Something is happening. We have several things we can do. The first thing is to observe it. The second is to criticise it. The third is characterise it. A fourth is to suggest causes.
By ‘it’, of course, I mean what has been clear since the emergence of COVID-19, and how this has altered our sense of the changes of the last 10 years (since the rise of political correctness 2.0), the last 50 years (since the cultural liberalisation of the 1960s), or even the last 200 years (since the religious and political liberalisation of the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the British ‘National Apostasy’ associated with Catholic Emancipation, the Repeal of the Test Acts and the Reform Bill).
I see a lot of interesting suggestions, but no general statements, so offer this as an attempt to bring together as many lines of thought as possible.
- The decline of the church
Until the separation of church and state in the centuries after the Reformation every state was also a church. The decline of the church and the rise of the secular state had consequences:
• the loss of an anchor or aspiration or standard ‘not of this world’
• a shift from concerning ourselves with salvation to betterment in this world
• the emergence of a need to find a new anchoring belief system for the state
• a tendency to build such a belief system out of policies claiming to better the world.
Overall, we sought justification in terms of what could be achieved in this world.
- The rise of the cash nexus, trade and debt
In the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch, English and French experimented with remarkable new institutions of banks, bonds, stock exchanges and national debt. This had consequences:
• for the first time in history ‘growth’ could be achieved without conquest
• we increasingly came to see everything in the world as marketable
• there was much more commercial activity and travel (and, ironically, conquest)
• markets enabled remarkable corporate monopolies to emerge (monopolies which attempted to tie up those markets)
• debt enabled us to postpone responsibility, since our current activities could be funded by mortgaging the future.
- The rise of bureaucracy
States increasingly concerned with this world and with a more complicated commercial world to preside over, and exploit, turned to bureaucracies to manage the situation. For the first time in the West a class of bureaucrats emerged, loyal not to a lord or a locality but the state. They were to be funded out of the public purse: taxes but also debt. Debt enabled not only great standing armies to be maintained, but also standing teachers and standing doctors. This had consequences:
• a shift from the old view that government should maintain law and order to a new view that government should manage and even educate the state
• an increasing use of statistics
• the emergence of a language of bureaucratic imperatives which for the last two centuries has existed alongside the similarly novel language of commercial imperatives.
Now these two, or three, languages exist alongside each other, and have drowned out the old languages of state law and order, and church. The new three languages, which exist alongside each other, and infect each other, are the language of bureaucracy (of the state or public monopoly) the language of corporations (of wealthy lobbying private monopolies), and the language of markets (of freely active private individuals). Together these three languages provide most of our current political language.
- The rise of meritocracy
Education had for centuries been dominated by the church and state. Commerce had almost no effect on education. But bureaucratic imperatives led, in the nineteenth century, to the formation of new universities, and the adjustment of historic universities, which abandoned religious tests and developed academic subjects designed (at first indirectly; later directly, if spuriously) to serve the interests of the state. This had consequences:
• the emergence of a class educated in bureaucratic and corporate languages, as well as academic languages
• the emergence of a divide, evident only clearly with the expansion of the universities in the late 20th Century, between this educated class and the uneducated classes
• the demoralisation of the poor, who, without the church, had only their relative failure in commercial and corporate activity to give them a negative identity and otherwise had to build a positive identity out of the modern bread and circuses supplied by doles and media.
Populism is the politics of those excluded in the modern class divide.
- The rise of specialisation
Until a certain point in history everyone was a generalist, from the farmer to the Renaissance gentleman. But commercial imperatives – Smith’s division of labour – as well as bureaucratic and corporate imperatives encouraged everyone in an increasingly complicated society to specialise. This had consequences:
• as the educated class became less generally educated and more specially educated there was an undermining of the old secular ‘republic of letters’ which constituted our culture between 1700 and 1950
• the rise of a difficulty about making general and wise assessments of the political worth of any policy under consideration
• the increased likelihood that a policy would only seem attractive if it was sanctioned by specialists: and only if the specialists could associate their policy with some sort of crisis
• the increased likelihood that the shared opinions or values of our society would be fatuous, since they were side effects of a media circus trying to generate excitement in the new boring languages.
- The rise of political correctness
The decline of the church meant that the state, especially now with its phalanx of bureaucrats, required a belief system. Commercial, corporate and bureaucratic imperatives supplied the language: but could not supply anything more powerful. State ideologies appeared in dictatorships, but also in liberal societies. This had consequences:
• the state had to find a surrogate for religious belief
• this belief had to be confected out of educated opinion and the new public languages
• the belief had to be something sufficiently contorted that it would appeal to the educated class but appear to be beneficial to the uneducated class
• the result was ‘political correctness’, or a set of received values which could be used to distinguish those willing to swear allegiance to what were, in real terms, contradictory and self-defeating policies from those who wouldn’t or couldn’t.
The world of political correctness is a world in which the elite avow a ‘public’ belief which ostentatiously contradicts their ‘private’ interests: but enables them to flourish commercially, corporately or bureaucratically nonetheless. It offers nothing to the demoralised poor and uneducated.
- The rise of a corporate-commercial-bureaucratic monopoly in politics
Politicians are trained in corporations, can expect to work for them after retiring, and are lobbied by them when in office. This has consequences:
• it is very hard to use any sort of available political language against the ruling elites or, what is the same thing, the educated class
• we have a ruling culture which is extremely fragile and fickle, since solidarity and unanimity can only be achieved by following fashions of unreal and hypocritical avowals of extreme sentimental allegiance to certain policies, usually supported by specialists and justified by crisis or spurious emotional identification
• the ‘public’ culture which exists now has almost no reality: it is a confection out of whatever successes private interests have had in using the available political language to create a pseudo-ideology of rationalist solutions and policy deliverance.
- The emergence of a world of fractured crisis
Political correctness is partly a moral matter, where it is dominated by a concept of equality which has existed since the French Revolution; but it has also, in the last 50 years, become a matter of technology. Whereas before technology was positive, serving progress, now (in the prevailing ideology) it is associated with crisis, for better and worse. This has consequences:
• we are told that capitalist technological society has damaged the world by draining it of its resources leading to ‘climate crisis’ and ‘overpopulation’
• this justifies policies which damage the world, including the human world, far more than the problems they are designed to solve
• Covid-19 was a vivid instance of a crisis which was magnified by corporate and bureaucratic imperatives and the media circus until it dominated every other possible political concern and became the unlikely contender for the cause of the greatest solidarity ever seen by man.
- The demoralisation of the educated
The demoralisation of the educated classes by climate politics, pandemic protocols and political correctness has so far been justified by the solidarity it has achieved in the service of the interests of bureaucrats and corporations: but it has alienated the uneducated classes and is in the course of alienating the educated classes to the point where they will have no ability to make adequate sense of any problem of genuine political concern. This has consequences:
• the instincts of the educated classes will be to generate solidarity negatively by undermining the continuity of their own civilisation and the capacity of their own state to deal with genuine problems in a realistic manner
• a culture is emerging in which unity is only affirmed by admitting to historical transgressions and signalling virtue by admitting guilt
• we are coming to believe that there is nothing of the value in the past, there is only bread and circuses in the present, and there is only repayment of debt in the future
• education is increasingly becoming an education in limited specialisations, in which incentives serve specialisation and in which unity is only found in what is encouraged by bureaucratic-corporate state propaganda (since everything else is to be discouraged as misinformation, disinformation—or atavism—and censored)
• the educated classes will continue to turn to specialists for answers, to indulge in hypocritical or fatuous politics of display, and to do so in such a way that they destroy their societies while claiming to save them.
One consequence of this is that the bureaucracy, which has one task, to serve the state and hence society, cannot see what the state as a whole requires, and out of specialisation and hypocritical moralisation and frank opportunism comes to serve corporate interests.
- The end of identity
In an era in which nothing can be affirmed except whatever is required by the fashions of crisis, a premium is put on identity. The problem is that indeterminacy in our politics also threatens confidence in identity. Identities become political, some more admirable than others, and as much cultural appropriation and cultural disburdening takes place, so identity becomes malleable. This has consequences:
• no positivity is found in old identities associated with church and state (religious, imperial or national)
• everything must be globalised, abstracted and emptied out: especially our own civilisation
• women have been ‘emancipated’, and this has led to the overturning of the old sexual division of labour, causing much confusion of sexual activity and sexual identity (for both men and women): with the new political correctness positively valorising sexual confusion
• the freedom to do anything has developed into the freedom to be anything as long as there is the consent of others and the consent of the self
• we have become separated from nature, cushioned by technology and increasingly alienated even from our immediate selves
• we remain unformed and immature, confections of neurosis and narcissism.
All this is the consequence of living in a state which claims, fatuously and hypocritically, to do everything for us. Fatuous and hypocritical, because it is not true. But it is harder to say that it is not true: because our language has been corrupted by bureaucratic and corporate imperatives, creating noise and chaos like the final orchestral rising glissandos of Sgt. Pepper, above which we can increasingly only hear the dissonant siren falsettos of globalism, slave-morality and crisis.
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