Reset Part One: The rise of the moral elite

by | 30 Jan 2023

How a new academic theory transformed all of western politics, how an exploitative elite grabbed the chance to rebrand itself and how the whole thing led to all-out war.

Very few people are happy with the politics that we have. Few wouldn’t like it to be different than it is. Disillusion with democracy is high. Everything seems nasty all the time. This is is often explained as a result of the polarisation of political opinion between right and left, one that is seen as unbridgeable.

But is that really a sufficient explanation? There has always been a sharp polarisation between left and right thinking and it has seldom really been bridged. And the division, anger and nastiness we are currently seeing is ecumenical – liberals fighting liberals, left fighting left, right fighting right. Some of the greatest hostility is between people who share a broad political outlook.

So what is going on? How did we get here and, perhaps most importantly, how do we get back out of this again? Given that the start of 2023 (certainly in Scotland) seems more angry and divided than ever, this will be a three-part series giving my perspective on the genesis of this problem and my suggestions for what we do about it.

To begin with, how did we get here? To understand that it might be worth briefly familiarising yourself with a new philosophical theory recently espoused by a Professor at Cambridge University. You can summarise that theory quite easily. It goes as follows:

People define themselves through their decisions. It is the process of making decisions that enables us to find out who we really are. To deprive someone of the full agency to make those decisions entirely on their own without influence is to deprive them of their right to become who they are. Therefore if you offer advice to your friends or family you are acting immorally by removing their agency.

In other words if you think a friend is developing a problematic relationship with alcohol or has entered a toxic relationship and you say so in any form you are removing from the other person their right to make those mistakes and in so doing uncover their true self.

At first glance this seems nuts. Second glance too. We make our decisions based on information and the opinions of our loved ones is surely a useful piece of information? Surely it does not remove someone’s agency to offer them an opinion they are free to reject. Is NHS 24 immoral for removing people’s agency to discover their own cures? What if your friend asks you whether they should drink bleach? Let them find out for themselves?

This thesis is so detached from our normal understanding of how society (and a relationship) works that it seems odd it exists. But it isn’t – sadly it is a logical conclusion of where intellectual pursuit in the social sciences has been going.

Rather than looking at the underlying structures of power, these theorists begin to analyse the way that power shapes and is shaped by individual identity

The seeds of the change are sown in the 1960s as the progressives and social reformers started to deify individual liberty as the fundamental unit of a new, better, fairer world. ‘Be yourself’ as a revolutionary act in and of itself became a dominant idea.

This initially influenced culture more than it did politics or the social sciences, but then the post-war political settlement starts to unravel in the 1970s. By the time we get to the 1980s the idea of individuality has taken on an all-encompassing new importance. Collectivism is out of fashion; individualism conquers everything as the revolution grinds to a halt and the shopping begins.

(Of course, the irony is that this was happening during a major structural attacks on a large section of the population which was only partially able to defend itself through collective not individualist actions, but this is a swansong for collectivism for a decade or two.)

It is at this point that we reach the crucial moment – this accelerating trend of analysing society mainly from the individualist perspective is codified into an intellectual theory known as poststructuralism.

Without dwelling too long on social theory, the dominant model of understanding society from the Marx/Freud intellectual revolution onwards was structural. Society had big mainly (but not exclusively) economic and political structures which defined most human experience.

The arrival of the poststructuralists (Foucault, Lacan, Derrida) in the late 1970s and 1980s began to shift this focus. Rather than looking at the underlying structures of power, these theorists begin to analyse the way that power shapes and is shaped by individual identity. Rather than working out what made the elite the elite they instead focus on how the elite defend their position through language and control.

This means that rather than trying to show who has wealth and how they got it (for example), sociology in particular turns to an obsession with who controls what things mean and how they use that power to control society.

This was my primary focus when I was at university and I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to understand how power exerts control through language. But there is a condition – this is the study of how power works, not why power exists as it does. If you give up on examining the underlying structures of the economy, no amount of linguistic analysis will properly explain poverty.

But during the 1990s that is exactly what the social sciences do; they give up on structuralism altogether (not least in the pointless detour into that most useless of intellectual cul de sacs, postmodernism) and everything becomes obsessed by the ways we interact with each other, the language we use, the subtle sign-systems which are everywhere in our lives.

This has massive consequences. Where before you understood social oppression largely in terms of who has economic and political power and how they use it (structuralism), now you understand it as an accumulation of individual social actions (poststructuralism). Society becomes an atomised system of individual behaviours.

Which in turn means that we are now viewing the world through the lens of who you are and how others behave towards you. In combination with hypercapitalism and the ‘shop because you’re worth it’ shift, who you are (your identity) becomes the fundamental building block of how you’re meant to see the world.

This leads a major shift from class politics to identity politics, from equality to diversity (where inequality is basically fine so long as the elite contains a fair representation of race, gender and sexuality), from negotiation to the concept of ‘validity’.

The overwhelming impact has been to whitewash power and inequality and legitimise a neoliberal economic order by draping it in the language of individualised morality

Validity is a concept I find it impossible to see as anything other than the retrofitting of a justifying theory to what is little more than solipsism. This argues that whatever you think or feel, it is ‘valid’. Even if what you think is measurable, factually wrong, your feeling of it is ‘valid’, the experience of your thoughts and feelings is real for you. So if someone challenges your feelings, those feelings are being ‘invalidated’. Your truth has been devalued; you have been oppressed.

This opens up vistas of unrestrained relativism. You can define a kind of bespoke morality which has, fundamentally, inviolably, you at its centre. (Though please note that, what do you know, your ability to impose that bespoke morality on others is of course directly related to your economic power, almost as if economic power was still the real defining feature.)

And of course this new poststructuralist model of society is incredibly attractive to elites. If structural economic injustice is now secondary to individual moral action and you are in a position to define morality, you’re in an unassailable position.

The professor of sociology who used to have to acknowledge that their generous salary made them part of the problem could now keep their economic power and redefine themselves as the heroes by adjusting their individual actions. Corporations and financial elites absolutely love this stuff – the second they learned that activists would stop asking tricky questions about their use of sweatshop labour so long as they ran a special promotion for Pride Week they were all in.

Centrist politicians adore this shift too – put a statement of pronouns on their email footer and they can privatise the hell out of the public realm and yet still be progressives. And generations of activist students who used to have to reconcile their privileged economic position with their professed ethical position, well, didn’t have to bother any more.

In the next article I will make clear that there are important positives which have come out of the greater awareness of the social implications of language and sign systems, but the overwhelming impact has been to whitewash power and inequality and legitimise a neoliberal economic order by draping it in the language of individualised morality.

And from that point onwards, from the point that the elite rebrand themselves as the good guys through a tortured philosophical process which is in itself elite and exclusive, we are on an inescapable path to the nonsensical theories of a Cambridge professor who thinks the only moral world is one where we exist entirely isolated from each other in bubbles of our own making.

From there, perpetual and total conflict is inevitable.

The full series: Part Two | Part Three


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