TOO MUCH GOODNESS in the air and it is intoxicating, this expansive power of the ideal. Are we back to the Big Dreamer’s enforced alternative? Are we time-travelling in pure bliss? Perfect Society was the conceit that reigned and killed in the time of big ideologies, when, for the common good, conscience had to be crushed, conformity had to be maintained at any cost, and not you but someone else knew better, always. The guided tour to the future was never conducted with such brutal perfection. Are we there again, minus the jackboot, even if you can’t miss the metaphorical gulag?
You may trace the cultural ancestry of the current project of perfection, from social attitudes to government spending to campus responsibility to media activism, to the ‘good intentions’ of Big Ideologies—just ignore the ‘bad methods’. The differences are still glaring. The ‘revolution’, even if we admit the exaggeration of the word, began in the West, with an election and a killing. Trump was a behavioural error by democracy; George Floyd was martyrdom in a society that for so long indulged White Guilt. Or that was the consensus of the outraged, and, it must be said, the outrage to a great extent was vindicated by the subversive vulgarity of the elected and the premeditated savagery that the killed had to endure. What followed, in streets and media space and on the campus, was an ideologically modulated conversation aimed at correcting history—and a new code of conduct in arguments. The so-called cancel culture spread, from faculty rooms to boardrooms to op-ed pages, because the militarisation of piety was approved—and abetted—by the liberal establishment, already cracked by the ravages of time. To be progressive was to enforce the righteous by gaslighting the debilitated liberal.
And hence began the Politics of Virtue Rearmed, in which, as brilliantly argued by Robert D Kaplan in the Wall Street Journal, the crowd curates the revolution. Drawing upon Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power, Kaplan writes that the crowd “emerges from the need of the lonely individual to conform with others. Because he can’t exert dominance on his own, he exerts it through a crowd that speaks with one voice. The crowd’s urge is always to grow, consuming all hierarchies, even as it feels persecuted and demands retribution. The crowd sees itself as entirely pure, having attained the highest virtue.” In absolute submission, the classical liberal, damaged but still breathing, accepted the new moral terror even as the crowd went on, in Kaplan’s words, “to hunt down the insufficiently virtuous.”
A new church is being built on the ruins of liberal courage. There has always been that ideological urge to find a new path from where both liberalism and conservatism failed to adapt, and, in a collaboration between theology and political science, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst, authors of The Politics of Virtue: Post-Liberalism and the Human Future, even argued that a new form of political piety, enhanced by moral loftiness, alone could redeem democracy. And it is a form of virtuous restoration of power that the American writer Jason Brennan has espoused in his provocative book Against Democracy (‘What’s Wrong with Democracy’, Open, January 9th, 2017), which made a strong case for epistocracy, a system of the politically enlightened. A clamour for the virtuous in public life has been there as an intellectual pursuit, as one of the alternatives provided by writers disillusioned with democracy-as-usual. The new church says it is democracy.
The church upholds the sacred by preaching homogeneity of devotion. It puts apostasy on the cross. Its evangelism, its consistently reinterpreted gospels, is not to convert; it’s to lead the devout to the right path, the only path. We read about the culture of fear, and tentative steps towards conformity, and rare instances of standing up to the terror, in the most prestigious American universities; and we have already got used to journalism’s desperation to serve the cause, to feed the base. What has remained constant throughout the passage of ideologies is the inevitability of the enemy. In the project of the virtuous, too, the invention of the enemy is a prerequisite for the sustainability of the good. The profanity of the non-conformed is what the virtuous wants to banish, and, in the age of social media, shaming is just a click away.
What we are missing in the noise of the virtuous, and in the steady decline of decencies in public conversations, is the pitiful sight of the liberal who has abdicated his values. In the ascent of the virtuous, co-option is more convenient than speaking up. In another time, in the age of the Truth of One, even silence was a crime, for paranoia fed on a profusion of endorsements. When we see the size of the new church of the virtuous, and listen to its sermons, we should be surprised by gods dying in the privacy of liberal conscience.