Friday, August 21, 2015

When the Narrative Stops

Many conservatives like to rail against "cultural Marxism," the product of the Frankfurt School that transformed Marxism from a class-warfare argument to a culture-warfare argument.

The Frankfurt School realized after World War I that the class-warfare argument had been proved wrong, for the working class was thriving instead of "immiserating." So they proposed changing the narrative to a culture-war argument -- that certain minorities, such as blacks, women, and gays, had been exploited and oppressed by the majority white culture.

In parallel with this argument the Frankfurters developed the whole political armory we call "political correctness" in which they made explicit what had been merely implicit. They developed a political culture that would consciously control the narrative, use Marcuse's notion of "repressive tolerance" to shut up your political opponents, and execute on Gramsci's "long march through the institutions." Every ruling class does this, but nobody had really thought about it rationally, instead of merely executing on it instinctively.

The point about the "Narrative" is that it works beautifully to control what politicians are allowed to say and not say. It executes on the teenage mean-girls line "I can't believe you said that!" Also called the Overton Window.

Now the trouble about enforcing the "narrative" and shaming people that speak thoughts outside the Overton Window is that it is all a lie. You are enforcing a particular world view and forbidding anyone to think or speak outside it.

There is a -ism for that. Totalitarianism.

There's an irony here. Conservatives rail against "relativism," meaning the idea that world-views come in different shapes and sizes, while liberals celebrate their open minds and their willingness to tolerate diverse views. But in fact in today's political and cultural climate it is liberals that want to forbid any speech that threatens their monolithic liberal absolutism, while conservatives want to expand the conversation beyond the simplistic totalitarian narrative that the educated ruling class knows best and we want to acknowledge our basic ignorance about what works best.

So for the last couple of decades we have been confined within what we might call a Beltway Narrative. Propose a tough America-first narrative on immigration and you are a bigot. Oppose abortion on demand and you are warring on women. Propose to reform entitlements and you are proposing to push granny off a cliff. Regulate home mortgages with sensible limits on borrowing and credit scores and you are redlining minorities out of "affordable housing."

But of course it has all been a lie, a lie enforced by the Cathedral: the cultural and political ruling class of the media, the academy, the entertainment world, and the activism culture. It is a lie that is all about maintaining the power of the present ruling class, the post-1848 generation. Here is Deirdre McCloskey expanding on our present ruling class in the front matter to her forthcoming Bourgeois Equality.
Yet after 1848 a virulent aversion to the bourgeoisie infected the mass of artists, journalists, professionals, bureaucrats, and intellectuals, the “clerisy” as it was called in 1818 by Coleridge. The Germans called it the Clerisei or later the Bildungsb├╝rgertum, the cultivated and reading as against the commercial and bettering bourgeoisie. In the eighteenth century the members of the clerisy such as Voltaire and Tom Paine had courageously advocated our liberties. But in the 1830s and 1840s a much enlarged clerisy, mostly the sons of bourgeois fathers, commenced sneering at the liberties the fathers exercised so vigorously in the market and the factory.
(Bildungsb├╝rgertum means "educated/cultured bourgeoisie." We would say "gentry liberal.")

The point about a "narrative" is that, as the Frankfurt School explained, it is an apology for power, the ruling class's power. And it works to protect the ruling class from attempts to dislodge it and delegitimize it. Until it doesn't.

I think, with the explosion of Donald Trump on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left, that the current narrative has broken down. Semi-political America, the people just below the Cathedral, have stopped buying the current narrative because it is there is just too much of a disconnect between the narrative and the reality that they experience in their lives.

Barack Obama is the living embodiment of this disconnect, and you can see it in the whole story of his rise, his election, and his governance.

The point about government, any government, is that it is founded on the "consent of the governed." Government works so long as the governed are willing to put up with it. People may not actually support the government, but they do "consent" to the government's rule.

A wise and worthy ruling class uses its control of the "narrative" to develop a genuine consent of the governed in which it persuades the governed to accept its version of reality and what to do about it. In other words, it does not try to pull the wool over anyone's eyes.

Barack Obama has not done this. He has not tried to build a consensus for his policies. He always does a cramdown, or paints his policy with false equivalences, or just flat-out lies. Then he takes out after his opponents as being almost unpatriotic.

Dr. Johnson famously proposed that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. Perhaps he meant that attacks on other peoples' patriotism is the lame resort of a tyrant that can't be bothered to cajole and persuade.

At any rate, I think that the political trench warfare of the last two decades is over, because the narrative that enforced the power of the Cathedral has broken down. The political armies are operating in open country, and that means that nobody knows how it will all turn out. We are no longer talking about frontal attacks and their wars of attrition, but flanking movements, double envelopments, and the Kesselschlacht.

Nobody knows how it will all turn out.

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