Cultural Stalinism and the attack on citizenship and social bargaining
The progressivist push against citizenship took another big leap forward with the British Labour Party decision committing the Party to giving the vote in general elections to all UK residents. As things reveal their nature (and importance) in their history, a quick trip through citizenship’s backstory helps to see what is going on.
Origins and decline
Citizenship originally dates back to the city-states of Ancient Greece. The basic idea was that if you took the risks and effort of fighting for your city, you got a say in the politics of your city-state, your polis. Political citizenship was therefore male, but legal and social citizenship extended to all members of citizen families.
Eventually, one citizenship-polity, Rome, managed to work out how to scale-up citizenship and, coupled with a very effective military system, conquered the entire Mediterranean littoral. Civil war then culminated in replacing the Republic with the Empire. The Republic itself being conquered from within by the march of Roman imperialism.
Roman Emperors did not need people to vote for them, and had a (relatively) small professional army, so the link between taking risks for your polity and getting a say steadily weakened. The offer of Roman citizenship could entice outsiders into serving in the legions, and cities were still largely self-governing. But the trend was against any strong notion of citizenship.
Eventually, citizenship was universalised in 212 by the Constitutio Antoniniana to all freeborn folk in the Empire. This is usually written up as a noble act, but it expressed what limited value citizenship had by then. The division between honestiores (respectables) and humiliores (lessers) had already developed, indicating how citizenship itself had lost status.
Rather predictably, even citizenship’s one remaining status claim within the Empire (a citizen was a free person) declined with the development of coloni, who became tied to their states, so a type of serf.
The revival of citizenship in medieval cities also had an implication of readiness to fight for your city, helping to create tough urban militias which were a feature of medieval and early modern Europe. The later, post-American and -French Revolutions, revival of citizenship also had some flavour of fighting for your country (hence the infamous Second Amendment).
But citizenship became more tied to being who the state was committed to defend and to serve. The term “to protect and to serve” invokes protecting and serving a community of citizens. The ultimate expression of citizenship became having the vote. But it had already been connected to all sorts of other freedoms. Indeed, it had those connections before the vote. One could easily be “a free born Briton” but not have the vote. (This applied especially to women, of course.)
As is so often the case, the UK had somewhat particular history, in this case with the notion of a British subject, but that became trumped by citizenship.
The structure of citizenship flowed from all of this. You got it from being born in the country, because that established you had lots of links and connections and so could be reasonably presumed to have strong attachments within the society that the state was supposed to be serving. You could become a citizen, but only by long enough residence that you could be reasonably presumed to have built up such attachments. Continued residence was a strong signal of commitment. You were committing to the society that the state was supposed to be serving. Some states insisted on unitary citizenship, others permitted dual attachment.
The history of the spread of the suffrage, of the right to vote, throughout Western societies is the history of the expansion of the ability to participate in political bargaining about the policy and laws of the state as the capstone of wider processes of social bargaining. That votes determined who held office at the peak of the state (apart from any monarch) made votes matter. Hence the importance of voting mechanisms and electoral systems. For these affect how much voter concerns have had to be paid attention to, that being what makes voting “real”. The legitimacy element involved in the practical and expressed consent of the people is a consequence of the power it gives to participate in social bargaining in this way, it is not a driver of the significance of voting.
After all, totalitarian states hold elections. But they are mere rituals of dominance, forcing mass participation in elections reduced to rituals of legitimacy. It is the ability to vote in and out people who make decisions that matter that gives the vote its power. Provided, that is, there is some genuine bargaining element involved, which requires that there be genuine alternatives, both offered in the public space and adhered to by serious competitors for office. In particular, that voters have the capacity to articulate their concerns, and have them heard.
This is why the old centre-left, back in the days when they overwhelmingly represented (and their candidates and activists often came from) people of low income, assets and education, were stalwarts of democracy. The vote was by far the most important social lever that their voters had. It is also why such voters now dominate (pdf) the increasing proportion of non-voters in societies with voluntary voting: an increasing, and largely accurate sense, that the political class is indifferent, or even hostile, to their concerns.
For things have changed profoundly for progressive politics. Modern progressivism has been mounting a multi-level attack on citizenship. This is because, as French economist Thomas Piketty has documented in his revelatory paper Brahmin Left v Merchant Right: Rising Inequality & the Changing Structure of Political Conflict (Evidence from France, Britain and the US, 1948–2017) (pdf), left-of-centre politics has become dominated by a human capital (i.e. educated) elite. And the way an educated elite turns its human capital into a position of social dominance is by controlling public language within the society; by setting the limits on who can express what, when and how, on whose concerns will be deemed legitimate or not. By controlling what is to be legitimate for any social bargaining to be about, thereby determining what social bargaining (if any) will be permitted. Eric Weinstein’s Four Quadrant model provides a useful heuristic.
In other words, social dominance is achieved by controlling the Overton window and by undermining any area of social bargaining it cannot dominate and control. Piketty’s using the term Brahmin Left is inspired because being secular Brahmins, the folk imposing rules and taboos, is an excellent description of what they are increasingly about. (How Left they are is another question, hence I will refer to them as Brahmin progressives.)
Any strong concept of citizenship gets in the way of this strategy of social dominance. Moreover, it does so comprehensively.
For instance, the notion “I am entitled to say that, I am a citizen” has to go. Hence the enthusiastic adoption of the Stalinist concept of hate speech. “Hate speech” is a conceptual and rhetorical device used by Brahmin progressives seeking to gain control over who can say what. Thus, the use of terms of reputational aggression (“racist”, “homophobe”, “misogynist”, “islamophobe”, “transphobe” etc) to police speech and destroy reputations. It sets up the mechanisms for dominating public discourse by controlling legitimacy. As does, of course, calling lots of people fascist or nazi.
The ostentatious and intense moralising Brahmin (i.e. diversity) progressives engage in is ideal for this strategy of social dominance. First, because morality is trumps; to say something is moral is to say it is what you should do. So, intense and ostentatious moralising mobilises that trumping value of morality for the strategy of social dominance. Second, because it hides from themselves and others what they are about. They are, of course, not trying to impose their own social dominance, they are just being moral, they are just doing the right thing. This is a classic example of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s point that morality blinds and binds.
It is important to understand the selection processes here. People seek to economise on information, minimise reputation risk and maximise status. A set of received opinions which denote being a good, even morally superior, person does all this. But it only works if the opinions being used as moralised markers of status generate moral prestige, and they only do that if disagreement is morally retrograde. Indeed, the more morally reprehensible disagreement is, the greater the moral prestige. Hence the “pile-ons”: people are protecting their investment in moral prestige.
Once these mechanisms are in play, then a structure to generate and enforce social dominance has evolved. One, moreover that both gains strength the more organisations and institutions it dominates and also fosters colonising said organisations and institutions. (Inconveniently principled believers get in the way, as they elevate some other consideration above the prestige-and-dominance game: see the current use of trans activism via the campaigns against biology-affirming feminists.)
The power and status implied in citizen-as-voter gets in the way of this sought social dominance. So the vote becomes hemmed in by judicial power, by an expanding administrative state, by supranational authorities. All increasingly run by people like them, according to their attitudes and serving their social dominance. The Brahmin progressives are, therefore, overwhelming pro-EU because it is such an excellent vehicle for all that. (The old working class Left was always much less keen, as is still true of their remnants.)
The vicious and continuing attacks on the 52% of voters participating in the UK’s 2016 referendum who voted Leave is all about Brahmin progressivism — what UK writer Ben Cobley called the system of diversity in his very useful book The Tribe: The Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity — seeking to re-establish their control over the public discourse and keep the UK tied to supranationalism, hemming in the power of voting and the status of citizenship. No revolts are allowed. Especially not revolts that celebrate and elevate citizenship.
Considering citizenship in terms of the history of its role and functions is the only way to understand the implications of undermining or eliminating it. That way, any trade-offs with various moral principles can be understood in context. If, however, one simply ignores the purpose, and consequent structure, of citizenship then those trade-off considerations are taken out of consideration, so any infringement of some declared moral principle becomes a simple infringement of morality or of consistency, and so illegitimate. It becomes easy to make “knock down” criticisms of citizenship (as is done, for example, here [pdf]).
But, of course, for Brahmin progressivism, it is precisely those purpose and functions which are the problems. Even more, that their moral lessers (those xenophobic, white, and thus race-tainted, heteronormative, insufficiently educated modern humiliores) become people who politics should be about and the state should be in service of. For, whatever else Brahmin progressivism, or diversity progressivism is, it is urgently concerned with elevating the status of the Brahmin progressives, with boosting their sense of moral prestige against, and their social dominance over, their fellow citizens. The sense of their fellow citizens as moral barbarians who will seek to overturn all moral progress if they are not constantly policed both elevates diversity progressives’ sense of moral importance and justifies their moralised social dominance. They have a powerful sense of FOOL (fear of other people’s liberty) which both feeds and justifies their moralised prestige and dominance plays.
The attempt to control the public space by controlling what is deemed legitimate to discuss, and how it is deemed legitimate to discuss it, brings us to that fraught term political correctness. In particular the two uses that essayist William Deresiewicz discusses in his essay, “On Political Correctness: Power, class, and the new campus religion”.
There is political correctness-as-verbal-civility:
the expectation of adherence to the norms of basic decency, like refraining from derogatory epithets.
This is the cover usage, the one that those who wish to dismiss any concern over political correctness invoke. What Deresiewicz is concerned with is:
the persistent attempt to suppress the expression of unwelcome beliefs and ideas.
The longstanding campaign to undermine any use of the term political correctness is all about hiding that attempt to suppress behind a fog of morality. Though, more recently, with the term free speech itself becoming an object of criticism, of diminution, held to be a block to progressivism, even treated with punitive derision, there is rather less hiding, and even more puffed up moralising.
Deresiewicz is well aware of, and invokes, the history of the term political correctness:
The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism — and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.
People suddenly finding they are catastrophically on the wrong side of a norm that they did not know existed, or did not know would be applied in that way, has become almost commonplace. The world of Young Adult fiction has recently provided several examples, but they are just instances of a much wider trend.
Brahmin, or diversity, progressivism, can be reasonably described as operating as cultural Stalinism. Not because it is inherently Marxist, though there are certainly some Marxist antecedents. Many key ideas in diversity progressivism were originally developed by Marxists who cared much more about their ideology, and the cognitive identity it underpinned, than the oh-so-disappointing working class, which had so badly and serially let them down.
Nevertheless, the term cultural Marxism is way over used, given that most folk involved are not Marxists, are not aware of how much of the ideas they are using or actively or passively endorsing have Marxist origins and that genuine Marxists are often quite hostile to contemporary diversity politics. Not surprising, as actual Marxists are Enlightenment universalists, and identity politics/diversity progressivism’s creation of a series of sanctified, versus various tainted or demonised, identities based on what are often innate characteristics involves a clear rejection of Enlightenment universalism. The term cultural Marxism also obscures the importance of, for example, Boasian anti-racist anthropology in developing key ideas in what became diversity progressivism.
The point is not that Stalinism was a manifestation of Marxism, but that it was a strategy of political action and dominance. In particular, it was the attempt to apply Leninthink to operating in liberal democratic societies. Consider the characteristics that Brahmin/diversity progressivism and Stalinism have in common.
(1) Endorsing and using the concept hate speech. As noted above, it is a Stalinist concept used to arrogate to Brahmin progressives the right to decide who can speak, how and about what.
(2) Use of the terms fascist and nazi as a standard term of rhetorical abuse. Fascism was an early C20th ideology characterised by expect rejection of democracy, belief in the purifying effect of violence, extolling of military virtues and organisation that sought to attain and impose complete national unity of purpose. With a few exceptions, such as the Golden Dawn in Greece, fascism is nothing but a reviled fringe in Western politics. Which is why movements that have fascist antecedents have had to work to shed them. (Even the Golden Dawn denies being fascist, though it fairly clearly is.)
The use of fascist and nazi as standardised terms of rhetorical abuse against people who simply are not fascists, or versions of fascists, shrieks of the ambition to control public discourse, to determine who is, and who is not, a legitimate participant in the public space. It is also a classic characteristic of Stalinism (for, of course, the same reason).
(3) Internationalist. The denigration of ethno-cultural identities, the contempt for nationalism, the sense of belonging to a transnational elite practising transnational politics, is bog-standard Brahmin/diversity progressivism, hence the use of the term globalist by opponents. Also a classic characteristic of Stalinism.
(4) Know, and are working with, the proper direction of history. An obvious feature of Brahmin/diversity progressivism; all that talk of where the arc of history bends and being on the right side of history and how their opponents are against modernity. Also a classic characteristic of Stalinism.
(5) Dogmatic. The Brahmin/diversity progressives are a highly opinion conformist group. The dogmas may keep shifting, but that Brahmin/diversity progressivism is dogmatic, at times viciously so, is an obvious feature of it. Also a classic characteristic of Stalinism, including there being precipitous shifts in dogma.
(6) Unlimited in social ambit. There is no part of one’s life that the strictures of Brahmin/diversity progressivism do not reach, because they want to impose their norms and taboos on all language everywhere. There is no such thing as exempt private speech or exempt social action. Again, a classic characteristic of Stalinism.
(7) Unlimited in action. Any level of destruction of people’s lives — sacking, destroying their business, career, livelihood — will be engaged in. Maximising reputational risk is a great way to enforce conformity.
The major existing limit at the moment is actual violence, except that Antifa is breaking down that limit. But, again, this is replicating Stalinism in the West, which also had limitations on its ability to use violence. Except that Brahmin/diversity progressivism has penetrated Western institutions far more thoroughly than Stalinism ever did, so can range much more widely in the destruction of people’s careers, reputations, public standing …
(8) The inconvenience of principled believers. Even the split with serious Marxists replicates Stalinism, because as Gary Saul Morson points out in his Leninthink essay, serious believers in Marxist ideology were targeted under Stalinism, as they might hold the leadership to account according to Marxist principles. Contemporary Marxists who think that concern for the working class is a bedrock of being on the Left are definitely not what is wanted within Brahmin progressivism. Sneering at, and lauding over, the citizen working class is so much of the point of Brahmin progressivism, whose politics reek of contempt for their fellow citizens. Which is epitomised by stripping of them of status of citizens, and giving them no status markers that sets them over migrants, over the romanticised newcomers, newcomers treated as economic saviours with lots of desirable traits (e.g. initiative) and no taint of the oh-so-awful Western past.
There a range of mechanisms for dropping the principled by the wayside. The concept of hate speech separates out principled believers in free speech. The adoption of identity politics, grading people on the basis of their group characteristics, even innate group characteristics, separates out Enlightenment universalists. There are a range of barriers that ensure that Brahmin progressivism selects only for those who put the shared prestige-and-dominance game first.
A salient example of this “true believers not wanted” phenomena is the anathematising of biology-affirming feminists such as Germaine Greer and various radical feminists (the infamous TERFs). The whole trans madness being Brahmin progressivism displaying its social dominance. It both selects for reliability (who breaks ranks?) and expresses dominance (how much can we force people to acquiesce in things they do not believe?).
There is so much overlap between Stalinism in the West and Brahmin/diversity progressivism (far more than there is between fascism and almost anyone currently being accused of it) that Brahmin/diversity progressives are clearly practising what can be reasonably described as cultural Stalinism.
Nor is this overlap surprising. Both Brahmin/diversity progressivism and Stalinism are about a human capital elite striving for social dominance in mass communications and mass politics societies. It is hardly surprising that the new wave of such would adopt the most apposite available strategy they can pick up. Even more so, as similar aims and constraints lead to similar selection pressures.
The convergences between Stalinism and Brahmin/diversity progressivism really are no accident. A process of both adoption of available strategies and of convergent evolution is in play.
Divide and dominate
The level of institutional penetration is such that we can reasonably talk of a diversity imperium, and any imperium knows the importance of divide-and-rule, of divided-and-dominate. Which brings us to multiculturalism. Or, as political scientist Eric Kaufman nicely expresses it, asymmetric multiculturalism, which elevates (and, indeed, romanticises) the cultures of newcomers while ignoring or denigrating the culture of the heritage citizens. Thus, a Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh or Hindu festival is “multicultural”. A Christian event is not. One cannot say that London is no longer an English city, because there is no English identity except living in England.
In his excellent The Road to Somewhere, David Goodhart makes the observation concerning multiculturalism that:
But by cordoning off minorities in their own districts with their own leaders and social centres and often making their progress dependent on white advocacy, white liberals were merely continuing the colonial heritage with a smiley face pasted on. (P.167)
The figure of the colonial administrator, presiding over, accepting representations from and giving favours to various different groups under his purview, has a lot in common with contemporary administration of multiculturalism and diversity. For a start it is an elite role; it oversees and directs its politics through group or tribal leaders, giving them access to higher power. It also stands apart, not interfering with the representatives’ relationships to their group members, thereby outsourcing power over what is good and bad within those groups and conferring political power on to the representatives it favours. As the first waves of mass immigration came in from former Empire countries, colonial-style multiculturalism effectively allowed Britain’s governing elites to pick up where they had left off in the Empire — slipping into old ways that were familiar to both administrators and many of the immigrants themselves. Goodhart says that ‘in the 1960s this translated easily into the cosmopolitan manners of a new liberal elite too — allegiance was now to tolerance and openness instead of the monarch, to England’s “genius” for multiculturalism.’ He adds: ‘The core members of this new elite, according to [the sociologist] Geoff Dench, were “policy-makers and the public servants responsible for carrying out social policy but it extends widely into the educational establishment and liberal professions… and their role is to stand impartially above and integrate different elements of the population.” This is what both imperial and multicultural elites do. (Loc 1087.)
Quite so. Imperial systems are naturally multicultural: it maximises the number of their subjects while dividing them from each other. One certainly can’t have some strong notion of citizenship bringing them together.
Importing people of a different cultural background to improve the local economy was a standard device of colonialism. Academics have had no trouble identifying it as a divide-and-rule technique. Except, of course, when it is people like them doing so to serve an imperial cause they support.
Resentment and condescension
It is not as if the general public, the general citizenry, have not noticed. When asked in polls, huge numbers define pc as a problem. Across all ages and races. Of course they do, attacking their ability to express themselves about matters social and political assaults the bedrock of their citizenship quite directly. That their concerns are being systematically downplayed or ignored clearly has a huge amount to do with, for example, Donald Trump’s electoral support.
Citizenship defends the status of the somewheres (those rooted in a sense of place and community) against the endless vote-trumping social imperialism of the Brahmin progressives, acting as the vanguard of the anywheres (those not so rooted). Citizenship, and its implications, gets in the way of the mobility and status claims of the anywheres.
And they are typically mightily offended by any notion of serving their moral lessers. In his The Road To Somewhere, David Goodhart cites some revealing conversations:
The first conversation took place at an Oxford college dinner in Spring 2011. When I said to my neighbour — Gus O’Donnell, then in his last few months as Cabinet Secretary, the most senior civil servant in the land — that I was writing a book about immigration, he replied, ‘When I was at the Treasury I argued for the most open door possible to immigration … I think it’s my job to maximise global welfare not national welfare.’ I was surprised to hear this from the head of such a national institution and asked the man sitting next to the civil servant, Mark Thompson — then Director-General of the BBC — whether he believed global welfare should be put before national welfare, if the two should conflict. He defended O’Donnell and said he too believed global welfare was paramount. (Pp14–15)
The global welfare they see themselves as serving being what looks like global welfare to people like them. Which, strangely, will tend to reflect the perspectives of people like them.
Global welfare is grand enough for such moral paragons, while serving their fellow British citizens is clearly not. Even better, taking such a lofty view also releases them from any constraints the concerns or actions of said citizens involve that they deem incompatible with said global welfare.
In their combination of moral arrogance and feckless irresponsibility, the above-quoted sentiments are perfect Brahmin progressivism. The globe does not give feedback, but the voters do. But that feedback can always be ignored in the name of the greater global good. They are both morally ennobled, and freed from burdensome responsibility, all at once.
Brahmin/diversity progressives just know the direction of history. They own morality. They collectively possess the power to punish any public dissent. Even what the migrants, those romanticised outsiders they are so solicitous of, might want does not matter. Just ask Israel Folau. So, there is “nothing to see here” when it comes to migrant attitudes and outlooks. Besides, those migrants can be expected to (mostly) vote the correct way.
The Brahmin/diversity progressives replacement for citizenship, for voting that matters, for the social bargaining that is the very stuff of democratic politics, is their own moral dominion; their right to decide what people are permitted to say and what concerns they are permitted to express and how. So, it does not matter how socially conservative the romanticised newcomers are or may be, the Brahmin diversity dominion, the diversity moral imperium, will control all.
No matter how many newcomers turn up. Even if one has created a massive extra incentive to just turn up: as if enough of you do, you get to dominate the political system. An effect that obviously depends on what level of filter there is for simply arriving: open borders says none at all, except the willingness and ability to travel.
As economist George Borjas says:
Our immigration policy — any immigration policy — is ultimately not just a statement about how much we care about immigrants, but how much we care about one particular group of natives over another.
Yes, and the statement is being made loud and clear.
Many of the harser critics of mass migration ask some version of the question “why are we importing so many barbarians?”. But that is to get the question the wrong way around. To Brahmin/diversity progressivism, their fellow citizens are the barbarians and the newcomers are the civilising solution.
Moreover, the more difficult issues any group of migrants raise, the better they select for giving priority to the shared prestige/dominance game of the Brahmin progressives. So mainstream Sunni Muslim migrants (who patently generate the most difficulties of any migrant group) become the most useful migrants precisely, both because they so reliably vote the “correct” way and because ignoring or excusing the difficulties that mainstream Sunni Muslim communities generate as they reach various “critical masses” becomes such an excellent selection process for diversity “soundness”. In Britain, for example, support for feminism among British women has reached single digits (9 per cent), but never suggesting that the so-called Asian grooming gangs might be Muslim gangs has become an excellent device for excluding principled feminists in favour of those committed to the diversity prestige-and-dominance game.
Devaluing their inferiors
It is entirely appropriate that the decision of the British Labour Party to hand out the right to vote as a reward for getting off the plane was matched by a commitment to open borders. Migration is a key element in the future direction of any society, and Brahmin progressivism has been fighting a long battle to remove migration from the ambit of social bargaining. An open and complete commitment to open borders (any opposition to which is, of course, “racist” and “xenophobic”) just cements that removal.
After all, our new Brahmins are far too morally lofty to be dictated to by mere shudras. Citizenship implies that politics is about serving their moral inferiors. Clearly, it has to go. And for it to go is clearly the plan. The British Labour Party conference has told us so.
Handing out the vote merely because you have arrived while putting no barriers to arrival does not represent the peak of democracy, it represents the trumping of it. It does not represent the apotheosis of broad social bargaining, but its effective elimination, its reduction to whatever minimal ritual form suits Brahmin/diversity progressives. The British Labour Party wants to bury citizenship, to empty it of status and content, and in so doing bury any chance of the citizen working class having a serious say in its future.
Whatever that is, it doesn’t look very Left. Not in any sense that Keir Hardie, the first Labour Leader, and all those who built the Labour movement would recognise.