Here is Gerard from Disraeli’s novel Sybil – a Victorian voice, yet able to diagnose our 21st Century:
Two nations, between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy; who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.
Disraeli has a character respond thus: “You speak of — ” said Egremont, hesitantly.
You know how Gerard responds; he defines the two nations of England as being: “THE YOUNG AND THE OLD.”
Oops! Of course, Disraeli actually has Gerard say, “THE RICH AND THE POOR”. But the transposition of age for wealth makes the 19th Century Conservative the perfect guide to the political troubles of America and Britain and New Zealand, and likely Australia, in 2017.
Since the Brexit Referendum in the UK and to a certain extent the defeat of Clinton in the US, various theories have been floated to explain why the “wrong” side won. Most popular among them is that the young have been cheated by the old.
From grotesque internet memes (like this one, which laughingly imagines a Brexit voter Doris, who “died of old age 2 [sic] days after the vote”) to serious thinkers like David Willetts and his book The Pinch (How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back), the two nations within each anglosphere country are no longer the rich and the poor, but the old and the young.
Two nations: young people, most of whom have degrees, vs old people, most of whom do not. Young people, most of whom are forced to rent, vs old people, most of whom possess a mortgage. And so on.
The rise of the Left, whether Sanders in the US, or Britain’s resurgent yet morally disordered Labour Party, or New Zealand’s new Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern; all are explained by this old/rich vs young/poor dichotomisation. Why would young people vote for capitalism, goes the cliché, when they don’t have any capital?
I don’t entirely disagree. For example, in the UK, to be born to a lower middle-class family in the southeast of England is to be a lottery winner assuming you eventually inherit your parents’ house. Not so, however, should you be born in a region without insane house prices. Thus: Inheritance sucks. It’s unfair. Let’s vote for someone who’d abolish it.
But if the young/old wealth differential is a necessary component of the rise of the Left that still doesn’t mean it’s a sufficient explanation.
The generational split originated with the cultural shift that began towards the end of the last century (and well before the age of austerity): the rise of identity politics, at the cost of the old-skool, values-driven stuff. Viewed through such a prism, the resurgent Left can be seen as a consequence of this deeper malaise, not simply the driver of one.
Of course, we always had identity politics: I’m a British unionist (I believe that Scotland and England are better in one United Kingdom), a position I didn’t adopt through a process of deductive reasoning but which I merely accepted, as one of life’s axioms. Being British meant, well, supporting the concept of Britain.
That — and the few other axioms which together defined what I think of as suburban, lower middle-class bourgeois morality (“It’s important to work”, “Families need fathers”, “Innocent until convicted, whatever Twitter says”) — have all been fractured, by the rise of postmodern identity politics, which puts self-definition, actualisation, realisation at the centre of a very empty universe. Who defines the common good, when no-one else’s opinion matters? “Common good”? Fake news, man (Trump is as much a consequence of this as Corbyn.)
In a science fiction story I enjoyed this week, the inhabitants of an alien world find themselves in the power of what they call a “monster god”, whom they are compelled to worship, even as it devours them. Identity politics is the monster god of planet Earth, and the name of that monster is solipsism.
To acknowledge this monster explains a lot. Is it any wonder, told to define their own truth, that the verbal communication of young people is dominated by the question mark? When they speak? Even when they’re not asking a question?
The monster god cares nothing for the confusion it generates in the minds of its adherents. Like all fake gods, it’s mostly interested in sacrifice, starting with all those bourgeois norms I took for granted. But its prize is greater than mere social decency. Monsters, of course, are creations of our id. And the ironic sacrifice demanded by identity politics is of self.
Because if identity can be anything, then identity is nothing. If you share your identity with no-one else, because you refuse to let anyone else’s views define you… then you’re limitless. But empty.
Which explains as well as any other theory the current fascination/confusion with gender. “It’s a social construct, and every other social construct you were given was bad,” whisper the taxpayer-funded lobby groups. “So abolish it. You are the gender or no-gender which you want to be.”
No matter that real transgender people may find such assertions unsettling: they are not you, and you are all that matters to the god of identity politics.
The monster god creates a vacuum into which race his eager demons, like John McDonnell, the real power in the British Labour Party. He sees an army of young people trained to reject bourgeois norms, educated to believe that their opinions are supreme, but doubtful as to the substance from which those opinions should be formed. Could there be a more perfect machine to deliver the violent extra-parliamentary “insurrection” (his word) for which Mr McDonnell so sweatily yearns?
Where is the opposition to this? In his description of the Conservative Party in Coningsby, Disraeli could have been describing the current British government:
A body of individuals totally unequal to the exigencies of the epoch, and indeed unconscious of its real character.
Didn’t you love that “hesitantly” with which Egremont asked the “two nations” question — one to which he already knew the answer? The solution for the centre-Right starts with dropping that hesitancy. Be conscious of the real character of identity politics: the monster god is, before everything, monstrous. Would it kill Conservatives to say so?
Then defend the basis for real liberty: faith in common axioms that define the good life. The strength of this suburban morality is its insistence that you are connected with others; so the opinion that others hold of you matters, and your behaviour should reflect this.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, accepting that we’re not each at the centre of large, empty, self-defined universes is the foundation upon which individuals can achieve true freedom. Only connect — yourself with others; everything else is void.