Some students doing what students like to do. Photo by Tolga Akmen/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

September 17, 2020   8 mins

After a long, eerie summer, the students are returning to campus. The neuroses that so often characterise this period will be intensified: UCU hysterically threatens 50,000 extra deaths from an uncontrolled return to university life; the lack of school exams will increase self-doubt and suspicion; and the promise of a bright future for graduates on the other side looks more distant than ever.

Above all, the life into which they enter will be a bare one. Even where each constituent part of student life remains in place, it will be hard to act with confidence, fluency or grace amid the uncertainty. The “student experience” was always a dismal expression; now it is a sad joke.

But this is not the only threat that incoming students face. Universities are front and centre of the new culture war and the dominant culture in the humanities and arts is soaked in an anxiety-ridden politics of negation. It is a world with which I am all too familiar, from many years’ involvement in the far-left, which — stripped of materialist analysis and class content — increasingly finds its base in the university. I had come to see those years as misspent but essentially inconsequential and a little embarrassing.

What is remarkable is not that I found these politics wanting — most who move through these scenes eventually do — but that, shorn of their economics, they now appear culturally hegemonic and unassailable. Today these politics represent what Wesley Yang described as the “successor ideology”, the default politics of a new elite coming of age, and this language is the currency of the professional managerial class in the English-speaking world. They do not seem so inconsequential anymore.

I spent my teenage years immersed in Marxist and anarchist circles and literature, at protests and occupations, squats and reading groups. I would listen to ageing Cockneys give talks on class interest and exploitation in the backrooms of dusty pubs. It may not have been much, but it did at least feel like we could lay claim to the heritage of a genuine radicalism.

When I arrived at Cambridge a decade ago, then, I was taken aback to encounter many like me. Indeed most of the students studying the arts and humanities were well to the left of Labour, which was regarded as a bit of a joke. There were differences, of course, with my previous political world: at Cambridge, the talk was of activism and oppression rather than organising and exploitation. Political economy and class were downplayed and gender, race, colonialism, sex work and mental health came to the fore. This allowed participants to see themselves not as the guilty children of the elite, but as subjects of a politics of anti-oppression in their own right. It felt less like a historical reenactment society and more contemporary, urgent even.

That this ancient institution was saturated with radicalism posed a problem for my self-image. Calling yourself a communist or anarchist was just not very interesting anymore. As we occupied university buildings and demanded the impossible from the safety of our cloisters, it seemed to me that the age-old debate between left-communists and anarchists who believed in the spontaneous uprising of the working class, and the Trotsykist idea of an intellectual vanguard at the helm of the revolutionary movement, was decisively resolved in favour of the latter.

Some blame academics for the radicalisation of students, but in truth self-selecting mechanisms ensured many of us arrived pre-radicalised, and from there it spread memetically, not didactically. The internet was a far bigger radicaliser than Left-wing academics. The handful of academics involved with the political scene were outliers and most were political liberals.

The next three years played out predictably. The organiser of a gay night was denounced for playing a song by Katy Perry because another song of hers was deemed problematic. A rare working class boy had his Union Jack flag stolen and set on fire during a commemoration for the Queen, while students (many of whom from one elite international school in Geneva) denounced him as a racist. We queued round the block for Judith Butler and we tried, sometimes successfully, to get others blocked from public platforms altogether.

Rumours would circulate about people who were “problematic”, often socially awkward men whose problem was that they interrupted people. Talks on sex work and the radical possibilities of kink proliferated. One of my more sordid memories is of person after person taking turns at a public assembly to declare themselves “disabled”, presumably by nature of their mental disorder, and therefore oppressed. A good friend was condemned in a public blog by his ex for the crime of suggesting that her new activist friends might not have been making her very happy.

At first, there was a rush — the feeling of belonging to a community, particularly one defined so clearly against an other, gave meaning and purpose to life. Taking part in “action”, the more covert the better, strengthened this sense of conspiracy. But over time the world darkened and lost colour. Our intellectual world shrunk and everything was subjected to the same dreary analysis. Real conversation became impossible, replaced with irony, intersectional bromides and endless talk of mental illness.

The college was a bucket of crabs and happiness itself suspect, a mark of privilege, as with the rugby lads who had the audacity to actually enjoy themselves. When there was laughter it was heavy and jarring, filled with irony and bitterness, never light or free. The elitism of the university discounted even appreciation of the beauty of its buildings or the surrounding countryside, although by then we were probably too far gone to notice. Though we were aware of our enormous privilege we contrived to see our time at Cambridge as some grim fate foisted upon us.

Right now, the discourse is centred on “cancel culture”. It was not cancellation but closure that defined our social-political scene, and that now characterises the culture at large — the ideas left unexplored, the varied uses of the English language reduced to greyscale, and, in the end, the elimination of joy, curiosity and wonder from our lives. (This closure plays out just as surely among liberal and Right-wing culture warriors, who are reduced to dull defences of free speech. This essay, in its own way, contributes to that closure too. Life is good and there is so much more we could talk about!)

Few have described this process as well as Philip Roth in American Pastoral. The lifelessness of it all and the impossibility of any lightness or dialogue, as he put it: “The monotonous chant of the indoctrinated, ideologically armored from head to foot — the monotonous, spellbound chant of those whose turbulence can be caged only within the suffocating straitjacket of the most supercoherent of dreams. What was missing from her unstuttered words was not the sanctity of life — missing was the sound of life.”

Roth wrote of the manipulative potential of compassion, the only recognised virtue: “There may not be much subtlety in it, she may not yet be its best spokesman, but there is some thought behind it, there’s certainly a lot of emotion behind it, there’s a lot of compassion behind it…” On top of this there was the moral certainty that erases any concern about means. “Rita was no longer an ordinary wavering mortal, let alone a novice in life, but a creature in clandestine harmony with the brutal way of the world, entitled, in the name of historical justice, to be just as sinister as the capitalist oppressor Swede Levov.”

Unhappiness brings with it power over others. Where compassion is the highest virtue, this power is almost limitless. Misery also provides the motive to wield this power, and mental blindness to one’s own culpability in its exercise. The principal protagonists of this scene nestled into their unhappiness and woke politics was the form of emotional manipulation its outward expression took. Its obscure language games were about codifying the rules of social engagement so that its anxious subjects could navigate social life as much as they were about prohibition.

Whenever a clip goes viral of a person, clearly in some mental distress, repeating the usual platitudes, it is impossible not to see the anxieties of life under late modernity writ large. They are there in the voice, constantly on the point of breaking, in the incredulous, widening eyes, and in the earnestly furrowed brow. It is a recognisable form of distress, but not one found among those at the sharp end of genuine political tyranny or destitution. It is hard not to conclude that a whole generation has been terribly misled about how best to pursue a life of meaning and resilience.

Social theorist Mark Fisher described from first-hand experience the manipulation of this scene as a Vampire Castle which “feeds on the energy and anxieties and vulnerabilities of young students, but most of all it lives by converting the suffering of particular groups — the more marginal, the better — into academic capital. The most lauded figures in the Vampire Castle are those who have spotted a new market in suffering — those who can find a group more oppressed and subjugated than any previously exploited will find themselves promoted through the ranks very quickly.” The Vampire Castle recruits on the promise of community and self-healing. The reality is an ouroboros of emotional manipulation, stripped of the political and of all that makes life interesting and worthwhile.

So when Black Lives Matter adopts the same therapeutic language in their description of their praxis — “we recommit to healing ourselves and each other… we intentionally build and nurture a beloved community that is bonded together through a beautiful struggle that is restorative, not depletive… we practise empathy… we are self-reflexive… we support each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another” — it makes my skin crawl. I dread the thought of anyone that I love getting sucked into this false community.

Undergraduate wastefulness, self-absorption and misery are nothing new, but the form they took presaged what was to come. In another age, we would have been conservatives — frightened of the outside world, haunted by anxiety and guilt, unafraid to speak or think freely. But instead, the politics of my old friends set the national agenda.

We would have laughed at the idea we formed an elite and we certainly didn’t act like one. But we were the vanguard for a movement that has swept the English-speaking world in the subsequent decade. We still professed to be fighting the old powers — patriarchy, white supremacism, the nuclear family, colonialism, the university itself. But in truth we represented what Christopher Lasch called psychological man, “the final product of bourgeois individualism,” and were being trained in elite formation for the therapeutic age just as surely as our forerunners had been for the previous, paternal age.

In the past two months, this new elite has discovered its collective strength. The cultural politics of the emerging professional managerial class have joined with the rage of those with first-hand experience of police oppression. The anxieties of the milieu I left have found in white guilt a steady resting place. The emotional manipulation developed in elite institutions has developed a motte-and-bailey style of argument (superbly analysed by Jacob Siegel) which is impossible to push back against without seeming callous. And every institution, public or private, has simply buckled.

Towards the end of American Pastoral, the protagonist Swede Levov — poor Swede Levov — wonders whether he tried to be too understanding of his daughter’s descent into the furthest reaches of the political fanaticism of the late 1960s: “Perhaps the mistake was to take seriously what was in no way serious.” He gave an inch to the madness of his daughter’s utopian ideology and she took a mile, blowing up a suburban post office and killing two people. Yet this doctrine has graduated out of the elite universities where it first festered and is rewriting our institutions and our history. It must be taken seriously.

Last year I argued in American Affairs that the way through the culture war was a radical economic settlement that gave people security and order; socialist means to achieve conservative ends. This now looks naïve. The material genesis of the radical cultural politics that has shown its strength in the last few months lies in the overexpansion of higher education, which produced a new middle class that is materially discontented and uncomfortable in its own skin. The globalisation of American pathologies has given this new urban class, present across the Western world, a politics that is carving through our institutions.

Providing decent work and the possibility of home ownership in big cities, therefore, combined with the longer term goal of overhauling higher education, seemed the best strategy for overcoming the listlessness of an elite fraction disenfranchised from a world that failed to live up to its promise. Perhaps it still is. But the embrace of this movement by the rich, and the profound philosophical break it represents with the old order, suggests it has a logic and a momentum of its own and its potential is without limit. It is a politics of negation and renunciation and there is no end-point. There is always more work to be done.

Tobias Phibbs is writer and director of research at the Common Good Foundation