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Artillery Row

On conservative despair

It is hard to escape the sense of tremendous national loss

A certain rebellious parliamentarian once told me, “You know, you and me: we’re unemployable.”

While provoking laughter, the remark hit home. Notwithstanding how pleased I was to be considered a rebel, those words tapped into something very real: a reality of not belonging, of fragility, of sadness at the loss of something once taken for granted. They confirmed how the world seemed to have become a largely hostile place, not a place where a welcome — or employment — could easily be found. 

Basically, I knew that my first book The Tribe: The Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity — had set me against the ruling quasi-religion of “diversity”. I would have to face the consequences of this. It is what happens when you go against the prevailing power: and when that power does not accept contradiction. 

As the rebel parliamentarian attested however, I was far from alone. Through what I called in that book “the system of diversity”, the world has turned against many of us more or less explicitly, and many more (perhaps nearly all) implicitly. Our social revolution is ongoing, and those who do not submit fully to its ever-changing dynamics are going to find themselves as victims of it in some way or another.

As a project directed to the home front, this revolution is just as utopian and impractical as the doomed attempts at Western modernization in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is another example of the uprooting processes of modernity. For the mass transformation of society that we are going through has parallels both with the ruptures of the Industrial Revolution and the effects of Western colonialism.

The economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote of the Industrial Revolution and the worker bees created for it that:

… a principle quite unfavourable to individual and general happiness was wreaking havoc with his social environment, his neighbourhood, his standing in the community, his craft; in a word, with those relationships to nature and man in which his economic existence was formerly embedded. The Industrial Revolution was causing a social dislocation of stupendous proportions, and the problem of poverty was merely the economic aspect of this event.

As Polanyi emphasised, “Not economic exploitation, as often assumed, but the disintegration of the cultural environment of the victim is then the cause of the degradation.” The “Indians” of North America went through an extreme version of this process, examined by philosopher Jonathan Lear in Radical Hope, his study of how the Crow tribe responded to its cultural devastation. Lear writes, “What we have in this case is not an unfortunate occurrence, not even a devastating occurrence like a holocaust; it is a breakdown of the field in which occurrences occur.” 

The conception of things no longer happening expresses how the lives of tribe members and the community had been stripped of meaning after the buffalo were wiped out and whites took the land. In terms of their identity as a people, they had pretty much died, even if their bodies remained alive. They no longer had the tools to respond to the world as it had become.

It is a process in which political, social and economic changes make certain forms of life and identity effectively impossible

In The Tribe, I called this sort of phenomenon “existential defeat”. It is a process in which political, social and economic changes make certain forms of life and identity effectively impossible. The connections into the world which made life meaningful are severed and replaced. Existential defeat is not a sudden and absolute phenomenon; it is a process which happens by degrees which are not always materially apparent, appearing to the people themselves more as a curtailment of possibilities, or a reduction of opportunities, not appearing as amenable to effective intervention or resistance. 

And this process is happening to many of us now, especially those who appear outside the system of diversity and its favoured groups.

In my book I focused primarily on the working class, which has borne the brunt of modernity’s rupturing tendencies repeatedly over the years and has been most exposed to recent hyper-mass migration. The process of ceding physical and existential space, and feeling the defeat from doing so, is necessarily most pronounced for those without much in the way of financial and political resources.

But in truth I knew the phenomenon had a much wider relevance. I felt it in myself. And I knew a lot of other people of a similar background were feeling it too. We felt like we were losing. The environment around us was changing rapidly, becoming less responsive to us and our concerns: sometimes indifferent and absent, sometimes actively hostile and threatening. Five years on and this feeling is stronger, more palpable and self-conscious.

Nowadays, the loosely English “us” that I feel myself part of isn’t really allowed to be an “us” any more, except in a negative way linked to racism and colonialism. And in line with this narrative, the qualities of English or British culture seem to be disappearing. Indeed some activists even claim that there are no such qualities, and never were any. We literally don’t exist, they say enthusiastically.

In this context, Kate Fox’s Watching the English, written back in 2004, evokes a degree of nostalgia. She described the core of Englishness pithily as Social Dis-ease; its main reflexes being Humour, Moderation and Hypocrisy (closely linked to politeness); its main outlooks Empiricism, Eeyorishness and Class-consciousness; and its main values Fair play, Courtesy and Modesty. 

Qualities like courtesy, modesty and humour no longer make sense like they used to

These things are still present in England, even in London, but somehow feel more precious for their rarity, for the way they seem to be dying, for the way even that we seem to be dying, at least in existential terms. Qualities like courtesy, modesty and humour no longer make sense like they used to. They no longer reward. Indeed, they often have costs attached.

Books proliferate promoting stark messages that white people and especially white men are a socially diseased caste responsible for all that is bad in the world. And our leading institutions routinely treat these books as instruction manuals. 

Our culture is pretty much dead. Our once-loved BBC has become a parody of welcoming Auntie: now more a cross between an overwrought teenager and a sour, interfering mother-in-law. Our comedy, like most other cultural output, now appears more like mutual grooming for revolutionaries than something there to make us laugh and take the edge off a hard day. 

Politically, our tradition of genuine, honest debate also appears to be dissipating, notwithstanding noble efforts from some like at the Battle of Ideas. Our political parties are like Dumb and Dumber. Having a decent-sized home in a decent neighbourhood is a distant dream now for many. Vital institutions like the police seem to have become singularly incompetent as they embrace the same identity politics as everyone else. 

In a recent extended interview, the philosopher John Gray said that “what might be called ‘liberal civilization’ I think is gone. It’s over, and can’t be brought back.” 

He added: 

We are living in an order in which the freedoms of thought and expression that were taken for granted … cannot be taken for granted almost anywhere now.

There are enclaves of freedom, enclaves of free expression … But in university life and other contexts, there are informal and formal constraints on what you can say which are not actually imposed by governments – this is how it differs from 20th Century totalitarianism – but by the institutions themselves.

Gray foresees a situation in which “large parts of society will be given over to fragmentation or semi-anarchy” as weak governments prove unable to impose any sort of order on mutant institutions. 

I guess an enclave is better than nothing, but the prognosis is bleak. The implicit social contract I used to take for granted is disappearing. It is being replaced by a world that is much colder, harder and uninterested in the old civility and standards, seeing them as irredeemably tainted by their association to, well to people like me. 

To be unemployable in this context may be almost inevitable, a function of being on the wrong side of history, for resisting society’s necessary revolutionary progress. But this is scant consolation if you want to contribute to your community and society, let alone be rewarded for it.

That sense of loss keeps gnawing away. Given the reality it seems entirely justified. And perhaps the only reason for optimism is that we are far from alone in feeling it.

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