The middle class has proven resistant to traditionalism. I want to explain some of the reasons for this and suggest how we might identify and appeal to the more disaffected members of this class.
Middle class life today is based on two distinct value sets. The first set I would call elite status values. These are materialistic values such as money, power, social status and conspicuous consumption. The pursuit of career success is at the heart of this value set.
Elite status values aren't new. I remember reading about middle class life in the mid-1800s. It was supposedly the case that a young man wasn't thought to be in a position to marry until he had enough resources to afford to stable horses and have a carriage at his disposal. This meant that some men had to wait until their 30s before they had any prospects for marriage.
What is new is that status has become more narrowly materialistic. Middle-class men in the past were also judged on other criteria, such as their status within a family as husbands and fathers; their uprightness; their masculine character; their commitment to a church; their taste in the fine arts; their education and learning; their self-control and so on. It's an extraordinary thing today to read character portraits that were written in the early to mid-1800s as they are so detailed and perceptive regarding the strengths and weaknesses of the men being described.
The second middle class value set is that of liberal autonomy. The good here is not so much having money, power and status but a freedom to do what you have a mind to do - to freely pursue your aims whatever they might be. It is thought to be just for everyone to have an equal right to this value of individual autonomy.
In certain respects these two value sets are in harmony. If you achieve great success in obtaining money and social influence then you are likely to have more lifestyle choice. Also, by committing yourself to the second value set you can persuade yourself that your life is not narrowly about money but also about a cause (of justice, freedom, equality etc.).
However, there is also a sense in which the two value sets are incompatible. Someone who commits themselves to the corporate grind is not really living a life in which they can choose freely to do whatever they have a mind to do. Their life is closely regulated to meet the needs of the corporation or institution they work for. Also, not everyone has an "equal right" to actually achieve elite status - if they did, then the status would no longer be elite. Most people who commit to the values of elite status will never actually experience this status. They will do the hard work but not get the desired reward. So the egalitarian aspect of the liberal autonomy value set is not compatible with the elitist aspect of the elite values set.
Middle class values are, therefore, not entirely coherent. Nonetheless, people willingly or unwillingly conform to them. If we look at middle class men, I think they fall into two camps. There are some middle class men who are by nature materialistic and ambitious. They are unsettled in life until they achieve career success. There is an equally large group of men, however, who are not like this. These men commit to career not because they think material success is important in itself, but because it is a means to other goods in life, especially the opportunity to attract a wife and to form a family (but also to fulfil aspects of manhood, such as successfully providing for a family, and to raise up the next generation to perpetuate familial and national traditions etc.)
For this second group of men, long hours in an office will seem like a considerable sacrifice in life, and they will be hoping for some reward or recognition for their efforts in bearing this burden. In the past, these men had a good chance of an enduring marriage (admittedly there was no guarantee of a happy marriage); of raising children within their own tradition; and of gaining a level of respect and acknowledgement within society as husbands and fathers.
As for middle class women, they too are committed to achieving elite status. The question for women is whether they aim to do this independently via careers, through marriage or both.
I work among women at the lower end of the middle class pecking order. These are women who are strongly committed to elite status values but who have no prospect of anything other than stressful working lives. A high percentage are either divorced or childless. They are under constant pressure to meet work demands or else face the threat of being called into the boss's office to justify their failings. It is in the nature of our industry that the work consumes a lot of time at home as well.
These women are often discontent and disgruntled, but they are still strongly supportive of the middle class values system. The problem is that they have been raised to believe that men, just in virtue of being men, have complete access to both middle class value sets. In other words, they believe that men already have all the elite status rewards and all the autonomous power to act as they want.
It's a strange belief, perhaps based, in part, on the "apex fallacy" of looking only at those men at the very top of society. What it means, though, is that they think that the way to solve their problems is to force men to share the goods that men are supposedly hoarding for themselves and won't give up.
These women often complain that men have easy lives, can do what they want, that marriage only benefits men, that men have all the power in relationships and so on. It is a mindset destructive of loving relationships, which then further cements the position of these women at the bottom of the elite values pecking order.
But you can see why traditionalism makes no headway among these women. The worse their lives get, the more they double down on the belief that men are to blame. They are held to the system as well by their belief that no matter how difficult their lives it is all for the cause of female liberation.
Unsurprisingly, traditionalism is strongest among middle class women who have commitments other than elite status or autonomy. These are usually religious women who view being a wife and mother as serious vocations.
If traditionalism is to make headway within the middle class, it's more likely to be among men (at first anyway). Not the naturally ambitious, materialistic men, but among those who sign onto careers as a means to achieve other, non-material goods in life.
These other goods are increasingly difficult to obtain - the expectation is growing that we are meant to find a materialistic justification for our lives to be sufficient (combined with some sort of superficial "wokeness" on social issues).
It is likely that numbers of these men will become disaffected. They won't find much joy in the prospect of becoming "bugmen" - corporate wage slaves whose only rewards are ethnic cuisine, new technology and shallow virtue signalling.
So one of our tasks is to find ways to appeal to the sensibilities and values of these men (ideally we would be in a position to concentrate numbers and provide real world, small scale communities, but we're not there yet).
One way to appeal to these men is to develop our own version of elite status. We don't have to reject career success as one aspect of this (industry and self-discipline are virtues after all) but it should go beyond this to include masculine leadership within the family and community.
We can encourage the link between elite status and "polis life" - the active contribution of men to the building and governance of community.
We can also appeal to the type of men I am speaking about by clearly affirming the non-material goods in life that traditionally motivated men. We can, for instance, promote the dignity of the roles of father and husband, connection to people and place, and the cultivation of masculine character.
Is this a sort of mini manifesto Mark?ReplyDelete
It didn't start that way. It was prompted by a political conversation I was drawn into at work with some of my female colleagues. But it did start to feel by the end that I was setting out a program of sorts - though I would need to extend the ideas at the end of how to appeal to the type of man who is likely to become disaffected by the way things are now.Delete
A few additional observations:
1. The analysis in the post is not only meant to explain why some middle class men might become disaffected, but how some people are held to the system. In my observation there are still young middle-class men who are drawn into the pursuit of elite status values combined with a commitment to woke virtue signalling. You cannot therefore simply provide them with alternative ideas and expect them to jump on board. It's not until they become disillusioned with the reality of their lived experience that they might become open to alternatives.
To put this in specific terms, the teenage middle-class young men I know are aiming at success as it is defined within society - they want to live abroad in foreign capitals working as analysts, they like the inner urban apartment ideal, and they link progress to new technology. They are more financially astute than some previous generations. They satisfy their non-materialistic promptings by adopting a moral cause like environmentalism. They are adapting to the last niche permitted them.
They are also more anxious than previous generations.
But it is a narrow frame of life with narrow margins of success - it is not in the longer term going to satisfy all middle-class men and we should do what we can to offer alternative values and hopefully one day alternative communities.
2. In terms of clarifying the next step, I would include something else that I didn't mention in the post. The core of the traditionalist criticism of liberalism is starting to be heard more widely. We are on the verge of becoming recognised as a political tendency in society - of being on the radar. It would be a big step forward if those young people reaching that point in life in deciding on their political allegiances were at least aware of our politics as one of the options. Part of our work should be to help push along this process.