In the 1930s, a minor British novelist started writing a new book, which was not a novel. Instead, William Gerhardie proposed a theory of history he called “God’s Fifth Column,” which was also his book’s title. His theory was that, just at the point where everyone who was anyone agreed events would go in a certain direction, they instead headed off on a wild, wholly unpredicted tangent.
Gerhardie was inspired by the events of 1914 and their catastrophic consequences, in which we are still enmeshed. Prior to Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s ill-timed trip to Sarajevo—the head of Serbian military intelligence had multiple assassins positioned there—the elite consensus was that another great European war simply was not possible. All the powers’ economies were too intertwined. International trade was essential. Everyone’s stock market would collapse, banks would fail, there would be riots in the streets. Within Europe, the labor market was international; one German soldier taken early in the war said to his British captors, “I hope this is over soon so I can get back to my job driving a cab in Liverpool.” But war came anyway, though no one wanted it, or, afterward, could explain why it had been fought. And the Christian West died in the mud of Flanders and Galicia.
If we look at our present situation through the lens of Gerhardie’s God’s Fifth Column, what do we see? Across the board, we find elite consensus on the stability and linear progression of a wide variety of things that are, in reality, unstable and uncertain. One of the most blatant is agreement that the U.S. government can print and spend as much money as it wants to with no need for concern about mounting debt, inflation, or a loss of faith in the dollar. The Biden administration has spent or plans to spend at least $6 trillion, with more to come. Trillions are now ho-hum; are quadrillions next? They call it “modern monetary theory,” but there is nothing modern about it. It has been tried before, more than once, with uniform unfortunate consequences. What does a wild tangent in the dollar’s progression look like?
Similarly, the United States stands athwart the world as the ultimate Superpower, its fingers in every eye as it dictates not just foreign but also domestic policy to everyone else. But it resembles less the colossus of Rhodes than the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It loses all its wars, its armed services are warped by feminism and led by bureaucrats, and it is being ripped apart internally by its elites’ efforts to force an alien ideology, cultural Marxism, on its resentful people. Again, what does a radical re-direction look like?
Nor is it just in matters of government that we see unjustified consensus on future directions. Every car company in the world is betting its future on electrics. But where is all that electricity to come from, especially as the same people who crusade against internal combustion engines oppose every means of generating power? Wall Street rewards companies that focus on short-term cost-cutting, but how robust are the world-wide supply chains that requires? (We just saw a mini-God’s Fifth Column there.) The prices of almost every class of asset, except the one that has stood the test of time, gold, are reaching for the heavens, but do bubbles expand forever? And what happens when this one bursts, in a country now held together only by a false prosperity?
As an historian, I think Gerhardie’s theory is spot-on. Just at the point where everyone knows where events are going, they don’t. We’ve seen it over and over. But why does it happen?
There are several explanations, less for the effect itself than for the unjustified consensus that precedes it, and makes change seem radical and shocking. First and foremost is that people love prediction. Prediction, in turn, is almost always linear because otherwise it has no basis. It becomes just a hunch or a guess. To dress it up in respectable clothes and have it play Eliza Doolittle, it has to speak with an accustomed voice, which is to say it must predict more of the same.
Second is the fact that ideas, like everything else, are swayed by fashion. Fashion, in turn, reflects a consensus, and those who break: from the consensus are taking a risk. That risk can bring damage to careers, incomes, and social life: look at the fates of those who have been “canceled” for opposing the fashionable ideology.
A third factor is the immense costs sunk in business as usual. Radical change makes massive investments useless or counterproductive. There is no better example than the vast sums spent before World War I and again between the wars on battleships. Except for one indecisive battle between the British and German fleets, Jutland in 1916, everybody’s dreadnoughts spent that war swinging ’round the anchor chain, and the Second World War at sea was decided by aircraft and submarines. The money spent on battleships would have brought better results had it all been used to buy diplomats more champagne.
Unlike in 1914, the advent of God’s Fifth Column in our time may not be bad news for conservatives. The “inevitable” future anticipated by the elites is a hellish combination of an absurd ideology, cultural Marxism (currently disguised as “wokeness”) with Brave New World. As Lance Morrow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal,
The struggle to which Americans, of whatever race, should be paying attention is the one that has to do with freedom. It has to do with privacy, mind control, individual liberties—with totalitarian systems of surveillance and manipulation perfecting themselves in an alliance of big tech, big government, global corporations and artificial intelligence. Wokeness … fronts for the real problem of the 21st century: a sinister autocracy just around the corner.
What’s really around the corner is God’s Fifth Column, and it will knock both “wokeness” and Brave New World out of the park.
William S. Lind is the author, with Lt. Col. Gregory A. Thiele, of the 4th Generation Warfare Handbook. Lind’s most recent book is Retroculture: Taking America Back.