The elites in the West, like the elites everywhere, since time immemorial, culturally constituted themselves as the non-plebes. “Who am I? I am a non-plebe. Who are my friends? My friends are the other non-plebes. That is what we have in common.”
This is necessary because elites, possessing vast social, geographical, and financial empires, and possessed of the proactively destructive nihilism that comes with owning everything yet finding meaning and immortality nowhere, are beset by too much individual specificity and bile to constitute themselves as a community in virtually any other way.
They’ll say this isn’t the case, but I knew them—well—and associated with them—deeply—for decades. Every little thing that rolls off the tongue or is planned into an event is a matter of distinguishing between the the “us” of the elite and the “them” of not-elite.
— § —
Independently, for the most part, enter the industrial revolution. And modernization. And then, modernity. And an unprecedented and ever-increasing level of reach and control, in the most abstract sense, for each individual endowed with the best resources (of every kind) of the times.
Those individuals so endowed, of course, being the elites.
And in true human fashion, they couldn’t resist the temptation to make use of this new ability to influence the world through technocommunicotransportautomatology in such a way as to try to remake it in the image of their own preferences, often inadvertently as a matter of deploying distinction.
Activisms and initiatives and committees and this and that and so on to “improve” things in such a way as to make the world generally safer for those of non-plebe preferences. Down with the fraternal lodges. Down with the rotary clubs. Down with the labor unions. Down with the nuclear family (not to mention the extended family). Down with even the corporate “family” and so on.
Ever more progress, ever more invention, ever more reach as a result.
— § —
Then, the final unforeseen change—the network.
For half a century the plebes found themselves less and less able to constitute identities or communities of their own. It was neither their wont nor their habitus to be intellectual about such things; for those who work and work hard and don’t expect too much of life or the world, it tends always to be a matter of intergenerational knowledge.
But now—for the plebes—”who am I?” becomes a tough question. “My father was a Boy Scout only now the Scouts aren’t an option. My father was an Elk only now the Elks aren’t an option. My father was a member of the local, but the local was dissolved. My mother was a leader in the rotary club, but the rotary club was dissolved. My mother was a homemaker but now family is frowned upon. My mother worked loyally for her company team forty years until retirement, but now I’ll switch jobs every two to five.
“Where does that leave me? Who can I be?”
Into the vacuum and to answer the question comes the network, and suddenly the elites are as visible to the plebes as the plebes always were to the elites, and two things become clear.
First, the elites define themselves as the not-plebes, in the most condescending ways, and tend to evidence a wide assortment of beliefs and cultural practices that are, though diverse, also common in their vanguardism, nontraditionalism, and general hedonism, all of which are generally regarded to be reprehensible outside elite circles and at the same time part and parcel, indeed the gritty cultural and material detail of this non-plebe identity.
Next, the one thing that the plebes still have—and can have—in common is that they are, conversely, not elites.
— § —
Government is downstream of politics is downstream of culture, and the cultural reality of the present is now that across the developed world, societies are split into two groups who constitute themselves on the basis, in each case, of not being members of the opposed group.
What is that?
Precursor to civil war and the redrawing of borders. Coming to a whole bunch of societies near you during the next generation or two.
Because you can’t put the genie back into the bottle again.
This is a consumer society—elites sought it, deployed it, and now it’s here. And Brexit, or Trump, or populism, or whatever else have you—these are not “ideas” that you can “debate people out of” in some way, or “roll back” or “fight against.”
They’re a product. A product by which people are constituting their identities and communities. And people can’t be “un-sold” on products that they love. That’s not a part of the cultural milieu into whose cognitive-colonial geography they were born.
Once someone has “bought into” a product and the identity that it is, they’re not just going to stop. You can’t “unsell” people on iPhones once people get a whiff of them. Your only option, instead, is to come up with something better—an iPhone plus, or in this case, a Trump plus or a populism plus—that delivers all of the benefits that they now embrace, not least of which is identity and community—plus something else that you’d like to give them.
— § —
Is there some “populism plus” that can be pushed out into the market that people will prefer, and that somehow walks us back from all of this?
Possibly. But I doubt it.
And in any case, the elites are busy talking in high-minded terms about rolling things back and winning arguments and the traditions of democracy stretching back two thousand years.
Not a single one of them, ironically (given their otherwise generally accepted expertise in marketing and sales at grand scale), is thinking of these things as products being consumed by hungry consumers who are constituting identities through them in opposition to non-buyers (e.g. the very same elites).
So if I was a betting man, I’d bet on the eventual collapse of the West.
(N.B. I love that I’m no longer an “academic” and can just say things like this without feeling bound by the need to turn any 900 word thought into a 400 page argument complete with 100 citations. The intellectual liberation that comes with leaving the academy is surprisingly robust.)