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The World Shifting Beneath Our Feet: An Interview with N.S. Lyons by Jonathon Van Maren

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The World Shifting Beneath Our Feet: An Interview with N.S. Lyons

Since Substack was founded in 2017, it has rapidly become a hub of serious debate on our historical moment’s most pressing issues, with writers fed up with the slow strangulation of woke editorial teams fleeing broadsheets for the new platform: Andrew Sullivan left New York Magazine; Bari Weiss abandoned the New York Times; Matt Yglesias quit Vox, to name just a few. Discussions that have become largely impossible in the mainstream media are now unfolding on Substack. But the major disadvantage for readers is that each newsletter requires an individual subscription, thus making it more difficult to get an all-star lineup of writers with a single magazine. (Though it must be said that many writers also provide excellent free content for those with slimmer wallets.)

I recently reviewed Paul Kingsnorth’s essential Substack, The Abbey of Misrule, his longform attempts to grapple with the conflict between man and “the Machine” from a freshly Christian perspective. Another writer doing invaluable work on similar subjects is N.S. Lyons, the penname of an essayist working in the U.S. foreign policy community. He describes his Substack, The Upheaval, as

a wide-ranging newsletter exploring the nature, causes, and consequences of the chaos increasingly engulfing our lives as the world is forcibly reconfigured by at least three simultaneous revolutions: a geopolitical revolution driven by the rise of China; an ideological revolution consuming the Western world; and a technological revolution exacerbating both of the former.

His analyses are often grim. In a recent essay titled “No, the Revolution isn’t over,” which responded to the triumphalism of some conservatives over a handful of recent victories, Lyons explained why majorities often do not matter:

Unfortunately for those dreaming of harnessing a majority anti-woke popular will, the truth is that, as statistician and philosopher Nassim Taleb has explained in detail, it’s typically not the majority that sets new societal rules, but the most intolerant minority. If the vast majority generally prefers to eat Food A instead of Food B, but a small minority is absolutely insistent on eating Food B and is willing to start chopping the heads off of anyone who disagrees and serves Food A—and the majority doesn’t care enough to get all bloody dying on this particular culinary hill—all restaurants will soon be serving only Food B, the new national cuisine. This is especially true if the intolerant minority already holds a disproportionate position of influence within the system.

“The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum,” John Martin, 1822.

Photo: Upheaval Substack

That may be a tough pill to swallow—especially in the wake of flurries of conservative columnists consistently predicting ‘the turning of the tide’—but it is also a necessary corrective. As Kingsnorth also points out, things are likely to get far worse before (if) they get better. To navigate the strange times in which we live, being clear-eyed about the future that lies ahead for our families is important. Even small victories should be celebrated, it is true—but we also shouldn’t fool ourselves about which way the arc of history is bending at the moment.

N.S. Lyons’ latest essay “The World Order Reset” is one of the best explanations of the forces we see congealing in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the synchronized move of Western democracies towards an entirely digital world. This world, Lyons explains, will be dangerous for those of us who dissent from the progressive orthodoxies pushed by globalist and intranational institutions—Justin Trudeau’s collusion with the banks to freeze the assets of Canadian Freedom Convoy protestors is an example of how this could play out on a large scale. To discuss his view of the forces forming our future, I spoke with N.S. Lyons by email.


In your estimation, does a Putin loss appear to be the most likely outcome of the current conflict in Ukraine?

That depends on what you mean by a ‘loss.’ Russia’s military campaign seems to be going truly terribly and appears incapable of achieving any of its original objectives of disarming and “de-Nazifying” all of Ukraine (i.e. changing the government). On the other hand, Russia cannot lose this war in the sense of losing territory or surrendering to its enemy: Russia has nuclear weapons, so that will never happen. Instead, the only way that this ends is through some kind of frozen stalemate—like North and South Korea—or some kind of negotiated settlement, such as happened in the Winter War with Finland, where Russia was also badly beaten by a much smaller opponent but nonetheless ‘won’ on paper when Finland gave up a small amount of territory to end the war but keep its independence.

All that said, this is already a catastrophic loss for Russia at the broader strategic level. Even if it takes some new territory from Ukraine (Crimea, the Donbas), it will end up only with essentially what it was already de facto controlling but have been economically isolated and militarily weakened. Much worse, NATO has been completely reenergized, with Sweden and Finland likely to join. So much for keeping NATO away from Russian borders: the latter is mere kilometers from St. Petersburg. And Germany, Poland, and others are now committed to rapid rearmament. Overall, Putin’s invasion has helped unify the West and reinforce the ‘liberal international order’ when breaking that order was the whole intended point of the ‘special military operation’ in the first place.

The liberal international order has appeared to many to be on life support over the past decade. How could the current crisis revitalize it?

Well, it’s frankly not hard to see why Putin may have thought the West and its liberal international order was decadent, divided, and falling apart—because it has been. I believe the deepest purpose of Putin’s military gamble was to give that order a firm shove, causing the whole rotten edifice to come tumbling down when the West proved incapable of keeping him from getting what he wanted in Ukraine. It was a shock to everyone, Putin and the West alike, when Ukraine put up such fierce resistance and Russia’s military proved so much less capable than all expected. It was only this fact that unexpectedly saved the Trans-Atlantic order and changed the whole global strategic equation.

Now the war has helped to push the European states closer together and push Europe away from China and Russia and into America’s arms, significantly weakening the previously emerging Russia-China bloc. This means there may be an opportunity for Washington and Brussels to essentially re-found a new era of Trans-Atlantic power. However, for various reasons that we may get into later, I wouldn’t necessarily describe this as the ‘liberal international order,’ but something new.

To what extent has China been damaged by Putin’s ongoing failure in Ukraine?

Putin’s screw up in Ukraine has been a disaster for China. Russia was supposed to be a strong partner for China, one that could pose a substantial military threat to Europe and help keep America and the West tied down there. Now it is clear to Washington that Russia no longer credibly poses any serious conventional military threat to NATO Europe, which means it can soon begin to turn its full attention to containing China in East Asia. And now that Russia is no longer seen as a fearsome military power, Beijing will have little use for it except as a source of energy and other resources. Furthermore, Putin acted too soon, before China was ready to substantially help Russia evade sanctions, because the Chinese yuan is still not in a position to supplant the dollar as a widely usable currency for global transactions. This is one reason we have not yet seen China provide Russia with the assistance that Moscow has asked for; the other is that China is not going to risk U.S. sanctions or further offending Europe in order to just trade with Russia’s tiny economy. The EU is China’s largest and most important market. This is why we’ve seen Chinese companies largely comply with sanctions and in some cases actually begin to leave the Russian market.

By far the most disastrous outcome for China is the increasingly apparent alignment of Europe with America into a single geopolitical bloc (along with some key Asian states like Japan, South Korea, and Australia). Together, these countries represent nearly 60% of global economic output and therefore of global material power. China and Russia are together only around 20%. As long as Europe remained autonomous from America, China had a chance of facing the United States on relatively even terms. This is the whole reason China launched its Belt and Road Initiative and has tried to tempt the countries of Europe into closer economic relations with it, pulling them away from North America and toward a Eurasian orientation. Now that dream appears to be over.  

You’ve written on how a retrenchment of the liberal bloc could contribute to the creation of a “World Order Reset.” Practically speaking, how could we see that unfold over the next several years?

That’s not quite it. I’ve predicted that the formation of a unified Trans-Atlantic bloc—with China therefore marginalized—may allow Washington and Brussels to found a new world order, similar to how America was able to found the liberal international order after World War Two, when it represented nearly half of the global economy and had the power to establish the new rules and institutions that would determine how things were to be run (the Bretton Woods system, etc.). But this would, I predict, be something new and not quite the same as that liberal international order, including with some new rules and standards—hence why I described it as a ‘reset’ of the world order as it is.

As I wrote in my essay on “The World Order Reset,” if I had to guess, I’d predict this new international order would reflect how Washington and Brussels now approach politics in their own systems. This system would pull back from total globalization and distinguish an in-group and an out-group of nations, policing an inclusion-exclusion distinction. This means that it will create a global bloc large enough to leverage significant economic and technological network effects, then exchange access to that network for continued loyalty. Those who act counter to the interests of the bloc or fail to meet its values, standards, and conditions will be threatened with exclusion from the bloc. This is likely to be conducted in highly ideological terms similar to the first Cold War: those of a global battle between ‘democracy’ vs. ‘autocracy.’

This new order is also likely to be fundamentally technocratic, power centralizing, and anti-federal. There can be no dissention in the bloc, or it risks falling apart; if EU-U.S. unity breaks or Europe fragments then this whole order would collapse, and we’d move back to a more equal U.S.-China rivalry. So, to cut to the chase, internal dissent from official values is going to be tolerated less and less. As part of that, I expect this order to be vertically integrated, with a focus on digital control, and make public-private partnership a core part of its operating system. In other words, I’d expect far more movement toward ‘harmonizing’ digital regulations (i.e. on censorship), ESG standards, formal and informal sanctions, and digital currency systems across the Atlantic.

This is, you may notice, not really a pluralistic, ‘liberal’ order at all. So, in that sense yes, I’d say it would be a retrenchment and replacement of the liberal international order with a successor order—and a successor ideology.

How likely is it that we will see centralized digital currency and ID and the corresponding threat to the rights of those who oppose fundamental tenets of progressive thought arrive in the next few years?

I think very likely. Both the Biden administration and the EU have described digital currencies as an urgent priority. In part, I think they fear the massive sanctions levied against Russia will encourage other countries to try to begin using digital currencies (and in particular the digital yuan, which is currently the most advanced) to start circumventing dollar/euro supremacy. To make sure this doesn’t happen, multiple central banks, including the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank (ECB), the Bank of England, and the Bank of Japan, have begun cooperating to ensure their new central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) can be easily convertible. This would make staying within that currency system very convenient and unavoidably attractive for global capital. 

It just so happens that CBDCs would provide governments with totally unprecedented surveillance and control over all transactions, wherever in the world they occur, in real time. It would make fine-grained control of economic incentives—say setting limits over how much anyone can spend on fossil fuels each week before their money stops working or begins to have less purchasing power—much simpler, along with making tax evasion and any other illicit financial activity impossible. We’ve already seen a recent example in Canada of how useful this kind of control over financial activity could be to enforce ideological political control.

But to make a harmonized digital currency system work, a harmonized digital ID would be a requirement, so I’d expect that to come sooner rather than later. Then cash would have to be phased out. The ECB’s report on CBDCs is quite explicit about this.

In your most recent essay, you seemed to offer little in the way of hope that the “reset” could be subverted. Considering spontaneous populist outbursts more recently—such as the “Freedom Convoys” protesting vaccine mandates—are there likely scenarios in which these things could be prevented, or do you believe they are something of an inevitability?

I think there is a fair amount of momentum behind the new order right now, thanks to the war in Ukraine, ideological evolution within liberalism, and advancements in digital technologies that enable greater centralized control. However, I think the more powerful the Trans-Atlantic bloc feels, the more likely they—Washington and Brussels—will be to hubristically push for ideological and political conformity around the world, and especially at home. And the harder forced ideological and political conformity is pushed, the more backlash will be generated. We’ve already seen this happening within nations, in the form of ‘populist’ movements, and within the EU in the form of nationalist rebellions against supranational diktats. And the more this happens, the more frustration at the top will grow, and the harder the crackdown will become—provoking more backlash.  So, there is a chance that this entropy will help subvert and then ultimately pull apart this new order. And I think the chances of this will become significantly higher in the case of a major global economic crisis, which seems likely to be just around the corner. 

Looking back, do you believe we will see the resurgence of the post-liberals as a blip rather than as the beginning of a new, coherent movement?

I don’t know if ‘post-liberalism’ will ever be an organized movement that is called by and remembered by that name. That said, I do think that all of the intellectual energy in the political realm is now very much with those various ‘new’ schools of Right and Left (if these terms are even still meaningful) that are seeking to forge a path beyond established neoliberalism (again for lack of a better term). We have yet to see how well that intellectual energy will translate into political and cultural change. But I think many people in the West can now tell that the zeitgeist has shifted in a ‘post-liberal’ direction, as liberalism has failed to prevent the rise of its own successor ideology in the form of identity politics and therefore begun to collapse in on itself.

With so much of the discussion around “the Great Reset,” digital currencies, the World Economic Forum, and other globalist institutions descending almost immediately into the realm of conspiracy theory, how can we initiate credible conversations on essential issues?

I think conspiracy theories are proliferating because we can all feel now the ground shifting under our feet but have no easy way to understand and make sense of that feeling of chaos. Conspiracy theories provide a simplified way of trying to make sense of what is happening. If, for example, a small cabal of rich global elites is controlling world events (as in the theory of the “Great Reset”), this makes the situation seem easier to understand. But, in fact, this is not very helpful, since things are actually even crazier than that! Many systemic forces and factors and ideas are at work changing the world right now, over and above many different people and groups with different interests. Depersonalizing this and trying to disentangle different causes and effects and how all these things fit together is no easy task. But I think it is important to try, and that’s essentially what I’m aiming to do at my Substack, The Upheaval.

Jonathon Van Maren has written for First Things, National Review, The American Conservative, and is a contributing editor to The European Conservative. His latest book is Prairie Lion: The Life & Times of Ted Byfield.