“Do not be conformed to this world“— St. Paul
Welcome to the Abbey.
‘Instead of thought there is a vast, inhuman void, full of words, formulas, slogans, declarations, echoes, ideologies … If we do not think, we cannot act freely; we are at the mercy of forces which we never understand, forces that are arbitrary, destructive, blind, fatal to us and our world.’ – Thomas Merton
Everything is changing, and there is no going back.
The 2020s have seen us staggering, masked and muted, into a new time. We can all sense the craziness in the air, the feeling of our moorings being cut one by one. It feels hard sometimes just to stay upright as we live through a threefold earthquake: a global ecological breakdown; the cultural disintegration of the West; and the rise of networked technologies of control and surveillance which daily have us tighter in their grip.
The powers of the world are merging: corporate power, state power, institutional power, ideological power, the power of the oligarchs who built and control the Internet, the power of the network itself. Call it the Great Acceleration, the Great Reset, the coming of Technocracy: whatever you call it, it has been long planned and long feared, and now it is upon us.
Welcome to the age of the Machine.
The Machine makes us – is designed to make us – homeless. It rips up our roots in nature, in real cultures connected to time and place, in our connection to the divine centre. In their stead we are offered an anti-culture, an endless consumer present: planned, monitored, controlled, Smart, borderless, profitable and soul-dead, increasingly detached from messy reality, directed by who-even-knows, mediated through monitored screens.
Now, as old certainties fall away, the culture crumbles, the climate changes and hearts harden, it becomes hard to speak without being forced to take sides; hard even to know what we are permitted to say, as our language is remade and the range of acceptable opinions is seemingly narrowed daily.
These are not questions of economics, or politics; it’s bigger than that. I believe that our society is spiritually wounded, and it barely even knows it. We have to identify the site of the wound, and the cause, before we can imagine what health might look like on the other side.
But be of good cheer. The storm is here and an age is ending, but new and old hearts stay steadfast on the margins. God is not mocked, and reality bats last. In an age of Big Everything, small remains beautiful and shall, in the end, inherit the Earth. Here, I plan to use my words to try and work out what is going on and why, and what can be done about it by those of us who see things this way.
What is this place?
‘No one is obliged to take part in the spiritual crises of a society; on the contrary, everyone is obliged to avoid the folly and live his life in order.’ — Eric Voegelin
Abbeys of Misrule arose in late medieval France, set up by irreverent locals to mock the powers of the day. They were places of chaos, in which the world was turned upside down. Black was white and wrong was right. Perhaps this sounds familiar.
Misrule is all around. These days, we need a few Abbeys in which we can re-establish some semblance of sanity instead: in which we can look to bigger truths, cherish them, and think about how to re-seed them in a strange new world.
I write as a refusenik: a poet in an age of algorithms, a traditionalist by instinct and a radical at heart, a man from the suburbs with a love of the forests, an Orthodox Christian with a pagan soul. For inspiration I look to localists, agrarians, the indigenous, the peasants, the rooted, the holy, the marginal and the meek. I don’t offer ‘solutions’, because I don’t have any. I only have my instincts, and a battered keyboard.
‘The only successful way to attack these features of modern civilization’, wrote the great critic of technocracy Jacques Ellul, ‘is to give them the slip.’ I have slipped away to this edge of the Internet to examine the Machine, its roots and its meaning, and what secession from its dominance might look like.
‘All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.’
— C. S. Lewis
— More: A ‘Great Reset’ Without the Conspiracy
— See also Civilization and Control, a conversation between Jonathan Pageau and Paul Kingsnorth
Changing the World vs living with it
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the notion of ‘changing the world’, and how it represents a kind of post-religious religious impulse. I’ll be writing in my next essay about the teleology of Progress, but a good question to ask of any culture, and of any person, is: what god do you worship? It’s a question that would have been easy enough to respond to in any previous time, and still is to most people worldwide. But to those of us raised by the Machine it’s inadmissable. We do worship gods, of course, but we don’t call them gods, because gods are superstitious things that our ignorant ancestors dealt in, whereas we, being grown-ups, deal in reason and facts and The Science.
Of course, we don’t really do anything of the sort, and the notion of ‘changing the world’ illustrates it. Progress is our God, and ‘changing the world’ is its liturgy. It’s a phrase I used to use all the time, but now I’m almost embarrassed even to look at it. Changing the world. Changing the world. Changing the world. It’s such an astonishing concept: that we have, or could ever have, the agency, ability or knowledge to change the nature of a vast, complex planet we barely understand, when most of us can’t even change ourselves. And that we imagine the results would be good if we did. What could be more superstitious?
‘Changing the world’ is of course a modern notion, and it has gone into hyperdrive since the 1960s, as religion, with its promise of perfected kingdom beyond this life, has been replaced by materialism, which requires us to try and achieve it in this one. But the prevalance of the ‘changing the world’ narrative has also become ubiquitous for another, more everyday reason: the world is getting worse. And the worse it gets, the more we are desperate to change it – or to believe that we can. With God gone, after all, what else is left to us?…. Continue