The HBO series Succession depicts the dynastic dramas of a family-controlled media company, headed by patriarch Logan Roy in a spirit of vigorous tyranny. This clan is ultra-rich and totally amoral. One of the sons, the dissolute and aptly named Roman (played by Kieran Culkin) is gleefully immoral, skewering the petty decencies of “normal people” with lines that make you wince and laugh out loud at the same time. It is a delicious depiction of aristocratic license that would be recognisable to observers of the senatorial class in late-empire Rome, or the court of Louis XVI. To watch the show is to take an hour-long break from the relentless moralism of contemporary life and watch power operate with bald-faced corruption, rather than self-righteous bullshit. It’s refreshing that way.
The Roy family occupies the most rarefied level of globe-trotting oligarchs. Dropping down a rung or two on the pyramid of power, consider the moral ecology inhabited by the broader gentility: the salaried decision-makers and ideas-managers who service the global arrangement from various departments of the ideological apparatus. They may work in NGOs, the governing bodies of the EU, corporate journalism, HR departments, the celebrity-industrial complex, the universities, Big Tech, etc. They, too, enjoy a kind of freedom, but it is decidedly not that of the high-spirited criminals depicted in Succession. So far from living “beyond good and evil”, this broader class of cosmopolitans asserts its freedom through its moralism, precisely. In particular, they have broken free of the claims of allegiance made upon them by the particular communities they emerge from.
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How does this work, psychologically? The idea of a common good has given way to a partition of citizens along the lines of a moral hierarchy – one that just happens to mirror their material fortunes (as in Calvinism). Instead of feeling bound up in a shared fate with one’s countrymen, one develops an alternate solidarity that is placeless. The relatability across national borders that the gentlefolk feel in one another’s company — the gracious ease and trust, the shared points of reference in high-prestige opinion — has something to do with their uniformly high standing in the moral hierarchy that divides citizen from citizen within their own nations. The decision-making class has discovered that it enjoys the mandate of heaven, and with this comes certain permissions; certain exemptions from democratic scruple.
The permission structure is built around grievance politics. Very simply: if the nation is fundamentally racist, sexist and homophobic, I owe it nothing. More than that, conscience demands that I repudiate it. Hannah Arendt spelled out this logic of high-minded withdrawal from the claims of community in the essays she wrote in response to the protest movements of the 1960s. Conscience “trembles for the individual self and its integrity,” appealing over the head of the community to a higher morality. The latter is discerned in a highly subjective, personal way. The heroic pose struck by Thoreau in Civil Disobedience is the model for this kind of moralistic anti-politics of conscience, in which the good man may be quite opposed to the one called a good citizen.
In The Revolt of the Elites, Christopher Lasch spelled out in greater detail the role that claims of racial and sexual oppression play in securing release from allegiance to the nation — not just for those who identify as its victims, but for those with the moral sensitivity to see victimisation where it may not be apparent, and who make this capacity a touchstone of their identity. It becomes a token of moral elevation by which we recognise one another, and distinguish ourselves from the broader run of citizens. Both Lasch and Arendt argue that black Americans serve a crucial function for the white bourgeoisie. As the emblem and proof of America’s illegitimacy, they anchor a politics of repudiation in which the idea of a common good has little purchase.
This illegitimacy transcends any particular historical facts about slavery and segregation. Indeed it transcends America, as one can surmise by the ease with which American grievance politics has been exported throughout the Western world. In this we sometimes see the use of American historical references that have been weirdly transposed, as when a house once lived in by Rosa Parks was relocated from Detroit to Berlin, the financial seat of the European Union. (Under the empire of Christendom, the market for material relics from the Passion of Christ was similarly global; they left the holy land and ended up in various seats of earthly power.) Most recently, the transatlantic festival of George Floyd attests to the fact that it isn’t simply America that stands accused.
The social order is corrupt, then. The labour movement once had an alternative order to offer in its stead, drawing on the socialist tradition. It was one that included African-Americans – not as African-Americans but as workers. And this movement was fairly successful. The pressures that organised labour brought to bear on business and the state helped to secure America’s brief period of shared prosperity, lasting roughly from the end of WWII to the 1970s.
What happened then? The new prominence of the term “repressed” in the 1960s is significant, and marks a shift into a new terrain of psychologised politics. The object of attack for the “new Left” was no longer laissez-faire capitalism but “society”, the Freudian superego more or less, with its insistence on standards of behaviour that are binding on all. Arendt and Lasch both identify this attack on shared standards as the decisive inflection point in our turn away from a politics of the common good. Society is taken to be inherently oppressive, and discredited in the name of liberation.
One can find such an idea in a selective reading of Freud, for whom there is an inherent conflict between self and society. But for Freud, reconciling oneself to this conflict and entering into the world of shared meaning and exchange, indeed identifying with it, is how one becomes an adult. The world does not love you simply for being you, as your mommy does. One holds oneself accountable to prevailing norms, or else remains trapped in infantile narcissism.
The Left’s posture of liberationism provided an interpretive frame in which the deadly riots and wider explosion of urban crime in the 1960s was to be understood as political rather than criminal. This interpretation played a key role in the wider inversion: it is “society” that is revealed to be criminal. The utility of urban rioting for the new Left lay in the fact that it was thought to carry an insight into the illegitimacy of even our most minimum standards of behaviour. The moral authority of the black person, as victim, gave the bourgeoisie permission to withdraw its allegiance from the social order, just as black people were gaining fuller admittance to it.
Consider the images that had so impressed the nation in the 1950s and lead to the passage of civil rights legislation: marchers demanding equal treatment, and being willing to go to jail as a demonstration of this allegiance to the rule of law, impartially applied. The civil rights movement began as an attack on the injustice of double standards; it was a patriotic appeal to the common birthright of citizenship, as against the local sham democracy of the South. Notably, the civil rights activists of this time wore suits and ties, the costume of adult obligations and standards of comportment. But in a stunning reversal achieved by the new Left working in concert with the Black Power movement, Lasch points out, “the idea of a single standard was itself attacked as the crowning example of ‘institutional racism’.” Such standards were said to have no other purpose than keeping black people in their place. This shift was fundamental, for shared standards are what make for a democratic social order, as against the ancien régime of special privileges and exemptions.
For the new Left, then, it was not capitalism but the democratic social order altogether that was the source of oppression — not just of black people, or of workers, but of us, the college bourgeoisie. The civil rights movement of black Americans became the template for subsequent claims by women, gays and transgender persons, each based on a further discovery of moral failing buried deep in the heart of America. Hence a further license, indeed mandate, granted to individual conscience, as against the claims of the nation.
But the black experience retains a special role as the template that must be preserved. The black man is specially tuned by history to pick up the force field of oppression, which may be hard to discern in the more derivative cases that are built by analogy with his. Therefore, his condition serves a wider diagnostic and justificatory function. If it were to improve, denunciation of “society” would be awkward to maintain and, crucially, my own conscience would lose its self-certifying independence from the community. My wish to be free of the demands of society would look like mere selfishness.
The white bourgeoisie became invested in a political drama in which their own moral standing depends on black people remaining permanently aggrieved. Unless their special status as ur-victim is maintained, African-Americans cannot serve as patrons for the wider project of liberation. If you question this victimisation, you are questioning the rottenness of America. And if you do that, you are threatening the social order, strangely enough. For it is now an order governed by the freelance moralists of the cosmopolitan consensus. Somehow these free agents, ostensibly guided by individual conscience, have coalesced into something resembling a tribe, one that is greatly angered by rejection of its moral expertise.
The notion of expertise is important. There appears to be a circle of mutual support between political correctness, technocratic administration, and the bloated educational machinery. Because smartness (as indicated by educational credentials) confers title to rule in a technocratic regime, the ruling class adopts a distinctly cognitivist view: virtue does not consist of anything you do or don’t do, it consists of having the correct opinions. This is attractive, as one may then exempt oneself from the high-minded policies one inflicts upon everyone else. For example, the state schools are turned into laboratories of grievance-based social engineering, with generally disastrous effects, but you send your own children to expensive private schools. You can de-legitimise the police out of a professed concern for black people, and the explosion of murder will be confined to black parts of the city you never see, and journalists are not interested in. In this way, you can be magnanimous while avoiding the moral pollution and that comes from noticing reality.
With this clerisy’s systemic lack of “skin in the game”, the idea of a common good becomes a weak abstraction. Maintaining one’s own purity of opinion, on the other hand, has real psychic consequence, as it is the basis for one’s feeling of belonging — not to the community one happens to reside in, but to the tribe of the elect.
If the ideal of a de-moralised public sphere was a signature aspiration of liberal secularism, it seems we have entered a post-secular age. Populism happened because it became widely noticed that we have transitioned from a liberal society to something that more closely resembles a corrupt theocracy.