Allow me to itemise all the burdens that I bear. I have to obey the criminal law of the US and the UK. I am contracted to perform certain duties for the FT. After that, well, some people insist on a reply text these days, but really, in all candour, that is it. The world asks almost nothing of me. What with my talent for saying No (I am what you might call a people-displeaser) I don’t even feel informal pressure to serve this or that cause, live this or that life.
I and the millions like me are CS Lewis’s “men without chests”. As much as our hard-to-target lower pecs need tightening, this is in fact a slight at our listlessness. We are all desire and reason with no higher calling. Francis Fukuyama cribs the phrase in The End of History, which has displaced Das Kapital and perhaps even The Origin of Species as the most invoked book that nobody reads. Among the consequent misunderstandings is that Fukuyama relished the triumph of liberalism as the end-state of humankind.
He didn’t. He thought it would induce in us a dangerous ennui. To break it, people might devote themselves to all kinds of cockamamie ideas, just to feel a part of something larger.
Three years after populism broke through, we have come to the end of one explanation for it. The notion of anger has been analysed beyond usefulness. It is indispensable but not quite enough. It explains why the poor in deindustrialised places rebelled. It does not account for the better-off who made up the decisive numbers.
The most under-discussed feeling in the modern world is boredom. Anger is given more than its due. Depression gets an airing. What we find much harder to credit is that, for some, the problem with modernity is not that it is too hard, but that it is too easy. Nothing in the way of duty or sacrifice is asked of them. They might have parents or grandparents who spent themselves in a larger cause, and feel somehow not quite alive next to them. There are women like this but, as the psephologists will testify, there are many more men. The nostalgia for the Blitz spirit among Englishmen who were born circa 1960 is an increasingly weird case in point.
The supposed crisis of masculinity always evokes a Springsteenian wasteland of shuttered steel plants. But it can be a much tonier affliction than that. It covers the outwardly successful men who want “something more” than sterile comfort and low stakes. Nietzsche was on to the emasculating effects of modernity in the late 1800s, and Lewis in the mid 1900s. And that was when conscription, ideological struggle and religion were still around to make a guy feel connected to the epic. Now he has to find it in some passing blowhard who asks for his vote. Populism is the closest thing to an outlet.
This is why there is something ersatz to me about today’s version: a slightly performative element that distinguishes it from the all-too-sincere 1930s populism. I sense that, while many voters really mean it, some are just restless and want to feel their juices bubble. I have known (and stopped knowing) lots of once-temperate people who have been carried off on the giddy ride in recent years. Their dopamine hit seems to come from the drama itself, not the content of the creed. The trouble is that it is no less dangerous for that.
I do not pretend to feel even a trace of boredom or modernity-fatigue. I am not one of your duty-and-sacrifice merchants. I savour the chestless life. But those who do feel this way are a much more potent threat to liberalism, and therefore to my way of life, than the angry. Anger is fixable. It can be assuaged through redistribution and other policies, as it has been in the past.
What, though, is the fix for ennui? It exists because the system is doing its job of securing (at least for some) comfort. We cannot just retrofit Homeric struggle and moral grandeur into it. My profession has tormented enough Ohio factory towns with camera crews and essayistic reporters. Time to fathom the boredom of the prosperous dissenter.