Rebellion: When, Why, and How–A Synthesis of Recent Reading

I recently read three books in succession that, without intending such an outcome, I found to be linked conceptually. The three books, in the order I read them:

  1. Interface by Scott Britz-Cunningham
  2. The Great Reset and the War for the World by Alex Jones
  3. The Rebel by Albert Camus

In my synthesis of these three books’ ideas, I’m going to deal with them out of order. First, I’ll deal with Camus, then Cunningham, and, finally, with Jones.

The Rebel by Albert Camus

The typical book-report view of The Rebel is that it is a critique of the twentieth century’s revolutionary movements–primarily Soviet communism–as necessarily leading to tyranny. This is true, so far as it goes, but Camus’ arguments in this book are so much more than a mere critique of communism or revolution. The Rebel is simultaneously a work of intellectual history, literary and cultural criticism, and political philosophy. In my Goodreads review of the book, I wrote that it is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I mean that.

The Rebel is one of the most important books I’ve ever read because it, perhaps better than any other book I’ve read, provides a foundation for understanding the socio-political madness that we’re currently living through in the United States and the wider West in 2022. Part of that foundation comes through the intellectual history that Camus weaves throughout his sustained argument. That sustained argument, identified in the opening paragraph of Camus’ introduction to the book, is that the revolutionary movements of the twentieth century–at least those that were known up to 1951 when the book was published–constitute a series of premeditated, logical crimes by which people commit murder, among other atrocities, on the justifications provided by philosophy. This philosophy, at least initially, is linked to or expressive of certain values that identify what today we often refer to as human rights. That is, there is something intrinsic within human beingness that justifies rebellion. This justification often comes when someone–either a person or an institution of society–behaves in ways that are beyond the limits of what is tolerable. In some sense, rebellion is justified when the natural order of what it means to be human is violated. Camus says that “[t]he most elementary form of rebellion, paradoxically, expresses an aspiration to order.” In other words, people are justified in becoming rebels when the conditions of being human are disordered by the actions or behavior of others. The emblematic case is the slave’s rebellion against his master.

Although he begins the intellectual history of rebellion with the myth of Prometheus, the modern intellectual history of rebellion and revolution begins with the Marquis de Sade and the French Revolution. It continues forward in time through the Romantics and the Surrealists, and includes a host of writers, not all of whom are crucial to the point of this post, but that include familiar names like Hegel, Nietzsche, and Marx. Camus structures his essay, based on this intellectual history, around two primary forms of rebellion: metaphysical and historical. Metaphysical rebellion–captured emblematically in Sade–is essentially rebellion against God and God’s order. In Sade, the indulgence of sexual desire and deviancy is a rejection of the rules imposed by God through natural order. For Sade, “nature is sex” and “his logic leads him to a lawless universe where the only master is the inordinate energy of desire.” In the French Revolution, historical rebellion is introduced. The regicide of the king is effectively the deicide of God since the king is God’s representative on earth. Whereas the metaphysical rebellion of Sade introduces a lawless universe, the historical rebellion of the French Revolution introduces one in which men must replace God, primarily through the near deification of history.

The key insight into understanding Camus’ arguments is the recognition that both of these strands of rebellion–both metaphysical and historical–are expressions of nihilism. This is the key insight for two reasons. First, nihilism, insofar as it is a rejection of all values, cannot sustain rebellion philosophically. If the philosophical justification of rebellion is derived from principles that are universally applicable to what it means to be human, then rebelling against one set of principles by rejecting all principles negates the justification upon which one is rebelling in the first place. It is at this point that the nihilistic tendencies of rebellion lead into revolutionary movements. Revolutionary movements rely almost exclusively upon force because they have lost the principled, philosophical basis on which their rebellious roots got started. In the absence of principles, values, and unifying beliefs, unity in rebellion is achieved through violence–the “logical crimes” with which Camus begins his essay. It is for this reason that Camus says that “[o]ne can be nihilist in two ways,” either in wanting to commit suicide through self-destruction (e.g., anarchistic libertinism = metaphysical rebellion) or in wanting to kill others through murder to sustain one’s own goals (e.g., totalitarian communism = historical rebellion). One either sides with Sade in destroying oneself in pursuit of desire or they side with the Revolution in destroying others in order to unify desires, even if by force.

The second reason why this key insight is important is because, once you’ve digested Camus’ whole argument, I think the best explanation for our society’s current ills is that we are witnessing a dialectic conflict between metaphysical and historical nihilism. In other words, all sides of the conversation with any influence in the socio-political sphere are expressions of nihilism. Although we like to frame our public discourse in terms of conservatism vs. liberalism, Democrats vs. Republicans, and so on, what we fail to understand is that there are no true conservatives or liberals left in society with any influence. Conservatism and liberalism have effectively lost all the content of their meaning insofar as what we tend to call conservative or liberal is, in both instances, an expression of nihilism. Republicans are no less nihilist than Democrats–it is merely that Republicans are fighting for a different expression of nihilism, one that–apparently–is less popular in the current moment than that which is being peddled by Democrats. Although the analogy is not precisely parallel, today’s Republicans (or, if you like, “conservatives”) are essentially within the same intellectual space as Robespierre while today’s Democrats are functionally the modern heirs of Sade.

Camus’ solution to these problems is an affirmation of principles, especially universal principles, although he was not a moral realist–he did not believe in moral or ethical objectivity along the lines of either Platonic virtue ethics, natural law, or Divine Command Theory. Instead, Camus emphasized a sort of localism grounded in left-libertarian and anarcho-syndicalist thought. He recognized, I think correctly, that productive, peaceful civilization must accept and balance the tensions between metaphysical and historical rebellion, between the individual and the collective, and the temptations of either resignation or tyrannical force. And while I do not agree with everything he has to say, or with his solutions to obvious problems, I do think there is value in his analysis.

First, and most valuable for (real) conservatives and Christians today, is the realization that our society is dominated by ideologies that are inherently nihilist in outlook. Although everyone repeats the platitudes of human rights and claims them as their foundation, few who operate in spheres of power and prestige in politics, government, and culture have worldviews that can sustain such a thing as a human right, never mind more than one. Second, I think Camus’ emphasis on localism is the correct and most productive path forward. In the United States, we already have a foundation on which to build in the form of federalism, although we are severely out of practice when it comes to using it. Finally, and this is the point that segues into the next book to be synthesized here, rebellion is in some sense natural to human beings. That is, because we are all capable of understanding and recognizing right vs. wrong and good vs. evil, we have the capability of embracing one and rejecting and ultimately resisting the other. The question becomes, then, when do we know that we ought to rebel?

Interface by Scott Britz-Cunningham

One instance of recognizing when we ought to rebel is illustrated in the novel Interface by Scott Britz-Cunningham. Interface tells the story of an all-too-possible and all-too-likely American dystopia where the perfection of an implantable smart-phone-like device keeps people plugged-in to the internet 24/7. This device, once it is deemed safe and finds widespread adoption, becomes mandatory by law, with the penalty for non-compliance being death. This, in turn, leads to a sort of democratic tyranny in which the institutions and structures of republican democracy are replaced by immediate public plebiscite that, more often than not, merely reinforces the status-quo among a population conditioned to accept whatever “truth” is peddled to them through the very devices they believe has liberated them. The veneer of democracy is thus maintained, and the subtly propagandized populace is fooled into thinking they benefit from free thought and speech because they have access to so much information, how could they possibly not be free? Ironically, within this society, the most powerful man in America is the one in charge of the agency tasked with enforcing the mandatory implant law.

Who’s more powerful than the president of the United States? The man who can control the thoughts, opinions, and information consumption of the people who give him [the president] that power.

Like other pieces of dystopian fiction, Interface incorporates several familiar elements. Books–like, actual, real books–although not outlawed à la Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver, are virtually obsolete because, I mean, why have actual books when you can just read it in your head? There is also, of course, the remnant–the faithful few who value the principles of liberty enough that they’re willing to risk death rather than get the implant. There are also the complex characters whose relationships to the reality of the world of Interface shifts over the course of the story. Some give in to the tyranny, some give in to the fulfillment of desire, and others–like Solzhenitsyn–who come to recognize the role they played in fostering the tyranny and who choose to rebel against the revolution they helped bring about.

This is the real link between Interface and The Rebel. Interface describes a world in which the dialectic between metaphysical and historical nihilism is successfully synthesized. It is a world where individuals cooperate in their own subjugation and oppression because they believe–correctly in some sense–that the agent of their oppression is also that which allows them to indulge their own desires. In many ways, Interface describes a world that is ideal to the minds of the technocratic elite and that is best exemplified in today’s world, as best as I can tell, by China. People are “free” to take advantage of all that the society has to offer–there is a deceptive façade of economic freedom–so long as they don’t expect or, worse, demand political freedom. Although in places like China this is a society-wide practice, it is also operative in the United States, particularly in the realms of high society and politics. Play the game, keep your head down, and most importantly, keep your mouth shut and you can have wealth, fame, power, and prestige. We all know–or in 2022 we all should know–that this is how things work. We should know not only because of obvious wokeness fatigue but because of revelations that have come from those who refuse to play the game, keep their heads down, and keep their mouths shut.

The Great Reset and the War for the World by Alex Jones

Say what you like about Alex Jones, whatever it is it isn’t that he’s one to keep his mouth shut. And, although his mistakes and misstatements about Sandy Hook have been well-publicized lately, there’s a reason why Twitter has an #AlexJonesWasRight hashtag.

While I would agree that there are things to be critiqued about Jones’ approach, delivery, and methods at times, I can’t help but also notice that he isn’t one to back down from a fight when it comes to publicly saying what he (at least ostensibly) believes to be the truth. And truth is something of supreme importance–always, but particularly in the current historical moment.

In Camus’ critique of nihilistic historical rebellion, he takes particular aim at the tendency–on full display in his day within the Soviet Union–to say whatever is necessary, regardless of the truth, if saying it advances the revolutionary cause. When one deifies history–as in the case of Marxist historical materialism–one’s view of truth is conditioned by whatever serves the cause of the deterministic progression of history. When one deifies their own desires–as in the case of Sade and his modern heirs–they will say whatever it takes in order to fulfill those desires. Thus, an utterance or claim’s truth is based on the ends the utterance or claim seeks. Over and against this view of truth is the classical view of truth–that something is true only if its claims correspond to reality.

The things that Alex Jones claimed regarding Sandy Hook turned out to not be true. But here’s the philosophical lynchpin, Jones’ loudest critics–who are almost certainly given over to one of either of Camus’ classes of nihilism–must abandon their own vision of truth in order to hold the non-correspondence of his claims against him. In other words, those who oppose Jones for ideological reasons only accept the correspondence theory of truth when doing so advances their own ideological agenda–when it tends towards the ends they seek. They are unwilling and unable, given their worldview presuppositions, to accept this theory of truth which, empirically, is the only theory of truth, when it comes to critiquing their own ideologies.

What’s more, any system that is premised on the ethics of playing the game while keeping your head down and your mouth shut cannot be a system that values truth. If something is believed to be true–or better, if something is demonstrably true on empirical or rational bases–one ought to not only be allowed to say it but one, ethically, ought to be obligated to say it, particularly if it involves the public interest. And yet, I assert, without any need to argue the point, that our dominant socio-political discourses operate on the presumption that the truth of a statement is irrelevant. This is precisely the kind of system where we ought to rebel.

The Synthesis

Camus is correct when he says that, on some level, rebellion is inherent in the human condition. Our ability to recognize right and wrong or good and evil is, at base, predicated on our ability to recognize whether something is true or false. The first act of rebellion in the Garden of Eden was fomented by the questioning and ultimate rejection of truth: “Did God really say?”

Nihilism, which drives the revolutionary spirit within our society, is therefore, at base, a denial that truth even exists. We are living at a time and inside a civilization that has declared its open hostility to truth-telling. This is destructive–as Camus observed–both to the individual and to the collective society. Individually, nihilism leads to self-destruction because one refuses to order his or her life according to that which is true. The Good–in the Platonic sense–is by definition true so, by rejecting truth as either a principle in itself or even as an epistemic possibility, one by necessity is precluded from pursuing goodness. Collectively, nihilism leads to destruction because those with power, who have dedicated themselves to the deification of history and, more vaguely, progress, are willing to deny truth and thereby goodness because doing so serves their ideological god. Their denial means that they are also willing to harm and even destroy those who speak truths that oppose history and progress.

The social, political, and economic setting we are rapidly coming into is one that, ironically and paradoxically, seeks a totalitarian and tyrannical system of control that offers, as justification, limitless fulfillment of desire. It is an inversion of Christ’s admonition to “seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you” (Matt 6:33). Play the game and keep your head down and your mouth shut, and you will be allowed to fulfill your desires. In such an environment, truth-telling is the ultimate act of rebellion.

So, to answer the questions posed in the title of this post–When, why, and how to rebel: When? When truth-telling is discouraged or outright punished. Why? Because truth-telling is an act of liberation (John 8:32). How? By telling the truth. This coheres with Camus’ project in that rebellion is rooted in human nature. To know our nature, to know who we truly are and ought to be–not who our desires tell us to become nor who history’s overlords demand we become–we must be able to both know and communicate truth.

The Books

Britz-Cunningham, Scott. 2022. Interface. Nashville, TN: Keylight Books.

Camus, Albert. 1991. The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt. Translated by Anthony Bower. New York: Vintage International.

Jones, Alex. 2022. The Great Reset and the War for the World. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

One response to “Rebellion: When, Why, and How–A Synthesis of Recent Reading”

  1. […] you to see that all the people you are inclined to look to as America’s political saviors are nihilists who crave nothing other than power and […]

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