Thursday, September 19, 2013

The elite consensus

What matters in life? There seems to be a consensus amongst the social elite, whether on the right or left, when it comes to this question. It is assumed that the real aim of life is to make yourself in the market. What is considered important morally is that nobody be disadvantaged by factors outside their control, such as their class, race or sex, when it comes to workforce participation.

It's understandable that the elite would share this assumption about life. The kind of people who rise to positions of prominence are often ambitious people who are highly committed to their career and who move within circles in which career is associated with power, wealth, fame and achievement.

But the elite consensus is a problem. First, it is highly reductive and leaves out much of what traditionally anchored human life. Second, it is dissolving of important forms of human identity and connectedness.

Let's take family as an example. The elite consensus assumes that career is what matters most and that the key thing is that family roles and responsibilities don't impede job opportunities, or earnings or status. And so the emphasis is on career being the organising centre of life, including family life, rather than family being an independent institution with its own principles of organisation.

That's why there is hardly anybody in mainstream politics who can really be counted as pro-family, regardless of what political party they are in. The effort to keep the family distinct from the market has failed.

It's a similar story when it comes to a larger communal identity (whether of ethny or nation). If what matters is the individual making himself in the market, then the most heroic person is the one who is an economic migrant, i.e. the person who pitches himself from one country to another to improve their job opportunities or their material conditions of life. But the mass immigration this justifies undermines the historic communities linked by a common ethnicity, i.e. by ties of ancestry, history, culture, religion and language.

In theory, the counterweight to the elite consensus is supposed to come from the churches. But in general the churches have done a poor job in providing an alternative account of what a human life is for.

At times, the churches emphasise the idea that human life is about selfless service to others. This does seem to be set against the elite consensus as it is a non-market and non-materialistic ideal of life. But in some ways it misses the target. Yes, it's true that the elite consensus can lead some people toward material ambition (some feminists for example are very focused on the holding of power in society). But what seems to be really at stake here is not so much materialism, but ideas about human individuality (the unfolding of the human personality).

From the liberal perspective, what we do in the family or as members of a tribe is simply conventional and doesn't therefore express individuality. They prefer the idea of an existence in which there is no entity larger than ourselves, in which there is a purely personal identity (i.e. I identify with myself) and in which relationships are incidental to our true purposes. In other words, they identify individuality (the creative unfolding of ourselves as persons) with a kind of detached self-making.

So the problem isn't at its heart one of materialism or selfishness. Instead, it's a concept of individuality which detaches the individual from particular forms of identity, belonging and connectedness, and also from those goods embedded within our own nature and reality which guide our development in a particular direction.

If the churches are to challenge the elite consensus, then it doesn't help much to emphasise an abstract selflessness, or for that matter abstract moral concepts such as justice or equality. These, if anything, only further encourage the abstracted, detached concept of individuality that the liberal elite operates with.

To be an effective counterweight, the churches would have to emphasise the way that we fulfil our individuality as created beings, made for particular relationships within particular social entities. To be fair, it's possible to find instances of church leaders doing just this (I've got a fine example lined up for a future post), but the general trend runs the other way.