Maybe the fundamental reason your barista wears a waistcoat is a creeping collective sense that civilisation got derailed in the early 20th century, and we need to restore it to the last known good setting.
Isn’t it remarkable that of all the things that can become popular, young people should opt for handlebar moustaches, suspenders, tweed, bowties, typewriters, vinyl records, electro-swing, sweet summer dresses, hair ribbons and wool stockings?
If my theory is correct, the sentiment is justified.
Realise what world existed just before World War 1: a bright and optimistic cosmopolitan era of unprecedented peace, prosperity and progress. Global trade flourished. Seemingly every day, there was some marvellous new invention. Science got its shit together and entered on an exponential curve – the one thing we still have going, thank goodness. Top tax rates were below 10%. Here’s a shocking graph.
It was easily the best period in human history, certainly up till then. If not ever.
Things were getting better all the time, and nobody expected that to change. Why would it?
Sure, there were dark undercurrents of political radicalism – even terrorism – and tensions between great powers, but people expected them to be contained and eventually resolved.
Then seemingly out of the blue and sparked by a minor incident (though not so minor for Franz Ferdinand) came the unthinkable apocalyptic nightmare of World War 1 and changed everything – a colossal collective trauma humankind hasn’t yet recovered from.
Really, the psychological impact cannot be overstated – WW1 wasn’t merely the biggest war in history, it was a wholly new genre.
Instead of relatively small armies in bright uniforms engaging in highly structured, almost ritualised combat, now whole nations. Trenches running with blood. Tanks. Poison gas.
The gilded song of the old world was replaced by the screams and death rattles of hell on Earth.
Europe was devastated. Germany was a total economic disaster, and so was, for different reasons, Russia.
America was spared the devastation, and still lived in the old psychic world – but even there, the roaring 1920s ended with the Great Depression.
Fascism and communism, two arms of the same underlying reaction against modernity, contended to dominate humanity.
Then came World War 2.
Even where extreme counter-Enlightenment ideologies were (at least for a time) denied, the world wars and economic crisis left behind a legacy of creeping statism, with even America becoming a centrally planned society, if not a form of gentle fascism at the time. Governments, unwilling to rescind the powers entrusted to them in wartime, started eating economies. No longer a service annex, the state became society.
That trend is unfortunately unlikely to be reversed, unless technology liberates us in revolutionary ways.
There is a haunting quote I can’t quite source right now, but here’s a paraphrase:
Rather than think of the pre-WW1 world as a dream, it is more accurate to think of the post-WW1 world as a nightmare.
By today’s jaded standards, people in, let’s call it the Belle Epoque, were unrealistically, foolishly optimistic.
Maybe. But you know, here’s the thing – it worked.
Attitudes towards progress are self-fulfilling prophecies:
If you believe in progress, you act on it, and progress happens.
If you believe everything’s shit, or is going to shit, or is pointless, or unfair, or beneath your tremendous pretentious magnificence, then that’s what you disproportionately notice and what, by not doing much meaningful work and signalling your expectations, you get. Shit and pointlessness and unfairness and pretension.
Just visit almost any humanities department.
So here’s what I believe: The Belle Epoque, or whatever you want to call it, the first liberal optimum, had things right. We’re traumatised and broken in ways we’ve come to accept as normal.
Future historians may conclude that modernity did not survive the World Wars – arguably not even the first one. The world, or a world, ended at Ypres, and Verdun, and Gallipoli.
It was a world that got a lot right. Not everything – although more than self-righteous present day critics would concede – but a lot of the big things.
Here’s a fascinating thought experiment, which I heard somewhere, but again, can’t quite source. Peter Thiel? Jordan Peterson? Anyway:
Would you prefer to live in the present, or the 1950s? You probably immediately went with the present. But that choice is probably based mainly on today’s better technology.
Suppose you could choose between today, and a version of the 1950s with today’s technology.
Now, that’s a much harder question.
Because then it stops being about iPads and better dental, and starts being about the values, political structures and culture.
You can use the same logic to compare today with the late 1800s or early 1900s.
It’s meant to illustrate that for all the technological progress, things have gotten mainly worse on a general cultural level in the last 50, and certainly in the last 100 years.
Certainly, nobody would choose today with 1950s technology.
On every metric other than technology, and some marginal issues relating to tolerance (where the west has overshot and is now overcompensating, with militant minorities paradoxically bullying the majority), western civilisation has declined.
If you’re gonna say “but women’s rights”, which you aren’t, because Wisdomination has intelligent readers, you may be delighted to learn those weren’t invented and politicised in the 1960s, but a full century earlier.
In general, most of the social developments we credit recent history with have started and been formalised at the latest in the 19th century, if not with John bleeding Locke in the 17th, and just took some time to come to fruition. The recent social movements have largely appropriated the legacy of classical liberalism, and turned against it and poisoned it with marxism.
All these civilising forces were in motion, and unlike their present day counterparts, they were about uplifting the wretched, not roasting those already doing well. Classical liberalism vs. cultural terrorism.
There’s a tremendous difference between thinking and acting out of compassion or hostility. There’s a difference between wanting to help the poor and wanting to hurt the rich. Ditto for redressing past inequities of sex and race. No, it’s not a zero-sum see-saw. Mutual respect and goodwill is a positive-sum game.
Even without nostalgia and idealisation, it’s hard not to see that on every measure except technology and maaaybe the rights of women and minorities, western civilisation has spent a century declining.
Maybe the sense that the future is hopeful and bright and things are going well, and the world is wide open and full of possibility, to say nothing of a sense of stability and security based in that conservative stuff like family and non-arbitrary gender roles, is what people are intuitively and subconsciously looking for when they “ironically” adopt the affectations of the late Victorian era or the roaring twenties.
Note the style is most popular precisely among the most uprooted urban gadflies. I think it’s not random.
Isn’t the eccentric in tweed breeches on a single-speed bike motivated by the same dynamic that compelled medieval nobles to collect Roman statues, as reminders of a better, more civilised age?
If so, let’s have a renaissance.
I don’t wear tweed, you wear tweed, shut up.
In the deep of our collective unconscious, or whatever you want to call it, we feel that civilisation got fucked up in the early 20th century, that we’ve forgotten something behind, and should go back to pick it up.
P.S. Recommended reading: Winston Churchill’s WW1 memoirs. Shouldn’t take more than three years of reading to go through.
Now, if you care about the future of civilisation, you might consider buying your brilliant enlightening thought leader a beer.