Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
— Auden, The Fall of Rome
This period we’re living through may be an epochal moment. One of the things that may make it epochal is that it’s a period when it’s now impossible how to tell what’s epochal or not. Donald Trump’s victory in the US may well be joined by the victory of Marine Le Pen as president of France in 2017. If that occurs, then Europe has effectively fallen. If Geert Wilders also wins in the Netherlands, then liberal social democracy in northern Europe could successively fall to nativist social democracy (as it has partially in Denmark and Finland).
But what is most damning is that even if this doesn’t happen, if Le Pen falls short, it is not because of any triumph by liberalism or social democracy, but simply because we have managed to round up enough people to defend what truly is, against the mixture of genuine, illusory and noxious promises offered by the right. There is no contest between two great programs to transform society. Progressives are now the conservatives, defending the gains they’ve made since the 1960s.
Quite possibly, even if Le Pen were to get in, she, Trump and others would come to grief very quickly. Large parts of their program are illusory. They promise economic revival, through archaic re-industrialisation, in Western economies that are on the cusp of mass automation. They promise an easy re-establishment of borders, in a world where everyone watches the Kardashians on their smartphones and can hop a plane, a bus, a train to get out of whatever hellhole/backwater they’re in. And so on.
But even if they fail, they will be able to make the same boast as short-lived democratic socialist regimes: we changed things. The possibility, the probability I think, is that the global rise of the nationalist right represents not a permutation of left-right struggles but the ruling off of the liberal era, and the beginning of a period of explicit class struggle between the progressive class (i.e. the knowledge class) and the wider group outside of it, and excluded from it. Rights-based progressivism and universalism is “natural” to the progressive class (which is why I’m using the term for the knowledge class); it is their defining ideology. More local, communal and parochial forms of connection, loyalty and ethics are embedded in the life of the rest, because they are actively excluded from the power and accumulation that global interconnection, and being embedded within it, provides.
The progressive class have, until recently, been winning a lot of battles. So much so that, as your correspondent noted, the neoconservative right, the three-decades formation of free-market economics and conservative traditional values, was on the ropes. Universalist progressive values were spreading into wider areas of the population. Attitudes to sexuality were one example. Right up to the 1980s, a hefty slice of the non-knowledge class was opposed to the legalisation, much less cultural equalisation of homosexuality; it remained a crime in New South Wales until ludicrously late, thanks to the obdurance of the NSW Labor Right (“you don’t put the petrol where the oil goes” remarked Johnno Johnson, NSW Right consigliere, and noted sexologist, of male homosexuality; his views on Sapphism are not recorded, thank God). The collapse of such attitudes, and the flow-on all the way to strong support for same-sex marriage, showed the spread of universal values, and humanist equality.
But at the same time, as your correspondent noted, it was wrong to assume this was the spread of the total commitment to universalism; the strong support for regimes such as mandatory detention demonstrate that case (and it is further illustrated by David Marr’s write-up of Australian social attitudes in The Guardian). For people from the progressive class, borders, communities and close loyalty are superseded by the abstract morality of rights. For people outside that class, it’s the reverse. The latter position allows such people to be indifferent to great cruelty to refugees; the former position allows progressive class people to be indifferent to real experience of people who feel that their life-worlds are disappearing. Much of this of course was due to economic globalisation, and the left opposed its worst aspects. But because an economic internationalism was buried deep in the left (as a half-remembered Marxism), genuine notions of place, localisation, borders, protection, etc were not advanced — and the centre-left abandoned them altogether.
My presumption was that the power of the progressive class in the West would continue to expand, as the economy became more information- and automation-driven, and that their values would dominate; and that the numbers and anger of the excluded would rise until there was a confrontation. I did not expect, as few did, that a pushback from the excluded would happen so forcefully, so soon, or that it would serve as a release of energy for so many people as it has.
What did one miss, in not seeing that coming? In my case — I’ll keep this brief — it was a lack of full faith in my own politics, which have for decades been drawn to the idea that any politics on the left must draw from the idea that humans are constituted by a specific and materially instantiated nature, and that it is only from the needs arising from that nature that a politics of human realisation can spring. It seemed to me that the idea that everyone should have a right to a life that included friendship, connection, love, meaningful work/activity, etc, all implied certain biases: towards fixed, though reciprocal communities, moral bias towards close others as the necessary content of love, and so on.
But that sort of idea, which had dwelt within socialism for more than a century, was, among the progressive class, coming apart by the 1980s. Universal human rights liberalism was being fused with social constructionism, the idea that there was no complex and specific human nature. These ideas arose, to a degree, from the way in which new media reshaped the world for a specific group, but they were presented as simple and defined truth. With the rise of global “free” trade in the ’90s, and the coming of the digital era, the progressive class became not a group external to the economy, but at the centre of economic and state power. They ceased to advance their values through argument and petitioning, but through embedding them in cultural and institutional power. Since such values aren’t “true” or even internally coherent, they have now met with massive resistance — and since there was no communal, grounded politics of the left on offer, much of it has taken the form of the right. Since the genuine moral claims of oppressed races, genders and groups have been advanced with an identity politics that often seeks to negate the cultural being of those outside of it, much of the pushback has been conducted in the language and form of that identity politics.
Some of this pushback is here to stay, I think. The spurious politics of free trade, the shell game whereby the aggregate advantage of a nation from free trade is held to extend to everyone within that nation, I’m pretty sure that’s over. The idea that we shouldn’t be concerned with people in the next street to us, their employment, their conditions, their life-continuity, because, averaging over all our streets, people are doing better — that is such an abstract, lifeless, unreflective view of human existence that it will no longer fly on its own. The free trade era that began with the “new Right” of the 1980s could be seen as a continuation of communist internationalism, brought into being by the 1917 revolution, with reduced aims. If — if — that is a useful picture, then this moment is not an interruption, but the end of a century.
How much of the resistance to other stuff — to the widespread perception, often exaggerated, that social and cultural life is increasingly dominated by the progressive class dictating ways of acting, being and thinking — will persist remains to be seen. It depends partly on whether such moves will continue with the blithe self-assurance that such ideas are simply “correct” and must be enforced. If so, then things may get very nasty indeed. Many of the universal values that people have accepted and agreed to could be rolled back, since they would be so thoroughly identified with the antagonistic progressive class.
To a degree, I think that has started to occur. The progressive class certainly lacks the numbers to enforce its will, and is being hubristic about its power to dictate social policy and control institutions indefinitely. Take something like Safe Schools, back in the news. If you create a political-institutional structure in which an explicit value system/program can be pumped into every school in a state, don’t be surprised if the right later uses the structures you have established to promote a program called, say, “Traditional Values”, advocating tolerance, but defining heterosexuality as normal, and even preferred. What comeback would you then have to such a move? On what grounds could the legitimacy of its process be criticised? If one can admit that such forces can recapture such power, might it not be wise to advocate a more pluralist, socially grounded and reflexive process of change?
What we are transitioning to is a society that one could simplistically group in four parts: the old bourgeoisie, the progressive-knowledge class, the working-middle class, and the excluded. The latter will grow as automation proceeds, if there is no social policy that reconstructs the economic system to allow for such. Members of the middle two groups will always fear falling into the excluded, through bad luck, technical shifts, regional change, etc. One thing is certain: the progressive-knowledge class will never be able to impose its values on its own — but it can fool itself into thinking it can, by virtue of its control of communications, education, policy, etc. It will have to make alliances, and to do so, will have to situate and critique those values.
Whatever we might have thought might come, no one really saw this coming in this way. As well as the most immediate struggles for defence of people whose basic humanity will be attacked by the vengeful and authoritarian forces of the new era is the need to reflect on one’s politics and worldview on the presumption that a new epoch has dawned.
Even if it hasn’t.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.