LEFT liberal commentators and their willing followers are in a state of perpetual despair. The two main reasons for this are the Brexit vote and the Trump presidency. They behave like the adult version of the toddler who does not get his own way when his wants and desires change as he grows. The difference is that the liberals’ wants and desires have remained the same: it is the world around them that is growing and changing. The irony is therefore they are unleashing their inner conservative, something they realise, but do not like to admit. They do not like the change.
The difference between conservative commentators and their liberal opponents is that conservatives are able to articulate rational explanations why some change is not for the good, such as the deliberate poisoning of developing children’s bodies to satisfy the latest sexual fad. Liberals just wail at the world with increasing incoherence. And they are quite noisy about it. The complaints about rising hemlines have been replaced by those about populations rising against the liberal consensus.
What liberals are bemoaning is the fragmenting of collectivist social democrat consensus into populist splinters. This consensus is distinct from the postwar consensus which had effectively perished by the mid-1970s in that one was economic and political while the other is cultural and social. But they were both products of the same drivers.
The industrial revolution was a drive to conformity and centralisation. Prior to the 19th century there were cottage industries. These were replaced in their thousands by the monolithic ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake. A distributed and culturally diverse workforce was obliged to concentrate in the proximity of the new factories. This rapid urbanisation destroyed the distinctiveness that characterised its rural predecessors. The village came to the town and city, but left its culture behind. New cultures of collectivisation and uniformity were impressed on the populations. For predictable outcomes in high-volume processes, there could not be deviation. Conformity was all. Every operator had to operate the machine in the same way to maximise productivity. Large institutions for the new mass culture were developed, music halls giving way to cinema, and then three-channel television. National newspapers could be distributed the length of the land using the railway network, and enjoyed a readership counted by the million. Entertainment magazines and penny dreadfuls abounded. Political parties disciplined by a whipping system coalesced where there had previously been factions or groupings based on single issues such as free trade.
This mass conformity reached its apogee in the world wars, when entire populations were conscripted to become part of the war economy and were targeted in aerial bombing campaigns. Mass extermination through deportation or death camps became a weapon of the new conflicts.
For populations to co-exist successfully with each other, a certain conformity of thought was deemed necessary, creating in the most developed countries a new set of social and cultural taboos which drove political ideas. And this was a good thing.The world had emerged from war in 1945 with the horror of the politics of identity taken to its lethal conclusion where some countries had defined ‘good’ identities and vilified to destruction those identities they saw as ‘bad’. The spectre of communal violence haunts every democratic government. The risk increases with rises in population.
While liberals champion diversity, they do so while demanding this conformity in thought, but only from certain sections of the diverse communities they celebrate. This conformity will sometimes stand opposed to objective reality. However, it does appear to have been a consequence of the economic uniformity that characterised industrial development in the West for about a century and a half. The last time there was such a social conformity might have been in the Middle Ages before the Black Death destroyed a quarter of the population together with some certainties about the natural and spiritual order. In the Middle Ages, this led to a growth of superstition and a questioning of authority as the social and religious elite were demonstrated to be powerless in the face of a relentless and deadly pandemic.
I feel that we are reverting to a Hogarthian age, certainly less regimented and less conforming, more individualistic, free-booting and reckless. There will be more uncertainty. It is a consequence of de-industrialisation, automation and the diversity of a service-based economy. This has been a slow development, but it could be driven by the revolution in communications technology. Its predecessors were the development of printing as well as the translation and distribution of the Bible in national languages where previously Latin had been the standard.
Social revolutions developed on the back of increasing literacy causing more informed thinking, which allowed the creation and distribution of different ideas by those other than the ones in power. While the internet has been ubiquitous for over two decades now, tools and technologies that moved the internet away from the computer desk and into the pockets of even the most computer-illiterate are much more recent. Where previously polemical pamphlets could be distributed by the hundred and read by thousands, the modern multimedia counterpart can now be consumed by billions.
If just one per cent are influenced by media so distributed, that is still an enormous figure and can swing elections, as wailing liberals now allege. In fact, what we are seeing is a challenge to the previously held social consensus as media technology has usurped mass broadcasting and allowed virtual communities of thought to develop that have successfully challenged the liberal orthodoxy. People are fed up with the bland ideological regimentation that they have been force-fed for decades. The villagers who over 200 years ago were stuffed into the new towns are revolting. For liberals, this is in both senses of the word.
So what the liberals are actually bemoaning is the end to conformity and certainly the kind of conformity that they used to promote. Their kind and the ideas they based on their ideology are toppled from the commanding heights they held for so long. Where there was once an order and consistency that they supported, there is increasing chaos, based on a diversity they cannot constrain, certainly without compromising their own principles. The consequence of this is that challenges to their order have succeeded. Their historic inevitability is no longer inevitable. The world is changing around them. And they cannot cope with in effect without becoming rather conservative in the face of this change. And they hate this. So all they can now do is have a good old wail.