The modern conflict of visions isn't really between left and right
When I was in college, back when dinosaurs were roaming the earth, my brother worked at the local Wendy's in the little college town where we were both in school. From time to time, Wendy's would reach the expiration date for some of their unused hamburger meat. On such occasions, my roommate and I would go through the Wendy's drive-through after closing and my brother would hand us, through the window, a pile of raw hamburger patties that were otherwise destined for the trash. My roommate and I would take those hamburgers, deemed to be "expired" by some bureaucrat in the bowels of the FDA, back to our dorm room where we would cook them on the cooking surface of a 1970's era popcorn machine. (The popcorn machine operated at roughly the same temperature as the surface of the sun. So hot, in fact, that if you wanted to end up with a burger that was marginally edible, you had to flip the burger continuously without pausing until it was done.) Then we would slap the burgers between two slices of bread and consume them, with nary a thought to their dubious regulatory viability.
Male college students have never had a reputation for being particularly fastidious where their food is concerned - quantity generally counts for more than quality. But one suspects that even the most nonchalant college students are loathe to eat bugs, as is being proposed by the "save the planet" crowd.
We seem to be under continuous bombardment by prognosticators who foresee a bleak future of deprivation for human beings. We are told the next pandemic is just around the corner. We are hectored about our energy consumption and the special virtues of inherently unreliable renewables. We have gone far enough down the renewables path that we have destabilized the electrical grid for millions of people. They're now freezing in the cold and dark, even in places overflowing with fossil fuels. Even as I write this, many thousands of people in Austin, Texas are again without heat and electricity in the dead of winter because of a minor dusting of ice and snow.
Young people are being told that the world situation is so dire they should forego having children. Indeed, demographic collapse is actually occurring now in the industrialized world. There are probably many reasons for the collapse (e.g. contraceptives combined with self-absorption). But regardless of the reasons, the outcome will not be a happy one.
Excess deaths on the heels of Covid continue. People are trying to figure out why. There may be no single reason, but some are suggesting that at least some people may be dying because they have lost hope.
I could go on and on with examples like this, but my larger point is that self-cancellation seems to be all the rage. This is true at both the macro/civilizational level (i.e. "you will eat bugs and enjoy it, you will make do with unreliable energy"), and at the micro/personal level. (What is transgenderism, after all, if not a pathological determination to cancel one's very own biology?)
In short, there is a theme running through our current moment which cuts across many dimensions of our lives, and that theme is anti-human.
For most of my life, a working understanding of the conflict of visions for the political and social order revolved around understanding the distinction between the political left and the political right. Over time, the distinction between left and right became indistinguishable from the differences between Republicans and Democrats. But, for anyone who has been paying attention, in many areas the differences between Republicans and Democrats have evolved to become differences in degree more than differences in kind. Both parties have bought into the idea of "managed decline". The Republicans would like it to take longer than the Democrats, but the "adults" on both sides seem to assume the inevitability of decline. Both parties hate - really hate - anyone who acts on the belief that decline is a choice rather than an inevitability. Love or hate Trump, the very idea of "Make America Great" triggered a lot of politicians on both sides of the aisle. We should be asking ourselves why.
At any rate, the old left and right categories have diminishing utility as a way to understand our circumstance. A better conceptual framing, I have come to believe, is to understand our time as a fundamental clash between anthropocentric and technocratic visions.
An anthropocentric vision places human flourishing and well-being at the center of political and social concerns. Anthropocentric actually means "man/human centered". Human privilege and responsibility are paramount in an anthropocentric world. Thus, human beings have the right, and even the obligation, to improve, cultivate, and modify the world to better meet the needs of human beings.
By contrast, a technocratic vision views human beings as just one of many species competing with, at best, equal claims upon the world's finite and diminishing resources. Indeed, for the technocratic true believer, the theoretical needs of the planet take priority over the actual welfare of human beings. Technocracy places control and the ability to manipulate at the priority center. It advocates rule by expertise or technique. In the technocratic vision, material and organizational efficiency take precedence over, say, maximizing human liberty. The assumption of technocracy is that human beings are despoilers of the planet. Human pursuits should therefore be restrained and redirected by experts toward lifestyles that benefit "the planet". Thus any sexual expression that doesn't lead to human reproduction is to be celebrated and promoted. Inflating the cost of energy, to discourage consumption, should be encouraged. You get the idea.
The recent pandemic is instructive in this regard. I remarked very early in the pandemic that it was striking to me that, in a moment of perceived danger and uncertainty, there was not a wide-spread bias for liberty being exhibited by the political class. The knee-jerk reaction of the technocratic class was not to maximize liberty but to constrain it. This reaction was hardly limited to just those on the left. In the face of all the uncertainties, the vast majority of societal elites rushed to embrace and justify tighter control and deference to "the experts".
This instinctive reaction on the part of so many was...revealing.
We've all probably seen a movie or TV show where the barn catches fire, and someone rushes in to free the animals trapped inside. I think that's why it was puzzling to me when, during the Covid barn fire, the reaction of the elites was not to let the horses run free, but to insist that they stay in the barn and let the experts manage the fire. This reflected a rather breathtaking - even religious - level of confidence in "the experts", especially given all the uncertainty. And in hindsight we now know that "the experts" largely failed, often promoting superstition (e.g. masks) and sometimes actual lies (e.g. their efforts to squelch The Great Barrington Declaration) in a time of national crisis. The residual damage of the pandemic response, insisted upon by the technocrats, continues to plague society and especially those who were the least at risk from Covid in the first place.
The source of much of our political and social conflict revolves around the question of where we place human flourishing in the hierarchy of political and environmental goods. By contrast with the technocratic vision, the anthropocentric worldview places human flourishing and well-being at the apex of values that should inform the political and environmental order – the application and use of planetary resources should be directed toward the well-being and growth of human presence in the world. An anthropocentric view has a bias toward human liberty as a necessary precondition for human flourishing. An anthropocentric view evaluates technology from the standpoint of whether it contributes to human good. By contrast, technocrats lean toward embracing any technology that augments the ability to control or to indoctrinate.
N.S. Lyons recently wrote a brilliant essay on the threat posed to human flourishing by technocratic nihilism. It is absurdly good. In it, Lyons suggests that C.S. Lewis' novel, That Hideous Strength, has proven to be more prophetic about our current challenges than either Orwell's 1984 or Huxley's Brave New World. Whereas Orwell prophesied a world of centralized control and censorship, and Huxley prophesied a world of humans controlled by pleasure and dissipation, Lewis prophesied a world of elite technocrats who loved order, control, and modern efficiency more than human beings. Lyons' essay is long but well worth reading.
While I do perceive our current moment as having aspects of all three of the visions described by Orwell, Huxley, and Lewis, I think it is the technocratic obsession identified by Lewis that explains the controlling manipulation to be found in the other two. More importantly I think, Lewis' novel illustrates how the technocratic vision, at its core, is actually demonic, regardless of whether it is recognized by its adherents as such.
What makes the technocratic vision demonic is the fact that is represents a rejection of, and assault on, the image of God as manifested in human beings. The question of the place of human beings in the world is the central and overarching question addressed at the beginning of the biblical text. The primacy of human beings in the created order is the foundational context and lens through which the bible must be understood. The events of scripture revolve around God placing human beings as his vice regents over the natural world, bearers of the divine image, and God's subsequent actions to rescue human beings from the catastrophic effects of Satanic meddling, and the resulting human failure, at the very beginning of the world we inhabit.
If we do not understand the significance and primacy of humanity's place in the world, then we do not understand what we're doing here at all. If we do understand the divine image born by humans, but we do not accept or honor it as such, we have put ourselves in league with Satan. There is really no other conclusion that can be drawn: wittingly or unwittingly, technocrats have drawn their swords against God.
The conflict that rages in our time, then, has essentially become a conflict between competing visions regarding the place and priority of human beings in our social and political concerns.
While it certainly feels like the technocratic devotees have the upper hand, there is a plucky and determined rebel alliance that is cobbling itself together from an unexpected (by me) hodgepodge of characters. People such as Jordan Peterson, Douglas Murray and Bari Weiss have broken from technocratic orthodoxy on a variety of subjects and embraced various causes that contribute to human flourishing.
Harari has sold almost 20 million books, so the ideas he propagates are not merely being consumed by a small niche. Here are some clips of him, in which he nicely articulates the instrumental view of human beings that so characterizes the mindset of the technocratic elite. Human beings, he suggests, are to be "hacked".
What interests (and appalls) me is that the most visible rebels in the rebel alliance are not Christians. The ragtag non-Christian rebels have, nevertheless, intuited that there is something deeply sinister in the technocratic impulse which currently stalks the land. Perhaps more tellingly, these non-Christian rebels have shown the temerity and courage to call out the entire idea of rule by experts, and they have thrown down the gauntlet against it.
The conspicuous lack of prominent Christian voices advocating for the centricity of human flourishing, and the truth of human agency, surprised me at first. In some of the most contentious issues of the last few years (e.g. CRT, BLM, Covid, etc.) many of the most visible Christian voices (e.g. Russell Moore, David French, Max Lucado) have been actively in league with the technocratic elite. They have combined an apparent lack of expertise with analytical incompetence. They seem to have been bamboozled by impressive credentials and speculative claims originating from notoriously problematic studies. These technocratic Christians have been quick to trade theology for sociology, or for the pronouncements of experts, so long as the academic credentials of the experts are considered to be sufficiently prestigious.
And unfortunately it wasn't just evangelical pundits and speakers who had an affinity for taking dictation from "experts". I have been engaged in many conversations with Christians who, throughout the pandemic, truly believed that the church needed the state's permission to perform baptisms, serve communion, or have any kind of embodied presence or gathering. So perhaps the Russell Moore's of the world were merely reflecting the ideas of their constituents. The evangelical world needs to have a reckoning on whether there is any basis at all for ever viewing the actions of the state as illegitimate. I can tell you that many people I have spoken with believe the Christian obligation to "submit to the authorities" is absolute and without bounds. (This view would probably come as a surprise to the apostles and early Christians, who broke out of prison - with angelic complicity, or gathered together in secret, in defiance of imperial edicts. Just sayin'.)
Now, more than at any other time in my life, it feels like it is essential for people of faith to have an explicit and grounded understanding of the first principles of our existence. The loss of a cultural consensus about such things has led to confusion, even among believers. As Orwell presciently observed, "In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." Maybe it's time.