[The sixth in a series on inclusiveness.]
A common leftist claim is that established social and moral principles serve the interests of the ruling classes. The claim isn’t applied to principles of which the left approves. In particular, it’s not applied to inclusiveness. That’s unfortunate, because it’s obvious that inclusiveness serves governing elites by eliminating competitors and justifying an elaborate system of irresponsible control by those at the top.
In particular, inclusiveness makes money, bureaucracy, certified expertise, and therapy the sole permissible principles of social order, while treating other more traditional and natural principles as ignorant, irrational, and hateful. The rhetoric is familiar. Religious authority is bigoted and oppressive. Family authority is narrow, sexist, agist, heterosexist, ethnocentric, and intertwined with patriarchal religion. And authority based on history and tradition is exclusionary and racist.
If you speak of Southern history blacks don’t like it, American Western history is offensive to Mexicans and Indians, and New England history excludes new immigrants from Somalia. The only history that remains valid is the history that led to the way things are now. You can appeal to Western history and standards, if you want, but only if you identify “the West” with the advanced liberal order and its victory over all competition.
Rule by professionals
Inclusiveness demands an enormous grant of power to a governing class composed of experts, verbalizers, and administrators and answerable to nobody. On the design side, the favored group includes legal experts, social scientists, and other theoreticians, and on the implementation side lawyers, jurists, educators, business leaders, journalists, media people, and civil servants.
That governing class draws much of its power from its absolute confidence in its own rightness. They don’t see the position contemporary liberalism gives them as a matter of political or personal advantage but as a requirement of rationality itself. After all, to be professional is to be expert, and so by definition to know better.
Their dominance is considered legitimate and nonoppressive because they’re professionals who run things in accordance with neutral standards not beholden to any particular ethnic, cultural, or religious tradition. Their strategic role in social institutions and complementary functions give them common interests and a common outlook, and their control of education and communication enables them to impose that outlook as unquestionable orthodoxy and define traditional forms of social organization as evil and those who favor them as bigots. Freedom, justice, and reason give them the right to rule, and suppressing alternative authorities and principles is a simple matter of suppressing oppressive irrationalities. No one can disagree, since they’re the experts and it’s expertise that defines what counts as truth.
Are our rulers liberal? Do they believe in inclusiveness? One might as well ask if Louis XIV was a monarchist. To give up their ideal of a rationalized and managed global order based solely on the categories and qualities that make sense to professional managers, our governing classes would have to abandon not just their class interests but their understanding of what is right, rational, and just.
They would also have to give up their understanding of who they are as human beings. A professor in a prestige university or partner in a Wall Street law firm isn’t special because he’s American or white or Episcopalian or a New Yorker or a man rather than woman. He’s special because he’s a top professional who can look down on all those things and on people who think they matter. It’s the ability to transcend such concerns that makes him what he is and gives him the right to run things.
The principle of rule by professionals naturally leads to institutions like the EU in which the professionals get together and run everything, leaving ordinary people out of the loop except to provide a facade of democratic legitimacy and perhaps an occasional reality check. Representative institutions remain, but at the national level their hands are tied by treaties and directives, while at the international level there is no minimally coherent people to hold them to account.
General conditions of public life facilitate the transfer of power to self-perpetuating elites. Political issues are too complicated and there is too much spin and maneuvering for the people to keep up with events. The ordinary concerns of life demand attention, and there are too many diversions. The people have been deprived of a literal or figurative common language, and all the machinery of publicity tells them they should trust the experts.
From the standpoint of those who run the show that’s how things should be. Professionals should manage and they should be answerable to each other rather than to the ignorant, self-interested, and bigoted many. Not only ruling class self-interest but peace, prosperity, justice, and rationality require the whole world to be remade on the same lines as the EU. Or so it’s thought.
Inherited and traditional institutions interfere with that goal, so they have to be done away with. Feminism, gay rights, mass immigration, affirmative action, and so on are useful means to that end, as are transnational bureaucracies and the abolition of trade barriers and other national distinctions. Professionalism knows no borders, and it extends to all aspects of human life, so why not unify the world in its image?
Nobody who matters sees anything but good in the eradication of nonliberal forms of authority. The institutions now dominant are competitive meritocracies, and those who get to the top get there by giving themselves wholly to the ways of thought that inspire their employers. Their education, their social setting and identity, the conditions of their working lives, and their absorption in career and consumption allow little scope or basis for critical thought.
Any objection to the indefinite extension of the liberal regime is excluded as advocacy of oppression. It’s a kind of hate speech, since at least implicitly it favors freedom to discriminate. That is why “tea partiers,” who offend by their inchoate opposition to big government, are racist know-nothings who are legitimate objects for paranoid fantasy and obscene sexual abuse by reputable news organizations.
The result is that the position of the powers that be is put beyond criticism. The only people who object are ignorant losers who can’t put forward acceptable arguments backed by expert studies in support of their prejudices. The more of them there are, the more important it is to keep them cowed and silenced, and to re-educate their children.
That situation is consistent with democracy as now understood. The destruction of nonliberal authorities and forms of order enables the regime to maintain itself with minimal use of overt force and thus promotes the appearance of democratic legitimacy. Since the people have the theoretical power to cut off affirmative action and mass third-world immigration but do nothing effective about it, our rulers feel entitled to infer consent.
The people, of course, are in no position to exercise the power they have theoretically. Without an independent structure of authority they can’t organize themselves effectively, and if they act on sudden impulse the regime can give them something symbolic and then outwait them, while refining the system of propaganda and taking other steps to avoid repetition.
In any event, democracy extends only to those who accept basic democratic principles such as tolerance and equality. Views of the non-inclusive—who include most actual people—don’t count. The bigot is the new faggot—the man defined by his attachment to a way of life that’s at odds with basic principles of social organization. Who cares what he thinks or wants? If the democratic process gives him something that matters, it’s the job of courts and adminstrators to take it away from him.
Antidiscrimination laws tell us that no particular culture can be authoritative, since that would discriminate against those with a different cultural background. The logical effect is the abolition of culture as such: what can’t be public and authoritative isn’t culture but private habit and taste.
Nonetheless, no human group can function without common habits and understandings that its members are entitled to rely on. Like anything else, multicultural society must insist on its own particularities to exist at all. It thus has its culture, one that trumps and suppresses the particular inherited cultures it claims to respect.
The culture of a multicultural society follows the lead of its dominant institutions and so makes bureaucratic and commercial institutions uniquely authoritative. Scientism becomes the theory of publicly-valid knowledge, careerism and consumerism the guide for living, and management and therapy the standard for human relations. All other standards and arrangements are purely private and lacking in authority.
Such principles don’t deal with all aspects of human life. They result in a culture that seems satisfactory mostly to those who identify with the governing classes, who expect to gain by the established order, who have experienced little and suffered few reverses, and whose main concerns and connections relate to career, consumption, and the diversions of the moment.
Multicultural culture is therefore youth culture. Since it treats career and consumption as the human good, and suppresses the habits, attitudes, and institutions that order and give dignity to the lives of ordinary people dealing with normal human problems, it is most satisfactory to yuppies—to those who hope to have impressive careers and expect their knowledge and perceptiveness to give them an advantage as competitive consumers.
Power feeds power, and self-confident power attracts support. Young people who are trying to establish themselves, and therefore pay attention to the direction things are going, are especially likely to attach themselves to power that believes in itself. Inclusiveness has great attractions for such people. It makes the upwardly bound independent of their families and local communities. It enables them to identify with what is recognized as strongest, freest, most active, and most universal. It declares that they’re winners who can take on anything. How can they possibly reject it?
Perhaps because of the implicit class orientation of advanced liberal social and moral understandings, profound differences have lately appeared between social classes in such indicia of well-being as marital stability and economic productivity. The educated upper class keep their lives in order for the sake of their careers and those of their children, while the lower classes, who are allowed no culture that corresponds to their conditions of life, become radically disordered. (For an indication of what that can mean, read Theodore Dalrymple.) Inclusiveness may or may not make the rich richer, but it assuredly makes the poor poorer by depriving them of goods money can’t buy.
Even for yuppies, multicultural culture in the end leaves out too many departments of human experience. Life eventually brings conflicts, slights, and defeats, and the “me” generation has no way to deal with them. An indication of the results among intelligent, well-schooled, and generally successful yuppies can be gathered from websites like Gawker and Wonkette, which provide a window to a world that recognizes no higher standard than lust, greed, envy, ambition, resentment, and hatred.
Many of the deficiencies of multicultural culture come out in connection with understandings of personal identity. Inclusiveness tells us that characteristics that define identity have no legitimate public role. If my specific identity—as a man, member of a particular people, or whatever—affects my position in the world, then I am treated unequally because of who I am, contrary to inclusiveness.
To say that what I am should have no effect on my social position, however, is to say that I should have no essential connection to the social order of which I am part, and so to estrange me from that order. The progress of inclusiveness is therefore the progress of alienation.
The resulting situation has political effects: a man becomes one thing and society quite another, with no intrinsic connection between the two. Under such circumstances, normal grounds for loyalty disappear and the individual’s relation to the political order is likely to become a matter of pure self-interest.
Since man is social, depriving identity of a public role cripples it even in private life. To make all identities equal is to keep them from making a difference. They do nothing to define our place in the world so they don’t identify us in any significant way. They’re hardly identities at all.
Liberal modernity is supposedly based on self-creation, but multicultural man can’t create anything, least of all himself. The loss of standards and connections means loss of character, so he can’t even identify anything very firmly. Everything dissolves in a haze of interchangeable possibilities. People become weak, conformist, trivial-minded, and easily manipulated. The sovereign individual turns out less sovereign than expected.
That situation can’t last. We need to know who we are so we can place ourselves and understand how to act. Since we are social beings, we identify ourselves by our social position. Suppressing traditional identities by insisting that they be interchangeable brings in new forms of identity that are allowed to make distinctions and so are able to function.
What forms of identity, though? A progressive might say that man is autonomous so he can invent his own, but it isn’t clear what that would mean. If I invent my identity, who is the “I” who invents it? Also, how does an identity I invent for myself become my identity? How does it identify me? If I decide I am Napoleon does that make me Napoleon? If so, what does “Napoleon” mean?
Self-invention has its questionable side in any event. Fluidity of identity mostly benefits those adept at varying their self-presentation for their own purposes and getting others to accept the result—in other words, the manipulative and delusional. In a free-floating postmodern world the con man and psychopath accordingly become major social types.
Luckily, few people can simply make up who they are, so most identities will not be invented. As always, they will have to do with one’s relationship to the social order and the goods it recognizes. For that reason, career and consumption are at the heart of multicultural identity. I shop, therefore I am. I am who I am because I went to this college, work in that job, and live this lifestyle. Instead of the Catholic husband and father we get the politically-correct careerist and consumer, instead of white men we get “stuff white people like.”
The new forms of identity inevitably correspond to new hierarchies of consideration and forms of exclusion, so it isn’t clear what has been gained in getting rid of the old. Also, the new identities have certain disadvantages. They tend to be content-free and purely comparative, so what one gains from his identity others lose. They are external and easily lost, and for that reason make people insecure, subservient, and devious. And they deaden the imagination because they relate to an absolutely quotidian world.
Who needs them? People try to escape such a pointless system by rebelling against it. The rebel without a cause therefore becomes a major social type, although not one whose life goes anywhere or ends well. In the end people turn against themselves, and deface their bodies as a way of establishing who they are: piercing, tattooing, anorexia.
Something more is needed—something that ties the man and his life to some principle that transcends particular needs and desires and makes them part of something larger and open-ended.
One answer to that problem is support for the liberal order itself. To give your support to the official views and have correct attitudes on political, social, and moral issues is to identify yourself with the highest standards socially recognized and so give your life a significance beyond itself. Liberal social views have therefore become part of the yuppy identity.
Problems remain, however. The liberal order is irretrievably prosaic and boring. It turns everything into a consumption good or productive resource and so effaces distinction and individuality. Its ideals are unsustaining. It has no room for the soul.
A makeshift remedy, but the best available within the liberal order, is provided by “coolness.” It seems trivial, but people take it much more seriously than they admit.
Coolness started with jazz musicians, and still has something of the spirit of the night, of escape from everyday reality, of unconditioned freedom, of improvisation without a goal. it’s the liberal equivalent of the divine grace that bloweth where it listeth and none can define.
It has something in common with sanctity. The cool are in the world but not of it. They possess a certain disengagement, so that they are independent of their surroundings and not easily flustered or excited. They’re not conventional, and recognize immediately whatever they’re presented with. That gives them a sort of perfect pitch in matters of perception, expression, and practical decision.
Of course, coolness is also very different from sanctity. Sanctity is about eternity, coolness about today. It has religious aspirations, but its hedonism and individualism means it goes nowhere. The lives of the saints have enduring interest because they point to something beyond themselves, the lives of the hipsters don’t.
Its lack of substantive content allows coolness a place in the spiritual world of liberalism, but is otherwise a radical defect. It makes it a matter of style: that’s why a clumsy attempt to be a saint is admirable, while a clumsy attempt to be cool is ridiculous. It also means it’s unable to maintain standards. Miles Davis is dead, hipsters have gone mass-market, and grade-school children now have as much right to be cool as anyone.
At bottom, coolness is as silly as people think. It’s notoriously unsustaining. Those who live by it either crash and burn, fall into gross hypocrisy (“sell out”), or grow out of it. Within the liberal order, though, growing out of it means growing out of the only thing, other than sex, drugs, celebrity, or lots and lots of money, that redeems life from quotidian dullness. It means turning into a boring, conventional, older person, just like Mom and Dad.
The basic problem, then, with cultural responses to liberalism is that in the end none of them work. The problems it creates go too deep for us to live with them in the long run.