06 September 2017
Equality of powerlessness
Here's an insight culled from an otherwise typically vacuous David Brooks column: "I had assumed that as society got more equal we would all share a measure of equal dignity. But it turns out that without an obvious social hierarchy we all get to feel equally powerless." He's commenting on the rage and fear felt by nearly every distinct group of people in the country, but the comment begs some questions, most obviously: how much does our sense of having a secure place in society depend on the existence of a "hierarchy," either in the broadest sense of a structure or the more familiar sense of a class or caste system? Brooks seems to describe a historic development similar to what Pankraj Mishra presents in Age of Anger, in which the spread of liberal capitalism worldwide leaves people uncertain of their place in society, or of whether they have a place at all. That, apparently, is the price of freedom as understood by capitalist culture. To be free to make your own place, all bridges must be burnt behind you. You either make your own place, or you have none. Until recently, it was relatively easy for any American to make a place for himself, or even herself, thanks to American economic dominance. As the playing field levels out and economic rivals compete at a lower level than most of us can accept, a sense of insecurity spreads nationwide, even among supposedly privileged classes. That feeling is exacerbated by the apparent collapse of any code of mutual respect as everyone plays the ever-popular game of musical deck-chairs on the damaged ocean liner, othering and anathematizing each other. Growing numbers of otherwise conventionally conservative people are horrified by their belated discovery that the freedom touted as their birthright and their guarantee of success has evolved into an unrelenting requirement of constant adaptation fueled by the competitive imperative to economize through imposed obsolescence. Many of these newly-horrified masses may lash out at lower-echelon scapegoats, but don't mistake their hostility toward their nearest competitors for an enduring failure to recognize the competitive order for what it is. For some, the only way to protest the competitive order is to go after the weakest or least-welcome competitors, on the assumption that their presence only perpetuates an oppressive system, or proves its oppressive nature. The simple hope here is that there'll be places for everyone after those who don't really belong are cast out. But while populism, for want of a better term, seeks to secure places for all its constituents -- the people here and now -- capitalism continues to be driven by an opposite imperative to reduce the number of places in order to increase profit and "productivity." As a populist politician, President Trump seems to be trying to transcend his own capitalist instincts, to judge by his desire to create jobs at all costs, with whatever consequences to the environment or other factors. His core constituents most likely are people who are sick and tired of having constantly to adapt to myriads of forces, cultural as well as economic, with decreasingly realistic hope of achieving security. Eventually they're simply not going to be able to blame everything on people who are "different" in some way or other, but if there's to be a real solution to the dilemmas of our time, it probably won't come any faster by preaching at people to stop blaming each other. Whoever offers a solution to the larger problem first, without all the moral exhortation, may well see hostile groups joining forces with them, whether they really like each other or not, against the real common oppressor. What comes after that will depend on whether any or all of us can learn to think differently about the pavlovian buzzwords that trigger us -- "freedom" most of all.