Readers of these Chronicles know what to think of the victimary: of its origins in the Holocaust, of its turbocharging when victory in the Cold War no longer gave “capitalism” the benefit of an objective comparison with “the other” system, of its recent paroxysm coincident with the Obama presidency.
And readers of these Chronicles also know that I have maintained a somewhat quixotic loyalty to Francis Fukuyama’s idea, first expressed in The National Interest in 1989, that with the triumph of liberal democracy over its communist rival, we had truly reached the “end of history,” the full revelation of the world-spirit that Hegel (as interpreted by his most influential 20th-century reader, Alexandre Kojève) had situated at the time of Napoleon’s “liberation” of Europe. Obviously this is a very specialized version of the end of history. But to reach the end of history is not, as Fukuyama rather naively proclaimed, to stagnate in a state of boredom, but to enter what Marx, Hegel’s great materialist disciple, called the realm of freedom.
For a communist before 1989, there was some plausibility in arguing that whatever privations and cruelties one had to endure to “build socialism,” there would be a historical payoff; a better society, both more just and more productive, would be created. That is, that “history” in this particular, Fukuyaman-Hegelian sense was a spiritual project, and that one had as a goal to implement its “necessary” trajectory, to employ human will to bring about the “triumph of the world-spirit” that would transcend and realize this will. And in a non-apocalyptic vision of “the end of history,” this triumph would be realized, as Marx thought “socialism” would realize it, in the “realm of freedom.”
But the liberal-democratic “realm of freedom” would not realize Marx’s Fourier-like dream of hunting in the morning and fishing in the afternoon while at the same time maintaining the efficient distribution system of industrial society. Rather, the “realm of freedom” would be an extrapolation of what is already the essence of the market, the “crowd-sourcing” of economic knowledge that does a better job of distributing resources through its pricing system than any participant or “central planner” could anticipate. If indeed liberal democracy is the ultimate system, that implies that any future improvements to the system cannot help but maintain its fundamental structure, the “double market” of economics and politics, where the free economic market is governed by a political system that is also based on a “crowd-sourced” system of electoral choice. The realm of freedom may thus be defined as the state in which, beyond confidence in these general parameters, no one can determine the political future any better than the economic future.
In the “realm of freedom,” we would all be free to realize our potential; each person would have his or her own firstness. This is a point I used to be happy to associate, following Baudrillard and others, with the consumer society that lets each person create his or her own social persona and even “narrative.” One can understand the vogue for Facebook and related self-publicizing web apps as a natural development of this phenomenon. In the “realm of freedom,” consumption is a performance art, an amateur mode of production; even if one produces nothing for sale, each individual is encouraged to realize his or her potential to become a symbol-bearing being unique and desirable by every other.
But in the last few years, this phenomenon strikes me as having become overblown. One indication of an unprecedented level of consumption-obsession is the recently accelerated flow of luxurious advertising supplements distributed with daily newspapers. Today I received with my Wall Street Journal a 156-page, profusely illustrated supplement on glossy paper and weighing 27 ounces advertising safaris (!), along with the WSJ “magazine” devoted entirely to luxury items and weighing another 13 ounces. This 2½ pounds of consumer snobbery is designed, no doubt, to counteract the White-Guilt-inducing pressures of the victimary; if we have to “check our privilege,” we might as well enjoy it.
Yet the vision of the liberal-democratic world as the “realm of freedom” helps us to explain the victimary obsession of the post-Cold-War world as well. Why is the status of victim the only one we are permitted to covet? What is it indeed that has made us so sensitive to “micro-aggressions” and “triggers”? More troublingly, how can the liberal-democratic system manage the moral radicalism that accompanies the victimary, and that finds its political expression in a growing authoritarianism that tends to see the democratic process, aside from presidential elections, as an annoyance rather than a source of creative compromise? The early stages of the next presidential campaign suggest that, in reaction to these developments, the fundamental rules of the political marketplace are being questioned in new and disconcerting, if not alarming, ways.
Here is the key point. The dystopias of science fiction and futurist literature always emphasize excess of control; the typical narrative centers on an anomalous individual who resists the universal control exercised over the population by “Big Brother,” whose latest incarnation is likely to be a robot or simply a Turing machine. But the realm of freedom that follows the “end of history” was not conceived as a world of determinism, whether controlled by robots or despots, but just the opposite: a world in which human interaction constantly generates the unexpected.
To see the world in this way is, on the one hand, a refreshing change from the paranoia inspired by our resentment of a universe we experience as controlled by “others.” But on the other hand, to call it the “realm of freedom” makes clear an indelible aspect of market society that cannot be disassociated from its creativity: its unpredictability, and concomitantly, its discontinuity and non-uniformity, its inequality, which generates resentment regardless of the overall level of prosperity. While most of us are feeling “controlled,” stuck in a repetitive job doing the same old thing, or relying on “entitlements,” someone else is becoming a billionaire with a new, improbable idea such as Facebook, or Uber, or Snapchat, or fantasy baseball. The freedom to profit from this unpredictability is necessarily unevenly distributed. And as I pointed out in Chronicle 484, the dependency of success in the “digital age” on the ability to manipulate symbols tends to disadvantage less well-educated groups such as the white or black (often unemployed) “working class.” The “realm of freedom,” while producing enormous benefits for all, generates new resentments as it successfully recycles the old ones. Dystopian visions of total control and the “managerial” theory of society that embodies them may then be understood as sacrificial myths that react to the unpredictability of the “realm of freedom” by attributing its unfavorable outcomes to the sinister actions of a controlling Subject.
Places such as North Korea that truly correspond to dystopian fantasy sacrifice freedom and productivity to allaying the fear of unpredictability. This was the case as well in the great totalitarian dystopias of the first half of the 20th century. The parliamentary system was despised because it generated unexpected results rather than obeying the decisive wisdom of such leaders as Hitler and Lenin. Hitler’s antisemitism, forged in Germany’s defeat in WWI, was an apocalyptic extrapolation from antisemitism’s 19th-century version, which attributed to the “scapegoat” Jews the non-existent role of the “Subject” of market society, as fictionalized in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The economic distress of postwar Germany could not be imagined to be merely an unintended consequence; it had to be the effect of the Dolchstoss, the stab in the back.
Today, in the post-Cold War era, one no longer needs the Subject to have a market to dominate; he simply dominates “the other.” The ever-increasing insistence on victims in our “realm of freedom” can then be understood, if not sympathized with, as a means, effective so far, to permit the market’s continued cultivation of firstness. By symbolically taking the blame for the failures of less successful groups, the “privileged” beneficiaries of the system allow the market economy to pursue its ends while administering a few palliatives to its “victims.” This apotropaic White Guilt is both more and less lucid than overtly religious forms of sacrifice, demanding that the “privileged” individual repent not for sinful acts but for an unchangeable ascriptive reality. Those who fail this spiritual test are increasingly stigmatized, and public attention is thereby diverted from the truly difficult questions of responsibility, let us say, for improving educational opportunities or encouraging more stable family structures, to focus on inculcating the appropriate moral attitudes in the “privileged” population.
The notion of micro-aggression is the apotheosis and reductio ad absurdum of the victimary, and at the same time an unlimited source of its quasi-religious sacrificial activity. If these aggressions are truly microscopic, then the claim that they are not mere annoyances but actual causes of the failure of victimary groups to attain the same degree of success as the “privileged” confers on the latter what can only be described as magical powers. And these powers are essentially indelible; like Superman learning not to crush humans with his superstrength, or the possessor of the “evil eye” to avert his deadly gaze, the privileged individual is asked to make constant efforts to avoid the careless, automatic gesture that would damage the fragile victimary ego unfortunate enough to come in contact with him. As opposed to merely feeling White Guilt, he must practice an unending askesis. Like a 17th-century Jansenist, his whole spiritual existence will ideally be devoted to ferreting out the last traces of micro-aggressive behavior. And given the microscopic nature of these traces, a lifetime will hardly suffice to wholly extirpate them.
This apotropaic magic, which can only work if it is bought into with a true-believer sincerity that can only make observers admire in contrast the dignity and historical depth of Sharia—here is one rather touching example—is ultimately a myth of control. Just as the Jews were, and in many quarters still are, believed to control the uncontrollable market system, so the oppression of victims through micro-aggressions gives the privileged the illusion of control over the “realm of freedom.”
None of this is very reassuring, and the worldwide effects of victimary thinking, which is by no means limited to the United States, may be proving truly disastrous. But until such time as the system’s dysfunctions reach the point of a definitive breakdown of order (which, although still unlikely, is far less implausible than seemed possible in 2008), I will continue to see our liberal democracy as still in force. If this is so, then the victimary quasi-religion must be understood as a way of maintaining the system rather than demolishing it—to put it more positively, a way of deferring its violent breakdown until such time as it can absorb the additional resentments generated by the unequal economic development in the digital era.
The victimary will not go away with a new administration in 2017, even with a change of the ruling party. Just as the evident superiority of the liberal-democratic system was not enough to allow it to be adapted successfully, as most of us in 2003 thought it would be, to the tribally-divided nations of the Middle East, so the cultural inertia of the Charles Murray’s “Fishtown” and its minority equivalents will weigh against any domestic reform initiatives. Until some as yet unimaginable (but not inconceivable in principle) technological revolution makes it possible to integrate the bulk of the population into the digital economy as easily as it could be integrated into the “analog” economy of the postwar era—and this would be the real realm of freedom that all our efforts should ultimately aim for—those of “privilege” will be obliged to accept blaming themselves for micro-aggressions and the like, or at least to accept the commonplace expression of such blame by their more enlightened neighbors. This might seem a relatively small price to pay for the dream that our own sinfulness, indelible and yet somehow mitigated by guilt, is the sole obstacle to the realization of the Utopia that the realm of freedom essentially is.