We may like to think of people as progressive or conservative, collectivist or individualist, egalitarian or meritocratic, caring or competitive, libertarian or authoritarian, selfless or selfish, nature-loving or materialist. All too often we simplify these issues along an arbitrary left to right spectrum, usually with the more virtuous stances on the left. However, one criterion sets us apart from the crowd, dissent. What kind of people will go against the flow and challenge contemporary orthodoxy out of personal conviction risking social opprobrium?
In the 19th century the prevailing doctrinal system across much of Western Europe preached love of God, monarch and country, moral superiority of European civilisations, traditional two parent families and a rigid class system in which everyone knew their place. Critical thinkers would naturally look to alternatives that challenged the hegemony of the old aristocracy, the clergy and the emerging capitalist classes in pursuit of greater freedom, independence, morality or social justice. In short people rebel because they are dissatisfied with the current system and envision a better world for themselves, their loved ones or for wider society, which they see threatened by vested interests. Likewise, people conform to gain favour with the managerial classes and win the trust of their neighbours and colleagues around shared allegiances.
A rebel in 1960's North America may have opposed the worst excesses of capitalism with its unbridled cut-throat competition and its promotion of wasteful mass consumerism. By contrast a rebel in the Soviet Union of the same era would oppose the state repression of personal liberties, censorship, pervasive surveillance and the extreme concentration of power in the party machine. While we may place one rebel on the left and the other on the right, they may well have been striving for the same fundamental human values that seek to marry personal freedom with social responsibility. Soviet-era propaganda would routinely portray dissidents like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as neo-fascists or dangerous reactionaries eager to unravel the great progressive gains of the workers' revolution. By the same token Western rebels before the precipitous fall of the Soviet Union were often portrayed as communists who would threaten our cherished family life, Christian values, democracy or free market economy.
Anarcho-communists and Metro-elitists against the Traditional Working Classes
In country after country we're witnessing a rather odd spectacle. Social conservatives with a strong belief in two-parent families, nation states and cultural traditions have become the new nonconformists, rejecting the prevailing mantra of endless progressive social engineering. If you support gay marriage, open borders, cultural homogenisation and the re-categorisation of humanity into competing victim groups, you will enjoy the whole-hearted support of much of the mainstream media, academia, many well-funded NGOs, big business and many large governments. For decades the growing leisure sector has openly promoted a carefree lifestyle of boundless explorative indulgence. Two recent referenda in Ireland reveal the emerging divide between universalist conformists, easily swayed by celebrity opinion leaders and subliminal media conditioning, on the one hand and traditionalist nonconformists on the other. In both the gay marriage and abortion consultations, organisations such as Amnesty International and the Open Society Foundation joined the main political parties, the Irish Times and many high-profile celebrities such as Bono and former President Mary McAleese to push for change. Only ten to fifteen years earlier the Irish people would have rejected both referendum propositions.
On the other side of the big pond the intellectual gulf lies between conservative rednecks and liberal professionals with their large fan base of special interest groups dependent either on welfare largesse or beneficiaries of the postmodern lifestyle revolution. North American terminology often confuses outsiders. While American liberals may have once advocated less state interference into people's personal lives and championed small businesses and free speech, today they invariably advocate greater state involvement in every aspect of our lives presumably to tackle the scourges of social isolation, discrimination, mental ill-health and manage the complexities of rapid cultural change and apparent hyperdiversity, empowering state and corporate actors to monitor the masses for their own good. Indian-American author Dinesh D'Souza has coined a metaphor for the transformation of the American Democratic Party, from supporters of slavery, racial segregation and the infamous Klu Klux Klan, to the champion of all purportedly disadvantaged victim groups. Whereas 19th century Democrat politicians wanted to confine African Americans to the rural plantations, dependent on the benevolence of their slave masters, it now relies increasingly on votes from denizens of the urban welfare plantations, dependent on state handouts. 150 years ago farmers and manufacturers still needed plenty of cheap manual labour. Today they need loyal consumers more than conscientious workers.
We have progressed from an age when the authorities treated homosexuality as a mental disorder, often prescribing hormone treatment to suppress undesirable erotic urges, to an age when teachers, social workers and medical professions collude to indulge transgender fantasies in young children, often prescribing hormones to suppress natural puberty. Whereas once sexual deviants may have run foul of the law, today parents and carers who adhere to traditional family values may attract the ire of busy-body social workers and even have their children removed.
Meanwhile in old Blighty we see the Guardian-reading professional classes take to the streets to express their support for the European superstate and their distaste for the maverick US President, who seems too keen on enforcing border controls and not keen enough on military adventurism. Europe is inconceivable without France, but just 15 months after reluctantly opting for establishment wonder boy, Emanuel Macron, in a run-off with the much-maligned nationalist candidate, Marine Le Pen, the French have had enough of more global convergence. The yellow vests, or les gilets jaunes, represent the grievances of the squeezed provincial working classes and small business owners, most affected by higher fuel duties, extreme labour mobility, outsourcing and smart automation. Recent socio-economic trends have had two main sets of perceived beneficiaries: the affluent professional classes and a growing array of welfare-dependent victim groups, who have acquired a sense of entitlement denied to previous generations, who before the expansion of their modern welfare state had either to earn their keep or appeal to the generosity of their extended family. Combined these groups still form a minority of the general population. While artificial intelligence may see the professional classes (currently around 15-20%) shrink further, the welfare classes are growing across Western and Northern Europe (anywhere between 15 and 25%). The squeezed middle of normal hard-working families, struggling to make ends meet, have become a little inconvenient for social policy planners as they tend to have conservative views on most contemporary controversies, i.e. wanting to conserve the viable society that helped millions of ordinary people earn enough to marry, start a family, afford a house and buy a car to entertain the illusion of personal independence. Most citizens were happy for the state to offer a helping hand when they fell on bad times, but did not want the state to run their lives, raise their children or eavesdrop on their private conversations. The public sector should serve the interests of the people and not vice versa. However, today sociologists, and many politicians, talk increasingly of communities rather the people, as the fast pace of demographic change, migratory flows and labour market fluidity has destabilised traditional rooted communities and replaced them with transient communities of disparate special interest groups, which may be as diverse as single mothers, gays, lesbians, Muslims, West Africans, Chinese, sufferers of mental illnesses, online gamers or Python programmers. We now identify people more by their behaviour than by their family or ethnicity.
The cosmopolitan professional elites and rooted masses have two conflicting worldviews. The former views grievances and civil unrest as social policy challenges that require more proactive intervention and outreach groups to engineer a more harmonious social reality by reconciling the divergent interests of our new intersectional communities. They see themselves helping other people adapt to globalisation and rapid cultural change rather than trying to preserve their former way of life. In short, the progressive managerial classes view the rest of us as overgrown children who must learn to play together without fighting or bullying.
By contrast advocates of nation states, still the vast majority of Europeans, view citizens as the architects of their common social landscape who agree on shared values and participate actively in their geographic community, i.e. a country is what its people make of it. Naturally some communities may have radically divergent cultural practices that impair social cohesion. To resolve such conflicts, we may either confine some activities to private properties or designated public zones, or seek greater regional autonomy to manage affairs more in tune with the wishes of local residents. Europe's largest nation states evolved after a lengthy process of cultural convergence largely along linguistic and religious lines. Multi-ethnic empires such as the defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth could survive in feudal times as convenient alliances of fiefdoms and royal dynasties, but few countries could nurture liberal democratic institutions without a strong sense of shared identity and usually a common language. Belgium and Switzerland have finely tuned federal systems to accommodate multiple national languages, while Spain has granted Catalonia considerable autonomy over language policy. Large multilingual federations as diverse as India, Nigeria or South Africa struggle to build a unified identity around an administrative language only spoken proficiently by the managerial classes. To this day the native peoples of Europe retain a strong sense of shared national identity and history, supplemented only by new universal behavioural identities and postmodern universalist values, but such parochial feelings are much weaker among the professional classes and young adults immersed in a world of pop culture and easy travel. As natives are now distinct minorities in many Western European towns and cities (e.g. in only 3 of London's 32 boroughs are a majority of primary school children classed as White British), we can only expect further weakening of shared nationhood.
However, we live in an era of shifting alliances. In France the latter-day Trotskyists of Jean-Luc Mélenchon's La France Insoumise make common cause with socially conservative lorry drivers, small business owners and farmers. Some on the left still remember the days when we supported workers' strugglers against outsourcing and imported agency workers. Some old school trade unionists still realise the workers' struggle needs a united working class able to disempower their bosses through targeted industrial action. Globalisation has severely weakened the bargaining power of European workers. If they strike, their manufacturing facilities will simply be relocated, automated or operated by a new team of temporary labourers. The descendants of the old syndicalist left have failed to reconcile their universalist ideals of international solidarity and equality for all disadvantaged groups with the practical needs of today's core working classes who struggle to compete in a dynamic labour market with an endless supply of transient human resources at the bottom end of the salary scale and forever higher levels of expertise required at the top end. What's worse lucrative careers demand extreme specialisation with extraordinary personal qualities. Conscientiousness, or as we often call it today a can-do attitude, no longer suffices, leaving many redundant workers with a bleak choice between competing at the bottom end of the labour market for breadcrumbs and learning new intellectually challenging skills to outwit the best and brightest university graduates. Not surprisingly, many just give up and join the welfare classes. In 1980s Britain unsuccessful young adults would often blame Thatcherism for their misfortunes, but the old manufacturing and mining jobs that employed millions of workers are not coming back as robots take over. Today's Labour Party would like us to blame the Tories for cutting public spending. Yet such cuts are an illusion as government spending continues to rise year on year. The paternalist left would have us believe that minor adjustments to welfare provision, namely in a British context the roll-out of the new universal credit system, are fuelling the growth of foodbanks and homelessness in a country whose primary causes of premature death are all related to obesity and/or junk food and whose housing crisis is only exacerbated by unbalanced migratory flows, which they dare not criticise.
To fully understand the transition of the mainstream left from rebels to establishment cheerleaders, one need look no further than Aaron Bastani's new book about our emerging technotopia bankrolled by the world's leading tech giants. Would it be too far-fetched if a future worldwide government took the likes Amazon, Huweii, Samsung, Microsoft, Google and Apple into public ownership and proceeded to redistribute their massive profits as universal basic income? As Chinese industries begin to invest billions of Yuan in intelligent robotics, the sleeping giant is poised to become the world's largest consumer market with the government rolling out a social credit system to reward its citizens not for their hard work, but for their compliance. Currently, social credits entitle well-behaved citizens to discounts, easier Just Spend loans and travel passes, but it doesn't take a huge leap of faith to imagine that one day such a system could form the basis of universal basic income. Your basic income would be supplemented by rewards if you acted as a model citizen proselytising preferred lifestyle choices and cultural outlooks. While it may seem fair to reward you for taking good care of your health through regular exercise and a wise diet to minimise your burden on the public healthcare service, you may not be so pleased about the state's undue interest in your mental health, whose definition now extends to your political and moral views. Only last week Humberside police questioned a man who retweeted a transgender limerick, which they flagged as a hate incident, after a serious of social media message critical of gender theory. Now imagine having your UBI cut because you failed to attend a gay pride event, expressed your disagreement with euthanasia (already legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland) or just failed to cooperate fully with the government's social engineering initiatives. Bastani may envisage our idyllic future as a large holiday resort interspersed with parks, playgrounds, sports centres, dance halls, libraries, cafés and canteens where highly educated professionals only work a few hours a week. The trouble is only a tiny fraction of the general population will understand the complex technologies that make such a world possible or be fully aware of the advanced people management techniques required to maintain the illusion of social tranquillity.
Agitating against Wrongthink
Back in the day fascists were autocrats who did not trust the people at large to participate fully in open debate about how to run their society. From a fascist perspective, benevolent dictators may occasionally consult the people via stage-managed plebiscites, but only the upper echelons of the managerial classes can be trusted with the administration of our collective infrastructure and organs of indoctrination and supervision. In this regard, Mussolini's Italy, Franco's Spain or Salazar's Portugal had much in common with Stalin's Soviet Union, except the latter aspired to worldwide socialism while often appealing to pan-Slavism and Russian nationalism. Not only did Mussolini start his political career as a socialist and as editor of the Italian Socialist Party's newspaper Avanti, but his fascist government pioneered the role of state intervention to accelerate industrial growth in a kind of public-private partnership known at the time as corporativismo.
Today many on the universalist left accuse anyone opposed to corporate globalisation of, wait for it, fascism. That's right. Fascists used to be corporate authoritarians, while today it's the opponents of corporate hegemony and cultural convergence who get labelled perversely as fascist. Even more perversely free speech is now tarnished by its association with the so-called far right. In practice that means we can longer freely discuss multifaceted issues such as migration, surveillance, sex education in primary schools or censorship without being accused of racism, terrorism, homophobia or hatred. Just as we asserted the right to intellectual freedom in the 1960s and 70s in the name of social progress, many left-leaning social justice warriors now spend much of their time campaigning to censor socially conservative viewpoints. They have become the new arbiters of politically incorrect thought every bit as bad as Mussolini's Ministry of Popular Culture (Ministero della Cultura Popolare) or the infamous East German Stasi (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit). They are not rebels, but enforcers.
True rebels challenge the powers that be and without the freedom to criticise orthodoxy we will slide ineluctably into authoritarianism, albeit of a high-tech variety.