Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nihilism, Narcissism, and Death: Culture and Class in the 2012 Election

Paul Adams

As the data and commentary flood in, some preliminary thoughts.

The most interesting analysis I have read so far is by Joel Kotkin , who describes the dominance of a New Clerisy, much along the lines predicted by Daniel Bell in 1976. Even though the financial giants backed Romney - a switch from 2008 when no-one did more to back Obama than Goldman-Sachs - Obama

held his own in the cash race by assembling a new, competing coalition of wealthy backers, from the “new hierarchies of technical elites” that Daniel Bell predicted in 1976 in The Coming Of Post-Industrial Society. For that group, Bell wrote, nature and human nature ceased to be central, as “fewer now handle artifacts or things” so that “reality is primarily the social world”—which, he warned, “gives rise to a new Utopianism” that mistakenly treats human nature as something that can be engineered and corrected by instruction from their enlightened betters. This approach, although often grounded in good intention, can easily morph into a technocratic authoritarianism.

Along with Hollywood, Obama’s big donors have come from the tech sector, government, and the academy—with his top five made up of the University of California, Microsoft, Google, the U.S. government, and Harvard. Tech heavyweights such as Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg have given maximum donations to the president, as have Eric Schmidt and four other top executives at Google.

These idea wielders make fortunes not through tangible goods but instead by manipulating and packaging information, and so are generally not interested in the mundane economy of carbon-based energy, large-scale agriculture, housing, and manufacturing. They can afford to be green and progressive, since they rarely deal with physical infrastructure (particularly within America) or unions or the challenges of training lower-skilled workers.

There is a growing synergy between science, academia, and these information elites. Environmental policies pushed by the scientific community not only increase specialists’ influence and funding, but also the emergent regulatory regime expands opportunities for academicians, technocrats, and professional activists. It also provides golden opportunities for corporate rent seeking, particularly among those Silicon Valley figures involved in a host of heavily subsidized “green” ventures, most famously Solyndra.

Those dependent on government benefits - half of us - have an incentive to vote for the party most likely to increase them, no matter the debt loaded on to the shoulders of our children and grandchildren (a deficit amounting to more in the last four years, in real terms, than in all of World War II) or the effects on economic growth and dynamism, small business, unemployment rates.  There is a contradiction (to use the Marxist term) between what economic exigencies require and what voters will support politically - a crisis of state legitimacy or ungovernability most evident in Greece but also a general crisis of European social democracy.  As Romney said, “If you want free stuff, vote for the other guy.” And half of us did.

But the dependence on the government is by no means limited to those receiving benefits like Social Security, Medicare, or various forms of public assistance or welfare. As Kotkin puts it,

As government has grown even while the economy staggers, the direct and indirect beneficiaries of that growth have hitched their carts to the administration. Many professors have been protected by tenure, even at hard-hit public institutions. Foundation and NGO heads, financed by philanthropy—much of it from often left-leaning Trustifarian inheritors—have remained comfortably secure, as have their good workers. And Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke’s money policies have funneled cash from return-starved investors into the coffers of tech and social-media companies.

Kotkin’s discussion of this new Clerisy, the term first defined by Coleridge in the 1830s, is compelling.  It points to the priestly function of the elite, which he compares to the First Estate in pre-revolutionary France, “serving as the key organs of enforced conformity, distilling truth for the masses, seeking to regulate speech and indoctrinate youth. Most of Obama’s group serves, as Bell predicted, a “priestly function” for large portions of the population.”

This modern elite, “like any successful priestly class, embrace shared dogmas: strongly secular views on social issues, fervent environmentalism, an embrace of the anti-suburban “smart growth” agenda, and the ideal of racial redress, of which Obama remains perhaps the most evident symbol.”

Obama’s Clerisy, like the “unscrupulous optimists” described by Scruton, or the “unconstrained visionaries” of Sowell, is profoundly anti-democratic and authoritarian. They use populism against energy executives and rich businessmen, while lionizing their own. “Steve Jobs, by any definition a ruthless businessman, nevertheless was celebrated at Occupy Wall Street as a cultural icon worthy of veneration.” As Kotkin says, despite the Clerisy’s selective use of populist rhetoric,

many of its leading lights, such as former Obama budget adviser Peter Orszag, appear openly hostile to democracy, seeing themselves as a modern-day version of the Calvinist “elect.” They believe that power should rest not with the will of the common man or that of the plutocrats but with credentialed “experts,” whether operating in Washington, Brussels, or the United Nations.

And this power will continue to be imposed more and more intrusively in every sphere of life, from sexuality to food consumption to college admissions, housing types, composition of corporate boards, and more.

After the vote, Brendan O’Neill of the Daily Telegraph added this comment to his summary of Kotkin’s analysis:

Yesterday’s result was certainly a historic one, because it represented the further consolidation of this New Clerisy and its orthodoxies. That Obama’s influential supporters in the media fail to recognise the increasingly cut-off nature of the Obama camp is not surprising – members of an elite never believe that they are members of an elite.

But the vote was also a triumph of the culture of nihilism, narcissism, and death. It is the first time, I believe, that a major party has appealed so blatantly to the narcissism of young adults, and especially single women, as if uncommitted sex, backed by government subsidy and employer mandate of contraception and abortion, were a good for women.  Or as if the state-enforced redefinition of marriage, already disintegrating (at enormous cost in terms of inequality, poverty, and the lives and prospects of children) among the poor and increasingly the middle class too, were compatible with, indeed required by a just society.  

As the 2006 report on "The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Adult Rights and Children’s Needs" already pointed out, “The two-person mother-father model of parenthood is being changed to meet adults’ rights to children rather than children’s needs to know and be raised, whenever possible, by their mother and father.”

Trends driving the revolution in parenthood include high rates of divorce and single-parent childbearing, the growing use of egg and sperm donors, support for same-sex marriage, increasing interest in group marriage arrangements, and proposals to allow children conceived with the use of sperm and egg donors to have three legal parents.

The new elite enthusiastically endorses and financially supports these developments.  They reflect the technocratic desire to detach humans from nature, to subordinate everything, including the needs of children, to the autonomy of the individual adult, however much she may be at war with her own body for much of her life.

One of the most important yet consistently ignored demographic variables in this and recent elections is family structure. The policies and politicians that won this election are also electoral beneficiaries of the breakdown of marriage and family.  Those living in intact families with married parents (husband and wife), like the religiously observant, are much more likely to vote Republican in this historic situation.  No wonder both God and democracy had such a hard time at this year’s Democratic national convention.

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