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Leaking modernity

We need boundaries to be free

Artillery Row

Being surrounded by the often atrocious dress standards of Americans means it was less of a surprise to hear about crop tops entering the work place and the supposed benefits for humanity from the “the freeing of the midriff”.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to launch into an incel-esque rant about the hazards posed to the productiveness of the free market by the “fascinating grace of the dreadful female form”, to quote Anton Chekov. I love crop tops. Which right-thinking man doesn’t. 

Nor am I here to do the usual British thing of having a pop at the lack of dress sense in the US. Though the increasingly senseless state of it — with “progressives” and the green/purple-haired Brigade increasingly set on a mission to achieve some sort of grim anti-beauty aesthetic — and the subsequent state of this great Republic makes it hard not to mull over the relationship between form and function. 

The loss of boundaries can take us closer to enslavement

What’s most significant about the crop top “story” — and the way the New York Times presents it, with yet another “boundary” broken to a chorus of cheers — is how it offers another example of the banality and dangers around the hype about social fluidity.

As the political thinker Hannah Arendt noted, rather than “liberating” us, the loss of boundaries can take us closer to enslavement. Arendt pointed out that totalitarianism does not necessarily result from an all-powerful state going 1984, but from the erasure of the separation between private and public life (more like what Aldous Huxley posited in Brave New World). We are only “free”, Arendt  argued, in so far as we have some control over what people know about us and the circumstances in which they come to know such details. 

Whilst crop tops entering the workplace is a very minor example of the public and private realms becoming increasingly amalgamated, it is nonetheless part of a larger and growing trend of (false) narratives about fluidity and freedom that especially younger generations are gobbling up. Some of the problems with this liquidity recently came to a head courtesy of Robert Peston’s trainers

“What may seem like a set of arbitrary rules or conventions enforced to induce conformity and crush originality, is really the key to a deeper individuality, shaped by the dialectical process between the individual and the community,” Henry George observed after Peston had trouble entering a London club for a lunch invitation due to his crap footwear. “Peston may be able to surf the surging seas of liquid modernity, but increasing numbers are drowning in it.”

Not to mention how this is all happening following the biggest social (re-)engineering experiment in recent history, which sought to redraw the boundary between public and private life: those pandemic lockdowns and remote working from home in your pyjamas, or appearing on Zoom for meetings as all your colleagues peered into your home. 

We are still processing the psychological and material consequences of having work and school in home, and home in work, along with all the other unintended consequences of the response to Covid and an authoritarianism entirely anathema to the British way of life and history. It resulted, as Yuan Yi Zhu notes in a recent Critic review, in a level of “corruption, misery, and wholesale destruction of civil liberties” unknown in the majority of our lifetimes. 

Meanwhile, there is the UK housing crisis and the mammoth challenges for those trying to get a foot on the property ladder. As Stephen Daisley noted in a recent Spectator article, today only 28 per cent of 25-34 year olds own their own home. In 1989 it was 51 per cent. There is an important relationship between property, the ultimate refuge for privacy, and liberty. As we lose the ability to stake a claim to privacy, we are increasingly vulnerable and reliant on (or prey to) the suffocating embrace of the munificent State and the faceless, unelected bureaucrats and ideologues who drive policy. 

“Power and property go together,” Mark T. Mitchell, author of Plutocratic Socialism: The Future of Private Property and the Fate of the Middle Class, notes in the recent First Things podcast “On Property and Freedom. “The class that controls the property … will shape the mores, control the direction of a nation. If you have an evacuation of the middle class and exchange that for [a] strengthening of a plutocratic class, a wealthy class that sees themselves as morally superior and as a consequence exempt from law and custom, and at the other end [you have] a kind of propertyless, nomadic, insecure and anxious class, you’ve got a very toxic situation.” 

Whilst this is happening, around the world the digital revolution sees a “drive towards digital currency and digital ID that has been accelerated by the Covid crisis”, Alex Klaushofer, a writer specialising in public policy and dystopian trends, notes in her Substack series of “Bafflement” essays. She highlights how at a recent meeting between the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank Groups, attendees discussed the “benefits” of central bank digital currency (CBDC) and digital IDs being paired “as a package”. 

Don’t worry, as we slide toward soft totalitarianism

Such measures, if adopted, Klaushofer warns, could “potentially affect every aspect of an individual’s life, right down to details that have hitherto been considered private and personal, creating a completely different kind of society”. Such a society would be based on, as Yi Zhu describes, “the logical endpoint of liberal proceduralism: rules without belief, form without substance”. There remains “an occlusion of the fundamental questions”, Klaushofer notes, when it comes to these potentially hugely consequential drives and discussions. No one is asking: “Will these developments promote human flourishing? Are they in the interests of ordinary people? What do they mean for the rights and freedoms that have long been taken to be central to a good society?” 

In addition to a prevailing “narrative of inevitability” around technology and progress, all too often such questions are side-lined on the basis of the permacrisis logic being expounded, as we lurch from Covid to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, runaway inflation and economic meltdown — all whilst steeped in clarion calls about oncoming environmental catastrophe or demographic collapse. 

Don’t worry, as we slide toward the soft totalitarianism that the 19th century French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville warned about in Democracy and America, which will be deemed necessary in order to deal with the latest “crisis” — rather than all of us having to wear Chairman Mao suits, we’ll be free to dress as badly as a bunch of Americans at their worst. There will be crop tops and Peston-esque trainers galore, as we clock in for another Covid booster or Soma dose, or shuffle along in another interminable queue to fill out one more form to maintain the right to live un-harassed. 

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