence of brain development.

Though my own memories of adolescence are hazy, I don’t remember ever questioning the idea that it was “normal” to feel rebellious — for all that, in my case, this preceded having any substantial  grounds for rebellion. Rather, it was a matter of looking around for a cause, a seemingly backward causality that’s since led me to wonder whether the normalisation of “rebellion” is the driving force behind youth activism, rather than the other way round, as young people go looking for a cause to rebel about.

And if this is so, it perhaps explains how such issues often seem to spread by social contagion, as in Thunberg’s snowballing school protests — or indeed contemporary LGBTQ activism. A similar mimetic quality can also be seen in the current American Palestine protests, where participants often seem hazy at best about what they’re actually protesting, and mostly there for the vibe. In this sense, it seems less a programme, than a sensibility: a social norm of rebelliousness, sanctified by idealism and spread mimetically, that expresses a secularised version of the Puritan style of faith and has become central to identity-formation.

Crucially, though, this has historically been oppositional only in a superficial sense. The music industry serves to illustrate: when your chief means of signalling rebellion against the staid, venal world of adulthood is buying products marketed to you and manufactured by that very same adult world, the relation between rebellion and conformity is ambivalent at best. In turn, this dynamic has propelled every “counterculture” movement since the Fifties along the same seamless conveyor-belt, from edginess to mass-market conformity, exhaustion and replacement by the next contender.

In each case, the chief by-products were a lot of money for the culture industry’s stars and producers, and a measure of youth identity-formation. But this 20th-century model of pseudo-rebellious youthful self-definition via music and clothing was scuppered by the internet, as streaming made all musical styles simultaneously available, and “fast fashion” emulsified sartorial subcultures into an eternal present. Things haven’t changed much under the surface though. The cultural norm of youthful rebellion, idealism, and mimesis is as powerful as ever. It’s just that since the inception of the internet, the locus has migrated from music and fashion to political opinions, as testified by the booming podcast and political influencer economies.

In turn, it’s this underlying drive that explains the protean quality of the Omnicause, and its seemingly endless ability to ingest new causes and transcend new contradictions. The Protestant tradition — and especially the Puritan one — always repudiated religious authority in pursuit of religious purity. And the same mix of idealism and secession persists to this day in secularised form, in the ritual of adolescent “rebellion” incubated by 20th-century American marketeers and granted idealistic form today as “youth activism”. The myth of “the West” is that you aren’t Westerning properly unless you’re seceding from something, and what powers “the West” — really, America and its provinces — in its restlessness is this impulse to keep seceding until you find the purer society you were seeking. At the smaller scale, the myth of the American teenager is that you aren’t teenagering properly unless you’re rebelling against something and pursuing something higher. Each American teenager is thus “the West” in miniature, complete with the modern West’s baked-in will to consumerism.

The flip side of this, of course, is that rebellion never succeeds on its own terms. Instead, it simply ends up powering the civilisational engine. Thunberg isn’t American, of course, but she attained prominence in, and orients her critiques to, the America-dominated post-war order. It is, after all, only in the context of broad adherence to its rules-based internationalism that climate policies of the kind she gained prominence for proposing can even theoretically be implemented. Accordingly, we can perhaps assess the success of her mimetic and Omnicause-coded youth climate movement, against every other America-led “youth culture” movement since the Fifties.

We might suggest, indeed, that it’s heading the same way as the rockers, the hippies, the punks et cetera: first edgy, then institutionalised, and on its way to toothlessness, save as a means of powering the machine for another turn or two. Thunberg was internationally feted, and invited to address national Parliaments, the European Parliament, and even the WEF meeting at Davos: surely the climate-activist equivalent of a multi-album HMV recording deal. She became a darling of elites and internationally recognisable for a season. Meanwhile, global emissions went on rising.

So, perhaps she has pivoted to a different facet of the Omnicause simply out of frustration at the effortless ease with which her climate idealism has been absorbed, digested, and neutralised. If so, I suspect she will be disappointed again. To the extent that ongoing campus protests cause a genuine nuisance, they have already been suppressed. Where they persist, we can assume they are serving broadly the same social purpose as a music festival: fostering youthful social bonds in an idealistic context, that helps define popular culture for a generation, but changes very little in material terms.

Does this mean I’m a pessimist about “the West”? Far from it: this paradoxical and seemingly self-destructive cultural juggernaut is in fact flourishing, for the Puritans are still winning. Far from being on the brink of collapse, in their restless wake “Western Civilisation” continues to be reborn, generation after generation, in the very act of seeming to destroy itself. The Omnicause may be hated by conservatives for its destructiveness and seeming hostility to all established authority, all traditions and all institutions. But it is also the vector for that ongoing rebirth — and, with it, however galling Greta Thunberg may find it, the ongoing supremacy of the American project.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/