The first modern revolution was neither French nor American, but English. Long before Louis XVI went to the Guillotine, or Washington crossed the Delaware, the country which later became renowned for stiff upper lips and proper tea went to war with itself, killed its king, replaced its monarchy with a republican government and unleashed a religious revolution which sought to scorch away the old world in God’s purifying fire.
One of the dark little secrets of my past is my teenage membership of the English Civil War Society. I spent weekends dressed in 17th-century costumes and oversized helmets, lined up in fields or on medieval streets, re-enacting battles from the 1640s. I still have my old breeches in the loft, and the pewter tankard I would drink beer from afterwards with a load of large, bearded men who, just for a day or two, had allowed themselves to be transported back in time.
I was a pikeman in John Bright’s Regiment of Foote, a genuine regiment in the parliamentary army. We were a Leveller regiment, which is to say that this part of the army was politically radical. For the Levellers, the end of the monarchy was to be just the beginning. They aimed to “sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom”. Among their varied demands were universal suffrage, religious freedom and something approaching modern parliamentary democracy.
The Levellers were far from alone in their ambitions to remake the former Kingdom. Ranters, Seekers, Diggers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, Muggletonians: suddenly the country was blooming with radical sects offering idealistic visions of utopian Christian brotherhood. In his classic study of the English Revolution, The World Turned Upside Down, historian Christopher Hill quotes Lawrence Clarkson, leader of the Ranters, who offered a radical interpretation of the Christian Gospel. There was no afterlife, said Clarkson; only the present mattered, and in the present all people should be equal, as they were in the eyes of God:
“‘Swearing i’th light, gloriously’, and ‘wanton kisses’, may help to liberate us from the repressive ethic which our masters are trying to impose on us — a regime in which property is more important than life, marriage than love, faith in a wicked God than the charity which the Christ in us teaches.”
Modernise Clarkson’s language and he could have been speaking in the Sixties rather than the 1640s. Needless to say, his vision of free love and free religion, like the Leveller vision of universal equality, was neither shared nor enacted by those at the apex of the social pyramid. But though Cromwell’s Protectorate, and later the restored monarchy, attempted to maintain the social order, forces had been unleashed which would change England and the wider world entirely. Some celebrated this fact, others feared it, but in their hearts everyone could sense the truth that Gerard Winstanley, leader of the Diggers, was prepared to openly declare: “The old world … is running up like parchment in the fire.”
Nearly four centuries on, England and the wider West is again being turned upside down. Again, we are living in the aftermath of a system that is dying or dead: then, the last gasp of medieval monarchy; now the Anglo-American Empire — and perhaps modernity itself. Again, we are living in a period of radical technological change: then, the printing press and the end of censorship, which allowed the distribution of radical pamphlets on an unprecedented scale; now, the internet’s enabling of global dissent and chaos. Again, we are living in a period in which the cultural mores of previous centuries are being upended: then, feudal assumptions governing everything from landownership to the meaning of marriage; now, the endless ructions of a tedious and unending “culture war”.
I find it useful, in trying to parse the madness of that culture war, to see the time we are living in as what I have come to call a culture of inversion. The West’s ongoing decline has caused its elites to lose faith in their cultural inheritance, and this loss of faith has now reached pathological proportions. As a result, the leading lights in Western society — the cultural elites, and sometimes the political and economic elites too — are dedicated not to upholding the cultural forms they inherited, but to turning them on their heads, or erasing them entirely.
In the 50 years I have spent on earth, most of it in post-imperial Britain, that loss of faith has manifested everywhere. If you want to “get on” in Britain — which means to win the approval of the upper-middle class elite which runs the show — it has long been an unspoken rule that you cannot be seen to commit yourself to any of the pillars of the old orthodoxy which two World Wars fatally wounded and the Sixties counterculture decisively finished off.
Patriotism, Christianity, cultural conservatism, sexual modesty, even a mild nostalgia for a vanished rural England or a love of once-canonical novels: all are more or less verboten, and the attitude towards them is rapidly hardening. Until recently simply giggled at or patronised, these kinds of views in the 2020s may see you labelled a “white supremacist”, or the more general but still-lethal “hater”. The old world is again running up like parchment in the fire, and nobody who wants to be part of the new one can be seen to defend it.
It took me quite a while to work out the parameters and rules of the culture of inversion. The swirling chaos around me only started to make sense when I understood that it has not come about because new things are loved, but because old things are despised. This is not a new culture being built: it is an old one finally being administered its coup de grace.
This explains why, for example, a (white male) BBC editor would stand before an audience of mostly similarly pale-skinned people and explain that nobody wants to hear white men explaining things anymore. It explains why people would topple statues of long-dead slave traders whilst filming the whole thing on smartphones made by actual, living slaves. It explains taking the knee and decolonising the curriculum and cisheteronormativity and stale pale males and diversity training. All of this is not so much a desire for actual meaningful change as a giant rolling statement by those who control the levers of power in the post-Western West, a statement that says: We are the opposite of what we once were. We reject our ancestors and our history. We are now something entirely new — even if, as of this moment, we have no idea what.
The poet and storyteller Robert Bly, who died last year, had his own name for the culture we now inhabit, in the West and increasingly elsewhere too. He called it a “sibling society”. In his book of the same name, published a quarter of a century ago, Bly took a prescient scalpel to the failures of the post-war West and identified what he believed to be a foundational problem: we had forgotten how to produce adults.
Back in 1996, Bly could already see around him the problems which have since blossomed into a full-flowering pathology. America and the world influenced by it, he wrote, was “navigating from a paternal society, now discredited, to a society in which impulse is given its way”. From the patriarchal frying pan, the West had jumped into the post-modern fire:
“People don’t bother to grow up, and we are all fish swimming in a tank of half-adults. The rule is: Where repression was before, fantasy will now be … Adults regress toward adolescence; and adolescents — seeing that — have no desire to become adults. Few are able to imagine any genuine life coming from the vertical plane — tradition, religion, devotion.”
Bly believed that the old “vertical society” of the West had been discredited by the upheavals of the 20th century. This discrediting was both inevitable and at least partially necessary, but as in the 1640s, the collapse of the old order had unleashed an uncontrollable destructive energy, manifesting in a cultural revolution against all things “vertical”. War had been declared on all aspects of “the Indo-European, Islamic, Hebraic impulse-control system”, whose genuine faults had become associated with all and any impulse-control, hierarchy, order or structure.
A kind of corrupted cultural Levelling had taken hold, and the result was our culture of inversion, in which rebellion against all and any forms was seen as the only inherent good. And in the desert created by late 20th-century American capitalism, which had decimated communities and households, stripped the meaning from the lives of young generations and replaced it with shopping, little seemed worth preserving anyway. As a result, adults had remained perpetual adolescents: uninitiated, afraid to grow up, slouching towards Bethlehem quoting Marlon Brando in a kind of eternal 1954. ‘Hey, Johnny, what are you rebelling against?’ ‘Whaddya got?’
Bly was fundamentally a worker in myth, and The Sibling Society, like his earlier book about men, Iron John, shifts between his retelling of classic fairy tales, and his analysis of their application to contemporary culture. He believed that the fundamental problems of his time were not political or economic, but mythic. They manifested at the level of deep story, on which all cultures are built. The modern West, without knowing it, had taken an axe to the root of its own mythic structures, as Jack takes an axe to the root of the beanstalk. The Giant in that story, retold by Bly here, represents Freud’s “death instinct”, which had taken hold of American culture. The Giant is a killer of fathers, destroyer of families, eater of children. He lives in a castle surrounded by rocky, barren lands, and he has ravaged every living structure around him. He has no family, no past and no future. In his castle, he gathers his wealth to him, and eats and eats and eats.
It is the Giant — resentful, angry, greedy, marooned in a permanent present — who best represents what we have become, nearly three decades after Bly’s book was published. The culture of inversion is the Giant’s creation, and ours. Adolescent and surly, unmoored from both culture and nature, betrayed by our own desires, we can find little good in the past and little hope in the future. Then as now, the governing attitude to our own cultural inheritance is what Bly called “a sort of generalised ingratitude”:
“Our society has been damaged not only by acquisitive capitalism, but also by an idiotic distrust of all ideas, religions and literature handed down to us by elders and ancestors. Many siblings are convinced that they have received nothing of value from anyone. The older truth is that every man and woman is indebted to all other persons, living or dead, and is indebted as well to animals, plants and the gods.”
But the most striking argument that Bly made as he analysed our cultural collapse was that Western culture was now doing to itself what it had long done to others: colonisation. The methods that Western colonial administrators had used to demolish and replace other cultures — rewriting their histories, replacing their languages, challenging their cultural norms, banning or demonising their religions, dismantling their elder system and undermining their cultural traditions — were now being used against us. Only we had not been invaded by hostile outside forces: this time, the hostile forces were within.
No conservative, Bly could nevertheless see that the culture of inversion, already in full swing in the Nineties, was a product of the elite Left, who had “taken over the role of colonial administrators”, and set about colonising — or should we say “decolonising”? — their own culture from within:
“They teach that European kings were major criminals who dressed well … that the Renaissance amounted to a triumph of false consciousness, that the Magna Carta solved nothing … that Mother Theresa was probably sexually disturbed … that Beethoven wrote imperialist music, that Mencken was a secret fascist, that Roosevelt encouraged Pearl Harbour, that President Kennedy’s Peace Corps did not work, that Freud supported child abuse, and that almost every one of his ideas was wrong.”
America, said Bly was “the first culture in history that has colonised itself”. Twenty-five years on, America’s fate is also the fate of Britain and other European nations. Our internal colonisers have been ruthlessly effective in the intervening decades, and the “culture war” is a product of their success:
“If colonialist administrators begin by attacking the vertical thought of the tribe they have conquered, and dismantling the elder system, they end by dismantling everything in sight. That’s where we are.”
It is indeed, and even more so. Our cultural elite’s ongoing “deconstruction” of all we once were has deteriorated into a kind of incoherent rage, a culture of inversion on steroids, and it has now elicited its own rising counter-revolution. Nobody knows where any of this will lead, but the primary emotion it is all channelling, on Right and Left, among radical and reactionary, is rage. In our perpetual sibling society — sick with consumerism, eye-glazed with screen burn, confused, rudderless, godless — we have forgotten how to behave like adults, or what adults even look like. The result is that we squabble like children, fighting over toys in the mud.
“The inner dome of heaven has fallen,” wrote Bly. “To say we have no centre that we love is the same thing as saying that we have colonised ourselves. What we need to study, then, is how a colonised culture heals itself.”
How does it heal itself? Bly, mythologist and poet, had an answer: through story and ritual. The work of the age of inversion is not to fight puny online battles, or to look for victory in some imagined political settlement or brilliant new ideology. Our wounds are much deeper than that. Our stories are cracked at their foundations, and as a consequence we are afloat in a fantastical world of our own making: grasping at freedom, entirely enslaved.
The antidote to this is to dig down to those foundations and begin the work of repair. We are going to have to learn to be adults again; to get our feet back on the ground, to rebuild families and communities, to learn again the meaning of worship and commitment, of limits and longing. We are, in short, going to have to grow up. This is long, hard work: intergenerational work. It is myth work. We don’t really want to begin, and we don’t really know how to. Does any child want to grow up? But there is nothing else for it; no other path is going to get us home.
In times of conflict, whether our weapons are pikes or words, the temptation is always towards total war. But war is the Giant’s work, and like the Giant it will consume us all if it can. “The inexhaustible energies of the cosmos,” wrote Robert Bly, “cannot be called down by anger. They are called by extremely elaborate practice — and stories.”