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Today is a FREE taste of an Insight Politics article by writer Nathan Smith.
Challenging Those in Power Is Cool, Being in Power Is Not
I can’t be the only one who thinks everything seems to be on pause.
Most people my age or older have a quiet nostalgia for the decades between 1975-2015. In fact, I have never met anyone my age who says the place in which they grew up is better today. None.
I remember the 80s, 90s and early 2000s as a sunny time full of relativism. It was a time of opportunity and optimism. In the last ten years especially, something strange happened. Not strange as in “weird.” Strange, as in: “how did we fall for such an obvious trick?”
The British comedian John Cleese has made Twitter headlines over the past few years noticing the same thing. Cleese now lives in the Caribbean because he doesn’t want to live in the UK. That country is no longer the place in which he wrote movies like The Life of Brian (1979). He quite rightly worries that this movie could not be made today.
Comedians enjoy making fun of politics, but it’s a mistake to think they know what they’re talking about. It is not in a comedian’s interest to analyse why they get multi-million-dollar TV deals. They think the relativism that lets them “punch up” is a natural, progressive part of society and, hey, what’s the harm in making a few jokes?
But relativism is a tool used by a weak elite to undermine a strong elite. Brian could not be filmed in 2021 because this new elite no longer has any use for people like Cleese or the relativism that made him successful over the past 40 years. It’s one thing to laugh at your powerful enemies. It’s quite another thing for people to laugh when you have power.
Just as relativism is a tool for the weak, censorship is a tool of the strong. An ascending elite will immediately drop the idea of relativism the moment it has enough strength to impose intolerance for dissent. If relativism helped destroy my political enemies, why would I leave those sticks of dynamite lying around?
Relativism is an effective political tool because it causes dissent and attracts certain types of people like Cleese to your cause. After all, if you promise to rip down Chesterton’s Fences and allow people to “just do it,” those who always wanted to “do it,” but couldn’t under the old regime’s moral structure, will be loyal to any cause that promises them a bit of licence for their vices. People on the periphery have nothing to lose by attacking it.
Yet, Cleese and I appear to have the same nostalgia for a relativism that was never meant to last. The relativism of the last 40 years was not introduced so Cleese and I could have “free speech” and comedy. It was meant to circulate the elites, as Vilfredo Pareto explained (he and Gaetano Mosca are in my view the lost Darwins of 20th-century political science).
What Cleese will never understand is that relativism – just like diversity, migration, inclusion and equity – is the sewerage pumped out by an ascendent elite. These policy ideas are incoherent from any other angle. The trick to using these as social weapons successfully is to use them in ways that are good for your friends and bad for your enemies.
I pick the year 2015 because it gives me a nice round number of 40 years. If you really want to put a year on when these social weapons formalised the power of the new elites, 2016 is a good choice.
Power is shy. The best thing Donald Trump in 2016 did was to force the new regime to expose itself in a series of public displays of power, up to and including a bloodless coup against a sitting US president.
This new regime includes all international institutions, civil services, universities, media and corporations. Against Trump, they each spoke with one voice and moved as a single unit. The authoritarian response to Covid-19 by New Zealand’s branch of the new regime is a good example.
But this kind of exposure of power is non-refundable. Once the mask is off, it cannot go back on. That means each of us is either pro-regime or anti-regime. Relativism is a dangerous stick of dynamite and any strong regime has no use for it. The 1990s are not coming back.
In the one-party state – a state in which we are now – a state in which democracy, the Blue/Red Party, and the Government are one and the same, as communism, the Communist Party, and the USSR were one and the same – all politics is existential. You are either for the regime or against it. And, might I point out, your enemies decide which side you’re on, not you.
This change since 2016, from indirect dissidence to direct dissidence, is a critical historical point in the current circulation of elites. Once power loses its mask, once censoring dissent because it makes a mockery of the government is not just what power is doing, but actually what power says it’s doing, we enter a new stage of history.
If you are worried about a reaction, you are too late. The censorship is already here. This new elite is reintroducing censorship, taboos, privileged classes, a caste system, state holidays, taxes, enemies and client groups because that’s what you do when you have power. Remember: it’s not hypocrisy, it’s a hierarchy.
Want some examples? You can’t satirise the transgender movement and no one can even giggle at BLM, or Pride month. All satire just boringly pokes fun at the old establishment, or the people who still hold the old beliefs: the elderly, the uneducated or the provincial. Science is even invoked to command obedience in the same way the clergy would invoke the word of God in the past.
This new censorship is nuanced.
If football players don’t “take the knee,” they get in trouble. But not for disrespecting BLM. They get in trouble because black people are a protected class in this new regime and refusing to “take the knee” is therefore an insult to the regime itself. As the Catholic Church knows, mystery is power and if you do not punish disrespectful actions, the mystery vanishes, and competitor elites smell blood.
Before Covid-19, your obedience to this new regime was always indirect. You were not asked to support the government. Of course not! You were simply supporting “black lives” or “flattening the curve.” Today, anything that threatens the regime is classified as heretical by the state religion. We don’t call sedition “sedition” anymore. The regime uses words like “racist” and “vaccine-denier.”
Despite what you might think, this is actually a return to normal history. The relativistic decades between 1975-2015 were the anomaly. The sooner you realise that censorship is ordinary – and that you shouldn’t be wasting time on politics anyway – the easier your life will be.
Cleese and I have the same misplaced nostalgia. The last 40 years felt like freedom, but freedom is impossible. As Carl Schmitt pointed out, sovereignty is always conserved. There is always someone in power. The elites have been circulating for a while, using you to support them taking power. The “freedom” of 1975-2015 hid this very normal process. Our nostalgia is for a time that never existed.
But I want to end this column with an optimistic thought.
The result of a new elite’s successful circulation is that it becomes impossible for any cool person to support the government. Intellectual fashion flows from cool down. Cool people do not copy uncool people. Upon taking power, the elites – previously the cool underdogs – are now uncool, like a dad.
If you want to undermine this new elite, you must become cool. But don’t look to me for tips. You’re either cool or you’re not. The trick is to encourage the cool kids to sit at your table. And you don’t do that by inviting dad to the party.
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