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On resilience and resistance to catastrophising
Preserving emotional distance from meta-narratives
Lots of things are annoying and the nature of annoying things is that they loom larger than everything else.
Talking about annoying things is also very popular, so there is an incentive to do it.
If you're able to talk about annoying things in a scholarly fashion, that’s the sweet spot. You’ll get a particularly high quality following.
This is why there is a burgeoning market for the kind of scholarly meta-narrative analysis favoured at the moment by right-leaning intellectuals.
I'm not talking about 'rage porn' here. Not the day-to-day rhetorical denunciations across ideological divides. I mean the bigger picture accounts of how western liberal culture got to this often strange place. Meta-narrative.
Big ideas, cleverly expressed, are compelling and I enjoy this brand of writing very much. So much that I am often vulnerable to adopting the latest thing I read in a certain vein as my current opinion on the matter.
In the case of conservative social and political cultural critique, it is often well observed, clearly argued and essentially insightful in describing the substrate from within which a lot of obviously unhealthy thought and behaviour emanates.
NS Lyons just produced a tour de force of this genre with The China Convergence, a book-length comparison between the approaches to controlling the masses favoured by the Chinese Communist Party and that of a controlling, educated, credentialed, technocratic blob in America and its western satellites.
It's a big read and, while I'm sceptical that western liberalism is as totalitarian as the CCP, his analysis of the forces bearing down on ordinary people from our dominant classes (annoyingly known as 'elites') and the utopian ideological project they pursue to make us all safe and 'good', is hard to fault.
It's certainly better evidenced and more intelligent than the leftish meta-narrative about white supremacy as the fundamentum valoris of modern world history.
Even better is philosopher Matthew Crawford's analysis of what he calls the 'Party-State' of western liberalism in Minoritarian moralism, the first of a three-parter on the subject. I really like Crawford's thinking in several domains, so I'm predisposed to take any analysis he offers seriously.
This one is paywalled, so a brief synopsis of his themes;
Contempt for ordinary people and therefore replacement of leaders' deference to the majority with top-down managerial authority
Social control 'powered by an ideal of compassion' which really transfers power to a credentialed technocratic class
Repudiation of the 'delegate' model of political representation in favour of 'trusteeship', in which political agents answer to a higher authority of individual conscience and idealism (rendering our naive, albeit lingering, idea of participative 'democracy' obsolete)
The convergence of money capital and moral capital under corporate 'Wokeism'
Counter-factual representations of how the world really is, driven by moral pretensions, increasingly embedded as material 'truth'
This is perhaps the most compelling piece of its kind that I've read yet, because it jibes so clearly with attitudes I hear expressed within my own social orbit as well as in liberal media, such as The Guardian (contempt for 'common sense' and the vernacular, distrust and disapproval of 'uneducated' people, the idea of 'tyranny by the majority' mentioned in an un-ironic way and the sudden adoption of manifestly untrue propositions about material reality as canon).
So, my 'lived experience' adds weight to Crawford's conclusions.
But what I notice is that, however persuasive an argument describing the influence of the educated credentialed technocratic blob is, the more sceptical I feel about the inevitable conclusions that most readers (judging by the comments) seem to arrive at. Which is that all of this is a disaster and that the emergence of this 'machine' bearing down on us is a manifestation of evil.
To me, the flourishing of this kind of managerial state reeks much more of certain types of people responding to incentives to get along in a certain cultural climate than it does of badness per se. This is how I tend to see those now labelled 'elites' - as well-intentioned, bumbling, cloth-eared egotists, rather than as the wannabe despotic overlords feared by conservatives.
This brand of thought is quite new to me. Which says more about my history of left-leaning echo chamber membership than it does about the subject area itself.
While I was always aware that the left saw the right as not just wrong, but bad, it has come as a surprise that the right sees the forces of 'liberalism' as primarily impelled by cruel impulses to actually hurt people.
And what troubles me about a lot of this discourse is that this implicit assumption of evil intent evidently creates fear, anger and despair among the class of persons who are clever enough to delve into these analyses.
To give Matthew Crawford in particular the credit his work demands, he tends toward a more dispassionate analysis and uses more temperate language than most. This is reflected in much less emoting among those readers who comment on his pieces, which tend to be more thoughtful than polemical. Crawford seems more of a scholar than a conservative activist, whereas most of this kind of writing qualifies for the following health warning
None of this is to say that I like the credentialed technocratic blob any more than people like NS Lyons and his readers. Nor that I buy its obvious shibboleths. But I'm highly mistrustful of 'totalising narratives'. And having rejected the totalising worldview of one team, I'm not about to just switch sides.
As an equal opportunities disliker of totalising thought I detect exactly the same vibe among those comparing the western liberal trajectory to that of totalitarian China as I do in the people who wallow in climate alarmism.
It's always about distilling the things we worry about all the way down to pure evil.
The British environmental activist group Just Stop Oil baldly states on its website
"If you are not in resistance you are appeasing evil"
In this way, all ideologically-driven actors seem to default to the same apocalyptic conclusions; that the things which worry them are caused by people who actively seek to cause harm.
Whether you're railing against flawed systems, with annoying features (like rule by credentialed technocratic 'elites' who aren’t actually that clever) or the only current ways we have to keep most of the lights on (fossil fuels) there is no room in these meta-narratives for human frailty, imperfection and just the bald fact that some people think there are ways of organising things that don't suit you personally - and that they're the ones who got to the top.
It's not that I read these meta-narratives and think that they're 'wrong' per se. They clearly describe something real. It's that they are often kind of paranoid. Instead of western technocratic liberalism being an essentially good-faith attempt to keep the wheels on a complicated bus - albeit in many obviously stupid ways - the belief that it is really an attempt to subjugate and crush humanity assumes a grand plan, for which no evidence is ever produced.
Despite the undoubted sincerity of the 'post-liberal' sphere (many of whose objections to the 'machine' I share) they seem to wallow in fear and a sense of victimhood in exactly the same way as the adherents to ideologies they oppose.
Of course our ruling classes work to mould us into passive little cogs and consumers with all the 'correct' beliefs and control over our natural impulses. What the heck else are they there for? Why does someone get themselves into a position of influence unless they want to bring their influence to bear? What is new about this?
What does the alternative utopia look like?
Despite my sympathies with the conservative mind - and disdain for leftish identity politics - I see little but victimhood in its meta-narratives.
I just read a remarkable account of this mindset in Harpers magazine. In 'The Paranoid Style in American Politics', historian Richard Hofstadter makes the following observations of the scholarly right-wing meta-narrative;
"The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world."
"The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry."
"the modern right wing...feels dispossessed: [their country] has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old ... virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of ... power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high."
"The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced."
I kept expecting to find references to Covid-19 scepticism and how Donald Trump taps into the zeitgeist of working class discontent, before realising - with genuine surprise - that I was reading an article from 1964.
Plus ça change, indeed.
So, in a way, these meta-narratives have the quality of folk tales, lamentations following a certainly brutal defeat and it must be hard to be a real conservative in the era of pronouns, 'women' with penises, people who want to abolish the police and close all prisons (while also wanting Trump jailed), activists who want to stop you from eating steak, supposedly conservative governments who are too scared of the economic consequences to throttle immigration, overblown claims of relentless systemic misogyny when almost every measure of life outcome suggests that boys and men do worse than girls and women in most areas. Things that could be talked about in a different climate. One that didn’t feature such rigid speech codes.
Sometimes I'm so exasperated by the isms of the leftish and their many projects to emancipate us from our humanity that I too notice a creeping anger and despair. And that is what these essays about evil 'elites' are for. They are designed to affect as well as inform.
Gurwinder is right that we should be mindful of this.
The typical question that arises in response to these polemics is what can we do? I've been asked that often.
Back when people on Twitter were afraid that Brexit was really going to happen, those of us in the Remain camp would engage in a mutually reinforcing fantasy that we could influence what other people would want or how they would vote. I remember one person producing a Powerpoint deck that represented an illustrated 'resource' of bite-size anti-Brexit arguments and all her followers thanking her for her 'work'.
This was a natural response to forces that were beyond our control because it felt like doing something.
What eventually clicked for me was that the only thing you could really influence was yourself. To renegotiate your relationship with the situation. And that while everyone was constantly looking outward for the inspiration to do something, all that did was to create a feeling of despair. The 'wrong' people eventually got their way, just as they're getting their way so much of the time now.
At first I wanted to answer with practical tips for how to make things change on a cultural-level.
This used to happen a lot when Brexit was the big story. What can we do, people would ask.
I’ve previously advocated 'iterative scepticism', if you want to feel like you're doing something. You can always start a Substack, writing about how terrible everything is. Or become a full-blown activist. There's lots you can do if you really care about the world being moulded to conform to your particular ideals instead of someone else's.
You can also recognise what you get from being annoyed and maybe settle for that. For examples of this, look no further than the community of angry conservatives who celebrate their relentless sense of grievance in the comments under any article on The Free Press. Convince each other that 'everyone is waking up' at last. Or something. (They aren't. Most people are just living their lives, barely aware of these things that some of us obsess over.) I presume it feels good to keep saying that people are waking up, though, or people wouldn't keep saying it. I'm all for feeling good, so you can try that.
Maybe, though, if the arc of history really troubles you, spend less time monitoring it. If you really believe that all moral truth is downstream of your thoughts, then it's going to drive you nuts to see how impervious to your intuitions is the edifice you're forever confronting, through the beautifully crafted rhetoric you consume.
Or gain awareness of why surfacing the dynamics of the culture feels important to you and decide whether it's worth it. If it make you feel enlightened and superior, fill your boots.
In my case it makes me feel smarter, to see the inner workings of the arc of 'progress' or 'decline' (depending on who’s describing things) and because it gives me something to say here. It satisfies a curiosity that I have about the currents that we can all feel, even if sometimes it also seems to weigh more heavily than I would like.
Stop wanting to be 'right' about everything. It doesn't matter. You're an infinitesimally tiny speck and the universe doesn't care what you're feeling.
Stop being angry that other people are 'wrong' about everything. They think you're wrong and you think that you alone have special insight into making sense of the world. You almost certainly don't.
Recognise why you think what you do. What it is about you that makes you prefer one perspective over another. Be curious about your reactions to things. Recognise your ego in this.
I cannot pretend to know anything about Stoicism, but what little I have gleaned speaks to this. Humility is underrated in this age of 'factism', with its ludicrous faith in 'fact-checking', 'debunking' and dismissal of those with no 'credentials'.
Take yourself and your confusion a bit less seriously. It isn't the end of the world if you cannot nail the 'truth' of things in a civilisation as messy as this one.
Michael David Cobb Bowen models this beautifully. I read his words and wish that I had written them. If you care about individual peace, you should sign up to Michael.
Notice the power of words and be sceptical when you feel affected by them.
Don't trust any of my advice. These are just things that work for me and trying such things for yourself may result in disappointment.
All I know is that the allure of certitude was - for me - a false promise of validation.
This is what partisanship and ideology now seem to represent. The security of an identity. An externally-bestowed identity. The most fragile kind of identity.
Sometimes I sit outside at dusk and stop feeling anything except the steel chill of the incoming night. And then I stop existing for a little while. Or, strictly speaking, the difference between the self-referential 'I' and the rest of the material world disappears. A few minutes of this seems to be an infinitely more nourishing experience than the fleeting feeling that I made a persuasive argument about something that me and a few other people think is important. Or - even less nourishing - feeling like I know things.
It probably helps to be not very left-brained and thereby more at ease with uncertainty. And to feel no desire to persuade anyone of anything. To be more self-contained than I once was. But my answer to what can we do about these bad things is now to encourage anyone who feels bad about these bad things to maybe ask something else. Like what can I do about feeling bad about these bad things?
Meanwhile, enjoy the discourse on how broken and bad our civilisation is. As I will continue to enjoy it. But enjoy it for what it is. Which is just words.
As I hope you enjoyed these words too.
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