The new politics of meaning

Torn EU flag
Image (CC) Andrew Barclay

The politics of meaning are swirling into a new configuration. Since the 1960s, “values issues” have defined stable left and right political coalitions. Most people dutifully lined up with one side or the other, and most political questions were forced to align with a fixed left vs. right opposition.

The 2016 American Presidential campaign, and the UK Brexit vote, have split both the “left” and “right” internally, each into roughly equal halves. A new basic division of political opinion has emerged—in these countries, at least. But what is it? 

I suspect the fault line in the new politics reflects the communal versus systematic modes of relating to meaning. This realignment offers both fearful risks and hopeful opportunities—because both modes are partly right and partly wrong. Although a communal/systematic split could be catastrophic, it may also point the way to a new mode that heals the fundamental crisis of meaningness that has plagued the West for a hundred years.


A return to the pre-’60s politics of class?

A common current analysis invokes socio-economic class:

This is probably partly accurate—but I suspect not quite right.

College degrees predict social class better than economic class. This might suggest that “snooty elite contempt” is a larger factor than income inequality. That seems dubious. 

I will suggest a different explanation: that college degrees predict support for systems as such.

The politics of incoherence

Before getting to that alternative analysis, let’s look at another pair of unexpected political quakes. Some readers may be old enough to remember Occupy and the Tea Party. These movements were strikingly similar, although one was on “the far left” and the other on “the far right.” Both were highly upset about something, and wanted immediate change, but—it was much noted at the time—neither could say what they wanted, why they should get it, or how anyone could give it to them.

These movements initiated the politics of incoherence. Up to this point, it was taken for granted that political statements had to make sense. They might be based on invented “facts,” or use fallacious reasoning; but it was a social convention that they had to at least sound like rational arguments. 

Occupy and the Tea Party were exhilarating, because suddenly you could just say what you thought, without any need to justify it. You could simply ignore your opponents’ claims, without any tedious responsibility for working out counter-arguments. 

This was based on the accurate recognition that political arguments are pointless. They never convince anyone. Everyone now understands that interest groups will always pay TV pundits to spout statistical factoids and logical-sounding arguments in favor of anything, no matter how wrong. The moral duty to regurgitate those no longer seems compelling.

Similarly, many have commented on the incoherence of the 2016 Brexit and American Presidential campaigns. It is not that that one side or the other is wrong. It is that key participants no longer even pretend to make sense. There is no longer a social norm that politics should make sense.

In America, both Trump and Sanders practice the politics of incoherence. They are unapologetic about ignoring facts, and feel no obligation to offer realistic policy proposals. That stuff is ancient history. Politics isn’t about sense, facts, or policy anymore.

“It’s the system!”

Occupy and the Tea Party couldn’t explain what they wanted, but it’s clear what they were against: “The System.” They recognized that politics-as-usual will always keep The System in power. The System doesn’t care about “left” and “right.” Those are just entertainment for the masses: two football teams who play the same game by the same rules, indistinguishable apart from the colors on their jerseys.

The American Presidential campaign was “supposed” to be Bush versus Clinton, both boringly loyal agents of The System, neither of whom would have changed anything much. Both parties were unexpectedly split, to an unprecedented extent, by incoherent, anti-System candidates.

There is no “The System,” actually—that’s conspiracy theory stuff. What we have instead are numerous interlocking, sometimes-competing systems: governments, laws, corporations, the media, the professions, churches and religions, schools and universities, hospitals and transportation utilities. 

These intricate institutions all run on the systematic mode of relating to meaning. I have explained that in detail: in historical terms here, and in social and psychological terms here. In summary, the systematic mode demands that society operate according to a structure of justification, built from chains of reasons. It is “rational” at least in that everything has to make sense, in terms of “this, therefore that.” Ideally, society operates as a well-maintained machine. 

The enormous improvements in material conditions over the past few centuries are due mainly to systematicity. That’s the good part. 

The bad part is that the systematic mode is profoundly psychologically unnatural. For many people it seems dehumanizing, alienating, incomprehensible, senseless, meaningless, and utterly immoral. This has been obvious for a hundred years.

Renegotiating the relationship between individuals and society has been a pressing—but unsolved—problem since at least the First World War. It reached a breaking point in the 1960s and ’70s, when the two countercultures, of the left and right, proposed alternative reforms.3 Both were partly accepted, and an uneasy synthesis of the two has been the de facto mainstream social form for half a century. Until now: the new politics suggests that the deal offered to individuals by society is no longer adequate.

Systematicity was always imposed by elites. Few people wanted it, and most would have rejected it if they could. The majority implicitly mistook material progress as something that just happens, not fully recognizing that medicine and jobs and roads and food and the internet depend on vast chains of “because.” Research by Robert Kegan, a psychologist whose work has heavily influenced my thinking on this topic, suggests that roughly two thirds of Americans are unable to fully cope with the demands of systematic institutions. They are “developmentally traditional people in a modern world.” 

Undergraduate education explains the systematic structures of justification,4 which is why, I think, the new politics correlates so strongly with lack of a college degree.

The revolt against systematicity—if that is what we are seeing—is genuinely democratic. This is good. People who cope poorly with systematicity have, until now, been denied any voice; they had no platform to speak, and in elections were offered only a choice between parties and candidates who all took systematicity for granted. That was anti-democratic and unfair. The internet, particularly social media, now gives them a platform—and the American primary election has given them a candidate.

What’s the alternative?

The natural human alternative is the communal mode: unstructured, egalitarian, empathic, local, tribal, familiar, and comfortable. This mode—I’ve also called it “choiceless”—feels profoundly right. We evolved to live in such societies; they fit our psychology in a way systematic ones cannot. 

The problem is, the communal mode cannot sustain life on a planet of billions of people, much less provide the material benefits, entertainment, and understanding we are used to.

The problem is, we currently have no workable alternative to systematicity. This makes anti-systematic politics entirely nihilistic. Occupy, the Tea Party, Leave, Trump, and Sanders endorse communal-mode values—quite rightly—but have no practical vision for how society could better support them. Even many of their supporters freely admit that their votes are simply against the systematic status quo, not for something better. Their attitude is “we want to end politics, because we always lose anyway.” This risks destroying the conditions for civilized life, in a rage that institutions are imperfect.

On the other hand, again, the status quo is not merely imperfect, but—for many—intolerable. Fortunately, the systematic mode’s claim to ultimate justification is bogus. This is widely understood by elites, but they see no better alternative, and—cynically—many have merely milked systems as their grounding increasingly disintegrates. Particularly in the past decade, more and more, the developed economies are devoted to rent-seeking: systems that stand in the way of people doing useful things, and charge fees to let us past.5 The “mainstream” American Presidential candidates are widely viewed as values-free puppets of rent-seeking economic elites.

The systematic mode can, should, must be superseded—not by the communal mode, but by something that combines benefits of both. I think that is possible; I describe it as the “fluid mode.” (I haven’t given a proper account of this yet. There are beginnings here and here and here.)

A revolt against the systematic mode may force progress toward fluidity—if we escape simple nihilistic destruction.

  1. 1.My chapter on the ’60s-’80s countercultural mode will cover the history this soon. I hope.
  2. 2.The demographics of Trump supporters is itself a contested political issue, so it’s hard to be confident of facts based on casual web searches that lead to mass media reports. Detractors want to prove that Trump supporters are stupid; supporters want to prove that it’s socially acceptable to vote for him even if you are college-educated.
  3. 3.A revival of class politics would be a return to the pre–1960s political landscape. Interestingly, an anti-systematic politics would be a return to the 1960s, which pitted the anti-systematic counterculture against the systematic Establishment. The countercultural left became the new systematic establishment in the 1970s—as I will recount Real Soon Now.
  4. 4.Unfortunately, as I explained in a recent post, this is decreasingly true, due to obfuscatory postmodernism. This may be one reason for the rise of anti-systematic politics: even many of the college-educated now fail to understand the value of systematicity.
  5. 5.Two obvious American examples: banks charge a couple of percent every time someone gives someone else non-physical money; technologically, this cannot cost them more than a small fraction of a percent. The health finance industry takes several percent of GDP, in exchange for preventing people from getting medical care. In the UK, Remain’s argument that Britain was economically better off in than out may have been correct, but it’s also true that the EU creates elaborate artificial barriers to voluntary exchanges, for the benefit of protected economic interests.