Over the past few weeks the political landscape has been transformed by a political revolution sweeping the USA, UK and other outposts of the West. It's been brewing for decades in plain sight but seems to have left futurists and political pundits unprepared for its virulence and, more than anything else, the startling vulnerability of powerful Western democracies to what in many ways is a classic millennial cult.
I don't approach this as a disinterested observer. The capitulation of the mainstream institutions in the media, academia, scientific and medical establishment and corporate giants has filled me with deep foreboding. The totalitarian impulse driving the movement is glaringly obvious.
The BLM (Black Lives Matter) pandemic, an offshoot of what I'm calling the Cancel Culture/Cult, threatens the very essence of the entire post-Enlightenment project. By that I refer to the subtle mix of rational-empiricism, tolerance for different points of views and values within a shared public space and a commitment to what is broadly termed universal human rights which constitute the core principles of liberal democracy.
This is not some abstruse academic issue but one that could fundamentally destroy the quality of life of succeeding generations. To put it even more bluntly, it threatens to usher in a new age of barbarism sweeping away the hard-fought victories of past centuries towards "progress" in every sphere of life: from literacy to health, from freedom from disease to freedom of speech to material prosperity for billions of people across the globe (1).
The new barbarians are so unconscious of the past that they are hardly aware of the massive transformations for the better which have occurred in the lifetimes of their own parents and grandparents. And if these are pointed out to them, such successes are dismissed in favour of a selective and obsessive focus on past and remaining inequalities and injustices.
But this is not simply an argument about different historical interpretations and emphasis. It is about behaviour - the wave of stigmatisation, shaming, boycott and ostracism which has taken the place of rational debate and considered politics. It is the dominance of sheer malice, abject hypocrisy and naked aggression over concepts of fairness, understanding and tolerance of difference.
This has been brewing for decades but the shaming techniques used date all the way back to the egalitarian hunter-gatherer roots of human pre-history (2). It worked then but was brutal. We don't have direct evidence (as far as I know) but to think that even at its height it was a fair and kind process is to grievously misread it. It was harsh in the extreme and I have no doubt that it was also used to get even with competitors and enemies, even within the small bands of humans mutually dependent on one another for survival.
One of the great achievements of the Western Enlightenment project was to create space for different views within complex societies. The foundations rested upon the peaceful transfer of power through free and fair elections, formal institutions like the Judiciary which ensured that recourse for the abuse of power was available to those who felt they had been wronged and informal but powerful norms allowing freedom of expression for those whose views offended the powerful or the majority.
This was never an easy process but time, practice, tradition and legal safeguards allowed it to consolidate in the democracies and to function reasonably well. The massive political and social liberation this entailed from the tyranny of oligarchic dynasties or majority opinion was only achieved gradually and after bloody struggle. The Cancel Cult and its myriad offshoots threaten to destroy the sweat and tears of millennia.
I will be looking at the details in succeeding posts. If we truly believe in the superiority and durability of liberal politics; that is, a politics which at its basic minimum allows freedom of expression within the widest possible limits, we must defend ourselves using the tools of the liberal order. That excludes the use of stigmatisation and coercion and includes reasoned argument based wherever possible on verifiable evidence (3).
We need to understand, not merely demonise our opponents. We need to know what motivates them, what social and technological factors empowers them, who benefits from this movement - and where they may be right and we wrong. We must demonstrate that the courage and integrity of free humans is stronger than the politics of fear and bullying.
If we can't do that how will democracy survive? So far the tide has been mainly one way. The pitiful capitulation of the mainstream institutions of many democracies to mobs in both virtual space and on the streets has been a shameful episode. It undermines the idea of continuity which is essential to a stable political order.
The future of the human species may ultimately depend on faith. On the conviction that the functional architecture of modern democracy can allow freedom, prosperity and stability, as well as universal justice or close to it. The trends towards hyperpolarisation, self-sealing echo chambers and the weaponisation of mobs can only destroy the delicate threads which prevent humanity turning upon itself.
We have seen this before in living memory. We see it now in authoritarian monsters like China and North Korea, in the dysfunctional gangster states in South America, Africa and elsewhere and in murderous religious movements tearing regions and countries apart. If liberal democracy crashes the vacuum will in the last resort be filled by rival tribal clans or tyrannies.
As technology and global interdependency progresses the potential scale of the disaster at the end of mutual loathing grows greater. We will need to understand how humanity has come to this pass and to somehow use this knowledge to rescue ourselves from ourselves. We will need to understand the tangled web which is pushing us into this dead-end.
We will need to seriously study how we have arrived where we are and to what extent the causes lie within ourselves and the societies we have constructed, including the imperfect liberal democracies that we're defending.
To do that we must have the freedom to seek and speak the truth and the courage to listen to others. We will need to understand that knowledge is ultimately liberating, not threatening. We must take steps to fix that which we can while also getting to grips with the larger issues. For that task we need a free science and free scholarship empowered to seek the truth without fear.
Increasingly these freedoms have been closed down by the Cancel Culture in its various manifestations. Our attention has been diverted by identity (that is, tribal) politics to the point when we can scarcely remember what it is like to pursue knowledge without looking over our shoulder.
Progressive politics was never unidimensional but its core was initially concerned with economic and social issues of the working class chiefly. In recent decades this focus shifted to perceived injustices, indignities and power asymmetries allegedly still being experienced by other groups historically marginalised by European colonial-capitalist society (4).
This trend has accelerated in the USA especially, but also in the bastions of western civilisation in Europe. The tropes and terminology of this rapidly shifting discourse has gone global as a result of modern communication technology. Terms such as identity politics or victimology, outrage and grievance politics, virtue signalling, woke and cancel culture have been used to characterise and sometimes stigmatise such movements. Various identifying hashtags - #metoo and #BLM for instance - serve as tribal banners to mobilise mobs on the streets or on-line (5).
I use the words Cancel Cult and Cancel Culture to denote the radical and totalising form the progressive movement has taken in conscious opposition to liberal political philosophies, which permit and indeed encourage, open political debate and contestation. Thus the term 'Cancel' emphasises the drive within modern progressivism to create an ever-narrowing hegemony of permitted ideas through stigmatisation, deplatforming and intimidation of perceived dissidents.
P.S. If you want to know what the mob looks like in the streets read this post by Rhoda Khadalie. It will certainly jerk most heads out of the sand with any knowledge of pre-WW2 Germany.
These few references serve only as an introduction and their inclusion does not necessarily denote unqualified endorsement.. This post is intended as the first of a series (which hopefully becomes a wider debate) in which specific issues get closer examination.
1. Progress: Ten reasons to look forward to the future. By Johan Norberg, published by OneWorld
2. Moral Origins: The evolution of virtue, altruism and shame. By Christopher Boehm, published by Basic Books, 2012
3. Politics: A very short introduction. By Kenneth Minogue, OUP, 1995
4. Pandemics and Pandemonium. By Joel Kotkin, 2 June 2020. Against Identity Politics The New Tribalism and the Crisis of Democracy. By Francis Fukuyama -
5. How liberalism, and the liberal media, are changing before our eyes. By Ross Douthat, 12 June 2020.
6. Blame Rich, Overeducated Elites as Our Society Frays. By Peter Turchin -; The Great Awokening and the Second American Revolution. By Eric Kaufmann.