“It was wrong to underestimate the ignorance of the ruling class.” —Graham Greene, The Confidential Agent
The old libel that the masses are too ignorant and irrational for democracy is having a moment. Elections of populist demagogues in the US, Brazil, India, and other countries, together with the failures of many democratically elected governments to respond adequately to crises such as climate change and COVID-19, seem to have vindicated the case against self-rule.
Democracy is in crisis, but not because of the fundamental stupidity of the masses, as the libel would have it. It is in crisis because of the evisceration, over the past 40 years, of any real democratic alternative to the status quo. Thatcher’s slogan “There is no alternative!” has turned out to be all too true. But if there is no alternative, then nobody can make good choices (or any meaningful choice at all). Democracy is not doomed because of some inherent flaw, or because of some inherent vice of the masses, it is undermined by contingent historical conditions that can be reversed, and must be if democracy (and anti-authoritarian politics of any kind) is going to survive.
There has always been a strong current of anti-democratic thinking in western culture. From Plato on, political thinkers have often offered their own contempt for the people as an objection to majoritarian rule. The position is essentially authoritarian; it is based on the notion that the majority—that we—cannot make our own decisions, and are better off if someone else chooses for us. And yet, terrible democratic decisions—the election of Trump, for example—in recent years have led many commentators across the political spectrum, and even some on the Left, to dredge up the stale idea that “democracy simply doesn’t work.” The idea can even be made to seem edgy today, because decades of abusing democratic ideals as a causus belli, and degrading it in domestic politics, has taught us to be cynical about it. Read more »
Last week, Barack Obama got beaten up on social media and called out by the press for accepting a $400,000 speaking fee from a Wall Street investment firm. It was the day's major kerfuffle, the non-Trump story of the week, and reactions to it by many of my smart, well reasoned friends surprised me somewhat.
They began with the stance that this isn't an issue. Obama's a private citizen now, so who cares? But lots of people did care. When the story picked up steam despite their protestations, my friends then blamed the loony left for fabricating the issue, launching a general assault on fringe elements of the Democratic party and a firm defense of sensible centrist outlooks. Yet it wasn't just the left. The right predictably piled on as well, without any prompting from the left. The story also transcended the partisan divide as the centrist press ran with it. Christ, even the BBC, the vanilla pudding of international news, covered it.
In the end, the defense of Obama that gained the most traction among my friends, and to some degree in the national media, was a racial analysis. Some claimed that this brouhaha was another example of white people shaming a black man for earning a paycheck, the imposition of a racial double standard since white politicians and ex-politicians do this kind of thing all time.
This needs to be reckoned with. Obama was always held to a higher standard, precisely because he was black; he was always subjected to intense racism, and the racist backlash to his presidency as much as anything helps explain Trump's victory. Was this just another example of that racial double standard? It's an important question to ask.
“Ordinary men commonly condemn what is beyond them.” —François de La Rochefoucauld, Maxims
For the American reader Dan Fox is an ideal guide to the murky space where class overlaps with taste. His position in the art world—he is a co-editor of the renowned contemporary art magazine frieze—has furnished him with ringside seats to some of the “nastiest brawls over pretentiousness.” Moreover, he is British. The class education the English receive as a matter of their cultural heritage enables them to view the matter more clearly than their American counterparts, whose understanding of class has been systematically retarded by taboo, ideology, and denialism, resulting in a deeply classed society that has no idea how to talk about this aspect of itself.
Class is not “just a question of money and how you spend it,” Fox helpfully reminds us in his book-length essay Pretentiousness: Why It Matters (Coffee House Press, 2016). It's also “about how your identity is constructed in relationship to the world around you.” When we divide classes solely on the basis of wealth—into upper, middle, and lower—as we tend to do in America, it becomes easy to forget that the division is not only arbitrary, but also a gross simplification. In fact, the more generally we talk about class, the easier we fall into confusion. The so-called upper, middle, and lower classes are by no means unified groups, whose members view themselves as bound by the same interests. Every member of the “upper class,” for example, may be considered an elite, but this elite group is comprised of a number of class segments, whose members may in turn be ranked on the basis of their access to various kinds of capital (financial, educational, social, cultural, geographical, symbolic, etc.) whose relative importance is in a permanent state of flux.