Notes & Comments June 2001
Culture contra ideology
On George Walden’s essay on “New Labor” in the May 11 TLS.
In The Revolt of the Masses (1922), Ortega y Gasset, describing the “triumph of hyperdemocracy,” observed that
a characteristic of our times is the predominance, even in groups traditionally selective, of the mass and the vulgar. Thus, in intellectual life, which of its essence requires and presupposes qualification, one can note the progressive triumph of the pseudo-intellectual.… The characteristic of the hour is that the commonplace mind, knowing itself to be commonplace, has the assurance to proclaim the rights of the commonplace and to impose them wherever it will.… The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who is not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.
As Ortega notes, “hyperdemocracy” has no specific ideological allegiance. It is a function of neither the Left nor the Right, though it can appear as a standard-bearer for either. Its chief characteristic is the assumption of “unlimited rights” and simultaneous repudiation of the obligations that rights entail. The result is not a conflict between moralities but a crisis within the core of moral life. “The mass man,” Ortega concludes, “is simply without morality, which is always, in essence, a sentiment of submission to something, a consciousness of service and obligation.”
We were reminded of Ortega’s melancholy reflections recently when reading George Walden’s essay on “New Labour” in the May 11 issue of The Times Literary Supplement. A Conservative MP from the early 1980s until 1997, Mr. Walden is highly critical of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia.” But he writes less as a defeated politician than a disillusioned one. His essay, essentially a digest of his book The New Elites: Making a Career in the Masses (Allen Lane, 2000), is every bit as hostile to the Tory establishment as it is to Labour. Mr. Walden has two main targets. One is populist ideology or “ultra democracy” (what Ortega called “hyperdemocracy”). The other is what he describes in The New Elites as “our antiquated up/down, Left/Right thinking.” About the latter, his chief message is “A pox on both your houses.”
We do not share Mr. Walden’s confidence that “the Left-Right game is over.” It seems to us, for example, that there are substantial differences between Tony Blair and William Hague, just as there were between Al Gore and George W. Bush. We have been hearing “the end of ideology” proclaimed for decades; somehow, though, differences of manners, morals, and sensibility—to say nothing of differences of policy—contrive to keep ideology alive. The U.S. presidential election last fall was so hotly contested because the candidates’ supporters understood that the outcome mattered. America led by Al Gore would not be the same as America led by George W. Bush. If the differences between the parties should not be exaggerated, neither should they be forgotten.
Perhaps what we have seen is not the end but the maturation of ideology, in the course of which Left and Right have learned to poach freely on each other’s successes. Some observers noted that Bill Clinton triumphed partly by appropriating Republican programs and policies. Something similar can be said of Tony Blair. He has succeeded partly by betraying Labour as traditionally understood and partly by adopting measures first advocated by the Tories. And yet Margaret Thatcher was right when she observed recently that Blair’s triumph in the general election this month would be a “socialist victory.” (Blair, she suggested, had “socialism… in his bloodstream.”) Whatever else one could say about it, a victory by William Hague would not be a triumph for socialism.
Part of Mr. Walden’s message concerns the obsolescence of politics. “The penalty of political progress,” he writes, “is indifference to politics, and rational apathy is hard to discourage.” But can one really speak of a “rational” apathy here? There is a reason that Tocqueville concluded Democracy in America with a warning that “general apathy,” the attititude that democracy was most likely to nurture, was also the attitude it had most to fear. This is because apathy breeds complacency, inviting despotism. There is a sense in which Mr. Walden is right that “if politics matter less, within reason it matters less who is in charge.” But everything turns on the meaning of the phrase “within reason.” The authors of The Federalist Papers were right that men cannot be counted on to be “angels” and that a good government is one that makes provision for mediocre leaders. But they also assumed that citizens, whatever their absorption in private matters, would remain interested in matters that affected their freedom. The perfection of bureaucracy tends to breed indifference. But that is a tendency to be resisted, not welcomed.
We register these caveats not because we wish to take issue with Mr. Walden but to put into context our enthusiasm for his astute comments about the effects of populist “ultra democracy” on culture. It has been in the realm of culture, Mr. Walden observes in his essay, that New Labour has done its “greatest damage.” As is the case in America, the damage wrought by populism has consisted partly in a lowering of standards, partly in a blurring of distinctions, both carried out with the arrogant elitism of the anti-elite. “Access,” Mr. Walden writes,
has come to mean lowering intellectual as well as other barriers, and, as cultural condescension has become offical policy, pissing on the masses—smilingly, as if dispensing champagne—is now standard practice among persons of authority in the arts.…
Under New Labour, a kind of intellectual soft porn has come to permeate the ether, which makes it possible for a BBC arts correspondent to declare… that a photo-montage in a department store by Sam Taylor-Wood bears comparison with the works of the Renaissance because Renaissance patrons, too, commissioned large works for public places.
As Mr. Walden notes in The New Elites, to the extent that “anti-elitism is a euphemism for resentment of excellence, everyone will lose.”x
It is an insidious process that Mr. Walden describes. The natural defense against the progress of euphemism—hypocrisy is a less attractive word for it—is the arrogant double-think of irony: a “set, ironic rictus,” Mr. Walden notes, is the telltale mask of our times. And with such irony comes a kind of dissembling quietism. “Never has it been more tempting or rewarding to shut up, relax and go with a tide that few seem anxious to resist and that there seems not the remotest prospect of redirecting.”
It is of course a temptation we ought to resist. But to resist it we must also resist the blandishments of liberal piety, the seductive rhetoric that assures us that tolerance trumps honesty and that no standard or value is more precious than equality. Here, too, we see the insidiousness of euphemism, the refusal of reality that corrupts good intentions unanchored by an attachment to truth. “What began as a tolerant, liberal stance towards society and its prevailing culture,” Mr. Walden notes, “can turn out to be something very different. Look closer and you will discover… that cynicism is being passed off as tolerance and that the liberality disguises a neo-patrician insouciance.”
The picture Mr. Walden paints is a grim one. It is grimmer in his article for the TLS than in his book, partly because in The New Elites he gestures toward alternatives to the degradation he anatomizes. As is often the case, the truest signs of hope begin in expressions of dissatisfaction. Looking over the wreckage that has been visited on schools, television, newspapers, and morality, Mr. Walden writes at the end of his book that we find not only ironic indifference but also, and increasingly, exasperation: “Surely we can do better than this?” That exasperation should be nurtured, for it points to the beginning of an alternative to the established culture of euphemism and populist egalitarianism. It shows itself in seemingly small things, casual acts of independence:
The new counter-culture includes publishers who do their best to publish books on account of their worth rather than their likely sales;… critics who say precisely what they think about the latest must-read novel or, even braver, decline to read it; dons with no smarmily populist agenda; juries who give prizes to difficult as opposed to infantilizing works; radio or TV personnel who persist in their ambitions to produce worthwhile programmes;… journalists who… manage to knock royalty, sex and scandal off the front pages.
Of course, Britain’s New Labour has had no monopoly on tawdriness. Already in the early 1920s, Ortega saw that the rise of mass culture would crush “beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified, and select.” What is new, or newish, is the celebration of trash by those elements of society that had once been entrusted with the task of preserving culture. This phenomenon, which began in the 1960s on the intellectual fringe, has now become political big business. It is this phenomenon that Mr. Walden sees with such acerbic clarity. It has earned his contempt, his ridicule, his disgust. At times, we fear, it has led him to embrace the very irony he elsewhere cautions against. But in the end his message is militant in the best possible sense.
The populism he decries exerts a suffocating pressure that is felt throughout every area of life. The antidote, if there is an antidote, lies in the counter-pressure of genuine culture. Citing a report issued by the Collège de France, Mr. Walden suggests that “one of the main functions of culture is that of a means of defence against all forms of pressure—ideological, political, religious.” No defense is perfect. And in the realm of culture, a defense is effective only to the extent that it is acknowledged as necessary. The rictus of indifference issues soothing blandishments. But as Mr. Walden notes, “in an age when the abuse of power endured by the common man comes from his loudest champions, he will need all the means of defense he can get.”
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 2, on page 1
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