04 April 2007

The cure for mediocracy is more mediocracy?

Outside the blogosphere, the intellectual world seems to divide roughly into two camps.

1. The "optimists"
Those who think everything in our hitech-massified-yoofy-cheapo-liberated world is lovely.

2. The handwringers

Those who see something rotten in our society. We're unhappy, we're bored, we're angry, we're overwhelmed, we're mentally ill. The cause? Why, capitalism, of course. What else could it be?

"Capitalism" is such an easy, handwaving target. You don't even need to define your terms. The ability to get wasted every night on the tiles? Capitalism. (Not the ceaseless promotion of dumbed down mass culture by the il-liberal elite.) The increasing dominance of large corporations? Capitalism. (Not the snowballing red tape strangling smaller businesses.) The pathologisation of everyday life? Capitalism, of course — via evil drug companies. (Not the monopoly power of medical guilds, buttressed by state-sponsored technocracy.)

The other easy target is "individualism". The myth that we live in an "individualistic" age is one of the few pieces of phoney nonsense that unites Left and Right. (I mean the genuine Right, not the current Conservatives who, on the face of it, are as Left as New Labour.) So both Richard Layard and Melanie Phillips*, for example, writing from apparently different vantage points, assert that too much stress has been placed on the "individual".

To repeat myself from an earlier post: “individualism” used to mean self-reliance and respect for the individual, now it is incorrectly used to refer to rudeness, and spending power for the masses. People being able to express themselves in terms of clothes and hairstyles, in a culture which regards it as "fun" to humiliate and degrade others, is not individualism. The "questioning" and "scrutiny" which is sometimes attributed to our supposedly oh-so-critical postmodern world is largely confined to things which are pro-individual, e.g. capitalism. A citizenship which accepts that nanny state interventions are (a) ethical, and (b) likely to work, can hardly be described as “critical”.

Want to become a media intellectual and get your articles in the broadsheets? Write a book blaming all our ills on capitalism/individualism. We have already had Oliver James's Affluenza — nicely fisked by Tim Worstall. Now it's the turn of Barbara Ehrenreich, jumping on the communitarian bandwagon started by Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone. Ehrenreich seems to think we need less self, and more surrender to the group. It's sixties hippyism meets Maoist brainwashing.

A distinction typically not made by these anti-individualism critics is between community (small scale social formations) and Society (everyone in the country, or even the world). The two are not the same; in fact, their loyalties run in different directions. Contrary to what might be thought (given the rhetoric), the political Left — obsessed with Society as they are — actually come out more hostile to community than the Right. They don't like the family, they don't like private associations, they don't like small businesses. They want only one kind of social group to have power: the Collective.

* E.g. in All Must Have Prizes