“It bears repeating that this is a very good book. Trueman performs a thorough but concise excavation of the intellectual, philosophical, and metaphysical currents that he sees as moving below the crashing waves of our present cultural storm.”
What is a Woman? An answer is given by Carl Trueman in his 2022 book ow have we come to a world where basic biology and sexual realities are so disputed that a cranky conservative pundit can make mileage out of a documentary called Strange New World, a slimmed-down version of his 2020 opus The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which is nearly 500 pages long. I read The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self when it came out, but the length did not aid retention. This much shorter edition with the key facts and core arguments is very welcome, and it succinctly lays out Trueman’s thesis: that the sexual revolution is the source of our present discontents, but which itself is rooted in ideas that go back to the Romantic period in the 18th century.
As with the longer edition, this is a well-written and well-argued book, but it still displays the tendency, particularly acute in American conservatism, to fall into idealistic framing at the expense of deeper analysis of material and sociological factors. Trueman gives answers to the questions of “what” these ideas were, and “when” and “who” they originated from, but there is less focus on the “how” and “why” these ideas became hegemonic. Trueman very much adopts the “ideas have consequences” approach and could have considered in more detail the material and structural forces, the what that makes these ideas so consequential.
The Argument: Identity as Inner Reality
At the core of Trueman’s thesis is the idea that the identity wars that gained traction and momentum in the public consciousness since 2015 are rooted in a fundamental metaphysical change in how we conceive of the self. Ryan T. Anderson summarizes the book’s argument in the foreword like this: “how the person became the self, the self became sexualized, and sex became politicized.” We have witnessed and been party to a soul-deep transformation of the way we view ourselves and our place in the world. As Truenan writes, “It is my conviction that the dramatic changes and flux we witness and experience in society today are related to the rise to cultural normativity of the expressive individual self, particularly as expressed through the idioms of the sexual revolution. And the fact that the reasons for this are so deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture means that we all are, to some extent, complicit in what we see happening around us.”
And what is happening around us? According to Eric Kaufmann, “The last decade has seen a precipitous rise in the share of Americans identifying as LGBT, particularly among the youngest adults. Today, among those under 30, a wide range of surveys converge on a number of around 20%.” This is not due to innate preferences now expressed as a result of increased societal tolerance. As Kaufmann goes on to detail, “a high-point estimate of an 11-point increase in LGBT identity between 2008 and 2021 among Americans under 30. Of that, around 4 points can be explained by an increase in same-sex behavior. The majority of the increase in LGBT identity can be traced to how those who only engage in heterosexual behavior describe themselves.” In other words, the increase in LGBT identity is one of adoption for social membership by heterosexuals, who adhere to what Kaufmann calls a “very liberal ideology,” which means that the most liberal respondents have moved from 10-15% non-heterosexual identification in 2016 to 33% in 2021. Other ideological groups are more stable.”
This kind of socio-cultural transformation can only be fully appreciated through both ideal and material frames. First, the ideal. According to Trueman, it used to be that those in what was once called Christendom turned inward to their souls to reflect on the glory of God, which would then be fully apprehended by turning outward to his creation. As such, “the Psalms and Paul look inward but then understand that inward life in terms of the prior authority of the external world as ordered by God,” while “Augustine moves inward so that he can then move outward to God and to the reality that is prior to and greater than his own feelings and in light of which those feelings are to be understood.”
Trueman, in the vein of Robert Bellah’s 1985 book Habits of the Heart, sees our culture in thrall to an expressive individualism, our idea of the self-based on “authenticity.” This gave rise to the sexual revolution and associated movements, which aimed not only at the loosening of overly constricting norms and mores that excluded some from the moral community and brought them to equal status. For Trueman, this movement has been based on “the positive repudiation of traditional sexual mores,” articulating the undermining of traditional virtues that he traces to the Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
With the rise of identity politics, and particularly that of transgenderism, significant numbers now see “inward, psychological conviction as the nonnegotiable reality to which all external realities must be made to conform.” The heat of battle is most strongly felt when people disagree over what a woman is, what biological sex is, whether gender and sex are related or not, and whether either exists on a spectrum or conforms to evolutionary facts of dimorphism. At the base of this particular conflict is a revolution in the way society views sex itself: “In biblical times or in ancient Greece, sex was regarded as something that human beings did; today it is considered to be something vital to who human beings are.” Instead of being something sacralized by God that we engage in together to bring new life into the world and continue the meaning of our lives past the veil of mortality, sex is instead at the core of who we see ourselves to be here and now. Hence, there is the ever-multiplying number of gender identities of those who feel disconnected from their sexed bodies.
The timeless and presentist nature of liberalism employed in service to the realization of the self-creating self through denial and transcendence of bodily and moral limits, as analyzed by Patrick Deneen, is seen here as nowhere else. This is obviously not a stable foundation for answering the deep questions such as “Who am I?”; Where do I come from?”; “What is the purpose of my life?” As Mark Regnerus writes, “If sexual feelings are the bedrock of personhood, then to question someone’s sexual self-understanding is to deny his or her very self. This is interpreted as violence.” This is the liquifying modernity ushered in by liberalism and furthered by technology at its most storm-tossed.
Thinkers of Destructive Ideas
Who are the thinkers who helped to lay the philosophical and moral groundwork for the transformation? They are Jean-Jacques Rousseau and members of the wider Romantic movement; Karl Marx; Friedrich Nietzsche; Sigmund Freud and his disciples in the Frankfurt School like Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse, and the rest.
Rousseau initiated the turn inward toward a psychological conception of our inner reality, the quest for which marked the quest for true authenticity, the prevention of which by society was assumed and declared the height of immorality. This was deeply connected to the Romantic movement, which reacted to the rationalism of the Enlightenment that together with the nascent Industrial Revolution served to disenchant the world of its sacrality and ushered in a world bound by iron bars of reason and quantification. The Romantics fled inward to their hearts and into the natural world, to contemplate it as an expression of man’s innermost being. Both Rousseau and the Romantics shared the belief that man’s inner reality was true and was always at risk of suppression by civilization.
Moving to Marx, Trueman writes that Marx, influenced by Hegel’s vision of a dialectical evolution of man alone and in community, denied any permanent, unchanging moral nature to life. Marx turned to a materialist analysis that placed economic forces in place of God and Spirit, as the driver of change in human self-understanding. For Marx, economic relations between people form how we see reality. As a result, how we think about reality evolves as economic relations change. Added to this is Marx’s concept of alienation from our labor through its exploitation by the bourgeoisie, who gain the benefits of work with none of the sweat. We are, therefore, prevented from being authentically ourselves. Finally, Marx takes Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of religion in general and Christianity in particular as being just the projection of man’s best parts of himself, magnified beyond comprehension and sanctified beyond doubt or discussion. Marx applies this to his own vision by first materializing Christianity, arguing that it derives from economic conditions and relations as a means for bourgeois domination of the workers; and second by not just describing the role of religion through class exploitation but by then calling for its undermining and destruction as simply another chain binding the proletariat to the rock of economic slavery, to be picked at by bourgeois vultures. Christianity is the palliative that prevents the proles from realizing that their liver is torn away every day, and so the illusion must be shattered to strangle their oppressors’ means of domination.
After this Trueman considers Nietzsche. Nietzsche echoed Marx’s critique of Christianity as an opiate designed to keep people quiescent, but he takes it further and reverses the soporific effects of the Holy Spirit: It is the elites that are constrained by a deadening, numbing faith that erodes their spiritual vitality and lust for glory and cultural, spiritual, and social conquest. Christianity is, thus, not the opiate of the masses used by the bourgeois to oppress the working class but, rather, a slave morality used by the resentful weak to constrain the strong and tie them like Prometheus. As Trueman writes, “Originally…there were the ideas of good and bad. Good meant strength, bad meant weakness. But over time, and largely through the influence of Christianity and what he dubbed its ‘slave morality,’ strength became identified with evil and weakness with good.” Nietzsche joins this with a radical perspective on reality, whereby words have the power to shape the very world, as revealed by the linguistic switch of Christianity. As such, man must take Marx’s critique of Christianity to its conclusion by declaring God dead. Then, man is able to shake off the confines of this linguistic prison and perform a “transvaluation of all values,” to once again allow self-creation that enables the worthy few übermenschen to rise above the herd and truly to go beyond good and evil into history-defying greatness. Morality is now defined according to one’s subjective will.
This sets the stage for Trueman to move to Freud. Freud took it as axiomatic that morality was no longer fixed but changed over time. However, instead of grounding this view in economic relations or subjective expressions of superhuman will, Freud rooted his new anthropology in biological drives and subconscious impulses, the darkness of which we can never truly understand or control on our own. He argued that we, therefore, needed civilization to guard against and channel these drives to the least destructive ends possible. Seeking pleasure and pain became the replacement for old notions of virtue and vice, reflecting an Enlightenment, modern stream of thought. This had given rise to utilitarianism as, increasingly, the philosophy of the intellectual and ruling classes, whereby securing maximum happiness with minimum harm for the greatest number became the overriding public ethic. The surest way to achieve this happiness was pleasure, and ultimate pleasure was found through sexual expression.
Sexual desire lay at the root of Freud’s vision of why we felt our existence had a purpose. He saw this as foundational to our chaotic and violent propensities when unleashed, left untutored and uncultivated. For Freud, our society constrains sexual behaviour through our collective morality. This is based in adaptive convention and practice rather than eternal truths grounded in objective moral standards. These created moral conventions thereby serve to birth and nurture civilization. For Freud, the repression of society through its culture and religion was a means to repress the dark sexual drives that could tear civilization apart. Trueman argues that this view echoes (and expanded upon) the overlapping indictments of European society we see from Rousseau, Marx and Nietzsche. These indictments differed in their particulars, but they broadly shared a relativizing instinct. Freud saw the cost as neurosis, hysteria, discontented individuals, and a sense of division within the self.
The final thinker in Trueman’s line-up is Wilhelm Reich. Trueman writes that Reich used “Marx’s notion that human nature is a historical construct to make Freud’s insights useful for Marxist thought.” For Reich, particular sexual codes maintain specific kinds of society. In agreeing with Freud that sexual morality is the bargain society strikes for stability and security, Reich argues that “the specific content of this trade-off is determined by the specific shape of the society in which it occurs,” which for Reich meant a sexually-repressive bourgeois culture that through its suppression of naturally healthy drives and impulses led people to authoritarian beliefs and to support totalitarian ideologies and their leaders. The family is the authoritarian, fascist state in a microcosm, so in order to save society from repeating Germany’s catastrophic errors, society must be revolutionized to allow for the expression of healthy sexual drives, and families must be undermined for their contribution to the authoritarian character through their confining of our true, inner sexual selves.
As Trueman puts it, “What Reich does is turn this [Romantic and then Marxist] tradition of critique in a psychological direction. This moves Marxism, and indeed the left, toward a new framework for understanding political oppression,” producing “Freudo-Marxism.” He continues: “It is not the act but the desire, or the orientation of that desire, that defines the person. This changes everything. Reich and those who stand in his wake make explicit the obvious implications of this shift. If a person is in some deep sense the sexual desires that they experience, then how society treats those desires is an extremely important political question.” The end of this vision is seen when Reich argues that “The free society will provide ample room and security for the gratification of natural needs. Thus, it will not only not prohibit a love relationship between two adolescents of the opposite sex but will give it all manner of social support. Such a society will not only not prohibit the child’s masturbation but, on the contrary, will probably conclude that any adult who hinders the development of the child’s sexuality should be severely dealt with.” For Reich, it is not that children should be free from expressions of sexuality; instead, they should be encouraged to nurture their true sexual selves.
And there we have it: “how the person became the self, the self became sexualized, and sex became politicized,” achieved through Rousseau’s inner turn toward authenticity smothered by society; Marx’s view of morality shaped by material conditions that cause alienation salved by religious opiates; Nietzsche’s declaration of linguistic inversion rooted in Christian slave morality that requires God’s death and the self-creating superman; to Freud’s biological and psychological take on sexual drives as the reason for morality’s existence in service to restraining dark impulses and maintaining civilization; ending with Reich’s combination of all of these streams of relativization of morality and glorification of the sexual self whose unbounded liberation is the means to social revolution and thus social bliss. And so we come to the present when men and women can become the other, or neither, or both, and to deny this is to deny their felt inner reality, their sense of self, individually defined.
Ideas Have Consequences…But How?
Having considered idealist causes, let us focus on underlying materialist factors. It bears repeating that this is a very good book. Trueman performs a thorough but concise excavation of the intellectual, philosophical, and metaphysical currents that he sees as moving below the crashing waves of our present cultural storm. His explication of the thinkers and their ideas is comprehensible, clearly written, and eloquently expressed, with enough key quotations from each thinker both to drive home his argument and illustrate these individuals’ beliefs and how they impacted the development of our society and culture over the last two-a-half-centuries. This is all well done and will blow away the fog of confusion that hangs over the mental vision of many who are too busy actually living their lives to grasp fully the roots of the force that increasingly encroaches on their lives day by day.
However, as I alluded to in the introduction, I would have liked to have seen more emphasis on how and why these ideas have had the consequences that they have. Trueman does indeed include a chapter on material and technological factors, most notably the contraceptive pill, which in the control over fertility it hands to women really does represent a revolution in human affairs on an evolutionary level, the scale of whose consequences we can only begin to grope toward in the short 60 years since its creation. Trueman also considers the impact of moving from a majority print and analog media-mediated culture to one where our entire lives are increasingly molded by the liquifying effects of the digital realm, what Mark Dooley calls Cyberia, where one can be anything or anyone one wants, subsuming oneself into the lonely crowd of binary code that destroys the binaries of real life.
But Trueman’s reliance on Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary” as the means for these ideas’ dissemination does not go far enough in its explanatory power. Taylor writes: “I adopt the term imaginary (i) because my focus is on the way ordinary people ‘imagine’ their social surroundings, and this is often not expressed in theoretical terms, but is carried in images, stories, and legends. It is also the case that (ii) theory is often the possession of a small minority, whereas what is interesting in the social imaginary is that it is shared by large groups of people, if not the whole society. Which leads to a third difference: (iii) the social imaginary is that common understanding that makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.” This is fine as far as it goes, but Trueman neglects the structural and material facts that synthesize with the ideal to impel social change.
As I wrote a few months ago also at Merion West when diagnosing some of the material roots of wokeness, books like Trueman’s lean toward the belief that ideas float in the ether and are almost enough to cause and motivate changes in how we live on their own. They simply wait to be plucked from the Platonic heavens, where their true form resides, and to which we try to conform in this fallen world of ours. Trueman does not entirely fall into this idealist error, given his use of Taylor’s social imaginary, but the way he presents it means that there remains a blurriness between the creation of the ideas under discussion and their adoption en masse.
The kind of changes we have seen over the last few decades, turbo-charged since 2014-2015, is not mainly due to a group of dissident (and often deviant) thinkers. As James Davison Hunter writes, “the key actor in history is not an individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more ‘dense’ the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.” The level of cultural transformation we have seen, at the depth and scale, is driven by elites whose adoption of new ideas and beliefs confers status on them, which then makes them socially attractive to those lower down the social scale. As Hunter goes on, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.”
According to Geraint Parry, summarizing Robert Michels’ Iron Law of Oligarchy, “in any organization of any size leadership becomes necessary to its success and survival. The nature of the organization is such that it gives power and advantages to the group of leaders who cannot then be checked or held accountable by their followers.” In our time we face what Michael Lind calls an Overclass, buttressed by what Joel Kotkin calls the Clerisy, those who control the means of cultural production. Together these groups comprise 10-15% of the population, a perennial percentage for elites. Even so, ideas still matter as Paul Gottfried asserts in his 1999 book After Liberalism, given that ideas, beliefs, and worldviews provide motivation to people who move and operate in the social structures, institutions, and networks that Hunter analyzes.
The fact of increasing de-Christianization and then elite investment in a kind of “fully automated, luxury Gnosticism,” as Mary Harrington dubs it, explains why the ideas Trueman ably analyzes have come to gain hegemonic status in our time, having been germinated decades or even centuries ago. Trueman cites Augusto Del Noce, who argued that the 1960s witnessed a fusion of Marxism and liberalism, with Marxism losing its materialist diagnosis and analysis but retaining its millenarian energy and telos. Liberalism retained its atomizing, liberatory core and gained revolutionary Marxist millenarian revolutionary rocket fuel that produced an ideology where it was “not the ‘eschaton’ that would be immanentized, but a ‘total revolution’ now instantiated in and limited to, the material order. This revolutionary order would exist not for the sake of a future utopia, but for the sake of revolution itself—the means becoming the end. It would advance not through class conflict, but through affluence, technology, and scientism.”
The new ruling class has been enabled and furthered by economic and technological changes that produced its current composition of what N.S. Lyons calls the “Virtuals,” who manipulate electronic and digital symbols, over the “Physicals,” who work in the physical world with their hands. Of course, there was a synthesis between the individuals who created the technology and the institutional structures that enabled this; it is neither one nor the other. The point is that the current regime is oriented to the benefit of those who comprise its elite and that this has always been the case. However, the regime cannot rule purely for its own gain; otherwise, it will rapidly find itself pushed out of power by a countervailing elite that forms to wrest control.
Gaetano Mosca wrote that ruling class power is, therefore, rendered legitimate “as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognized and accepted.” The revolution we have experienced did not just happen just because a critical mass of people absorbed a certain idea of human relations. As Richard Pipes put it, “rebellions happen; revolutions are made.”
Again, Trueman does go some way to discussing the material and structural causes of the revolution we have been living through. But he does not go nearly far enough, and this prevents a proper consideration of what should be done to push back what has happened. This will not come from “politics is downstream of culture” cliches proclaimed by conservatives who wish to lose beautifully, continuing to collect donor dollars for their think-tank and magazine sinecures all the while. It will come from prudential but determined pushback in the administrative state, legislative, judicial, and executive structures. Anyone imagining a quick or easy victory should disabuse themselves of this, but neither should they give in to black-pilled nihilism. After all, the revolution Trueman describes was instituted through laws and legislation, so why should the reverse not be the case? What that could, or should, look like is where the battle truly lies.
Henry George is a writer from the United Kingdom, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. He has also written at Quillette, UnHerd, Arc Digital, The University Bookman, and Intercollegiate Review.