I joined Alex Kaschuta on her Subversive podcast, to talk reactionary feminism, motherhood, postmodernism, LARPing and why there’s nothing sex-positive about porn.
Have a listen here.
The Motherhood Blind Spot
The text below is my opening remarks from Res Publica’s 17 December 2020 seminar on post-liberal feminism, with Kathleen Stock, Louise Perry, Nina Power and Nimco Ali. Watch the full video below:
Before I had a baby, I believed all the usual liberal things about men and women. We’re all basically the same apart from our genitals. We all aspire to freedom and want to choose our relationships and values rather than have them imposed on us. A successful career is something everyone aspires to. Unequal career outcomes are the result only of sexism. Women can do anything men can: we just need the freedom to try.
Then I got pregnant, and found I was no longer a free individual as before. Instead, I was something my liberalism had no language for: a person in a symbiotic relationship. But my symbiote wasn’t some kind of parasite, she was a longed-for baby. She was loved and wanted as well as dependent, and her wellbeing was more important to me than pretty much anything else.
Then I found out this feeling of symbiosis didn’t end when I give birth and was physically separate from my baby. I regularly woke in the night a few seconds before she started crying for milk. I’d lose the ability to think clearly when she needed food. The only time I’ve ever damaged a car in 20 years’ driving was trying to get it round a tight corner with a hungry baby screaming in the back.
All these things get less overwhelming as a baby gets older, but talking to other mums my sense is that feeling of being not totally separate from your kids never really goes away. I’m 41 now, and my mum still often phones moments after I’ve thought of her. I call this the Mum Bluetooth. We have no language for talking about it. This blind spot has political repercussions for women.
Babies are weirdly missing from mainstream feminism except as a problem to be solved. Either they’re an unwanted pregnancy, or they’re holding your earning potential back, or they’re causing ‘unpaid labour’ (also known as caring work) which isn’t shared equally by men.
The unstated premise behind all this is that individual freedom is the highest aspiration for all humans, and inasmuch as female biology pushes against individual freedom women’s biology needs to be overcome.
The Economist, writing about the loss of earnings that accompanies taking a career break to care for children, calls this the ‘motherhood penalty’. That is, for a feminism that’s premised only on freedom and individualism, motherhood is not a superpower. It’s a punishment.
This grudging relationship of femaleness to the ideal liberal subject goes all the way back to the first liberal thinkers. Jean-Jaques Rousseau, one of the foundational thinkers of modern liberalism, didn’t even believe women could be free in this way, and envisaged an education for men that trained them to be independent liberal subjects while women should be raised as charming, compliant support humans.
It wasn’t long before Mary Wollstonecraft challenged the idea that liberalism was just a boys’ club. She claimed education, freedom and emancipation for women on equal terms with men, kick-starting the movement that eventually became feminism.
But here I’m going to be provocative and suggest that actually, in a way, Rousseau was right. Women are less well-suited to liberal autonomy than men. But this isn’t an argument against women, or motherhood. It’s an argument against liberalism.
If we believe the ideal human condition is autonomy, we have no way of thinking about humans as interdependent. And motherhood is the most concrete example of interdependence. An unborn baby is not a separate individual, but nor is it a parasite, or merely a thing.
Even after a baby is born, it’s not really a separate person. The paediatrician Donald Winnicott famously said ‘There is no such thing as a baby, only a baby and someone’. I wasn’t imagining that feeling of being merged, that was so strong when my daughter was tiny. It was an accurate understanding of her condition. If I, or someone else, didn’t love and care for her, she’d die.
In the framework of freedom and individual rights, we have no language for this interdependence.
Liberalism is a doctrine that gives a good account of human society only if you airbrush out all states of dependence. That means that to make the privileging of freedom work, you have to look away from childhood. From old age. From illness. From disability. And if you base your worldview only on freedom, you’ll also end up scribbling out the other side of dependency, which is care.
So it should come as no surprise that we have more freedom than ever before, but we also have a care deficit that no one knows how to address. We clapped for carers during the lockdown, then went straight back to underpaying them. We wince at every nursing home scandal, but have no idea what to do about them, because ignoring dependency and undervaluing care is baked into the liberal worldview. And women, whose biological superpower is the ability to create new humans through a process of symbiosis followed by years of loving care, find that superpower treated as though it’s in fact a handicap.
The sociologist Catherine Hakim has argued that developed-world women’s working preferences actually break down roughly as follows: 20% of mothers prefer to spend all their time with kids, 20% prefer to focus mainly on career, and the remaining 60% prefer a balance of the two. That certainly accords with my anecdotal experience.
But what this means is that 80% of women prefer to make some space in their lives for priorities associated with caring. And yet, because feminism has the liberal blind spot around dependency and care, we find the preoccupations of feminism heavily skewed toward the priorities of that 20% of women whose main priority is individual self-actualisation. That is, the 20% who want a career on the same terms as men. So we have a feminism of childcare, pay gaps, workplace etiquette, celebrating the achievements of successful women and so on. What about the other 80% though? Are we not also women? Whenever I tell people I don’t want to work any harder because I prefer to make some time for family, I sometimes feel vaguely as though I’m letting the side down. But loving your kids shouldn’t be a source of shame.
To be clear, I’m not arguing for sending women back to the kitchen. What I’m saying is that a number of key issues for women can’t easily be addressed unless we stop pretending it’s possible to worship individual freedom and also advocate for women.
If we privilege freedom over biology, we end up writing female bodies out of feminism altogether. That means obstetric care, reproductive healthcare and family issues are no longer specific to women.
It also means even where sex segregation is in place for women’s safety, this becomes difficult to defend. Likewise, if we see males and the careerist female 20% as the workplace default, we’ll struggle to rethink work in ways that meet the needs and preferences of the 80% of women who prefer a balance.
That in turn means a huge proportion of women will end up spending their working lives either having fewer kids than they’d like, which is now the norm all over the West, or else chronically guilty and burned out trying to live up to feminist ideals that were supposed to free us.
To repeat: this is not an argument that there’s something wrong with women. It’s that there’s something wrong with worshipping freedom and calling it feminism. The feminisms that reject this privileging only of freedom and seek to re-centre the women’s movement on female bodies re diverse and there’s plenty to disagree on. This is a space where conservative Christian thought overlaps with radical feminism, as well as with others such as me who don’t fit neatly in either of those groups.
My aim here is just to name the blind spot. To create more space for acknowledging the overlapping themes of women’s bodies, motherhood as a superpower, and the politics of love and interdependence.
Nothing makes it more self-evident than gestating a baby that we belong to each other, not just to ourselves. That’s an idea I’d like to see embraced not just by feminists, not even just by women, but by everyone. It’s sorely missing from our atomised and adversarial politics.
Earlier this year, mining company Rio Tinto dynamited a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sacred site in the Pilbara region of Australia, in pursuit of the iron ore deposits that lay beneath the sacred caves. The decision triggered outrage from Aboriginal communities and the wider world alike. Pressure from investors concerned about the resulting PR disaster eventually forced the CEO to resign.
But that’s not much of a victory for those to whom the now-destroyed site was sacred. As a place of pilgrimage, continuously inhabited since before the last Ice Age, its religious significance had accumulated over millennia of repeated visits, inhabitation and ritual. The holiness of Juukan Gorge lay in the unimaginably long-term accretion of memories, social patterns, and shared cultural maps by countless generations of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples.
Strip mining, the method of resource extraction used to reach much of Pilbara’s iron ore, was the subject of a blistering 1962 Atlantic essay by Harry Caudill. Titled ‘Rape of the Appalachians,’ it describes a process as violent as the analogy suggests, in which entire mountaintops are removed in search of coal deposits. But when you consider the role played by commerce, it’s more accurate to describe the process as prostitution.
It’s not unusual for those looking to destigmatize prostitution to argue that selling sexual access to one’s own body should be morally acceptable, precisely because it’s no worse than coal mining. So here we have two sides of a disagreement, both of whom see commonalities between prostitution and mining, even as they disagree over whether the action itself is good or bad.
How would we characterize what prostitution and mining have in common? Resource extraction, perhaps. Dynamiting Appalachian mountaintops has obvious tradeoffs, but on the upside you get to extract coal from the exposed rock, which you can then use to generate electricity. We accept the environmental destruction, deterioration in air quality, and changed landscape contours (or at least mostly choose to overlook them), because the alternative—no electricity—appears worse.
Selling access to female bodies is also a form of resource extraction. The product may be subtler—orgasm, the illusion of intimacy, darker types of wish-fulfilment or, in the case of commercial surrogacy, a human baby—and the tradeoffs less visibly destructive than a landscape reshaped. But the dynamic is similar. In each case, a woman rents access to something that we consider to belong to each individual alone—her body—and earns money in return. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has supported the decriminalization of prostitution since 1975, recently argued for de-stigmatizing “those who choose to make a living based by self-governing their own bodies.” Earning money independently is good. Self-government over our own resources is good. So on what basis can we criticize people who choose to sell access to their own bodies?
In his 1954 lecture ‘The Question Concerning Technology,’ Martin Heidegger argued that when we organize life under the rubric of technology, the world ceases to have a presence in its own right and is ordered instead as ‘standing-reserve’—that is, as resources to be instrumentalized. Coal and iron ore, the products of technology themselves, and even human sexual desire then come to be seen as part of the standing-reserve. It becomes increasingly difficult to see reasons why there should exist any limits on extracting such resources.
Today, it feels as though we’ve always been engaged in this inexorable onward march. From a more mainstream perspective, what Heidegger is describing is simply the process we now call economic development. It is the transition from pre-industrial societies—characterized by primitive and localised forms of exchange, low workforce mobility, and in many cases by extreme poverty—to longer and more complex supply chains, technological innovation, more trade, more stuff, more wealth, and more personal freedom.
But as Austro-Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi argued in The Great Transformation, for much of human history trade occupied a much less central place in human relations than it does today: “man’s economy, as a rule, is submerged in his social relationships.” Polanyi showed how in Britain, economic development and the emergent market society was driven by the Enclosure Acts between 1750 and 1860. Prior to enclosure, much of Britain comprised subsistence-farming peasants living on land held and worked in common.
Enclosures, justified by a need for greater farming efficiency, stripped the peasantry of any right to common land in favor of a private property model. Pre-enclosure, the necessities of life might have been bare, but many of those necessities existed outside the realm of ownership and trade. A peasant might spend his or her whole life in a tied cottage, with a right to common land, working to produce food but with very little need to buy or sell anything. Enclosure reordered whole swathes of human life from the shared, social realm to that of standing-reserve: that is, the realm of private property and transactional exchange.
Post-enclosures, what had previously been held in common—whether land or labor—was now privatized as standing-reserve for exploitation by free individuals. In the process, millions of human lives were arguably made much freer. The working poor were liberated from the feudal ties often implied by subsistence farming, free to move if they pleased, and free to sell their own labor for money.
But this development was never simply the voluntary spread of a new, enlightened way of making everyone better-off. Like mining, it came with tradeoffs: peasant resistance to the Enclosure Acts suggests that for those people, at least, something was lost. And if enclosure opened up domestic markets in goods such as housing and food, it did not rely on the consent of those British peasants forcibly displaced from subsistence lifestyles into waged factory work.
The violence involved in opening up colonial markets likewise rejected the benign invisible hand. In February 1897, for example, not long after the completion of the enclosures in Britain itself, British imperial officials responded to the Oba of Benin’s refusal to open up trade in palm oil and rubber from his thriving city-state on the Niger Delta. Their answer was the Punitive Expedition, in which 5,000 British troops armed with machine guns razed Benin, massacring its inhabitants, flattening its temples, and looting the bronzes that inscribed its most treasured cultural memories. A month after the Punitive Expedition, a golf course had been laid over the city’s site, with the ninth hole where the most sacred tree had stood.
Most histories of the present characterize the story of economic development as an upward one of human progress, that has liberated millions from indentured labour into greater agency as free individuals in market society. And there’s something in this story of freedom; I wouldn’t swap my life today for that of a medieval subsistence peasant. But, like the extraction of Appalachian coal, nothing comes without tradeoffs. And while it’s easy enough to describe historical events in our transition from a largely relational society to a largely transactional one, the cost of moving to a market society is more difficult to count.
It’s perhaps easier to find a way into this blind spot via a more recent large-scale displacement of humans from a relational to a market existence. The migration of women from the domestic sphere to the workplace began in earnest in the 20th century, and it’s perhaps not a coincidence that it gathered pace around the time the economic gains available via overseas colonial expansion began to falter. I’ve never been a subsistence peasant or Aboriginal nomad, but for a few years I did step a small distance outside the market society as a full-time mother. And what I learned there about how, and why, this form of work is invisible today helps to illuminate the tradeoffs demanded by the market society. It also offers clues as to how we might yet stand for things crucial to humans but indefensible within a transactional worldview, such as ecosystems, sacred places, or even a view of dating that isn’t a sexual marketplace.
For something to be treated as standing-reserve, it must be possible to own it. Our social norms demand that we claim ownership of a resource before exploiting it. Selling my labor in the marketplace presumes that I can dispose of my time as I see fit, that no one else has a claim on my time or my body—in short, that I’m a free individual.
But to be a mother is quintessentially to experience not entirely belonging to yourself. It begins in pregnancy, with the realization that what you eat or drink affects your unborn child; it continues with breastfeeding, as you make the food that nourishes your child with your own body; it goes on far beyond infancy, in the need your children have to be physically close to you. When you see how powerfully your small child craves your presence, it’s very difficult to sustain the illusion of belonging only to yourself.
To the extent that something belongs to others as well as to ourselves—such as common land in 18th century Britain—it will resist being privatized for use as standing-reserve. So caring for my child can’t easily be viewed as a transaction, because it’s a relationship in which we aren’t exactly individuals. That is, we don’t belong only to ourselves, but to each other as well. And when you don’t belong solely to yourself, work can be understood not as a transaction—my labor exchanged for your money—but as relational. In other words, it is less oriented toward resource extraction and exchange than sustaining interdependent patterns of life.
This in turn helps explain why the politics of our market society has such a blind spot where motherhood is concerned: the market society’s notion of liberation into the standing-reserve is deeply at odds with the work of caring. Sustaining interdependency isn’t about fleeting transactional logic. It’s about maintaining a valuable relationship. I don’t care for my child or my partner because I have a utilitarian goal in mind, but because we belong to each other and that makes caring for them a necessity for my existence too.
Despite being in a sense repetitive and goal-less, caring is also pregnant with meaning. As the pioneering biosemioticist Wendy Wheeler puts it in Information and Meaning, repetition and pattern are central to communication throughout the organic and even the inorganic world. Organisms and natural systems don’t just respond to one-off signals, but rather exist in emergent, interdependent dialogue with the signals sent by other organisms and environmental factors around them—what Jakob von Uexküll calls an organism’s Umwelt. Thus, information in the natural world does not exist in some abstract sense, but only in the context of how it’s received within larger feedback loops. From the smallest microbiota to complex human civilisations, meanings are fundamentally relational, contextual, and pattern-based.
Seen this way, it’s easier to understand why non-transactional, relational spheres of life and particularly family, remain Americans’ most potent sources of meaning. For individuals, meaning is to be found less in peak experiences, one-offs, the exceptional or abstract; it hides in the repetitive, the everyday, and the relational. At a collective level, meaning coils through those pattern-languages transmitted via tradition, whether in vernacular architecture, folk music or oral histories. It lies thick in sacred places: humans have long used pattern, repetition, and the expected as the core of ritual religious and spiritual practices.
The philosopher Adam Robbert connects meaning-making with askēsis, a Greek term that refers to the act of practice and discipline as itself a form of extended cognition, that enables the expansion of meaning-making beyond the rational sphere via the bringing-together of attention and repetition. We can understand motherhood as a kind of relational askēsis, whose core is the attentive, attuned pattern-work of sustaining a child’s Umwelt while they are too young to do it themselves. This is a central reason why many women are willing to sacrifice social status and earning power to work part-time or stay at home with young children: it’s as satisfyingly rich in meaning-as-pattern as it is starved of social status and pecuniary reward.
But the central concern of mothering with pattern, sameness, and contextual meaning as opposed to information devalues it in the order of standing-reserve, even as it delivers untold riches on its own terms. Information theory, a core science underpinning much of our technology, explicitly excludes the realm of pattern and sameness as ‘redundancy,’ preferring to focus on the unexpected. Our contemporary culture is quintessentially one of information theory: we celebrate the new, the innovative, the individual who doesn’t follow the rules. I can’t think of many movies where the hero defies calls to go his own way and instead saves the world by embracing convention.
And yet meaning, as Wheeler emphasizes, “is made up of pattern, repetition, the expected.” Information theory is thus blind to it, as she further points out: “What information engineers count as redundancy, living organisms in their systems count as meaning.” In this worldview, the tradeoff between motherhood and the workplace is a brutal one. No matter how meaningful life with a baby seems in its relational context, we have no vocabulary for understanding that, save as redundancy. It’s no surprise to discover that market society frames caring for children as a punishment: “the motherhood penalty.”
The transactional world has little facility for repetition, pattern, or the expected; this is ‘redundancy’ to be dismissed in pursuit of the special, the distinct, the signal. This blindness to meaning-as-pattern, visible in the devaluation of motherhood and trust relationships, is similarly evident in contemporary architecture’s indifference to those vernacular pattern-languages in local built environments, that encode ways of life specific to different places. You can see it again in the treatment of folk music as second-class and unoriginal, the dismissal of religious practice as dogma, or the indifference to accumulated sacredness that allowed the destruction of Juukan Gorge.
Within the worldview that reads motherhood as a punishment, ecologies of meaning accumulated via everyday pattern, human relationship, or religious ritual are at best yet-to-be-monetized resources. If they resist this transformation, they are obstacles to be ignored or dynamited. Bringing these pieces together, it’s now easier to see what’s lost under the rubric of information theory and standing-reserve. To see the world in terms of standing-reserve means seeing it as transactions rather than relationships, and information rather than meaning: as Heidegger puts it, “shattered,” and confined to a “circuit of orderability.”
This shattered world is the same one the market society mindset calls ‘open’: openness to new forms, after all, means weak adherence to existing ones. To borrow Oscar Wilde’s famous phrase, then, seeing the price of everything by definition means seeing the value of nothing. Reframing the world in transactional terms, as ‘open’ resources that can be instrumentalized, necessitates the destruction of its meanings. Strip-mining self-evidently degrades the environment being mined. After demutualization, it took less than two decades for Britain’s building societies to go from embedded, localized community micro-lenders to casino-banking basket cases. And people who sell sexual access to their own bodies find it difficult to form and maintain intimate partner relationships.
Likewise, treating human gestation as a service in commercial surrogacy interrupts the biologically-based symbiosis between mother and child that makes such relationships resistant to marketization. Instead, surrogacy contracts treat the baby as separate from its mother, a product that can be commissioned. Humans are thus shattered and reordered as objects, as in this case of a disabled child rejected both by her commissioning ‘parents’ and also by her Ukrainian gestational mother, as though she were a faulty smartphone.
Here we begin to see more clearly who pays when we replace meaning with information and relationship with transaction: anyone in need of care, and anyone leading an ordinary life. The winners in the information world are those whose lives are oriented toward peak experiences, agency, variety, surprise, and control. To the extent that you find fulfilment in pattern, repetition, and the quotidian, a technological and economic order blind to meaning-as-pattern and hyperfocused on the unexpected will be, by definition, unable to see you.
But we’re running out of relational resources to convert and consume. Much as on current trends many key natural resources will be exhausted within a few decades, there are signs that in our civilization, the relational commons that underpins ordinary human life is approaching a point so shattered that the capacity of society to function is increasingly compromised. Certainly where I live in Britain, the weak institutional response to COVID-19 has revealed a nation in which social solidarity may be present on a local level, but is increasingly, acrimoniously, absent at scale.
Pursuing resilience in this context means seeking out the relational, and looking to strengthen it: that means standing up for the interests of women, babies, the everyday, the natural world—and the value of norms, custom, and religious faith. From this, it follows that defending women and the environment means not embracing but resisting the logic of transaction. In that case, communities with some religious basis for sustaining relational resources as a sacred domain will prove more resilient than the ‘liberatory’ vision of market society and standing-reserve—precisely because they reject the appetitive logic of transaction.
From a transactional point of view, this is at best a romanticization of some imaginary lost Eden, and likely a manifesto for ending innovation and demand to return to pre-industrial society. But a defense of ordinary-ness, pattern and repetition does not imply turning back the clock, or levelling all humans to identical cellular automata. Nor is it a case against extraordinary people: the natural world, after all, has megafauna as well as microbiota.
Making the case for meaning as well as information is not to claim that we should revert to Tudor times, all be the same, or all spend our lives raising children. But it’s to defend pattern, repetition, and ordinariness as valuable in their own right, whether as the medium for future rituals and sacred places to emerge, as the domain of social life, or simply as bulwarks against the voracity of a transactional worldview that would commodify even our deepest social instincts. It’s to argue for our radical interdependence with our Umwelt. And it’s to affirm that in order for a society to thrive, sacred things must not just be defended as exempt from standing-reserve, or moved to a museum like the looted Benin bronzes, but continually and actively re-consecrated.
I joined Nick Cater of the Menzies Research Centre in Australia to talk micro-managed children and the angry new politics of protest. Listen here.
As activists campaign to cancel Britain’s best-loved children’s author for stating her belief that biological sex exists, transgender rights has become one of today’s most toxic cultural flashpoints. Even most cautious approach to the topic feels like walking on eggshells.
My own journey on the subject has taken me some distance from my 00s social life, that for a while revolved around the (then embryonic) London female-to-male trans ‘scene’. There, I explored my own gender identity and presentation, while evangelising queer theory to all and sundry. But as time went on I felt a growing disquiet at the direction the movement was taking.
Back then, transgender identities felt like a progressive challenge to restrictive sex roles. But as such identities have become more mainstream, and normative sex roles ever less relevant to how we work and live our lives in the modern world, it has increasingly felt to me like the cutting edge of the movement is morphing into something less liberatory than hubristic: a radical assertion of the primacy of mind over matter.
Humans are a sexually dimorphic species. Sex roles (commonly referred to as ‘gender’) can’t be wholly separated from biological sex. In asserting that sex roles have no relationship to sex, but are in fact free-floating identities, the trans movement in effect declares that sex is unimportant. Some even question its objective existence. Thus severed from any material grounding, the social roles ‘man’ or ‘woman’ become costumes or attitudes, no more objectively definable than (say) ‘goth’.
This can feel liberating to those who find the social norms associated with the sexes uncomfortable. But for females in particular, biological sex is far from a trivial detail.
I still remember the first time my brother defeated me in an arm wrestle, when I was 10 and he was 12. I was furious that something as unasked-for as a biological difference between us had now permanently rendered us unequal in a playfight, where previously we’d been evenly matched.
On a more serious note, crime and violence are sexed: males commit some 96% of all murders, 99% of all sex crimes and 100% of all rapes (because you need a penis to rape). Meanwhile females are less physically strong, and our anatomy and reproductive capacity makes us vulnerable to assault, rape and the many risks associated with pregnancy.
Inner identity does nothing to mitigate the threats women face due to being female. It’s physiological femaleness that marks girls out for FGM; physiological femaleness that gets women kidnapped for bride trafficking into China; physiological femaleness that got 14-year-old Rose Kalemba raped at knifepoint to create a porn video monetised by PornHub for years while she was still at school.
Even if we pretend it isn’t there, or is subordinate to our identities, the sexed nature of our bodies continue to exist and shape women’s interactions. So a movement that asserts the absolute primacy of mind over matter, identity over biological sex, is bound to feel jarring to women – because experience tells us it’s not true. And claiming it is disadvantages us at a fundamental level: if we’re all just free-floating minds, women no longer have any basis for talking about the ways our bodies make us vulnerable.
This of course doesn’t mean that we’re nothing but the sum of our biology. Humans are thinking, feeling, social and visionary creatures as much as we are evolved animals. All these aspects of us exist in tension.
Acknowledging the role of our bodies in shaping who and what we are as humans isn’t to reduce humans to the status of mere flesh. Nor is it a claim, as some activists suggest, that male and female humans alike should stuff our personalities into narrow masculine or feminine boxes to match our physiology.
Rather, it’s a recognition that the human condition is a mess of competing urges, aims and longings, and sometimes we can’t have what we want. Sometimes the world outside us refuses to be reshaped according to our innermost desires. That this is true is more distressing for some than others, but it’s still true.
For that subset of people who experience an inner identity that feels at odds with their physiology, that tension between psychic and embodied reality is painfully acute. We should meet this obvious distress with compassion and courtesy, not stigma or discrimination. We should as a society shield transgender people from unjust treatment. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the idea that bodies don’t matter.
I joined Palladium’s Wolf Tivy to talk about my theory that what gets called ‘postmodern’ today is really the last stand of high modernism, and the interpersonal implications of genuinely decentering meaning and subjectivity without collapsing into nihilism. Have a listen here.
While we live, we all present different facets of ourselves to different people. Whether in our friendships, work, family or at different times in our lives, we encounter others. All remember us slightly differently, according to their perspective.
While we live, our physical presence holds that multiplicity together. After we die, though, the memories begin to come apart. When my step-grandfather married my grandmother, he already had two children with his first wife. But she had already left him and moved to a different country; he was stepfather to my mother and aunts instead.
He was a big character: an aristocrat of the Greatest Generation, the subject of several films about his war exploits, well-loved farmer, and patriarch to two families. At his funeral, the many facets of his life were already coming apart. Each version of his memory was fiercely defended by the mourner to whom it belonged. Long-standing quarrels, no longer held in check by his living presence, began trickling back into the open. It was not an easy day.
Today, we are all mourners at the funeral of a character on a scale that dwarfs even my roaring, hectoring, pedantic, affectionate, and irascible step-grandfather. We are gathered to mourn teleology itself—the belief that life has objective meaning and direction. What we call the culture war is the aggregate of those quarrels now breaking out between the gathered mourners over their divergent memories of the deceased.
Were we progressing toward universal peace, justice, and equality? Was it the resurrection and the life of the world to come? Perhaps it was the end of history in universal liberal democracy? We cannot agree.
The death of teleology represents a collective cultural trauma that accounts for, among other things, the increasingly unhinged debates around social justice within elite universities, and the reactive phenomenon of the aggressively transgressive online far-right.
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Post-structuralism killed teleology, but it did so in error, by taking a wrong turn; it is this wrong turn that has left us so traumatized.
What is commonly referred to as postmodernism is not in fact post-modern but rather represents a last-ditch attempt by modernism to resist the implications of the post-structuralist mindset whose inevitability is now indicated by fields as diverse as physics, ecology, and psychotherapy.
Deconstruction is not the end: reconstruction is possible, indeed essential.
To situate myself a little in this story: I belong to a generation that is marginal, facing two directions, in several ways that are relevant to my argument. Born in 1979, I sit at the tail end of Generation X. I am old enough to remember the days before the internet, but young enough to be more or less a digital native. I got my first cell phone and email address as an undergraduate at Oxford. I researched my undergrad essays sitting in actual libraries reading physical books, but wrote them on a word processor. I can remember life before social media.
I also received, prior to undergraduate life, a recognizably classical education. This was, in the old-fashioned way, designed to deliver a whistle-stop tour of the march of civilizations from Ancient Egypt via the classical era to Western Christendom, with at least a vague grasp of the cultural and historical highlights of each.
The overall impression delivered was of an evolution of societies, consciousnesses, and cultures over a vast sweep of time and different human epochs that nonetheless seemed to have at least some narrative continuity and directionality. Everything else we learned seemed at least to an extent framed by that sense of situatedness within a larger narrative of human cultural evolution, whose direction was a mystery but did at least seem to be headed somewhere.
Then, in my first year as an English Literature undergraduate, I encountered critical theory—and the entire organizing principle for my understanding of reality fell apart.
To summarize: Saussure proposed that instead of treating language as transparent, its meaning rising off the page without any need for elucidation, we should split language into ‘sign’ and ‘signified.’ That is, what a word means is separable from the word that means it. We can thus, he argued, institute a new discipline of ‘semiotics’: the study of signs—a study that reaches far beyond language and was immediately influential in the social sciences.
This insight was developed by Jacques Derrida, whose simple but devastating observation was that if this is the case, we cannot define any given ‘signified’ except with reference to further signs, which then in turn themselves require definition with reference to further signs. It’s turtles all the way down. We have no means, through language, of arriving at any kind of truth that we are able to experience directly. Furthermore, the concerted efforts by millennia of culture to obscure the fact that it’s turtles all the way down is in fact a cunning effort to shore up entrenched interests, and to conceal the operations of power.
In this view, recourses to authority are null and void. There is no solid foundation, no God, no truth, no authority. Only power, and a form of consensus reality arrived at through the glacial accretion of a billion tiny operations of power that have, in sum, decreed that the world should be thus and not thus.
For me, the shift from a sense of the world as having some stable narrative trajectory to this perspective, in which meanings were not only networked but fundamentally without foundation, was deeply disturbing. It landed like a psychotic experience. Overnight, the hallowed architecture of Oxford University went from seeming like a benign repository of traditions within which I could find my place, to a hostile incursion into my consciousness of something phallic, domineering, and authoritarian. I remember describing to a friend how, as a woman and sexual minority, I suddenly experienced the ‘dreaming spires’ as ‘barbed penises straining to penetrate the sky.’
I wish I could say it passed, but it did not. What did happen, though, after I left, was that I found an accommodation with the loss of teleology and objectivity from my frame of reference. I did this by theorizing that if to posit anything at all is an act of power, then it was one I was also entitled to attempt. All cognition, meaning-making, interpretation, and perception is conceptually laden and socially-mediated action. It is impossible to ground even perception in anything but action and thus power. But so be it. We live in a society and participate in the flow of power all the time. I developed the idea of ‘temporary certainties,’ or in other words, the idea that even if meanings are not stable, many of them are stable enough for me to act as if they were solid in the pre-Derridean sense. I did not have to deconstruct every minuscule interaction for the operations of power it encoded.
In an effort to evade the monstrous pervasiveness of systems of domination and submission, I experimented with radically non-hierarchical forms of living, power exchange sexualities, non-binary gender presentation. I tried my own operations of power: I changed my name to Sebastian, to see what it felt like, then settled for a while on Sebastian Mary. I co-founded a startup with friends, in which we tried to avoid having a management hierarchy.
My accommodation kind of worked, for a while. But it did not last. It is all very well to theorize about non-hierarchical forms of organization, but in order to get stuff done you need a chain of accountability. And the worst sort of hierarchies have a habit of emerging, too, especially in social situations where they are intentionally obscured or deprecated. Communes, collaborative projects, and the like all find their leaders and followers, or their tyrants and victims. My increasing bitterness as I learned this, in the course of trying to get somewhere with the startup, made me so obnoxious as a co-worker that eventually I was expelled from the project which was, by then, failing anyway.
With that rupture, I lost my social circle, my best friend, and my entire carefully reassembled working theory for how to navigate the rubble of broken teleologies that was my adult life in the ‘00s. Concurrently, the Great Crash of 2008 destroyed the equally teleological fantasy of global liberal-democratic hegemony under international capitalism that had powered the Iraq invasion along with the triumphalism of the Blair years.
In the wreckage, though, something wonderful happened. Two wonderful things, actually. First, I met the man who I would eventually marry, and by degrees let go of the belief that in order to sustain my integrity as a person I had to reject any form of stable loving relationship to an Other in favor of multiple, overlapping, unstable platonic, sexual, or ambiguous friendships. Second, I decided I needed to learn how to do something more useful than floating around London curating experimental art events and screwing up entrepreneurship, and went back to school to train as a psychotherapist.
In the course of that study, I learned where postmodernism took its wrong turn. Implicit in the post-structuralist theories taught to every young humanities student at university is the idea that because meanings have no singular objectively correct grounding, they are therefore of no value. Also implicit is the idea that because of this, no satisfying, authentic or truthful encounter with the Other is ever possible—only an endless recursive hall of mirrors composed either of our own anguished reflections or the invasive pressure against our psyches of another’s desire.
In studying psychotherapy, though, I came to realize that while the same post-structuralist decentering of the self took place in psychoanalytic theory between Freud and his contemporary descendants, therapists had—because they have to—rejected the idea that we can never encounter the other. While much contemporary analytic theory acknowledges the need to excavate and make space for the operations of overdetermined systems such as race, class, or sex, it does not automatically follow from the presence of those things that intersubjective contact and meaningful connection cannot take place.
Just like post-structuralism decentered the observer, intersubjective psychoanalysis radically decenters the analyst. But an intersubjective understanding of the relational space as co-created by client and therapist does not preclude the possibility of therapeutic work taking place. And this in turn speaks powerfully to a claim that however muddled, muddied and overdetermined our encounters with the other may be, yet they still contain the potential to be not just benign but real, true, and transformative.
I suppose I could deconstruct that claim in turn. But I have experienced its truth both as client and also, in the course of my work, as therapist. Through intersubjective encounters in the consulting room, I have been transformed, and have transformed in turn. From this vantage point, the claim of post-structuralism to render meaningless all semiotic systems, and reveal as brute operations of power all encounters with the other, seems not just mistaken but (in the Kleinian sense) paranoid-schizoid. It is the tantrum of a child who, on realizing they cannot have exactly what they want, refuses to have even the next best thing and dismisses everything and everyone as evil.
The alternative to this paranoid-schizoid repudiation of meaning is not to reject meaning as dead or hopelessly suborned by power, but to accept that we are enmeshed, shaped and in turn helping to shape networks of meaning as part of a dynamic dialogue. We are nodes in the social and semiotic system. As such, even the act of contemplating those systems of meaning will have some tiny effect on them. When Derrida said ‘Il n’y a pas d’hors-texte’—”there is no outside-text,” though commonly mistranslated as “there is nothing outside the text”—I took it to mean meaning itself was hopelessly corrupted, and objectivity a bust. Today, I see it more as a radical decentering of my selfhood that opens up new, vibrant possibilities of connectedness.
If we read ‘text’ in the biosemiotic sense as fractal, multi-dimensional, and interconnected systems of signification, both of human culture and the natural world (inasmuch as those things can even be separated), then indeed there is nothing outside the text. But that does not mean the text is wholly illegible, or that it does not exist—simply that in reading, we affect what it says, and in return it changes us. We are unavoidably caught up in perspectival context, without truly objective ground to stand on. But objectivity was always an implicit abdication and obscuration of power and the necessity of choice. It was the idea that we could calculate what to do from objective factors that we didn’t have to take responsibility for. We do have to take responsibility, but that can mean a proactive positive acceptance. We can step up to the challenge of power and perspective, rather than reject it out of guilt and trauma.
Seen thus, a living post-structuralism is a philosophy not of radical alienation but radical interconnection. It is not the death of stable meaning, but the moment a system we thought rigid, immovable, and observable from the outside stirred and opened its eyes to return our gaze. It is also increasingly supported by contemporary studies in—for example—ecology and theoretical physics. If even the hardest of hard sciences now advances a theory of reality that embrace radical uncertainty and the implication of the observer in what is observed, then surely the humanities can do so as well without giving up on meaning altogether?
The great insight of postmodernism is that meaning is unstable, and mediated in infinite complexity by systems of power in which we are decentered but implicated. But the response to this insight from the humanities has been a furious rearguard action by the ideology of fixed meanings that postmodernism itself displaced. Enlightenment rationalism is to postmodernism as Newtonian physics is to general relativity, and it is in the ‘social justice’ ideologies now increasingly hegemonic in elite institutions that Enlightenment rationalism is seeking to make its last stand against the new philosophy of radical interconnection.
If postmodernism claimed that all meanings are unstable, socially constructed, and held in place by operations of power, the defining characteristic of the anti-postmodernism that masquerades as contemporary postmodern thought is its determination to apply that analysis to everything except its own categories and hierarchies. In effect, this system of thought seeks to recoup semiotic stability by replacing the old ‘bad’ hierarchies of Western, patriarchal, heterosexual, etc. dominance with new ‘good’ ones.
All activities, goes the claim, are tainted by the toxic operations of overdetermined systems of oppressive social meaning which speak through us and over us regardless of what little agency we might imagine ourselves to have. So in the political framework of anti-postmodernism, fixed immutable characteristics such as race assign their bearers a position on a rigid hierarchy of ‘marginalization’ which in turn influences their status within the system. The legitimacy of the new, fixed hierarchies of marginalization-as-status rests, we are told, in how they correct for, deconstruct, and overcome previously imposed power inequalities. The chief form of political action is a wholesale effort to dismantle these former inequalities, wherever they may be found.
But in practice, the demand that all historically imposed power relations be deconstructed unwinds the legitimacy of any possible social relationship or institution. All meanings necessitate the exclusion of what-is-not-meant. Making absolute inclusion a central political demand is thus in effect a call for the abolition of meaning. We are never told what form the good life might take, should this project of semiocide ever be completed. But one thing is clear: it can have no social or intersubjective dimension, for that would imply shared meanings, and with shared meanings the operations of power—exclusion, definition, the imposition of significations not wholly self-chosen—inescapably return, as do hierarchies. In this sense, the push for semiocide in the name of social justice is a project whose ultimate aim is an individuation so total it precludes any form of encounter with the Other, except in a multidirectional contest for domination that none can be permitted to win.
From other vantage points within the culture war, the reaction to this doctrine is often mockery, for the doctrine’s self-absorption, incoherence or preoccupation with language and ‘luxury beliefs.’ This is mistaken. Its adherents are motivated by compassionate idealism, but have been misled by a destructive falsehood and are in many cases deeply unhappy. The decentering of the Enlightenment subject brings with it an invitation to a more fluid experience of selfhood as radically inseparable from and in a process of co-creation with all of reality, and yes, with the power structures of the society in which we live. But the contemporary critical theory I am calling anti-postmodernism shows young people this vision of beauty, only to dismiss it as a pack of tendentious, self-interested lies.
It is no wonder today’s young people fling themselves miserably against the bars of whatever structures of meaning are still standing in an effort to knock them down—or perhaps to prop themselves up. Whether it is the SJWs, the frog memers, or the ‘failson’ ironists, they can smell the fresh breeze of meaning, less linear than the rationalists would like but nonetheless real, and yet they have been told they cannot have it, because it is not there, or else comprises only violence and hostility. So, they fight over the broken rubble of the Enlightenment, or with each other, or their ancestors, and starve in the midst of a banquet.
To recap, then: what gets called ‘postmodernism’ today is not postmodernism but the last spasm of the worldview displaced by postmodernism, that saw meanings as fixed, knowable and amenable to human mastery. This anti-postmodernism diverts young people from the astonishing richness of a systems-based, decentered engagement with the world’s semiotic complexity by seeking the only remaining form of mastery it can imagine: a defensive assault on meaning itself.
Instead of embracing the fluidity of systems of meaning, and each subject’s situatedness within that system, young people are taught that the only legitimate foundation for political action—or indeed any kind of social participation—is atomized selfhood, constructed from within and defended with narcissistic brittleness. They are taught to see themselves as solely responsible for discovering, curating, optimizing and presenting this supposedly ‘authentic’ self as their central marketable asset. But they also learn that it is continually under assault by hostile forces of oppressive social meaning whose aim is to keep them—or others like them, or someone anyway—marginalized, abject and on the back foot.
Within this system, it follows that the central locus of political activism must be to disrupt these oppressive forces that marginalize unfavored groups, so as to advance the project of collective liberation to ‘be our authentic selves.’ This is not just a political project but an existential one, for along with marginalizing unfavored groups these forces impose unlooked-for and oppressively overdetermined social meanings on each of us, undermining each young person’s quest for authentic selfhood. Individuals caught up in this worldview genuinely believe they are agitating not just for the liberation of the oppressed but for their very existence.
The fixation of today’s elite graduates on ‘validation’ of ‘identities’ may seem frivolous to older generations. But within a worldview that frames all forms of social meaning as oppressive by definition, the very gaze of the Other is an unacceptable attack on the pristine territory of the self. If we reject the genuinely postmodern ethic of radical semiotic interconnection, and our interwovenness with structures of meaning in society and the natural world, then the movement of these structures in, on and within our individual identities comes to be experienced as violence.
This perspective exists in tormented symbiosis with an Other it can neither tolerate, nor yet wholly dispense with. For the paradox is that the invasive gaze of the Other, laden with unwanted and oppressive shared meanings, is simultaneously the source of suffering and salvation. The gaze of the Other is experienced as a hostile and violent invasion, forever imposing unlooked-for social meanings that constrain the liberty of each sacred self. But it is also the only source of the ‘validation’ that will reassure each individual that their self-creation project is real, true and accepted.
The solution, within this worldview, is an (again paranoid-schizoid in the Kleinian sense) ever more desperate effort to control the thoughts of the Other. We see this in politicized campaigns to control speech in the service of identities. But as any psychotherapist (or parent) will tell you, trying to control the inner life of another is a project that in normal circumstances seems achievable (or indeed desirable) only to young children or the mentally disturbed. That it should become a central political desideratum for a generation of elite young people does not bode well for the future health of public life.
When I started my undergraduate degree 20 years ago, critical theory was one epistemology among several, which we learned about as it were ‘from the outside’ rather than as a framework for understanding other philosophies. Though it affected me severely, in ways I have already described, most of my contemporaries simply learned about the ideas and were largely unaffected. Today, though, this epistemology has eaten and digested the humanities and begun to nibble on science and even mathematics. As a result, for today’s young people, it is increasingly difficult to find a vantage point outside its political ontology from which to evaluate its operations.
We should not be surprised, then, that mental health issues have skyrocketed in elite college-age populations. They are being taught to believe, as a foundational framework for understanding the world, that acceptance in the gaze of the Other is key to validating a selfhood they alone are responsible for creating, curating and optimizing. But they are also being taught that all shared meanings—in other words, anything conferred by the gaze of the Other—represents a hostile act of violence. How is any young adult meant to navigate this catch-22?
It is a mistake to dismiss this as narcissistic—or, at least, to ignore the suffering of those trapped in this bind. To be ‘defined’ by something other than our own desire is in this system to be injured, parts of our authentic self mauled or amputated, whether by social meanings we did not choose or the givens of our embodied existence. This is a phenomenally cruel thing to teach young people, as it leaves them feeling perpetually oppressed by the givens of existence itself.
This analysis also sheds light on the crisis of elite purpose and leadership Natalia Dashan described in her Palladium piece last year. If shared meanings are not only unavailable but actively hostile, how is any young person meant to formulate a legitimate rationale for stepping up? No wonder so many elite graduates dismiss even the possibility of public service in favor either of pecuniary self-interest in finance or tech, or else joining the ranks of activist-bureaucrats seeking to advance the destruction of shared meanings in the name of total inclusion.
But as societies around the globe struggle to get to grips with coronavirus, we no longer have the luxury of sitting about like Shakespeare’s Richard II, mourning a broken model of meaning as the world disintegrates around us. Facing the deaths perhaps of loved ones, and certainly of everything we thought of as ‘normal’ until a few weeks ago, destroying what is left of our structures of social meaning in the name of liberation politics or frog-meme irony is an indulgence we cannot afford. The project of reconstruction is urgent. This project is both an inner and an outer one: reconstruction of an inner life capable of navigating social meanings without experiencing them as violence, and also of our willingness to participate in the external, political analogue of those social meanings, namely institutions, political structures and—yes—hierarchies.
This is not to say that we should shrug at unjust systems of domination. The ‘social justice’ excavation of ‘implicit bias’ is not wholly without merit. It is on all of us to make sincere efforts to meet the Other to the best of our abilities as we find it, and not simply reduce the world out there to our preconceptions. But this effort cannot be so all-encompassing as to destroy what systems of shared meaning we have left. Nor can we afford to see it grind common endeavor to a standstill.
No one knows yet what the world will look like as we emerge from the political and economic convulsions engendered by this global pandemic. One thing is clear, though: the ethic of radically individualist atomization implicit in ‘social justice’ campaigns for the destruction of all shared meaning is woefully inadequate to the challenges we now face. Through its lethal spread and infectiousness, coronavirus has demonstrated vividly how our fates remain bound to one another in infinitely complex ways, however loudly we may assert our right to self-authorship. Faced with the persistence of our social, biological, semiotic, economic, and ecological interconnectedness, we would do well to embrace and make a virtue of it, to salvage those shared meanings that remain to us, and begin the process of building new ones that will sustain us into the future.
This article was originally published at Palladium magazine.
Today’s hottest property: young fogeys. Blue Labour hailed Boris Johnson’s landslide election victory as a rebellion by the country’s ‘culturally conservative’ silent majority. A new conservative magazine seems to appear every week. We have even seen a youth movement for the revival of socially conservative values popping up in that bastion of modern double liberalism, the Conservative Party.
What do they all want? At the more wonkish end of the debate, the argument is broadly that the political push throughout the twentieth century for ever greater social and economic freedom has brought many benefits, but that these have been unevenly distributed and are now reaching the point of diminishing returns.
The pursuit of ever greater freedom and individualism, this strand of thought argues, has delivered rising wealth while hollowing out working-class communities; liberated some women while forcing others to work a double shift and abandon the young and old in substandard care, and provided an infinitude of consumer choice but at the cost of mounting ecological damage. Under the sign of radical individualism, the new communitarians argue, we are all becoming more solitary and self-absorbed. Even charitable giving seems to be in unstoppable decline.
But what, in practice, are the new social conservatives seeking to conserve? Calls for a revival of cultural conservatism, many in the name of Christian values, seem often on closer examination oddly insubstantial. In 2017, UKIP’s leader-for-that-week Stephen Crowther said that the UK is a Christian country, “and we intend to stay that way.” But for Crowther, being a Christian country does not seem to impose any obligation to actually be Christian:
including Christian in our list [of principles] does not imply any requirement for individual faith, but it reflects the Judeo-Christian classical and enlightenment origins on which our laws, our social systems and our cultural norms have been built over two millennia.
Elsewhere in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbàn describes his brand of authoritarian, identity-oriented politics as ‘Christian democracy’. Only a minority of Hungarians go to church every week – 56% of the country identifies as Catholic, though only 12% attends church regularly – but the identifier ‘Christian’ has nonetheless become central to Orbàn’s politics.
Much as Crowther did, the Orban-supporting Bishop of Szeged, László Kiss-Rigó, bridges this gap with a vague, cultural definition of what actually constitutes a ‘Christian’: “In Europe, even an atheist is a Christian”, he said. It turns out that being ‘Christian’ is less about prayer or doctrine than ‘values’: “We are very happy that there are a few politicians like Orbán and Trump who really represent those values which we Christians believe to be important.”
What exactly are these values, then? Attendees at anti-Islam Pegida rallies in Germany carry crosses and sing carols. Italian right-winger Matteo Salvini punctuates anti-immigration rhetoric by brandishing a rosary, drawing criticism from the very Catholic faith whose symbols he invokes. Try to pin down any actual values this form of Christianity might require of its adherents, and matters are much less clear.
Even those whose stated desire is to defend the place of faith in public and political life seem keen that the faith itself stop short of imposing actual obligations. To take a more moderate example of the new cultural conservatism, the Social Democratic Party took a broadly post-liberal, culturally conservative stance in its 2018 relaunch. The New Declaration made an energetic defence of our right to hold even illiberal religious views openly in public life:
Citizens holding a traditional, patriotic or religious outlook are often bullied and marginalised, stifling the open debate upon which a free and democratic society depends.
Then, about a year later, the SDP lost its only donor over a bitter intra-party dispute about whether or not it should be party policy to ban halal slaughter – a position markedly at odds with the party’s previous defence of religious pluralism. And when the Church of England recently reiterated its long-held position on sex and marriage, prominent SDP member Patrick O’Flynn took to the pages of the Daily Express to mock ‘the otherworldliness of these Men of God’. Instead of insisting on ‘out of touch’ doctrine, O’Flynn suggested, in order to attract more young people to weekly worship the Church should adjust its doctrines on sex and marriage to reflect their values.
In this view of faith, theological positions do not reflect any kind of truth-claim but should be emergent properties of the aggregate ethical positions held by the members of that church. Less ‘Christian democracy’ than ‘democratic Christianity’: whatever the congregants believe becomes the doctrine of the church.
From a religious perspective this makes no sense. To the believer, doctrine is handed down from God Himself. The thought of God’s word being subject to plebiscite is absurd, if not outright blasphemous.
This debate reveals the missing piece in today’s would-be conservative revival. Where do our values come from? What is the proper source of political authority? Progressives gesture at natural rights or an imagined future utopia, but for anyone who remains unconvinced that we are all on a journey somewhere wonderful, some other authority is required.
Edmund Burke suggested the answer lay in a blend of deference to tradition and God’s grand design, tempered by carefully constrained democratic institutions; his Savoyard contemporary, Joseph de Maistre, argued that the only proper form of authority lay in God’s will, delivered via the Pope and an absolute monarch.
The history of modernity has unfolded in the tensions between these competing understandings of political authority. ‘The will of God’, the will of ‘the People’, and the grand designs of various utopias have variously been used to justify all manner of enterprises, with outcomes from the magnificent to the horrific. But our present political difficulties may be in part down to a growing popular discomfort with accepting the legitimacy of any of the above.
Since the election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU, there has been a low but persistent rumble from our moral betters that democracy should maybe have its wings clipped a little, to stop stupid proles making bad decisions. A degree of wing-clipping has in fact long since taken place: John Gray has discussed recently in these pages the way the language and legal mechanism of ‘rights’ is used to shift entire areas of public life from democratic debate to the dry realm of unelected lawyers and judges. But if authority does not reside in the will of the people, nor does it reside with God: it is difficult to imagine a mainstream British politician claiming moral authority on the basis of divine will without being roundly pilloried.
Progress and human rights, then? Every young person who passes through a modern university is taught in no uncertain terms that totalising metanarratives are suspect. At best, they are power moves. Whenever you find one you should ask cui bono? In the case of universal human rights, the answer is probably: lawyers.
This leaves would-be conservatives in a bind. If (with a few honourable exceptions still holding out for direct Vatican rule) political authority rests not in tradition (too restrictive on personal liberty) or democracy (probably rigged) or even God (don’t tell ME what to do!) or even in the lawyers, then what is left? Politics professor Matt McManus argues that the result is a postmodernism of the right as well as of the left: a series of nested calls for a return to authority, tradition and culture that all, on closer inspection, turn out to be largely delivery mechanisms for adversarial but hollow identity politics.
Having come unmoored from its roots either in the past, the divine, or the popular will, McManus suggests that this postmodern conservatism has warped a Burkean belief in tradition into a kind of moral cosplay whose main purpose is less seeking the good life than making a noisy defence of whichever identities its sworn enemies attack. As the postmodern liberal-left demonises heterosexual white males, so postmodern conservatism sets out to defend them; and so on.
Seen in this light, the problem with Orbàn and other borrowers of Christian clothing is not that they do not believe their own words. Inasmuch as they can mean anything, they genuinely identify as Christians. It is more that when all sources of authority are suspect, the only legitimate recourse is to the self: to identity, and identification.
And the problem with identification is that it remains separate from whatever it identifies as. Just like the modern dating marketplace, where commitment is radically undermined by the ease of swiping right, modern cultural conservatism is radically undermined by the fear that without a reliable foundation of authority, and with more identity-choice options only a click away, we are never fully the thing we claim as our identity.
Without a sense of confidence in the roots of its political legitimacy, conservative values dissolve from concrete obligations to consumer accessories. This in turn is why Orbànist ‘Christian democracy’ and many of its populist cousins find their most compelling realisation not in religious doctrine or observance, but in defining themselves against their outgroup. If “even an atheist is a Christian” then either no one is a Christian, or everyone is. The only way of defining what a Christian is, is in terms of what it is not: foreigners.
But if this is so, then in a postmodern environment, shorn of recourse to authority, cultural conservatism is a waste of energy. It cannot define what it wants. All is insubstantial; there is no exit from the Matrix, nothing left to conserve.
Does it follow from this that those who long for place, limits, love, family, faith and meaning should just sit in the rubble and watch it all burn? I do not think so. But when there is nothing solid to go back to, anyone attracted to what is left of the ideology that used to be called ‘conservative’ needs to find a new name for their yearning. ‘Constructionists’, perhaps. There is a lot of building to do.
What if we could create a marketplace for relationships, so that – just as we can rent our homes on Airbnb – we had an app that allowed us to sell at the market rate dinner with our husbands or bedtime with the kids?
Marriage is a legally recognised agreement after all, one that has been shown to confer many benefits for health and wellbeing. Why should I not be able to rent my place as wife and mother in my particular family to others who wish to enjoy some of those benefits?
Ryan Bourne of the Cato Institute recently argued that the technology exists to enable us to trade citizenship rights. Calling the right of British nationals to work in the UK’s high-wage economy “an effective property right we own but can’t currently trade”, he suggests we could ease immigration pressures by implementing an Airbnb-style secondary market in working rights.
If we frame citizenship, or marriage, as something owned by an individual, it is simply a set of bureaucratic permissions. Like the right to live in a house, surely this could be traded in a marketplace? And if the technology exists to create a citizenship market, surely we could do the same for marriage? I could sublet my wifedom and nip off for a weekend on the tiles with the proceeds. Why not?
The problem is obvious — my husband and daughter would, not unreasonably, object. She would no more want her bedtime story read by a stranger than my husband would want to share a bed with that stranger.
My marriage is not a good I own but a relationship, created by mutual consent. In a marriage, I give up some of my autonomy, privacy and private property rights by declaring my commitment to the relationship. What I gain is of immeasurable value: a sphere of belonging, the foundation of my existence as a social creature.
Likewise, citizenship implies relations of belonging, both of me to a community but also a community to me. It also implies commitments on behalf of the community of which I am a citizen. And in exchange it requires commitments of me, as a citizen: to uphold the law, to behave according to its customs and so on. As the late Roger Scruton put it in a 2017 speech:
The citizen participates in government and does not just submit to it. Although citizens recognise natural law as a moral limit, they accept that they make laws for themselves. They are not just subjects: they appoint the sovereign power and are in a sense parts of that sovereign power, bound to it by a quasi-contract which is also an existential tie. The arrangement is not necessarily democratic, but is rather founded on a relation of mutual accountability.Roger Scruton
Just as my husband and daughter have a stake in who is entitled to be called “wife” or “Mummy” in our particular context, so other citizens of a nation have a stake in who is entitled to the rights conferred by citizenship.
In this light we can better understand the revulsion that greeted the actions of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex in trademarking “Sussex Royal” for personal commercial gain. Royalty, after all, does not exist in a vacuum. It is not an intrinsic property of a person, like blue eyes or long legs, but something conferred both by the monarchy and also by the subjects of that monarchy.
As Charles I discovered in 1649, ultimately no king can govern save by the consent of his subjects. Royalty is not a private property, but a relationship. The popular disgust and anger engendered by the Sussexes’ move to transfer their stock of royalty from the relational public sphere to that of private property is in truth anger at their privatising something which does not belong to them but to the whole nation.
In The Question Concerning Technology, writes Josh Pauling, Heidegger argues that technology uncouples humans from what is real, paving the way for a mindset that treats everything as “standing-reserve”, or in other words “resources to be consumed”. For Heidegger, seeing the world thus is dangerous because it flattens all other perspectives:
Commodifying nature and humanity leads us to discard other understandings of being-in-the-world and the practices, beliefs and ideas that accompany them: all aspects of reality are incorporated into the ordering of standing-reserve.Josh Pauling
My husband’s goodwill would rapidly wear thin were I to Airbnb my role in our family. Similarly, Bourne’s citizenship marketplace fails to consider how the general population would react to seeing fellow citizens renting their right to work to non-citizens and swanning about spending the unearned proceeds. And the goodwill enjoyed by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex while discharging their royal duties has already evaporated, now it transpires they wish to enjoy the privileges of their elevated station without embracing its obligations.
Treated as objects to be exploited, relational meanings wither and die. Treated as dynamic relationships, they are infinitely renewable. In this sense, they are more akin to ecologies in the natural world. In Expecting the Earth, Wendy Wheeler argues that in fact ecologies are systems of meaning: whether at the level of DNA or megafauna, she says, living things deal not in information but in meanings that change dynamically depending on context.
Why does any of this matter? “Modernity is a surprisingly simple deal,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Homo Deus. “The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.” The impressive achievements of modernity might make the loss of meaning seem, to some, a fair exchange.
But if Wheeler is right, meaning is more than an optional seasoning on the mechanistic business of living. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl observes of his time in Nazi concentration camps that those who felt they had a goal or purpose were also those most likely to survive.
Indeed, the growing phenomenon of “deaths of despair” is driven, some argue, by deterioration in community bonds, good-quality jobs, dignity and social connection — in a word, the relational goods that confer meaning and purpose on life. As Frankl observed, humans need meaning as much as we need air, food and water: “Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost.”
An order of commerce that treats relational ecologies as objects that can be exploited will exhaust those objects. That is, in the course of its commercial activities it actively destroys one of the basic preconditions for human flourishing: meaning.
The Estonian thinker Ivar Puura has called the destruction of meaning “semiocide”. As concern mounts about the effects of pollution and emissions on the earth, campaigners have called for new laws to criminalise the destruction of ecologies, which they call “ecocide”. Perhaps we should take semiocide more seriously as well.
e started the 2010s reeling from the Great Crash of 2008, and ended the decade with angry populism widespread in the Western world. Today, the global economy limps on more or less as usual, while resentment grows among the “little people” at an economic consensus many feel is rigged without really knowing who is to blame. Over the same period, climate change activism has gone from being a minority pursuit to mainstream debate, occasioning worldwide “school strikes” and, since the beginning of the year, the high-profile and colourful Extinction Rebellion movement.
What these dissatisfactions share is a sense of being trapped in an economic logic whose priorities no longer benefit society as a whole, but that — we are told — cannot be challenged without making things even worse. The foundational premise of that system is continual growth, as measured by GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. Economies must grow; if they do not, then recession sinks jobs, lives, entire industries. Tax receipts fall, welfare systems fail, everything staggers.
But what happens when growth harms societies? And what happens when growth comes at the cost of irreparable harm to the environment?
As Sir David Attenborough put it in 2013, “We have a finite environment – the planet. Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a madman or an economist.”
This is the argument of Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth. The challenge the book sets out is at once simple and staggering. In a finite world, with limited natural resources, how do we deliver prosperity into the future for a human population that keeps on growing?
Jackson, who today is Professor of Sustainable Development at the University of Surrey, and Director of the Centre for the Understanding of Sustainable Prosperity (CUSP), argues that we need to start by scrapping GDP as the core metric of prosperity. As the book puts it: “Rising prosperity isn’t self-evidently the same thing as economic growth.”
The pursuit of growth is also undermining social bonds and overall wellbeing. In 2018, a commission reported on the ‘loneliness epidemic’ that is blighting lives and worsening health across the UK, driven in part by greater mobility of individuals away from family connections. (Mobility of labour, of course, is essential to drive economic growth.)
This year, even The Economist acknowledged that rising growth does not guarantee rising happiness.
If that were not enough, the resources available to supply continued growth are dwindling: “If the whole world consumed resources at only half the rate the US does […] copper, tin, silver, chromium, zinc and a number of other ‘strategic minerals’ would be depleted in less than four decades.” (Prosperity Without Growth)
Rare earth minerals, essential for technologies from circuit boards to missile guidance systems, are projected to be exhausted in less than two decades.
Inasmuch as the public debate considers these nested dilemmas, the vague sentiment is that technology will save us. The jargon term for this is ‘decoupling’ — that is, the ability of the economy to grow without using more resources, by becoming more efficient. But will decoupling happen?
The theoretical core of Jackson’s book is a detailed unpacking of models that suggest it will not, or that if absolute decoupling is possible it will happen so far into the future we will already have wrecked the climate and run out of everything. Rather than rely on this fantasy, Jackson argues, we must challenge the dependence on growth.
But how? The global economic system depends on growth and in times of recession it is the poorest who suffer first. It is a policy double bind: on the one hand, we must think of the environment, so governments encourage us to buy less, consume less, recycle more and so on. But on the other, they must deliver a growing economy, which mean encouraging us to buy more, consume more, keep the economy going. Electorates are, understandably, cynical about the sincerity of this flatly self-contradictory position.
What, then, is the alternative? Jackson is an economist, not a revolutionary firebrand, and his book does not call on us to bring down capitalism. In the second part of Prosperity Without Growth, he instead suggests some quietly radical approaches to bringing the global economy back into the service of human flourishing.
He advocates government intervention to drive much of the change he proposes, including encouraging economies to pivot away from manufacturing, finance and the pursuit of novelty at all costs toward less obviously productive but more human services such as slow food cooperatives, repair and maintenance or leisure services.
He also advocates heavy state support for ecologically-oriented investment. When I contacted him to ask about his book ten years on he spoke positively of the contribution that a “Green New Deal” could make on this front: “It shows a commitment to social and environmental investment that is absolutely essential to achieve a net zero carbon world”, he told me. “Simply put, we just can’t achieve that without this scale of investment, and that form of commitment from Government.”
He also told me he is often criticised for being “too interventionist in relation to the state”, as he puts it. But perhaps (though Jackson does not use the term himself) he might be more fairly described as post-liberal. Prosperity Without Growth is a quiet but excoriating critique of the growing human and ecological costs of liberal economics.
Intriguingly, within Jackson’s proposals lurks another challenge to liberalism, that to date has not been greatly associated with the left: the critique of radical liberal individualism as a social doctrine. Along with state intervention to tweak the economy and drive ecological investment, Jackson argues that governments should promote “commitment devices”: that is, “social norms and structures that downplay instant gratification and individual desire and promote long-term thinking”.
Examples of ‘commitment devices’ include savings accounts and the institution of marriage. Governments should implement policies that clearly incentivise commitment devices, for doing so will promote social flourishing and resilience even as such institutions offer alternative forms of meaning-making to the pursuit of shopping-as-identity-formation.
Thus, we cannot save the earth without reviving some social values and structures today thought of as small ‘c’ conservative: stable marriage, savings, settled and cohesive communities with lower levels of labour mobility.
I asked Jackson whether some of the more vociferous socially liberal proponents of environmental change had cottoned on to these potentially quite conservative implications of his theories. He told me “This is an interesting question, for sure, and one that I don’t think has really been picked up – even by me!” (Except at UnHerd – see here and here for example.) But, he says, it is incumbent on us to set aside political tribalism in the search for solutions to our current dilemmas.
“I believe there are elements of a Burkean conservatism which are profoundly relevant to a politics of the environment, even as I am convinced that the progressive instincts of the left are essential in our response to social and environmental inequality. I see it as incumbent on those working for change both to understand the underlying motivations of different political positions and also to adopt a pragmatic politic in which solutions are suited to the challenges of today rather than the dogma of yesterday.”
This essay was originally published at Unherd