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The Fourfold Attack on Democracy
Frustrating bargaining, bypassing voters, denigrating the citizenry, delegitimising what democracy has made
This is the thirty-first piece in Lorenzo Warby’s series of essays on the strange and disorienting times in which we live. Meanwhile, over at his place, has a thoughtful response to Lorenzo’s thirtieth essay.
This article can be adumbrated thusly: Progressive institutional capture undermines democracy and is inviting terrifying political reaction, even in liberal democracies.
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This trend is associated with various structural features. The level of evolutionary novelty we are living through is itself disorienting—our evolved adaptations are trying to navigate new circumstances. Like all evolved beings, we are not evolutionary fitness-maximisers but adaptation-executors.
We respond to shifting opportunities and constraints according to cultural framings presented to us or that evolve in response to those opportunities and constraints. Farming—and then commercialisation—seems to have selected for increased patience, for instance.1
The politics of the transformational future—plus its derivative social justice social-leverage-and-status strategy with prestige opinions and luxury beliefs—dominates the cultural commanding heights. So, one can look to said cultural commanding heights to help explain disenchantment with democracy. Remember, the decline in support for democracy is strongest among younger folk. This is the age-group most steeped in contemporary trends, and which has grown up with social media.
Precisely because social justice operates as social-leverage-and-status strategy, a fundamental assumption protecting its practitioners’ self-image is that nothing that goes wrong is ever their fault.
The trouble is never too much social justice. It is always not enough. The rhetorical advantage of social justice—based on an imagined future that can be as perfect as one wishes—is why it has proved to be such an excellent way of moralising status-and-social-leverage. The more emotional commitment to belief people have, the less reflective personal insight or willingness to deal with awkward evidence they show.
This explains the tendency to “double-down” when things go awry. The social-leverage-and-status strategy wins over awkward facts. Prestige opinions and luxury beliefs rest on required affirmations and not noticing, protected by the stigmatisation of wrongful noticing.
There are at least four ways the politics of the transformational future—and its derivative and enabling social bodyguard of prestige opinions and luxury beliefs—are undermining democracy:
1. Systematically undermining the ability of societies to talk to themselves.
2. Via the non-electoral politics of institutional capture: pushing transformative policies—that have never been voted for—through institutions, so they persist regardless of which party is in power.
3. Denigrating the citizenry, treating them either as human clay, catastrophically beholden to a flawed heritage—who must be moulded by their betters—or as deplorable, human dross resisting the transformative future, to be sidelined and silenced.
4. Focusing on patterns of structural oppression—of democratic societies as social prisons—through notions of constraint-as-oppression. This implicitly—and sometimes explicitly—delegitimises what democracy has made.
Destroying public dialogue
Media that sells itself through prestige opinions and luxury beliefs is committed to, coordinates, and reinforces patterns of required affirmations, not noticing, and stigmatising wrongful noticing. Anything that involves inconvenient noticing is going to be ignored, denigrated or otherwise sacrificed to the status-and-social-leverage strategy. This profoundly undermines societies’ capacity to talk to themselves.
How the lab-leak hypothesis was treated in mainstream media for months—either ignored, treated as racism, or as conspiracism—provides a template example. The “if you believe X you are a bigoted conspiracy theorist” stigmatisation of wrongful noticing is a hardy perennial in Pravda-model media. This media model is based on inculcating and selling belief-narcissism: “I am a cognitively and morally superior person because I believe X”.
It’s all the more effective as users of the social-leverage-and-status strategy often protect their sense of status by simply refusing to read or watch those who speak or write outside their prestige-opinion and luxury-beliefs ecosystem. Pravda-model media only informs people to the extent convenient for delimiting what is currently acceptable to affirm.
Meanwhile, anti-mainstream media often does its own version of supporting its target audience’s tribal beliefs with patterns of noticing and not-noticing. The result is intense media siloing into separate information bubbles, which undermines or destroys any sense of common citizenship.
This means a loss of contact with other people’s concerns, with what they believe, and why. The resulting siloing creates not so much dialogues of the deaf but a public media culture that barely resembles a public dialogue at all.
The creation of such persistent, self-protecting unawareness—particularly among the cultural elite—is fatal to democratic health, indeed to a resilient society, over the long run.
Attempts to suppress speech—to deliberately block feedback from people about their concerns—aggravate these effects and represent a direct attack on government by discussion. The Twitter files exposed one such suppression as a toxic “public-private partnership”. That is, corporatism2 coordinated with an updated and networked version, one using the organisational weapon of politicised social action.
As for the the second attack on democracy, policy shifts that occur—but which have never been voted on in any serious sense—are manifold. Mass migration—including its scale, content and direction—in the US, UK, and Western Europe is one example. The Transformation of language around sex and gender is another.
Related is the process of delegitimating our collective cultural and institutional heritage as structures of oppression, which includes ever-expanding controls over speech, including increased policing from licensing bodies. Then there’s the re-racialisation of discourse, education and policy—to the extent of adopting racist definitions of racism and systematically denigrating people by race—plus the use of affirmative action in countries outside the United States.
The cascading changes without democratic accountability or mandate—especially as they represent the views of a relatively (or very) narrow section of the citizenry—makes democracy increasingly pointless.
This is alienating or frustrating for ever larger chunks of the citizenry. This is made worse when they are unable to express what they feel, or fail to see their views reflected to any extent in public affairs.
This status-and-social-leverage strategy is inherently censorious. If belief X conveys moral and intellectual status then not-X must convey a lack. The more righteously urgent it is to believe X, the more illegitimate it becomes to believe not-X. Think, for instance, of being required to not notice increasing degradation of competence and capacity signals by increased appointment of diversity hires: people selected for their identity category rather than capacity or character.
From this investment in censoriousness comes the rise of cancel culture and call-out culture. One of the required not noticings is to not notice how extensive it has become:
Step one, denial: cancel culture is not happening, it’s a myth.
Step two, minimisation: cancel culture is happening, but not very much (and everyone does it to some degree).
Step three, endorsement: it is a good thing that folk who engage in hate speech be shunned and de-platformed so there are consequences for hate speech.
A demand to have feelings protected—“that’s hate speech/offensive/phobic”—makes censoriousness ever more pervasive.
If folk start being fearful—as well as alienated and frustrated—then we’re creating a dangerous situation. If conventional politics doesn’t work, people turn to unconventional politics.
Denigrating the citizenry
Prestige opinions and luxury beliefs are derived from a politics of the transformational future. The core ideas are hashed out—largely in academe—and then useful-to-practitioners versions of them seep into institutions, carried there by recent graduates.
Conversely, as part of the denigration of any national majority heritage, those from designated marginalised groups are, of course, extolled. This leads to what political scientist Eric Kaufmann calls asymmetric multiculturalism.
Such denigration of the wider citizenry—or even the concept of a tied-to-a-nation-citizenship—undermines democracy because it denigrates the legitimacy of “inconvenient” voting. As historian Timothy Snyder notes, the Hegelian vision of the proper future, the proper direction of history—by imprisoning human agency within chronology—undermines the legitimacy of electoral choices that fail to conform to history’s proper direction.3
This destroys the notion of professions as service to others. If you are a member of the moral and cognitive elite whose task it is to uplift the benighted masses, clearly it is ridiculous to see yourself as in their service, and still less in service to a common heritage.
It also legitimates other attacks on democracy. Clearly, such a citizenry needs to be blocked from “misinformation” or misinforming others. Clearly, institutions need to be directly moulded to support the correct politics and not diverted by the opinions of benighted citizens and their attachment to a morally flawed and inadequate heritage. Clearly, that there is so much oppression, that society is such a social prison, shows how inadequate citizens’ past choices were.
Delegitimising what democracy makes
The politics of the transformational future is committed to systematically denigrating the present so as to provide a maximum moral and cognitive sheen for belief in the imagined future. That means we can see how much more social justice is needed.
The effect is to denigrate all democracy has wrought. If years of democratic elections has left us with a society steeped in structures of oppression, what use are such elections? What use is democracy?
The 1619 Project of the New York Times—defining the contemporary US in terms of a slavery heritage that existed in less than a quarter of what is now the US, devaluing thereby the US Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the civil rights movement—represents a systematic rejection of what democracy has wrought. The iconoclasm that goes with it is symptomatic of wider contempt.
The historical mendacity of The 1619 Project is particularly contemptible. The US is a diverse and polarised country. Clawing away at the American Project directly attacks the most important cultural and institutional characteristics that prevent it from coming apart. However, systematic denigration of citizens and their heritage is endemic to the politics of the transformational future.
The 1619 Project was not merely members of the African-American vampire elite seeking to burnish their social leverage by delegitimising the US’s historical legacy. By embracing that process, the New York Times—as the urban cultural elite’s official house-newspaper, the newspaper you read to find out what is currently acceptable to say—was pushing the US towards fracture.
The politics of the transformational future is both polarising and anti-democratic. It takes the view that those who oppose the righteous future are human dross who must be swept aside. If one barrier to the transformative future is that deniers keep getting in the way, any processes that allow them to get in the way—freedom of speech, freedom of thought, effective voting—must also be swept away.
What’s fascism’s great mystery? That it’s always coming to the US but only ever turns up in Europe.
In the interwar period, the politics of the transformational future was dominated by revolutionary Marxism. The interwar period also saw authoritarian traditionalism (Horthy, Franco), the rise of Fascism (Mussolini) and of Nazism (Hitler). From where did such interwar politics come? For the most part, it emerged in response to—mostly Leninist and Stalinist—violent social-imperial politics of the transformational future.
There was a standard pattern to how politics of authoritarian reaction broke through to a mass base. Most commonly, the authoritarian right mobilised landowning peasantries abandoned by centre-left political parties. Landowning peasants were (rationally) threatened by the Marxist commitment to land confiscation. This threatened appropriation was made all the more real thanks to Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution coupled with attempted revolutions in Hungary and Bavaria.
The reactions to revolutionary violence were unconventional politics that—especially in the case of Fascism and Nazism—copied, adapted and improved on the models of political mobilisation that revolutionary Marxism developed. Fascism and Nazism took Lenin’s updating4 of the Jacobin model of politics—politics unlimited in scope and means—and adapted it for their own political projects.
For these extreme responses to gain mass support, there needs to be a lot of people who feel threatened, alienated, frustrated. Mass Fascism does not happen without mass Leninism. Mass Nazism does not happen without mass Stalinism. In Parliamentary states, anti-progressivist authoritarian or totalitarian politics can only prosper if conventional conservative politics is destabilised or otherwise discredited.
Where revolutionary Marxism was fringe politics (the Anglosphere, Scandinavia, the Low Countries), so were authoritarian nationalist and related movements. Where revolutionary Marxism was a middling part of politics (France), so was authoritarian nationalism and related movements. Where you had mass, violent, murderous, revolutionary parties and politics—then you had Horthy, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler.
The more threatening the social-imperial politics of the transformational future seems, the more pervasive its seizing state institutions for its purposes, the stronger the reaction it provokes.
Fables of innocent progressives
One of the problems with academic writing about Fascism, Nazism and similar is its fable of the innocent progressives. That is, it fails to notice that the strength of Fascism, Nazism and related movements was directly proportional to how large and threatening totalitarian progressivism was at the time.
This remains true both when totalitarian progressivism is prosecuted via openly revolutionary parties or through practising networked, non-electoral politics of institutional capture. The stronger such social-imperial politics—with their totalitarian rejection of legitimate dissent—the more conventional conservative politics are undermined.
When there is no good answer to the question what have you conserved…
When it becomes increasingly clear that voters are either bypassed or their votes are otherwise increasingly pointless…
When institutions are not serving a general public they regard with contempt…
Then the response to no-enemies-on-the-left becomes no-enemies-on-the-right.
Currently, academic and mainstream liberal-progressives are too cowardly—or too smugly self-righteous—to get rid of the ideologies of tyrannical mass murder on their side of politics and keep them out of the academy. They refuse to block the no-dissent-permitted totalitarians. They accept that it’s intellectually respectable to claim that the Holocaust is authentically Nazi but not that the Holodomor, Year Zero, and all the other terror famines and ideological mass murders are authentically Marxist.
If this leads to the non-electoral politics of institutional capture, it becomes ever harder to maintain exclusions on the right.
The fable of innocent progressives explains why post-Marxist autocratic regimes so often evolve into some form of fascism. People trained in Marxism make excellent fascists.
Both Marxism and fascism valorise and demonise collectivities, generating intense us-and-them politics. Class struggle easily becomes race, nation, or civilisational struggle.
Both ideologies celebrate righteous violence. Both advocate the elimination of human dross. Both imprison human agency within chronology: whether a glorified-past or a transformational-future chronology.
Ukraine has tiny far-right movements because it has tiny far-left movements. Why does Ukraine have a tiny far-left movements? Living memory of the Holodomor.
Ukraine has worked out something that much of Western academe has failed to notice: it is intellectually bankrupt nonsense to affirm that the Holocaust is authentically Nazi but that the Holodomor is not authentically Marxist.
Cycles of escalation
Interwar Europe suffered intense cycles of political escalation. A milder version of cyclical escalation—kicked off by the social-imperial politics of the transformational future—can be seen in the contemporary US.
Hillary Clinton, despite her strikingly high levels of unpopularity, represented the proper direction of history: the first woman President. When the second most unpopular major Party nominee in the postwar era lost in the Electoral College to the most unpopular major Party nominee, devotees of the proper direction of history had a collective breakdown. This included systematically denying the legitimacy of Donald Trump’s election and took in the propagation of all sorts of Russiagate fictions.
Come 2020, Donald Trump—a world-class social-media troll with the bully pulpit of the Presidency—denied legitimacy in his turn, attacking Joe Biden’s electoral win through his “stop the steal”. That the fictions of Russiagate and “mostly peaceful protests” had undermined the credibility of mainstream media gave him plenty of anger and alienation to work with.
Throughout 2020, folk watched mainstream media gloss over months of “mostly peaceful” violent and destructive BLM rioting. So, on January 6th, the Capitol rioters aimed for the seat of power—however pathetic their execution.
A cultural elite, committed to a whole structure of required affirmations, of not noticing, to the systematic denigration of those who notice wrongly, actively engages in, and provides impetus to, these spiralling cycles of escalating mutual incomprehension.
In former command-economies, we’ve seen new versions of what might reasonably be called fascism arise—but only where either the revolutionary Marxist Party remains in power (China) or networks born within the Party-State retain power (Serbia, Russia). These regimes mobilise the collectivity of nation to replace (or buttress) the collectivity of class: the Mussolini move.
In Parliamentary states, we’ve seen different electoral responses to networked forms of progressive social imperialism. Whence the rise of national populism, which I’ll explore in the next two essays.
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Some commentators equate corporatism with fascism. While it is true corporatism is the typical fascist economic system, to have fascism proper requires glorification of military struggle, violence, and social action, along with mass mobilisation. Despite both being military men, neither Admiral Horthy nor General Franco ran fascist regimes. Franco boasted (accurately) of presiding over the longest period of peace in Spanish history: a very un-fascist thing to do. He seems to have used the Blue Division to hedge his bets in World War II and send away/wear down/kill off inconvenient actual fascists. Donald Trump criticising the US as having fought “too many stupid wars”—and then having the most pacific US foreign policy in the postwar era—was also an un-fascist thing to do.
While eloquent on the tyrannising tendencies of Hegelian concepts of history’s proper direction, Prof. Snyder seems less able to notice implications arising from the EU’s version: ever greater union.