The Tragedy In Norway Represents The Dark Side Of Modernization And Democracy


Photo: AP

The ghastly, shocking news from Norway has stunned the whole world. Empathy for the young victims and their families, horror at the cold blooded and deliberate evil behind this act, and fearful wonder at the depths of madness it reveals are all joined together. 

We Godbotherers will be bothering God about this, asking for his compassionate and merciful presence in the lives of those who must now begin a lifetime’s journey in the presence of unspeakable grief.

To respond to events of this kind is a challenge. The tragedy is so great that anything but silence seems to cheapen the suffering, but it also demand some kind of response.

There are some trying to draw some political conclusion about left and right from the massacre; I would like to go deeper. This tragedy doesn’t just speak to the state of cultural politics in our time, or remind us (as it surely does) that evil has a home in every human culture and human heart; it challenges some of our deepest beliefs about where the world is headed.

The tragedy in Norway is among many other things an important reminder that much of we want to believe about history is plain wrong. In particular, it reminds us that the most cherished American illusion, the form of historically determinist optimism often called “whig history,” is a delusion and a snare.

There is no principle so deeply engrained in American social science as the idea that moral and economic progress go hand in hand. “Democratic peace theory”, the species of quackery that posits that democracies don’t go to war with each other, is one form of this. So is the idea that the achievement of a certain level of affluence constitutes a “democratic threshold” and that once societies pass this point they quickly evolve into stable and peaceful societies. 

“McDonald’s peace theory”, the (factually wrong) claim that two countries with golden arches won’t fight is based on the synthesis of these two ideas: if you are rich enough to support hamburger joints you are so rich that democracy is certain. And with democracy comes, inevitably, peace.

The dominant tone among American intellectuals—Puritans without God by and large—is as deterministically Calvinist as any New England divine would have wished. The New England Calvinists believed that everything that happened had been planned and predestined by God from eternity. Late 19th and early 20th century American progressive intellectuals threw God under the bus, but kept the machine. 

The universe is a closed system, every effect is related logically and inevitably to a cause, and with a sufficient amount of knowledge and enough computing power, the future of anything can be predicted. To this they grafted American optimism: the belief based on our national historical experience that things get better over time.

They called the results “social science.”

Both the existence of Anders Breivik and the amount of havoc he was able to wreak strongly indicate that all this is a crock. Norway has had McDonald’s for a long time. It is one of the most peaceful, most affluent, and most democratic places on earth. It has reindeer; it has the midnight sun. It has fjords. It has oil and gas. It is so rich it can afford to stay out of the European Union.

Yet even in Norway, the dark old hatreds and fears are at work. Even in Norway, the culture of hatred can throw up mass murder. Even in Norway the fruits of affluence and democracy (which I like very much) do not exorcise the demonic forces that are present in the human heart.

And even in Norway, modern technology endows a single individual (not to mention a small group of the like minded) with unprecedented power to destroy.

Details are still coming out, but it appears that Breivik acted alone. Certainly there is no mass political party that shares his views. There has always been a nasty strain of hatred in Norway; not only does the name ‘quisling‘ come from the enthusiastic puppet ruler of Norway during the German occupation, but Norway’s Nobel prizewinning novelist Knut Hamsun was a pig of a Nazi as well. (After Hitler’s death a grief striken Hamsun eulogized him as “a prophet of the gospel of justice for all nations.” )

20 years ago, I spent several weeks driving through Norway and heard a lot of fear (and in some cases hatred) directed towards Muslim immigrants. Nevertheless, there is no substantial neo-Nazi party in Norway and by and large it remains one of the world’s more tolerant and outward looking countries. Breivik doesn’t herald an era of fascism in Norway, but he demonstrates the persistence of the dark forces that modernization (democracy plus affluence) was supposed to cure.

The Norwegian horror says less about any shortcomings in Norwegian life and culture than about modern life generally. It reminds us of the profoundly unsettling truth that modernization may lead to more violence and more death than ever before.

Modernization is not just more golden arches and more bloggers. It is also about accelerating social change. Capitalism drives technological change and technological change feeds on itself the more of it we have, the more we get.  (Think of the way that advances in computer technology feed into the speed of scientific advance as slide rules yield to PCs and as graduate students in third-rate universities now have access to computing power and information that university professors at MIT couldn’t get 30 years ago.)

Technological change, generally speaking, drives increased affluence: As humanity masters the natural environment, we get more and more stuff with less and less work. So far, so good: this is what McDonald’s peace theory predicts.

But here’s a catch: that technological change also drives social change. Factories move to China.  Immigrants move to Norway bringing strange ideas. The social welfare states of western Europe creak under the strain.

This accelerating, unpredictable, and destabilizing change can cause individuals and social groups to become unhinged: to lose their way in the confusion and mystery of modern life. Blue collar factory workers lose their jobs by the millions; some adapt, some endure, a few go postal. The upper middle class feels the earth shake beneath its feet as old certainties are challenged and old ways of making a living cease to work. Most go about their business; some, like Ted Kaczynski, flip out to the Dark Side.

When a whole society is stressed by more change than it knows what to do with, the Dark Side gets crowded. People flip out in sects and groups rather than one by one. We see that in many Muslim countries today, where the appeal of terrorists is strengthened by a pervasive sense of social frustration. Sometimes whole countries and whole nationalities flip. We saw it in the Bolshevik madness in Russia, the Fascist epidemic that swept Europe in the 1920s and 1930s; we saw it in Iran in 1979. The Serbs and the Hutus went over the edge in the 1990s.

Managing the kind of change now sweeping the world is hard. Financial markets are harder to regulate as IT wizards develop ever more complex securities and more rapid fire trade programs. More open national economies are more vulnerable to international disruptions and less responsive to old fashioned Keynesian cures. Wealth descends overnight on Ireland, Iceland, and Greece, for example, and vanishes just as fast. Millions of people enter the political process as in Thailand, Syria, and Egypt, and old elites must find ways to adjust to new forces.

Norway handles all this reasonably well, but even there we have someone like a Breivik: obviously intelligent, focused and, in a certain dark way, gifted. In countries less well-positioned than Norway, where governing authorities are less capable, and where the population’s unsatisfied demands are more urgent, the Breiviks find followers and friends.

The inescapable reality is that the very forces creating our affluent, modern, and democratic world also generate violent antagonism. Breivik, like Al-Qaeda and like Timothy McVeigh and the Unabomber, is the shadow of progress. When conditions are right, the lone psychopath becomes a cult leader; in a perfect storm when everything breaks his way, the psychopath becomes Fuehrer.

That would be bad enough, but there’s one more turn of the screw. The same technological progress that helps create violent alienation and rage also empowers individuals and groups. 200 years ago, a Breivik could not have done so much damage. 100 years ago, Al-Qaeda could not have hijacked a plane. Modern society is more vulnerable than ever before to acts of terror, and developments in weaponry place ever greater power in the hands of ever smaller numbers of people.

This is still in early stages. Fortunately, Breivik was a traditionalist and relatively low-tech mass murderer; he did not hack vital computer systems to wreak murderous havoc with a rail or air traffic control system. He did not poison the reservoirs with weaponised biologicals. He did not even pump poison gas into a subway system.

We can be reasonably confident that an increasingly chaotic and stressful 21st century will generate more bitter nutjobs and place more destructive power in their hands. Democracy and affluence won’t cure it; the same forces that raise those golden arches build bombs to knock them down.

To say all this is not to buy into the case for gloom. Armageddon is no more inevitable in the next century than utopia, at least as far as human beings can discern. The extraordinary scientific and technological flowering of the last few hundred years could lead us to either destination, to neither, or to some kind of intermediate zone marked by elements of both. (The last possibility has my vote as the most likely, but nobody can really know.)

The only conclusion that makes sense to me is that human beings are stuck in a condition of radical uncertainty. Something big and earth shaking is going on around us, but the information we have does not allow us to predict where it all goes.

In my view, this is one of the reasons that belief in a transcendent power beyond the human mind is intellectually necessary to grapple successfully with the realities of our time. When the determinist progressives threw God under the bus, they threw away the possibility of an integrated world view that has room both for scientific and rational analysis on the one hand and a honest, unsparing appraisal of the radical uncertainty around us on the other.

We still live in the Age of Apocalypse that opened in World War Two when Hiroshima and the Holocaust delineated the essential problems of the new and possibly last era of human civilisation. Mankind has long had the potential for radical, desolating evil; today we still have that potential among us, and we have united it to the power to end all life on earth. We live with one foot in the shadows and another on the high and sunny uplands of democratic and affluent society.  We have one foot in Norway and the other in Hell and nobody knows where we step next.

One of the reasons to bother God in our century is the hope that in turn he will bother about us.  Whatever is coming, we will face it more honestly and live it more richly with him.

This post originally appeared at The American Interest.

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