Defending the Status Quo
This morning I read in The Guardian a somewhat less than spirited and rousing defence of the status quo by a self-described “liberal conservative” named Ryan Shorthouse (“Don’t blame the elite — that’s the politics of nihilism and envy”). I wanted to highlight this particular piece because it illustrates in a nutshell the bewilderment and perplexity of the defenders of the status quo and elite rule in the face of the rising tide of populist “anti-establishmentarianism” whether of the left or the right.
The politics of crisis make for strange bed-fellows, and now even those who were once critical of the status quo and of power elites rally around a conservative figure like Angela Merkel as the last bastion of a besieged modernity and a bulwark of sanity against as rising sea of madness largely driven by the authoritarian right. All of this has happened in 2016. It was a very strange year, befitting Webster’s awarding of the “word of the year” to “surreal”.
Mr Shorthouse, like many others, is perplexed by the irrationalities, the contradictions, the paradoxes of anti-establishmentarianism driven, as he sees it, by the politics of “nihilism and envy” (otherwise referred to by the term “ressentiment“). It shares some of that with Goldin’s and Kutarna’s Age of Discovery, where simply tweaking or reforming the status quo to allow greater distribution of its benefits (and the benefits of globalisation) are seen as the key to the sustainability of the status quo.
The bewilderment Shorthouse and others sense is understandable. How is it that 86% of those polled in 40 “developed countries” generally express satisfaction and contentment with their lives and circumstances and yet at the same time express anti-establishment attitudes? Why do they vote for austerity policies and then repudiate those same austerity policies in a referendum? Of course, some of those same polls will probably show an uneasiness with, an anxiety about, and a fear of, the future. A Canadian communications company, Telus, used to advertise itself with the slogan “The Future is Friendly” and showed all kinds of cute and cuddly animals in playful poses. Telus no longer promotes that slogan, and some of those same playful and cuddly animals are now endangered species.
The same might be said for the neo-liberal slogan “a rising tide lifts all boats”, which assembled in one pithy slogan the old liberal utopian ideal of a “universal civilisation of commerce”. Of course, nobody believes that any longer, when it is now conceded that there are, in fact, big winners and big losers in the new world order, and that, as the notorious Citigroup Plutonomy Memos cynically put it: “a rising tide lifts all yachts”. And having been lied to in all these respects, including in terms of the existence of Iraq’s supposed “weapons of mass destruction”, it’s understandable that people feel that they have been lied to repeatedly by “the Establishment” and that a conspiratorial technocratic elite pulls their strings so that even when they tell the truth they are no longer believed.
None of that is addressed by Shorthouse, who apparently thinks that the nihilism and cynicism all lies with the disaffected and hoi polloi, who should rather be content with their lot, rather than with a technocratic elite and establishment he seems all-too anxious to defend against the rising tide of mud. That certainly doesn’t mean, however, that the disaffected are any more cognisant of truth than the elite they condemn for lying. Dualistic arguments are quite out of place here. Trump and his team are hardly the paragon of truth-telling. When it comes to nihilism and cynicism there’s a lot of it going around, and the idea of an innocent majority being manipulated by a cynical and technocratic elite minority and vanguard just doesn’t hold up to critical scrutiny. We know from phenomena like “cognitive dissonance” or “symbolic belief” that the conscious attitude is very often not — in fact very seldom is — concerned with the truth at all, but with other things. It’s in the very nature of “the Emissary”, inasmuch as it is a “usurper” in McGilchrist’s description of neurodynamics, to play false and be a false self (The Master and His Emissary).
And as we observe the events of the day, can there be any doubt that the ego-nature — this “Emissary” — has become fundamentally dishonest, duplicitous, deceitful, and dissociated? In many cases, a people’s explicit rationales for why they do or say this or that can’t be taken at face value, and especially during times of “chaotic transition” since it’s in the very nature of such “chaos” that the left hand seldom knows why the right hand is doing and vise versa, which is just another way of saying “dis-integrate”.
I’m not interested in destroying the status quo. I’m not particularly interested either in reforming, salvaging, or redeeming it either. I’m interested in the possibilities of its transformation, which is the potentiality in the chaotic transition that few are even talking about compared to the other “alternatives”. If there is to be a new “Renaissance”, as argued by Goldin and Kutarna, it will not be from reviving the “virtues” of the Old Renaissance (as Chris Kutarna proposed yesterday in a CBC interview on The Current), but because of a fundamental transformation (and, by the way, Chris is also featured in this month’s Australian edition of Vogue Magazine). This kind of secular revivalism — the resurrection of Vitruvian Man and the virtues of Vitruvian Man and the perspective consciousness of Vitruvian Man — just isn’t going to happen except, perhaps, as just another reactionary political project.
As mentioned here in The Chrysalis frequently, the decay of the original inspirations for Reformation and Renaissance into today’s fundamentalism and reductionism is the chief feature of the Modern Era’s exhaustion and its current malaise of nihilism and cynicism. Fundamentalism and reductionism are hardly “contraries”, even though they posture as such. This neither Mr Shorthouse, nor the authors of The Age of Discovery, nor other defenders of the status quo or the status quo ante for that matter, seem to understand. We are in a nose-dive in that sense, and whether we can pull out of that nose-dive and death spiral is the salient question of the day.
And there’s nothing like imminent death to sober the mind, which represents another problem in a culture also given to “the denial of death” (and this denial of death or magical attitudes toward death seem to be particularly associated with extreme right-wing and reactionary attitudes).
(In fact, this denial of death by extending life-expectancy through technology seems to be a very questionable key selling point of Goldin’s and Kutarna’s “New Renaissance”, but which, while feasible, would actually end up being very ghoulish for all sorts of reasons — the artificial prolongation of life would become indistinguishable from the artificial prolongation of death, and the living indistinguishable from the merely “undead”).
As I was writing this, the notice of an article appeared in my inbox from The Atlantic: “The Spiritual Crisis of the Modern Economy“. I think this gets right down to it — “the spiritual crisis” — that has been long in the making and which now is coming to a head. But, then, to say it is a “spiritual crisis” is just to say that it is a crisis of inspiration, and to ask from whence and where the transformative inspiration is to come that is not the phoney Bible-camp manias and frenzied revivalism of Trump and other demagogues of the authoritarian right. That’s not authentic inspiration. It’s just the arousal of enthusiasm.
And there’s as much difference between inspiration and enthusiasm as there is between the Whole and the mere Totality.