The Great Unsettling

Simone Weil and the need for roots

This is the second in my ongoing series of fortnightly essays. If you’d like to receive all of them as they are published, please subscribe. Otherwise, you can sign up for free to receive some of them.


There is no such thing as a perfect society, and anyone who tries to build one will either go mad or become a tyrant. Humans are fallen, or just natural, and both of those words are synonyms for ‘imperfect’. What is ‘perfection’ anyway? It is a concept designed by a part of the modern human mind - the part that likes clean lines, easy answers, plots that end by neatly tying up all the threads. The quest for perfection is a quest for homogeneity and control, and it leads to the gulag and the guillotine, the death camp and the holy war. Even if we could agree on what perfection amounted to, we would none of us be equipped to build it.

But. Though there has never been a human culture that is anything but flawed, all lasting human cultures in history have been rooted. That is to say, they have been tied down by, and to, things more solid, timeless and lasting than the day-to-day processes of their functioning, or the personal desires of the individuals who inhabit them. Some of those solid things are human creations: cultural traditions, a sense of lineage and ancestry, ceremonies designed for worship or initiation. Others are non-human: the natural world in which those cultures dwell, or the divine force that they - always, without fail - worship and communicate with in some form.

We need these roots. We need a sense of belonging to something that is bigger than us, across both space and time, and we underestimate that need at our peril. In her brilliant and singular book The Need for Roots, written in 1943, the French writer, philosopher and reluctant mystic Simone Weil puts the case starkly:

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations of the future … Every human being needs to have multiple roots. It is necessary for him to draw wellnigh the whole of his moral, intellectual and spiritual life by way of the environment of which he forms a natural part.

Weil was writing from exile in England, as her homeland was still under Nazi occupation. She saw National Socialism’s perversion and capture of the notion of rootedness, and the evil that was being done with it. But unlike many intellectuals of the left, the Nazis’ racial tyranny did not lead her to reject the notion of rootedness in favour of some universalist flavour of ‘global justice.’ She saw that for the perfectionism it was: the same flavour of perfectionism that, to the east, was leading the USSR to roll out the same kind of tyranny as the Nazis were building, right down to the barbed wire that surrounded the camps designated for those who did not fit into the model.

Weil saw beyond all of this: when she looked at Hitler and Stalin she saw two tyrants leading nations that had already been uprooted - by the industrial revolution, by Bolshevism, by the Great War, by the depression, by the wider process of modernity. Both tyrants promised a return to security, power and meaning for their people through the imposition of a totalitarian ideology which they claimed would speak for the masses. Both delivered hell instead.

Weil’s book was commissioned by the Free French in London, led by Charles de Gaulle. It was intended to be a manifesto for the renewal of France, and Europe, after the scourge of Nazism. Her prescription was radical. Europeans, she said, had been uprooted by industry, by the state and by an aggressive form of pseudo-Christianity (Weil herself was Christian, but was scathing about official forms of the faith which had, she said, in most cases lined themselves up with ‘the interests of those who exploit the people.’)

Both state nationalism and state socialism were con tricks, according to Weil: exploiters of the people posing as their liberators. The ‘totalitarian idol’ of grand world-saving ideologies such as communism and fascism was the scourge of the twentieth century. The whole game had to be junked, the terms redefined:

The only punishment capable of punishing Hitler, and deterring little boys thirsting for greatness in coming centuries from following his example, is such a total transformation of the meaning attached to greatness that he should thereby be excluded from it.

A transformation of the meaning attached to greatness. Perhaps this has always been the task, and perhaps it has always been urgent. But it certainly is now. Our society has attached a meaning to greatness that is not as far away from Hitler’s as it would like to believe, despite our cant about democracy and freedom. Our idols today are economic conquest, unending ‘growth’ built on turning all life into ‘resources’ for human consumption, scientism disguised as objective inquiry, manic forward-motion, and the same old quest for perfectability. Charles de Gaulle, when he returned to France victorious, was an effective competitor in this game. He never read the book that Weil had aimed at him.

What did Weil mean by this ‘transformation’? Perhaps the answer is a reason why she is not as widely read as she could be. Her attachment was to the eternal things, and she could never be boxed in. She wrote in praise of God, tradition, roots, peoples and culture; but also of justice, freedom of speech and thought, honour and equality. She was a Catholic, but fought for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. She could be equally scathing about fascism, communism, established religion, liberal elites, capitalism and mass education. One minute she is incinerating the ‘uprooted intellectuals obsessed with progress’ who dominated the cultural elite of her time (and who have entirely conquered ours), assailing the left for its contempt of the peasantry or asserting that ‘of all the human soul’s needs, none is more vital … than love of the past.’ But just when you think you’re dealing with a conservative defender of the West, you read something like this:

For centuries now, men of the white race have everywhere destroyed the past, stupidly, blindly, both at home and abroad. If in certain respects there has been, nevertheless, progress during this period, it is not because of this frenzy but in spite of it, under the impulse of what little of the past remained alive.

Weil wasn’t wrong. We in the West invented this thing called ‘modernity’, and then we took it out into the world, whether the world wanted it or not. Once we called this process ‘the white man’s burden’ and exported it with dreadnoughts. Now we call it ‘development’ and export it via the World Bank. But - and here is the point so often missed, especially by the ‘progressives’ currently leading the charge in the culture wars - before we could eat the world, we first had to eat ourselves. Or rather: our states, our elites, our ideologues and power-mongers, had to dispossess their own people before they could venture out to dispossess others. We were the prototype; the guinea pigs in a giant global experiment. Now we find ourselves rootless, rudderless, unmoored in a great sea of chaos; angry, confused, shouting at the world and each other. We have made of our world a nihil. We are both perpetrators and victims of a Great Unsettling.

I don’t mean to imply by this that ‘Western’ people alone are responsible for the rolling destruction of culture and nature that is overwhelming the world, let alone to ally myself with the woke legions who assert that all bad things can be traced to some phantasm called ‘whiteness’. Notions like that are not so much gloriously internationalist as hyper-parochial: only Western people could believe them (and middle-class Western people at that). No, this culture of uprooting is global now, and was when Weil was writing. You can see it everywhere you care to look, accelerating in speed and destructive power.

The Indian government, for example, are currently in the process of trying to undermine the power and agency of the peasant farmers of the Punjab, and have triggered a rural rebellion by doing so. India has been uprooting its adivasi (tribal) people systemically since independence. The Chinese state is increasingly looking like the most efficient machine ever invented for uprooting, resettling and controlling mass populations. Indonesians are colonising West Papua, as I have seen with my own eyes. African governments are corralling the last of the bushpeople and the last of their game. This is what states do, whatever colour or culture their ministers are. It’s the ancient human game of power and control, turbo-charged with fossil fuels and digital surveillance technology.

Two years after Weil’s book was published, C. S. Lewis - no progressive he - had one of the characters in his novel This Hideous Strength make clear that there was no escape from this brave new world:

The poison was brewed in these West lands but it has spat itself everywhere by now. However far you went you would find the machines, the crowded cities, the empty thrones, the false writings, the barren beds: men maddened with false promises and soured with true miseries, worshiping the iron works of their own hands, cut off from Earth their mother and from the Father in Heaven. You might go East so far that East became West and you returned to Britain across the great ocean, but even so you would not have come out anywhere into the light. The shadow of one dark wing is over all.

Well, the dark-winged chickens are back home now, and they are roosting on our Western shoulders, and I want to use the first few of my essays here to explore how we all got - pardon my French, Simone - covered in shit. How can we prise apart, if we can, the intersection of the Industrial Revolution, enclosure, colonialism at home and abroad, the collapse of religion, the objectification and abuse of nature, the decline of rooted and local ways of seeing, the rise of Enlightenment liberalism and the consequent flowering of me-first individualism, and the final triumph (and thus coming defeat) of the money-power of techno-capitalism? Phew. Better people than me have tried, and I won’t be able to add anything new to the mix. But I want to try and lay some of it out clumsily on this table for my own satisfaction, and I’ll be happy to be corrected by others if my knife makes the wrong cut.

However we dissect it, I believe that the heart of our global crisis - cultural, ecological and spiritual - is this ongoing process of mass uprooting. We could simply call this process modernity, which is not a time period so much as a myth (more on that another time.) But I prefer to call it the Machine, a name which I have stolen from smarter writers. I want to look into its workings (and into some of those writers) in coming essays, but for now it is enough to say that this Machine - this intersection of money power, state power and increasingly coercive and manipulative technologies - constitutes an ongoing war against roots and against limits. Its momentum is always forward, and it will not stop until it has conquered and transformed the world.

To do that, it must bulldoze everything Simone Weil valued, and everything I value too: rooted human communities, wild nature, human nature, human freedom, mythic ways of seeing, beauty, faith and all the older and truer values which until yesterday, in terms of human history, were the values of every culture on Earth. This, I think, is what the writer Arundhati Roy was evoking when she once wrote of ‘the profound, unfathomable thing we have lost.’

Because we are all uprooted now. The power of the ‘global economy’ - another euphemism for the Machine - demolishes borders and boundaries, traditions and cultures, languages and ways of seeing wherever it goes. Record numbers of people are on the move as a result, and as the population increases and climate change bites, those numbers will rise everywhere, churning cultures and nations into entirely new shapes or no shapes at all. Even if you are living where your forefathers have lived for generations, you can bet that that smartphone you gave your child will unmoor them more effectively than any bulldozer. The majority of humanity is now living in megacities, cut off from non-human nature, plugged into the Machine, controlled by it, reduced to it.

This process accelerates under its own steam because, as Weil explained, ‘whoever is uprooted himself uproots others’, thus feeding the cycle. The more of us are pulled, or pushed, away from our cultures, traditions and places - if we had them in the first place - the more we take that restlessness out with us into the world. If you have ever wondered why it is de rigeur amongst Western cultural elites to demonise roots and glorify movement, to downplay cohesion and talk up diversity, to deny links with the past and strike out instead for a future that never quite arrives - well, I’d say that this is at least part of the explanation.

We are, I think, desperately in need of real culture. We want to go home again, but if we even know where home is to be found, we see that we can’t return. And so a void is created, and into the void rush monsters: fake versions of the roots we are looking for. Identity politics, newly rigid racial labels, extreme nationalisms, endlessly multiplying genders and ‘identities’ constructed online with no reference to reality. The mono-ethnic identitarianism of the far right or the 'diversity' identitarianism of the far left: take your pick according to your predelictions and fears. We reach for toxic imitations of our lost roots, but they can never replace the real thing and the result is an orgy of anger, iconoclasm and rising bile.

Meanwhile, the Machine pushes on, relentless. The Welsh poet R. S. Thomas described this process chillingly in his poem, Other, in a verse I have never forgotten since I first read it:

  . . . The machine appeared
In the distance, singing to itself
Of money. Its song was the web
They were caught in, men and women
Together. The villages were as flies
To be sucked empty.

   God secreted
A tear. Enough, enough,
He commanded, but the machine
Looked at him and went on singing.

The Machine is singing to us all, and we are all singing with it. We are, in fact, all parts of its chorus line, whether we like or know it. If you are looking for a ‘solution’ to this - if, of course, you think it is a problem - then you will not find it in politics, nor in ideologies. Once these rootless, curated ‘identities’ are the choices we are faced with, we are already a long way down the road that leads away from real culture.

In all the time I have spent with people who live in genuinely rooted cultures - rooted in time, place and spirit - whether that be here in the remnants of rural Ireland, in indigenous communities in Mexico, Papua or India, on some of the last small farms in England, or simply talking to Maori or Native American or Aboriginal Australian people, I have been struck by one fact: people don’t tend to talk much about their ‘identity’ unless it is under threat. The louder you have to talk about it, the more you have lost. Once an entire country is talking about nothing else, that’s a pretty good sign that the Machine has sprayed the roots of its people with Roundup and ploughed the remains into the field.

‘Our age is so poisoned by lies’, wrote Weil, ‘that it converts everything it touches into a lie.’ Everything deeper, older and truer than the workings and values of the Machine has been, or is in the process of being, scoured away from us. We turned away from a mythic, rooted understanding of the world, and turned away from the divine, in order to look at ourselves reflected in the little black mirrors in our hands. Some people are quite happy with this, and have no time for Romantic Luddites like myself when we lament it. Even we Romantic Luddites are here on the Internet, lamenting. But some day soon we will all have to look up and begin to turn back again. I have a feeling that this process has already begun.

When a plant is uprooted, it withers and then dies. When the same happens to a person, or a people, or a planetful of both, the result is the same. Our crisis comes, I think, from our being unable to admit what on some level we know to be true: that we in the West are living inside an obsolete story. Our culture is not in danger of dying; it is already dead, and we are in denial. I’ll write more about that next time.