Winners Take All: reviewing inequality

By Eugène E.

I was just reaching the last pages of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World when the planet learned that a Manhattan condo had just been sold in the US for a record sum to beat all record sums. At just under $240 million, it was the most expensive home sale in the US. The buyer was a billionaire hedge fund manager. At the same time, less than 500 miles away in Washington, D.C., a food bank was offering victuals to federal employees and their families, who had found themselves strapped for cash as a result of the longest government shutdown in US history. Whatever you might say about the saving habits of those whose government jobs should, in theory, offer decent saving opportunities, the sight of federal employees looking for free provender in the capital of the world’s greatest democracy was an arresting one. Anand Giridharadas might have found it a loss less arresting, though. In Winners Take All, his audacious 260-page takedown of the prevailing economic order, Giridharadas tries those whom it has become fashionable to call the elites. The verdict he delivers is a searing one.

That economic and social inequality in the US – and in other parts of the developed world, for that matter – is a growing problem is hardly big news. If that were all there were to the book, there wouldn’t be much of a book. But Giridharadas takes it further. He points out that efforts undertaken by the elites – citizens of so-called MarketWorld, as Giridharadas aptly calls the crowd at the top – to make the very unequal world a little more equal are, however sincere and well intentioned, counterproductive. Indeed, this is perhaps the most striking thing about many of the privileged characters populating his book: they mean well. Their desire to right the wrong comes off as remarkably sincere. They are under no illusions about the existence of a major problem. What they fail to acknowledge is that they themselves are part of this problem, and that the extraordinary power that their wealth confers on them is the main driver of the very inequality whose growth they want to stymie.

The failure to acknowledge the role that these elites play leads to a distorted view of the situation and their own place in it. That this should be so is understandable and perhaps even inevitable. That our governments, administrators, and institutions have mostly outsourced decision-making and problem-fixing to these people – the same people who have disproportionately contributed to the problem and continue to do so – is scandalous. Tasking MarketWorld with the job of making the world more equal is akin to appointing mobsters to fight organized crime. Successful resolution of the crisis of widening inequality, therefore, hinges on reducing the outsized influence of MarketWorld and giving other stakeholders a greater say in the distribution of wealth. It’s either that or we’ll soon see pitchforks in the streets. 

The arguments are presented deftly, but it’s hard to escape the presence of tunnel vision in the text. By choosing to make economic life the center of gravity in social affairs, Giridharadas falls into the same intellectual trap that has ensnared so many commentators and observers, who believe that man is rational and the only reason why people vote for rabid populists and fiery gadflies is that the economy is in the doldrums. This kind of vision entirely ignores the need for people to have values, icons, and mythology. In the absence of those, people are left to confront emptiness; emptiness makes people flaccid and weakens their immunity system, making them less resistant to savvy political operators and their demagoguery.

Both Trump and Brexit are mentioned in Winners Take All as electoral examples of the fallout of economic inequality. There’s no doubt that class resentment and inequality played a role in the election of Trump and in the success of Brexit, but it is facile to claim that neither Trump nor Brexit would have happened, had wealth distribution been more equitable in both countries. Successful, hardworking people voted for Trump, and affluent constituencies in the UK voted to leave the EU. It is hard to explain why they voted the way they did without taking into account social and cultural considerations. To read Winners Take All, though, you wouldn’t suppose that these exist.

Giridharadas writes: “In our present age of anger, so many people seemed to intuit that their leaders becoming fellow travelers of billionaires and millionaires did have some effect on what they believed . . . It [that intuition] had helped . . . Donald Trump’s unlikely election victory – made all the stranger by the fact that Trump incarnated the very problem he named.” The fact that a billionaire real estate mogul won the election by thundering against the elites is indeed very strange – unless you choose to entertain the assumption that many of the people who voted for him are gormless sheep easily susceptible to discount-store rhetoric (an assumption that, unsurprisingly, Giridharadas does not entertain), or unless you’re willing to consider that Trump’s appeal to voters was not rooted exclusively in preoccupations with their economic welfare (an assumption that Giridharadas does not consider).

Many years ago, I read Adventure Capitalist by Jim Rogers. A former hedge fund manager, Rogers had undertaken a round-the-world journey in a custom-built Mercedes to see the planet and assess the investment potential of all the places on the itinerary, and he wrote a book about the experience – Jules Verne meets high finance. There were some eminently revealing passages. In Iceland, Rogers was dismayed to find that schoolchildren still had to learn Danish because Iceland had been a Danish colony for a long time, just as he found it baffling that schoolchildren in Ireland were forced to learn Gaelic. He did not understand why anyone would bother with these antiquated languages when so few people in the world spoke them. In his opinion, this kind of curriculum undermined students’ competitive advantage; they should have been learning Spanish or some Chinese dialect instead. For men like Jim Rogers, there’s no place in the world for cultures and traditions; there are only competitive advantages. 

Giridharadas seems to have a richer view of the world, yet there is a certain lack of nuance in Winners Take All. Holding the elites and the system that has engendered them as solely responsible for the ravages of inequality, he doesn’t explore the link between economic neoliberalism and social ultraliberalism. One wonders if Giridharadas even suspects that there might be a link to begin with. History tells us that there is. Society needs to accommodate the requirements of its economic life. The 19th century witnessed the consolidation of states in the West (think Germany or Italy) and growing nationalism; to some extent, this was because the economic landscape of the Industrial Revolution and the period that followed it favoured consolidated nations rather than fragmentary clusters of duchies and princedoms (imagine what it must be like for a company involved in international trade to deal with a welter of sovereign states, each one with its own custom regulations and dialect, and think how much it easier it is when all these states are amalgamated).

Likewise, the economic framework of these past decades, with its focus on credit and rampant consumerism, required a society that was fluid, hedonistically inclined, and anti-hierarchical. The disappearance of borders, traditional values, and age-old points of reference, a society in which cultural heritage became something of a liquidation sale event, was necessary to grease the wheels of the ultraliberal economy. This is not to deny the benefits of this economy. It has lifted millions out of poverty. But if one is to criticize the neoliberal economy, one might also probe the neoliberal society and outlook that have complemented the current economic order.

Giridharadas does not do that in Winners Take All. As far as ultraliberal values are concerned, he seems to be supportive. In fact, the book is underwritten with some of the beliefs that ultraliberals hold so dear – beliefs such as the one that takes to task the (ageing) white man, that sempiternal bugbear of Western ultraliberals, for all the problems on planet Earth. The world suffers from being too white and too male – this is never said explicitly in Winners Take All, but the undercurrents are unmistakable. Giridharadas writes about a woman who initially started out as a waitress at Hooters, but who went on to enjoy a dazzling career, eventually earning an MBA and being recruited by a private equity firm to manage one of the firm’s portfolio companies. Hooters was the place that launched her career, but Giridharadas ignores that, as he ignores her assertions that Hooters is not a place that exploits women, but one that employs them. He writes: “She [the woman in question] did not open herself to questions about her company’s negative contributions to a larger system that was abstract and hard to make sense of.”

One does not need to endorse Hooters’s business model to ask what negative contributions Giridharadas has in mind, exactly. Is he criticizing the sex appeal factor at the heart of the company’s model? You can question the tastes of both the company and its patrons but, given the overall cultural proclivities in the West, accusations of exploitation of women in the case of Hooters are redolent of hypocrisy, however appreciated they might be in some districts of ultraliberal discourse. Hooters is certainly distasteful, but so are many other things about contemporary American culture, an eminently exportable culture with highly ambivalent and often contradictory attitudes to sex. Giridharadas is happy to train his guns on the commercial side of it, but steers clear of broader cultural issues.

Although some of the stewards of the digital economy are mentioned in Winners Take All, the technological progress that has made the digital economy possible does not occupy the central place that it should in the narrative. For all its massive benefits, the darker side of this progress should not be overlooked – and there is a darker side. First, the last wave of technological progress has accelerated the speed of change and exacerbated the inequalities inherent in a winners-take-all model, where most of the rewards and benefits accrue to a small group of individuals, while a growing number of people are left with little or nothing at all. If the current economic order is indeed much more of a zero-sum game than it used to be in the past, as Giridharadas seems to suggest, there is a reason why it has coincided with one of the most significant technological revolutions in human history.

Second, this wave of technology has fuelled the rise of surveillance capitalism, turning privacy into a luxury good, and completely upended the traditional dynamics of retailer-consumer relationships. As Shoshana Zuboff, the author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, puts it, “Once we were the subjects of our lives, now we are its objects.” Pretty much. Third, it has fostered and encouraged short-termism. Text messages, social networks, the celebration of the “now” so actively promoted by the new technology to the detriment of the “beyond” – none of that is especially conducive to long-term projects. The commitments of an economy based on the short term to reducing inequality in society are bound to be modest.

Finally, this wave of technology is threatening to make man obsolete. By destroying jobs and developing artificial intelligence, the new economic paradigm is rewriting the rules that govern human affairs. For the first time since the sun rose on human civilization, we are forced to contemplate a future in which men may have to compete not with other men, but with machines – hardly a winning proposition. Even if some of the scenarios floating around are overly pessimistic about the triumph of AI, there’s a very real possibility that, in much of the developed world, large swathes of the population will be out of work. It is unclear how they will survive financially if this widespread lack of gainful employment does come about.

What is society to do when many of its members are condemned to unemployment and idleness, and how does it prevent the disorder and revolts that might ensue? A mind with an Orwellian bent might imagine pointless wars breaking out in various corners of the world, which can absorb the unproductive and restless. Or perhaps society can try to deaden the affected population with vapid diversions that will enshroud it with a fog of oblivion. Anticipating the culture that gives everyone a chance to “go viral”, if only for a few hours, the radical French intellectual Guy Debord prophesied the emergence of a “society of the spectacle” as a new mutation of capitalism; the society of the spectacle would offer participation to everyone. Pointing out that contemporary society is more or less already there, the philosopher John Gray suggests that the society of the spectacle might be one way to prevent restive groups from reaching for pitchforks.

It is worth quoting Gray at length (the excerpt is from The Soul of the Marionette): “With automation advancing rapidly, there may be a decreasing need for human beings in the productive process. It is the need to continue consuming that is central to the economy. Hence the culture of celebrity, which by offering anyone fifteen minutes of fame reconciles everyone to the boredom in which they must pass the rest of their lives.” This might turn out brilliantly prescient yet.

Without getting too futuristic, it should be clear by now that addressing inequality will require judicious management of the technological forces sweeping away old societies and displacing many of the workers in these societies. Winners Take All would have benefitted from underscoring the urgency of the need to restrain the more pernicious aspects of the development of the “app economy”.

Additionally, while we justly criticize the toxic components of the “app economy”, we should not overlook our own responsibility in contributing to its growth. It is easy to place the blame squarely on self-serving elites who create cutting-edge technology that will consign many of us to society’s basements, where we can shuffle about in the cloisters of desuetude. But that is to ignore our own participation in and enthusiasm of the new order. It is always tempting to conjure some cabal plotting in the background, particularly as we’d rather forget that we as users are also enablers. Simply put – and this is one of those things that, in a world of breathtaking complexity, can be put simply – no one is forced to use Facebook or spend hours fumbling with one’s smartphone. These are choices that we make. I am not advocating our turning into Luddites, obviously; in the 21stcentury, it is impossible anyway. I am merely making the case for becoming intelligent users of technology. It’s about time.

Winners Take All, however, focuses on the “cabal” part of the story. Giridharadas is not averse to doing his fair share of scapegoating (given the author’s commitment to equality, I am willing to assume that the share is fair). This is ironic, since many of the people who agreed to speak with him – citizens of MarketWorld – at least show awareness of the problem and a demonstrable willingness to do something about it, confirmed by the masochism associated with having your name appear throughout this kind of text. Giridharadas concludes the book with the opinions of Chiara Cordelli, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago and a vociferous critic of the existing economic order. Her criticisms are trenchant; the tone, however, made this reader uneasy.

She says, for example: “If you are an elite who has campaigned for or supported the right policies, or let’s suppose that you are not causally complicit in any direct sense, still, it seems to me that you might owe a responsibility or duty to return to others what they have been unfairly deprived of by your common institutions.”

How wealthy should one be to consider himself one of those benevolent elites? And how much should be returned? The rich should feel guilty about being rich; they should apologize for being rich; and they should return to society what was taken from it. This is rhetoric that is as hollow as it is malignant. It is the kind of rhetoric that demands that Europeans atone for colonial adventures undertaken three centuries ago, the kind of rhetoric that wants such demographic groups as white males to feel guilty for being white males, the kind of rhetoric that starts with songs of justice and ends with the blade of the guillotine. I am not trying to shore up sympathy for wealthy elites, but I would prefer to stave off revolutionary eidolons with their bloodstained banners.

For several months now, France has been gripped by social unrest and protests. The so-called yellow vests movement exploded after Macron’s government had proposed a hike in fuel taxes (since cancelled). Naturally, the movement did not come about because of the proposed hike, which simply happened to be the last straw. This was a result of months, possibly years, of simmering discontent. Donning the yellow high-visibility vests that motorists in France are required to have in their vehicles by law, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets. While the heterogeneity of the movement makes it somewhat difficult to describe the typical gilet jaune, it seems that the demonstrators tend to be disaffected residents of more peripheral areas; they are the ones with most to lose in the new economy. Their grievances are understandable, their anxieties are natural, and their desire to express both is legitimate. The movement illustrates what happens when the ruling class abandons those it’s supposed to protect. It also reveals the risks and dangers of mob rule.

In the several months that they have been protesting, members of the movement have vandalized property, physically assaulted journalists and law enforcement officials, and even managed to harass a well-known intellectual (Alain Finkelkraut was doused with insults with a strong whiff of anti-Semitism about them). This is inevitable. It is not that the movement is violent or bigoted; it’s simply a movement of the streets. Nothing good has ever come out of mass riots in countries where freedoms were not in question. In democratic societies, it is not the business of the streets to pass legislation; when the streets do take over that mandate, expect if not the worst, then certainly the end of civic society. It is no accident that one of the demands made by so many in the yellow vests movement is for the democratically elected president Macron to resign. Rule by the mob is rarely about democracy, much less about freedom.

What’s to be done to reduce inequality? Giridharadas is right to argue that the search for solutions should be performed by the political apparatus, insofar as this apparatus is truly representative of all of society’s stakeholders, and not by MarketWorld, as is the case today. Beyond that, there’s not much in the way of prescriptive measures. To be fair, prescriptive measures are not the stated objective of the book.

There is, of course, plenty that can be done to fix the yawning gap between haves and have-nots.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had to call a credit reporting company to obtain some clarification regarding his credit report. This friend, a Canadian, was stunned when his call was routed to a call center overseas and when he found himself obliged to give out his personal information to an agent in India. The credit history of an individual is the ultimate indicator of that individual’s financial health; it affects his ability to get a credit card, obtain a loan, and get a job that requires, say, handling money. Without a credit history, the individual is a nonentity in a certain sense. Why is information of this nature about a Canadian citizen stored, maintained, and kept by a commercial enterprise with headquarters in the US and a client service center in India? Is it, he asked himself, too much to expect this sort of data to be firmly in the domain of, well, the Canadian government? He was taken aback, but there was nothing surprising there. This is a result of the deeply entrenched belief that the private sector can handle every sphere of our lives better than the public sector, and of the ensuing rush of governments to offload critical operations on to commercial entities.

The myth of the omnipotent invisible hand, therefore, needs to be reviewed; the sanctity of the market has to be desanctified. Lobbying should be severely curtailed. In certain crucial areas that should have never been entrusted to the private sector, judiciously applied dirigisme might need to make a comeback. Tax regimes ought to be reviewed and possibly overhauled. Certainly, we should question the appropriateness of preferential tax rates as applied to passive income. The idea behind such preferential tax rates is that investors receiving passive income (e.g., in the form of dividends, interest, etc.) will have more funds available to reinvest in the economy and, perhaps, more funds to spend on goods and services, thereby stimulating the domestic economy. This made sense in a less globalized world; it makes far less sense today, when a wealthy American living off passive income can “reinvest” the money by buying a pied-à-terre on the French Riviera or in New Zealand. The benefits to the domestic economy are unclear in that situation.

It works the same way with preferential corporate tax rates. Supposedly, low corporate tax rates motivate companies to make new investments and, therefore, create new jobs. Again, this seems to be a lot less relevant in a world of outsourcing and global capital; moreover, companies might use excess funds generated by lower tax rates to arrange share buybacks or pay special dividends to shareholders. If an American-based company whose largest shareholder is a faceless investment fund in, say, the UK, disburses a special dividend to its shareholders to put a surfeit of cash reserves to good use, it is not evident that this would be accretive to the American economy.

There’s another avenue that might be explored. It could be helpful to review our notions of corporate accountability. In 2015, Volkswagen was rocked by a scandal. The company was accused of having manipulated emissions tests in order to make some of their vehicles appear more eco-friendly that they were in reality. Volkswagen eventually agreed to pay some $22 billion in fines and settlements, an astronomical sum. Let’s think this through. Likely it was a small group of people that had full knowledge of what was going on (indeed, only a handful of individuals were charged). Yet who suffers the most? When a company is slapped with billion-dollar fines, it is that much poorer. All of its employees get hurt (even though most of them had not an inkling that something untoward was going on). All of its shareholders get hurt (think of a small-town retiree who owns 100 shares of Volkswagen in his retirement portfolio and who sees the value of his investment take a hit as the share price plunges). There’s a knock-on effect that will affect innocent people in all kinds of ways.

At the same time, one wonders whether those who did know would pay any damages. The crime is the work of several individuals; the responsibility is collective. I am not so dewy as to miss the point of the concept of limited liability, which encourages enterprising individuals to take risks they would not otherwise take. But perhaps it is worth considering a certain shift in responsibility from abstract entities to concrete individuals. Malfeasance, when it takes place, is always committed by people. It is not right when others have to pay for it.

These suggestions and proposals are purely conjectural; they are not dispensed as biblical commandments and should not be taken as the Holy Gospel. What’s certain is that bold reforms are necessary. In the movie Wall Street, the unscrupulous financier Gordon Gekko, rendered wonderfully by Michael Douglas, says that greed is good. The line is as memorable as it is untrue. Greed is certainly not good. It is, however, perfectly human. By nature, we are a greedy species. It’s how we are, and there’s not much that can be done about it. Human nature can’t be changed.

But it can be managed. The responsibility for that management devolves upon political leaders and supporting institutions, whose task it is to restrain human greed and codify our values in a way that protects society from rapaciousness. As Giridharadas reminds us in his timely Winners Take All, in this area the powers that be are missing in action, having transferred control to MarketWorld. It is high time that society wrestled this control away from the moneyed classes and moved it back to the traditional centers of power, where they belong.

The Masses Also Rise: The Revolt of the Masses revisited

By Eugène E.

No one knows exactly how many books that have appeared in print were intended to be prophetic, but the number of books that actually turned out to be so is surely far more modest. The Revolt of the Masses by the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset is just one such book and, although the very parsimonious praise on the back of my copy does reference the outsized influence that this essay has had since its appearance, one can’t help but feel that the work has been consigned to the distant suburbs of political thought. This relative obscurity is all the more surprising as, despite its vatic insights, the text contains only scant interest in oracular commerce; its author was less a gifted prophet than a brilliant diagnostician. The Revolt of the Masses is first and foremost a work of diagnosis, and the diagnosis of European society that it delivers is as relevant now as it was when the book was first published almost a century ago. In fact, the malady that Ortega y Gasset describes, with sovereign detachment, is more acute today; the patient, in greater danger.

The essay itself is slim; Ortega y Gasset needed less than two hundred pages to make his case. What they say is true: the best ideas are easily communicated, even if not so easily developed. European society (this is equally, if not more, true of American society, but it is with Europe that Ortega y Gasset concerns himself) has succumbed – culturally, intellectually, and politically – to the rule of the “mass-man”. In all aspects of life, the minority groups that had given society direction and purpose were supplanted by the majorities that had previously accepted the authority of said minority groups. This is the revolt of the masses evoked by the title. Rejecting all forms of authority, the society of the mass man is necessarily anti-hierarchical. As a result, it is barbaric. Civilization, Ortega y Gasset argues, requires the existence of a hierarchy, since a hierarchy begets standards and points of reference, without which we are left walking on our heads. A civilized man accepts a higher authority to which he is happy to defer when the need arises. In the jungle or on a deserted island, one has no authority to apply to and no fixed standards to rely on; one is no longer in a civilized land. Such a place is a bastion of barbarism; for Ortega y Gasset, the society of the mass man is consequently barbaric.

All this talk about superior minority groups that the masses need to refer to might suggest ingrained elitist attitudes. A paean to nebulous superior minorities – you don’t get more elitist than that. Yet in the case of Ortega y Gasset, all such charges would be wide off the mark and should be dropped immediately. While Ortega y Gasset divides society into superior men and the masses, being a superior man – the opposite of a mass man – is not a function of one’s lineage, wealth, or social status. For Ortega y Gasset, a superior man is an individual who continuously makes great demands on himself, while a common man is someone who is quite happy being what he is and asks nothing more of himself. Paradoxically, therefore, it is the superior man who lives a life of servitude, a truth that runs counter to the widely accepted idea of the subjugation of the common man by the superior one. By the author’s own definition, “Nobility is defined by the demands it makes on us – by obligations, not by rights”. As far as Ortega y Gasset is concerned, “nobility is synonymous with a life of effort”. It should be obvious, then, that a hereditary prince can easily be a mass man, while a farmhand might well be noble.

In fact, in his defense of and attachment to liberal values, Ortega y Gasset is the consummate anti-elitist. While the temptation to see the rise of the masses as being complementary to the growth of liberalism is strong, Ortega y Gasset rejects the idea; for him, the rise of the mass-man is a threat to the liberal ethos underwriting European culture. How is this so? As Ortega y Gasset writes, “Liberalism is that principle of political rights, according to which the public authority, in spite of being all-powerful, limits itself and attempts, even at its own expense, to leave room in the State over which it rules for those to live who neither think nor feel as it does, that is to say as do the stronger, the majority”.

(This trenchant definition of liberalism clearly shows how it differs from ultraliberalism, or perhaps how classical liberalism differs from the modern strain of thought that it has become fashionable to call liberalism: true liberals support the right of those who are different to live in peace with the majority; ultraliberals believe that the rights of those who are different, no matter how absurd, can and should be imposed on the majority. Bearers of rainbow flags, take note.)

The mass man, according to Ortega y Gasset, has no time for such niceties. “Civilization is, before all the will to live in common. A man is uncivilized, barbarian in the degree in which he does not take others into account.” The will to live in common, however, requires effort. The mass man does not enjoy effort since he sets no requirements upon himself. Instead, the mass man tolerates only homogeneity, and homogeneity does not tend to leave much room to those who are different. This might seem like an unnecessarily dark view of humans, but consider the background: in the early 1930s, when The Revolt of the Masses appeared, the Bolsheviks were hard at work building their own version of paradise here on earth, while the Nazis were about to seize power (via democratic procedures) in Germany. The tolerance that the Bolsheviks and the Nazis showed to those who were different has been well documented. And while I normally deplore posthumous force-feeding, I suspect that much of what goes on in Western societies today would be viewed by Ortega y Gasset, if he were alive, as the very revolt of the masses that he charts in his work.

Ortega y Gasset argues that Western societies are no longer democracies. Democracy is a system in which the masses outsource administration to specially qualified people. A system where specially qualified people are not recognized and where society is governed by “notions born in the café”, as Ortega y Gasset elegantly puts it, is not a democracy; it is a hyperdemocracy. Any modern reader of the text should have little difficulty relating to the concept of hyperdemocracy, once the proper adjustments are made – replace the word “cafés” with “Twitter” and you’re all set.

Ortega y Gasset contends that the revolt of the masses is not a positive development (if it were, it would be in little need of commentary). Yet he is not someone content to observe the world apathetically from the hammock of passéism. For him there are two positive aspects of the revolt of the masses. One is something Ortega y Gasset calls the rise of the historical level. The quality of life enjoyed today by the average person, even one with a modest income, is vastly superior to the quality of life enjoyed by a feudal lord a few centuries ago, who would have been stupefied by the modern toilet or an air conditioner. Life has, on the whole, improved significantly for people in Western societies, and no one would seriously deny that that is a good thing. It is also one that is correlated with the triumph of the masses.

Another is the height of the times. Although the thesis of The Revolt of the Masses lends itself to the idea that European societies are in Spenglerian decline, the great paradox is that this is not so. Ortega y Gasset tells us that it’s easy to determine whether or not we are in a period of decadence by asking ourselves if there’s another time in the past that we would prefer to the current one. If there isn’t – that is, if there’s no other period that we find more attractive than the one that we inhabit right now – then our time cannot in any seriousness be considered as a time of decadence. With that in mind, how many people people today would say no to modern plumbing, the Internet, or antibiotics? Not many, I’d guess, and so decadence is probably as inappropriate a word to describe our times as Ortega y Gasset felt it was to describe his. A decadent time is a time of plenitude, when people feel that they have arrived at the end of history, that tomorrow and the day that follows tomorrow will be much like today – essentially, it’s a Fukuyama moment (for Fukuyama, history ended – briefly – with the end of communism in the early 1990s). It is a time when man feels there is not much else left to accomplish; man feels confined, restricted. But if life feels more pregnant with opportunities and potentialities than ever, as it surely does even more today than it did a century ago, how can one talk about decadence?

The revolt of the masses is not all bad, then. But there’s a problem. By dint of being anti-hierarchical, the society of the mass man lacks a sense of direction. Ortega y Gasset puts his finger on the condition of contemporary society: “We live at a time when man believes himself fabulously capable of creation, but he does not know what to create. Lord of all things, he is not lord of himself. He feels lost amid his own abundance”. This is an arresting analysis of our own times. We have gadgets our ancestors could have hardly imagined, yet the way we tend to use them indicates that we are very much adrift in the seas of plenty. A glance at the most popular videos on Youtube would corroborate that. Having forsaken authority – the superior minorities that steered society – European societies appoint as their rulers the mass man, who knows not where to take that great vessel of the state. In such a system, things by their very nature tend to be provisional and false; the activities of public authorities are consumed with daily crisis management and not with construction of anything long-term. Even if they do become adept at putting out fires, this kind of administration will not be propitious to greatness. A cursory review of today’s administrators should be sufficient to drive the point home.

Ortega y Gasset writes that European society has been suffering from demoralization. The reasons for that are numerous; one of them is that Europe has lost its ability to rule. That this has happened is understandable. The European man is demoralized; he is demoralized because he is left without a project; there needs to be a project, a goal. Specifically, Ortega y Gasset says, “The European cannot live unless embarked upon some great unifying enterprise”. In the absence of one, his soul becomes paralyzed; he decays. This is the malaise of an anti-hierarchical society. Without laws, rules, and commandments passed down by a higher authority, the existence of man becomes that of the “unemployed”, which, as Ortega y Gasset says, is a “worse negation of life than death itself”. Ortega y Gasset saw it a hundred years ago; we see it today – in accelerated form. Economic difficulties, stagnation, a demographic decline – the signs are clear.

What is this great unifying enterprise of which Ortega y Gasset speaks? It is the organic expansion of the European state. A state, Ortega y Gasset reminds us, is never fixed; it is forever moving. It is either expanding or contracting, but it is never static. That’s one of the reasons why Ortega y Gasset is so hostile towards nationalism: a nationalist interpretation of the state presupposes the state’s immutability. But this is an illusion. Today’s Germany, as I have written before, is not the Germany of 1800s, when it was an untidy collection of smaller states. Nationalism in Bavaria or Prussia, especially if applied rigidly, would have been inimical to further consolidation, with the result that modern Germany would have been impossible. This was obvious to Ortega y Gasset, who presciently writes: “There is now coming for Europeans the time when Europe can convert itself into a national idea”. He was correct. It took a destructive war, but Europe got there.

The current state of the European Union is a different story and, in light of its recent troubles, some readers might be moved to mark down the intrinsic value of this great unifying enterprise. For a skeptical reader, Ortega y Gasset has an answer. Commenting on the virulent criticism of parliamentary democracy rampant in his day, Ortega y Gasset explains that the so-called inefficiency of which parliaments are accused has little to do with the institutions themselves. Rather, it is because “the European does not know in what to utilise them”. For something to be designated as efficient or inefficient, you need to identify first what it is that this something needs to achieve. Only then is it possible to gauge the efficiency of the tool in question. Is the problem of the European Union that it is truly inefficient? Or is it that the European is simply not sure what to do with it, since there are no commandments to guide him along? And whatever defects might exist, would it perhaps not be more efficient to reform it instead of dismantling it altogether? For Ortega y Gasset there’s little doubt as to the answer. One does not go back to the buggy just because the automobile is faulty. The trouble is not with a European Union; it is with the European Union.

As the gimlet-eyed Ortega y Gasset sees it, nationalist forces are blind alleys, while communism and fascism are nothing more than false dawns. The past has a logic of its own; the only way to overcome the past is to swallow it, but certainly not to resuscitate it. A false-dawn movement wants to return to an anterior state; however, as the past is a “revenant”, there were reasons why that anterior state became anterior. A restoration of such an anterior state is therefore futile: it will result in either the return of the environment that made the restored state anterior or in complete annihilation. At best, then, such movements are unhelpful; at worst, they are destructive. This is a reality that is forever in need of reminders.

Even the greatest works are never entirely free of flaws, and The Revolt of the Masses is no exception. Ortega y Gasset devotes a whole chapter to what he considers as the threat of the State – the continuous bureaucratization of the government apparatus. In a searing indictment of statism, Ortega y Gasset blames the encroachment of the State for sapping the vital juices of society. At a certain point, the ceaseless expansion of the bureaucratic juggernaut becomes counterproductive and deleterious: instead of serving the people, it enslaves them. Not the State for the people, but the people for the State. This leads to the enfeeblement of the indigenous population, which is less and less capable of supporting the State; the men become weaker or less numerous, and the women barren. Increasingly, the State is forced to rely on foreigners to keep itself going. In such a situation, the original society becomes not a living organism but an artifact – there might be variations, but the general script will likely be more or less the same. Certainly, the present demographic situation of European societies, which are considered to be highly bureaucratized, suggests that the script is being followed rigorously.

And yet it’s worth asking whether any developed society can be effectively managed with a small government apparatus. It’s a possibility, not a certainty. To illustrate the perils of the invasive nature of statism, Ortega y Gasset mentions a comparison made by a nineteenth-century British observer who, having visited France, opined that he preferred the relatively unpoliced England to the heavily policed France: crime might have been more of a problem in England than in France, but then one was also freer in Blighty. Ortega y Gasset quotes the observer approvingly: “I prefer to see, every three or four years, half a dozen people getting their throats cut in the Ratcliffe Road, than to have to submit to domiciliary visits, to spying, and to all the machinations of Fouché.” A legitimate preference, to be sure – as long as it’s someone else’s throat that gets cut. When it’s your own throat that’s at risk, Fouché and his spies look a lot more attractive.

Ortega y Gasset is right to criticize the crippling narrowness of nationalism and to rhapsodize over the impulse towards national integration of European societies. But further extrapolation raises a number of questions. European states cannot continue to consolidate and expand organically indefinitely; at one point or another, they will hit a wall, if for no other reasons than those of geography. What then? If Europe attempts to grow further, subsuming countries such as Turkey (assuming for a moment that a country such as Turkey might be willing to be subsumed), it will cease being European. If, on the other hand, Europe is unable to expand further, then it is doomed, since the European man will no longer have a great unifying enterprise in which to participate. In that case, the only other solution is military expansion – but such a solution would be unpalatable to someone who extols the virtues of classical liberalism and decries barbarism.

Additionally, recent events in Europe have demonstrated that even the unification that has already been accomplished is under threat: the UK is trying to find an exit door it likes, having voted to leave the EU in 2016; Scotland voted against leaving the UK in 2014, but the referendum was nonetheless held; and the future of Catalonia, insofar as that future includes being part of Spain, is up in the air. Clearly, secession and balkanization are in vogue – if they have ever gone out of fashion, that is. The battle of the hour is preventing the unified Europe from disintegrating. However virtuous further integration as a great edifying project might be, one wonders whether Ortega y Gasset wasn’t perhaps overly optimistic about human nature.

Ortega y Gasset explains that the problem of the absence of the rule of the European man is not that it’s the European man who’s absent, but that there’s no one to take his place. If another civilization offered a workable program, he would be quite content to accept it (at the time he was writing the book, he considered the USA too young a nation and still very much in its experimentative phase, while other civilizations did not offer anything that could be construed as workable). The problem, for Ortega y Gasset, was that he had surveyed the global landscape and saw no other projects or programs on offer. The situation is different today. The center of gravity has shifted from the West to the Rest. Non-Western societies are pursuing their own destinies unimpeded, and Western civilization has no projects of its own to offer them. Europeans already have a clear idea of the project offered by the US; the American experience has diverged from the European one, as the US has become a lot less Eurocentric (its elites were once inspired by European culture; increasingly, this is no longer the case).

There is, of course, the increasingly powerful China, for example, and rising India. There’s also the Islamic world, though it’s hardly monolithic in view of its sectarian conflicts. (There’s also Russia, but this is a complex case; any assessment of Russia rests on the degree of Europeanness that is imparted to Russia during the assessment). I cannot, however, muster much interest in China’s global leadership potential. As for the programs offered by the Islamic world, the less said of them, the better. If an epic project truly needs to be developed by the European man, as Ortega y Gasset suggests (and I agree with him), it needs to be a European project.

There is also the unanswered question of the superior minorities – the “specialized persons” – needed to administer society. The reader might well agree with Ortega y Gasset that power, whether political or cultural, should be vested in these superior minorities, but how is one to decide which people are truly excellent enough to lead society? How are they to be screened and selected? What filters and criteria are to be used? The question was easily, if not always effectively, settled before the revolt of the masses, when power was mostly hereditary, but such a system is no longer viable. How are we to apply the definitions proposed by Ortega y Gasset to reality today? We never find out.

Occasionally, Ortega y Gasset abandons his sun-dappled path and descends into some misty valleys. His assertions concerning Russia are contentious. There’s no question that, at the time of the writing of the essay, Russia was less mature than the European societies that, for Ortega y Gasset, were the beacons of the enlightened world, but the point concerning its inherent non-Europeanness should perhaps not be belabored without some qualifications. Readers allergic to colonialist sentiment, or those with a global outlook, might take exception to the author’s unmitigated Eurocentrism, a Eurocentrism that seems to have little confidence in societies outside of the Franco-Anglo-German troika. Occasionally, things seem to verge on the naive, as when Ortega y Gasset claims that societies have tended to flourish where they were challenged; in the tropics, “the animal-man degenerates”. This may have been true in the past, but the air conditioner has changed that game.

Still, given the stakes and the remarkable accuracy of the author’s general diagnosis, it would be petty to overemphasize any flaws that can be flagged by a pernickety reader. If Ortega y Gasset sins, his sins are highly pardonable. Even the misty valleys that sometimes lead Ortega y Gasset off course are not without their charm.

As mentioned, The Revolt of the Masses is concerned primarily with diagnostics, not fortune-telling. Yet Ortega y Gasset does not shy away from glimpses of the future. “The idea that the historian is on the reverse side a prophet, sums up the whole philosophy of history. It is true that it is only possible to anticipate the general structure of the future, but that is all that we in truth understand of the past or of the present.” If the future cannot be foretold, then, it can be anticipated. With what degree of accuracy? At the end of the book, Ortega y Gasset spells out the danger for the morally “unemployed” European man: weak and in need of inspiration, he might succumb to dangerous alien forces. For Ortega y Gasset, that dangerous force was Bolshevism. This might look naive to us today, but then consider our vantage point. If Ortega y Gasset was wrong about the threat of communism, this is largely because it was upstaged by Nazism; additionally, those who have experienced life in the Eastern Bloc might argue that Ortega y Gasset was spot on.

Either way, the point is not the specific threat, but the existence of one. The danger associated with the demoralized European man has not disappeared; on the contrary, it looms larger than before. The “unemployed” European man evoked by Ortega y Gasset was still fecund; this is no longer the case. The European peoples are becoming less numerous; to replenish their numbers, European societies are falling back on immigration, typically from non-European countries. At the same time, the Bolshevist bogeyman has been replaced with the danger of the spread of Islam on European soil. Bolshevism was a menace, but it was an ideology and therefore highly provisional; Islam is a religion, a way of life. Coupled with the demographic configuration, the existing situation does not augur well for European societies. They appear to be living on borrowed time, financed by dividends paid on the capital of the past.

Where there is danger, though, there is also hope. The idea that Europe – the Europe as we know it – is facing an existential threat is, for this writer, nearly a trope. The existential threat has less to do with exogenous factors than with the endogenous one – that of the unemployed European man. If Ortega y Gasset is right when he claims that “only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe”, and if Russia can be considered to be a part of Europe, then the next great unifying project could conceivably be the forging of some kind of union between Russia and non-Orthodox Europe.  At this juncture, this looks like a madman’s talk. Europe is struggling to maintain the national consolidation it has already achieved, and contemporary Russia does not seem to be ready for this sort of arrangement, either. But the urgency is there, and the reality of tomorrow, or perhaps that of next week, is often funded by the dreams of today.

But let us not venture into the realm of prognoses. For our purposes, it would be sufficient to confine ourselves to diagnostics. Effective treatment begins with getting the diagnosis right; if you identify the condition, you’re halfway there. This is possibly why the conclusion of The Revolt of the Masses is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. The reader gets the impression that things could turn out either way; for the author, history is not a set of inevitabilities. But then one need not apply to Ortega y Gasset for forecasts. The Spanish intellectual had a perfect reading of the health of the society in which he lived; fortunately for the rest of us, he put it down on paper. It’s lamentable that the work is not sought out as much as it should be.

A company I was once involved with asked prospective candidates during their job interviews what one book the candidates would recommend to an alien who had just been catapulted to our planet and wanted to know everything there was to know about our world. Had I been asked that question, I would have directed the alien to the Bible. I would still default to that book today. But if I were asked to name a book that would give the reader the most comprehensive picture of modern society, I could not think of a better work than The Revolt of the Masses by Ortega y Gasset.

Happy New Year.

Political identity: the case for transcending the left-right spectrum

By Eugène E.

Many moons and wayward conversations ago, I happened to be an unwilling witness to a political discussion between a young man and an equally young woman. The latter had what you might call “progressive” sympathies, and the young man – whose interest in his female interlocutor had very little to do with politics – was working hard to present himself as a kindred spirit. The object of his interest carried around with her something of a laundry list where every item had to have a checkmark, and things were going swimmingly right until the moment the question of gay marriage was broached. The young man opposed same-sex marriage and said so. Put off by this stance, the young woman demanded to know if her wooer happened to be a “closet right-winger”. Realizing he’d made a blunder, the young man tried to atone for his faux pas but, the damage having been done, his protestations were met with no success; and he found his ambitions permanently thwarted.

At the time, I thought the exchange demonstrated that politics was not the best tool to advance one’s romantic agenda. Today, with the benefit of some additional experience (and, I presume to hope, some acquired wisdom), I also think that it revealed the chronic intolerance that some “progressively inclined” people, who typically pride themselves on their tolerance, tend to have for those who do not share their views. But that conversation also exposed something else: the woefully inadequate political spectrum that we use to frame our political identities.

The concept of the right wing and the left wing is considered to be a throwback to the French Revolution, when members in the National Assembly sat either to the right or the left of the king, depending on whether they supported the monarchy or not. This was more than two hundred years ago. The world has changed considerably since then and has become immensely more complicated. The unidimensional left-right system is alive and well, however, and is still the lens through which we tend to view the political landscape, even though its limitations have been recognized. This entrenched use of the traditional political spectrum is a problem, and it’s not just a question of semantics or academic hairsplitting. There’s more at stake here. The straitjacket of the traditional political spectrum promotes intellectual sloth and stifles debate on critical issues, allowing extremists to highjack the vital questions of the day.

The need to have a classification system to figure out where we stand in relation to others is obvious. Political geography requires the use of a certain compass. The difficulty with the existing one is that it encourages seeing societal issues in binary terms; either something is or isn’t. It’s a world of dichotomies. This provides scope for facile thinking and political name-calling. Consider the rift that is said to define Western societies today. Societies are broadly divided into two groups: those who are in favor of globalization and openness, and those who are against such things. The former (typically, the left/liberal) are naturally modern, educated, and highly urbanized; the latter (naturally, the right) are ossified, uneducated, and rural in outlook and/or reflexes. The first camp, then, is composed of sophisticated, intelligent people who “get it”; the second camp involves a bunch of rubes and yokels. This now takes on a moral dimension: if you want to be seen as an educated, tolerant, and intelligent person – essentially, a decent human being and a noble spirit – you need to align yourself accordingly. You must not vote for a Donald Trump; you cannot be a “leaver” and in support of Brexit. If you are, there’s a disagreeable odour about you – that of sulphur. The Right cannot be right.

When those who take part in the populist backlash against the current vision of progress are not depicted as hidebound bigots or fascist sympathizers, they are condescendingly described as people who have missed the train of progress. Losers, in a word. A more civil and refined take on this might refer to a schism between people who are receptive to the future vs. those who yearn for the “good old days”. But the message is still the same, and it’s a harmful one: it shames and demonizes those who are on the wrong side of the barricades (to be fair, shaming and demonization are in no way a one-way road).

The truth is that, among those drifting towards so-called populists, there are many people who are not of the far right; they simply have had enough. Some of these people are educated, tolerant, and not at all averse to the future. But they are sick of being walloped by what they believe are, not without justification, excesses of political correctness and ultraliberalism. They balk at being asked, as they are in many European countries, to welcome millions of people who come from different civilizations and often with little intent to accept local ways of life, at an unknown cost to the security, social cohesion, and cultural traditions of the societies in which they and their ancestors have lived for centuries; accept that certain forms of sexual pathology should, in legal terms, be equated with sexual normalcy, even when simple biology tells us otherwise; with being accused, time and again, of being agents of gender oppression; and of other things that have become ultraliberal totems in recent years.

They find it especially grating when such requests are buttered with the hypocrisy that one has witnessed of late in so many instances. For example, for years now tobacco smokers have been the butt of social opprobrium here in Canada; aside from increasingly stringent anti-smoking rules, smokers have had to pay through the nose to get their fix. A few years ago, the provincial government in Ontario went so far as to ban smoking on outdoor patios (anyone who has seen smokers climb over some token barrier separating a patio from the street and smoke on the other side of the barrier will attest to the nonsensical nature of this measure). But smoking is unhealthy, and so the measures made sense; what’s more, they have proved to be effective at reducing smoking consumption, however inconvenient they might have made the lives of smokers.

Yet in October, Canada’s federal government legalized marijuana, a decision that was all but symbolic, since the authorities had been turning a blind eye to the use of cannabis for some time. Now smoking a joint is legally permissible, and the sight of people using marijuana for “recreational” purposes as they amble in the streets, in the halo of a small, highly malodorous cloud, is becoming increasingly common (along with the pungent smell and the occasional tubercular cough that come with it). What was the point of all the massive anti-smoking efforts if we’ve just legalized another form of smoking, particularly one that impairs the mind? Note that tobacco smoking is associated, in North America at least, with working stiffs and blue-collar laborers – the kind of semi-derelicts who are blamed for voting in ugly right-wing populists. Marijuana, on the other hand, is just the perfect way to unwind for a young urban sophisticate who is employed by the “creative economy” and who thinks that anyone questioning gay marriage or open borders is a potential brownshirt. Asinine generalizations, of course (but then maybe not – Elon Musk famously enjoyed a spliff during a web show; would he have smoked a cigarette?) – but that’s what dichotomies look like.

Or consider the recent decision by a number of Canadian broadcasters, including the national one, to stop playing the old Christmas hit Baby, It’s Cold Outside in order to avoid offending people who have taken exception to parts of the lyrics (apparently, the kind of seduction that goes on in the song is a bit too strong for the tastes of our times). Compared to much of the objectionable “cultural” trash with which our society is bombarded on a daily basis, the Baby, It’s Cold Outside stuff is pretty tame; but such is the gift of #MeToo. The contents of many a rapper’s song promoting a rather, shall we say, casual attitude towards intimacy with women, and women as such, are appalling, but it’s this Christmas song that has been found controversial.

And on and on it goes.

People in modern societies are confronted with this kind of ultraliberal hydrocephalus on a regular basis, and there’s also a compounding effect. Inevitably, they react to it. They need not have right-wing views to react – that’s just the point. What does the French Revolution have in common with the migrant crisis in Europe? Nothing, yet we are using antiquated terminology to help steer us through a debate that requires a very modern outlook, with the results that we have seen – this concerns the migrant question as well as any other social issue. If you think immigration into Europe should be strictly controlled and Merkel’s 2015 decision to admit more than a million migrants was not the greatest idea, you might be an ethnonationalist, a xenophobe, or even a racist. If you question gay marriage, you’re a homophobe. If you criticize #MeToo, you’re a sexist and a misogynist. At all events, you’re a right-wing zealot, and I feel that the use of the unidimensional political spectrum lends to that kind of reductionism, simplification, and labeling (of course, a lack of tolerance and, frequently, common sense are also contributors). As few decent people want to be identified as right-wing zealots, a vacuuming operation is performed on more moderate voices; the only real opposition is then put up by fringe elements. This vacuuming effect might well be one of the main causes of the recent rise of ring-wing populism.

I am not unaware that there are bona fide homophobes among those who oppose gay marriage and that there are racists among critics of Merkel’s reaction to the migrant crisis. There might be highly unsavory elements among those who share my own position on a number of questions. I do not – and would not – want to be affiliated with them. But should one of these unsavory elements say that the sun rises in the east, it will be rather fatuous of me to say that it actually rises in the west just to contradict someone I would not care to be associated with.

The traditional political spectrum also informs our understanding of the current situation insofar as it is influenced by history. There’s been a lot of debate (and a flurry of books) in the past couple of years concerning similarities between our times and those of the 1930s. The tendency to look to the past to divine the future is understandable. While history does not usually repeat itself and should not be confused with poetry, its pedagogic value should never be discounted. The focus on the 1930s is also understandable: as factions resisting or opposing mass immigration in the West are considered to be on the far right of the political spectrum, commentators, historians, and analysts are moved to examine the last time the far right had a meaningful impact and came to power. That’s where the 1930s come in. However, there’s a risk that the results of any such analysis might be compromised by the limitations of our unidimensional approach.

I have recently read an insightful book by Paul Hanebrink, Associate Professor of History at Rutgers. A Specter Haunting Europe: The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism charts the development of the myth that the Jews were behind the spread of Bolshevism in the 20th century. It is a well-written text that shows how hate can be deployed by recycling medieval myths and inserting them into a modern context to be used as political currency. (To be sure, the presence of Jews in revolutionary movements was prominent in a number of cases, but it was nowhere near what the proselytizers of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth said it was. Furthermore, the history of revolutionary movements in Europe did not start with the Jews, but with the French Revolution, which was a lodestar for later revolutionaries; in his memoirs, the Russian thinker Alexander Herzen, himself no stranger to revolutionary fervor, writes extensively about the German revolutionaries of the 1840s that he encountered, whom he describes as “cosmopolitans” through and through, and who were certainly not Jews. Finally, the author of the most brutal chapter of the most Bolshevist state in the 20th century was not Jewish: Stalin was notoriously Georgian.)

It is the conclusion of the book that I found problematic. In the epilogue, Hanebrink argues that, as the Iron Curtain disappeared, East European countries with an especially checkered past were called upon to confront their own roles in the persecution of Jews in the 20th century. The extent to which these countries recognized their role, Hanebrink points out, reflected their historical consciousness and maturity. This is an argument that I find easy to accept. But Hanebrink gets himself into trouble by subsequently stating that Holocaust memory has become a metonym for certain liberal values, which certainly raised the eyebrows of this author. As he writes, “The Judeo-Bolshevik myth was reborn in post-Communist Europe as a tool for challenging the premises on which transnational memory of the Holocaust rested – and with those premises, the liberal civic ideals of multicultural toleration, human rights, and European integration that Holocaust memory culture had come to symbolize so powerfully” (the italics are mine).

Hanebrink accepts this connection between Holocaust memory and the liberal civic ideals he mentions, as he makes clear elsewhere. But it’s rather muddled thinking, and such a connection can only be made with significant qualifications. Holocaust memory is one thing; European integration is another. If this connection is followed all the way to the end, one can suggest that opposing European integration (a political matter) is tantamount to challenging Holocaust memory (a human tragedy) – a suggestion that would, at a minimum, be unhelpful, not to say irreverent. The instrumentalization of the Holocaust to support a political doctrine is inappropriate; taking one of the darkest pages of the European history of the 20th century and finding a place for it on a unidimensional political spectrum smacks of manipulation. For, once such a connection is made, a European statesman finds it difficult to turn away migrants from the Middle East. He tells himself that he’s seeing a recrudescence of far-right sentiment in his country, which suggests that we’re living in the 1930s, which in turn suggests that the Muslim arrivals are the new Jews, which finally means that he is to welcome them if his liberal credentials are to be upheld. A sui generis historical event, then, is used to shape the present immigration policy.

This is not very coherent. Let’s be clear: Muslims are not the new Jews. There are many reasons why such comparisons and analogies don’t stick. The European Jewry persecuted by the Third Reich had been in Europe for centuries and was in many cases completely assimilated; the Muslim polity in Europe is, for the most part, not older than three generations; and, in the case of the 2015 migrant wave, the arrivals had no pre-established links with Europe. Second, the persecution of Jews had ethnic/racial overtones; anti-Muslim sentiment is driven more by religious overtones (which does not make hatred of, and discrimination against, Muslims any more acceptable, but there’s still a difference – one cannot choose one’s ethnic or racial origins, but religion is a choice). Third, if we are to accept the notion of Judeo-Christian civilization and its attendant values, we must also accept the “Judeo” part of it, as any Christian worth his salt would; Islam, though, is not part of Judeo-Christian civilization. Finally, Europeans today are very different from the Europeans of the first half of the 20th century. At that time, Europe was much stronger; its history was a history of wars and revolutions, and Europeans were prepared to participate in them. The situation is different today. European populations are shrinking; its youth has no experience of warfare – a crisis is what happens when Facebook or Twitter is down. Europe could absorb shocks easier a hundred years ago than it can today, and welcoming millions of people from high-risk regions that belong to different civilizations is much more dangerous. Comparisons with migrants from Africa and the Middle East today with the ships carrying Jewish refugees during the Hitler era are misguided.

Yet Hanebrink makes just such a comparison in the epilogue, singling out the migrant crisis of 2015 as a cautionary tale and conflating the history of the Holocaust with a number of ultraliberal values. It is unfortunate, unaesthetic, and also counterproductive, since this kind of conflation carries the risk of encouraging ideological hostage-taking and inane political partisanship.

Should we discard the lessons of history? Of course not. On the contrary, we should learn from history. But we should not instrumentalize history to buttress political programs as we take on the problems of the present and the challenges of the future. Yet we do it anyway, and it seems that the unidimensional political spectrum that underpins our weltanshauung plays a role in that. There are doubtless plenty of cases where the far right is indeed the far right. But is the Dutch Geert Wilders really all that similar to Hungary’s Jobbik? Yet the left-right political spectrum places them in the same antichamber.

There have been attempts to overcome the unidimensional political spectrum. A number of years ago, the Political Compass (https://www.politicalcompass.org/) developed a two-dimensional chart to address the limitations of the standard political spectrum. The respondent is invited to express his (dis)agreement with a number of statements dealing with social and political issues. I have taken the test; the results revealed that I am situated at a safe distance away from Hitler, Stalin, and other ghouls of the 20th century. Well, that’s a relief. However, the results produced by this test should be taken with spoonfuls of salt, to say the least. Many of the statements are formulated in a way that’s superficial; others are just plain silly. For example, who would disagree with the statement that “governments should penalise businesses that mislead the public”? Statements such as “it’s natural for children to keep some secrets from their parents” and “astrology accurately explains many things” get you closer or further away to Hitler or Thatcher on the chart, depending on how you answer. Clearly, there’s room for improvement.

I am not suggesting that we should reinvent the wheel, if the political spectrum can be thought of as a wheel. Nor am I recommending that we ignore history or legitimize those political operators who should never be legitimized. We should be vigilant, we should be on guard against threats to freedom and (a much-abused term that has been subjected to rounds of devaluation, but I will use it anyway) democracy, and we should call extremists and fringe players by their proper names. But it would help if we went about it responsibly, treating complex issues with the care that they deserve, and if we avoided ad hominem attacks and character assassination to silence dissenting voices. Rethinking the way we apply the political spectrum, if not the political spectrum itself, would be a good way to start.

The Serenissima: dreams of empire

By Eugène E.

October is said to be a lovely time to visit Venice, and I spent a number of days in the Italian city last month, though less with the intention to confirm the clemency of Venice’s autumnal weather (it was indeed lovely) than to enjoy its masterpieces of Western art and to summon the erstwhile grandeur of the Venetian Empire. Alas, that last bit – the summoning of grandeur part – was problematic. Like the water that is its defining element, the zeitgeist of the Serenissima remained elusive, opaque, and inscrutable.

Don’t get me wrong: Venice is exquisite, and I found the city as well preserved as a city of its age could have been. As has been noted by others, Venice must be the only place in Europe where an 18th-century visitor would comfortably find his way three centuries later. The city’s immutability and resistance to time are its charm, and in this respect Venice does not disappoint. As it doesn’t elsewhere. The susurrous canals still converse in spasmodic splashes and mysterious whispers; the sinuous streets, bravely struggling to cope with hordes of tourists, have not revealed their ancient secrets; the quaint campaniles and churches puncture the sky of a lachrymose Tiepolo blueness as they always have; and the slightly pungent smell that pervades Venice continues to remind the traveller that the city on the water is a place like no other. The famed beauty of Venice requires no further odes.

Yet a keen student of history might be forgiven for feeling elegiac as he searches for a quiet, tourist-free place to contemplate the city’s glorious past. Venice is not even a pale shadow of its once-great self – after all, a shadow faithfully relays the shape of the host it trails. Contemporary Venice, however, offers nothing but a wispy memory of the formidable maritime power of yore. It was once the mistress of the sea; it is now a tourist attraction, whose dwindling local population is dwarfed by the number of tourists besieging it daily, armed with backpacks, perambulators, and selfie sticks, and whose despotic presence reduces your chances of an encounter with the ghosts of Vivaldi or Goldoni to a big fat zero.

What happened? A number of things. Historians tend to use the 16th century as a starting point when charting the decline of the Venetian Empire. A combination of the discovery of the Americas, with its vast riches, challenged the advantageous position that Venice had enjoyed in maritime trade. The rise of the Ottoman Empire did the rest. And then, with empires, something always happens. Empires are forever in a state of flux. At a certain point, an empire gets too wealthy, too bloated, and too complacent; it’s all downhill from there. I do not intend to delve into the history of Venice, however – there are plenty of sources who have done an excellent and thorough job of it, and the reader can consult them at his leisure. I am more interested in the lessons that the fall of the Venetian Empire has for us at this historical juncture.

I see two.

One of these two lessons concerns the importance of vitality in the life of any society. I’ve written about this vitality before, which to me represents a certain energy that propels society forward. It is the impetus to live and to grow. Sometimes this vitality comes at the expense of other societies. It can be a force for good as much as for evil; perhaps it’s more accurate to think of vitality as a value-neutral phenomenon. But without it, society begins to wither and wilt.

This vitality does not depend on economic health alone. In The Hitler of History, for example, John Lukacs notes the galvanizing effect that Hitler’s prewar reign had on German society. At the time, Germans saw Hitler as a messiah; of course, what came later (or the experience of those Germans who were not deemed to be sufficiently German by the Nazis) is another story. Subsequent events showed the world the kind of messiah the führer really was. But Lukacs makes it clear that the national confidence that Hitler was able to impart to Germans in the prewar years was remarkable. According to Lukacs’s research, the number of suicides in Germany between 1932 and 1939 dropped sharply in number (by some 80%), while birth rates and marriages shot up. Lukacs puts it succinctly: “social conditions are not material conditions, just as social history is not economic history”. Just so. The vitality of which I speak goes far beyond wealth – to refute a catchphrase from a presidential campaign run by one former US president, it’s not the economy, stupid. It’s certainly not just the economy. This line of thinking runs counter to the prevailing consensus among economists and policymakers, who in recent years have stressed the pursuit of economic development to the exclusion of just about everything else. Economic development is no doubt important, but humans are driven by more than just their material needs – the history of human civilization bears out that view. Some intangible things just don’t lend themselves to a calculator and growth models.

The recently deceased historian John Norwich, an authority on Venice, describes in The Paradise of Cities the affluence of Venice in the 18th century – just before the Republic succumbed to Napoleon’s forces and ceased to exist. It was, in many ways, a golden time for Venice. No wars had been fought since 1718, trade was flourishing, well-off tourists were pouring in, and the city basked in an unprecedented period of prosperity. But the Republic was weak, so weak that by 1800 it was no more. The reason for the weakness, Norwich points out, was “certainly not economic”. What, then? In simple terms, Venice “had lost her self-respect”. No longer a seafaring power with an enviable fleet, it had been reduced to a perpetual carnival and a hedonist port of call. It had become flabby and flaccid, and its burgeoning economy was ultimately unable to save the Republic when the enemy showed up at the gates – “the gates”, of course, being rather metaphorical in this case. Norwich calls it the death of the body politic; I prefer to think of it as a loss of vitality.

All this is of relevance at a time when Western societies tend to ignore the importance of non-economic values in its policy-making, choosing to prioritize economic growth to the detriment of other needs. This leads to inevitable mistakes. For example, when dealing with societies or civilizations that are incompatible with the West, policymakers are tempted to believe that economic wealth is enough to win “the hearts and minds” – you can count on Hollywood and McDonald’s to tame the restive youths pouring into Europe from the Middle East. Yet this ignores the powerful thrust of spiritual values that transcend prosaic needs and the enormous void that results in the absence of such values.

Modern European countries, particularly those in the north, are prosperous; yet they lack vitality. They are a bit like retirement homes for the well-heeled. Their demographic situation is precarious; they are not reproducing at a healthy rate and are therefore compelled to rely on immigration. Not reproducing at a healthy rate is a sign of decay, of stagnation, of a lack of vitality. But this is not appreciated. As long as economic prosperity can be sustained, it is assumed, everything else will be taken care of. That’s quite an assumption. Without vitality, the wealth of such societies will eventually dissipate or be seized by other, stronger societies. The history of Venice is clear on that point: consider the looting of the quondam mistress of the Mediterranean by Napoleon and his army.

The second lesson is the importance of unity in a given civilization. The Fourth Crusade, in which Venice was a participant, is an excellent illustration of this. Organized in the early 13th century with a view to wrestling control of Jerusalem from the infidels, it ended in the sacking of Constantinople instead, dealing a deadly blow to the Byzantine Empire from which it never recovered. Under the dogeship of Enrico Dandolo, Venice took part in the sacking. At the time, it was seen as a triumph, which, in the short term, it may well have been; in the long term, it was anything but. The asphyxiation of Byzantium fuelled the rise of the Ottoman Empire, which would in turn have considerable implications for the fate of the Venetian Empire later on. Despite their rivalry, Byzantium and the West both belonged to the religion of the cross; their having turned on each other facilitated the expansion of another civilization, which ultimately destroyed Byzantium, and posed a major threat to the survival of Venice and the long-term security of the West.

Are we seeing a similar geopolitical configuration today? Western Europe (the West) is currently at loggerheads with Russia, which has throughout history aspired to offer the Christian world a “third Rome” and can be thought of as Byzantium. How sensible is this antagonism? Both the West and Russia must confront the reality of a violent Islamic world. Both have to contend with a rising China (Russia especially, due to the demographic imbalance along its border with China). Both are facing dire demographic prospects. In these crosswinds, it might make a lot more sense to explore some kind of union. The idea of such a union may seem outlandish, but the story of Europe is a story of gradual consolidation. The Germany we know today was not the Germany of the 18th century, when it was a huge agglomeration of tiny states. And history, as we know, is never static.

While a union between Western Europe and Russia might appear to be a pipe dream now, the EU would have struck many people a pipe dream a century ago. In his memoirs, Sergei Witte, one of the ablest ministers of Nicholas II, that nincompoop of a monarch, recounted how, during a meeting with the German kaiser, he entertained the possibility of an EU-type union between Russia, France, and Germany (it is rather poignant that Witte did not include the UK in this troika). We don’t know what the kaiser thought; he might have well thought that Witte was a madman or a romantic. But it did not turn out to be a silly reverie or a utopian dream – as is common with visionaries, Witte was simply well ahead of his time. The border between France and Germany has been an open one for some years; and if Russia has not been part of that unification process and the EU is currently in crisis, that’s hardly Witte’s fault.

Of course, grand visions must collide with reality. Post Brexit, the EU is struggling not to fall apart. It is hardly the time to contemplate further unification – with Russia, of all states. As for Russia, its president does not strike me as the ideal man to help orchestrate such a union, despite his assertions to the contrary. But farsighted leaders in Europe and Russia would do well to consider the experience of Venice and Byzantium, and draw such conclusions as are appropriate. They don’t have to, of course. Enemies of historical determinism tell us that nothing is inevitable; we’re free to shape history as want. But we ignore the lessons of history at our own risk.

Venice, in fact, offers more than just historical lessons. It might also offer a blueprint for the future of Europe. This is just the point that the French intellectual Régis Debray makes in his coruscating “Venetophobic” essay, Against Venice, a polemical work that denounces Venice as a cauldron of cultural kitsch. Debray strains for effect (one reads with amusement Debray’s yearning for the faraway industrial eyesore of Marghera and Mestre, which he contrasts with the artificial beauty of Venice); and as one advances through the text, it’s hard not to wonder whether Debray’s attack on Venice is not, in its own way, an admission of helplessness before the city’s timeless beauty.

But, right at the end of the essay, Debray gets serious; the mischief turns to indignation. In this museum of a city, Debray sees the Europe of tomorrow – an economically stagnant, inert playground for rich foreigners, who cavort and play while the locals, reduced to mere stagehands in their own land, look on. Debray points out that when Venice ruled over the Mediterranean, she was not liked at all. This is a very astute observation. One can extend the argument: when Europe ruled over half the world, it was not much liked, either; but it was rich and powerful. It had vitality. I am no apologist for the colonial experience of the West, but there’s no ignoring the truth that, back when Europe had colonies, its streets were not menaced by people from other civilizations who imposed their way of life on the local societies. Europe did not need to rely on the US for national security. When Europeans, for whatever reasons, turned their backs on the concept of empire, they lost their vitality; there was nothing else to offer the world but its picturesque settings.

Debray’s gripes are valid. Europe risks turning into a museum – museums are nice to visit, but they’re not generally designed to be inhabited. Venice is an extreme example of what happens when a place turns into a tourist Mecca, for which it was never really built: impassable streets, high prices, frustrated locals, a surfeit of noise and litter, and other nuisances caused by mass tourism. The population of the city continues to decline; there’s been an exodus of young people. What job prospects exist revolve mostly around the tourist industry. Even local businesses are no longer all that Venetian or, indeed, Italian; I’ve seen ostensibly Italian restaurants owned and operated by small business owners from China and the Middle East. Venice is experiencing a “hollowing-out”, and Debray fears that this will be the fate of Europe. 

The journalist Janan Ganesh wrote an insightful article the other day, positing that the next target of populist movements in Europe might be not the foreign migrant, but the foreign tourist. The reason for that is simple: to become dynamic again, European leaders will need to carry out sweeping reforms. The problem is that they are completely addicted to tourist money, which continues to flow in exactly because Europe is one of the few places in the world that offer history, that do not change. Why change things when you make billions of dollars keeping things exactly the way they are? Tourists are coming to get a slice of postcard Europe, which motivates leaders to choose preservation as its primary policy and do nothing. This is good for cruise ships and tour operators, but it does a major disservice to the locals, who will resent both their leaders and the tourists that overtake their cities. Given what I saw in Venice, Ganesh’s idea of the tourist as the next scapegoat for populists does not seem all that far-fetched.

Debray suggests that Venice is like a cultural Disneyland. Actually, it’s worse than that. It’s not even a cemetery. Cemeteries, after all, are only custodians of death; they still live a life of their own. Not long after my visit to Venice, the Serenissima experienced one of the worst floods in decades; as many as three-quarters of the city were underwater. The photos I’ve seen suggest not so much a cultural Disneyland as an Atlantis in the making. Long-term forecasts concerning the city’s survival are not very promising, either. Given Venice’s breathtaking beauty, this is unspeakably sad. The disappearance of Venice would be an incalculable loss to Western civilization. It would be a lot more incalculable still if Venice were indeed a blueprint for the European continent as a whole.

Of MRGs and MGTOW, or the age of the vagina

By Eugène E.

I first heard about the MGTOW community during a conversation with a Chinese-born mobile developer, who had been telling me about a brand-new business idea that he was mulling over. The idea concerned a female robot that would satisfy the most primordial desire of any man. For the mobile developer – let’s call him Bobbie – this was the new future, a time when men would no longer need real women for sex. I’d first thought it was a joke. But Bobbie was in earnest. The product was perfect for a member of the MGTOW community. Hadn’t I heard about it? As I hadn’t, he advised me to take a look, his eyes twinkling with the zeal of a proselytizing missionary. MGTOW could change my life. I greeted this with skepticism. Wary of yet another acronym in a world already heavily saturated with acronyms, especially one that had the potential of changing my life, I did not dwell on it for long.

When I finally did take a closer look at what MGTOW (Men Going Their Own Way) was all about, I was quite surprised – not by the existence of such a community, but by the fact that someone like Bobbie could conceivably be a part of it. MGTOW seemed like a club for men struggling with maladjustment; Bobbie was anything but maladjusted. He was young and good-looking in that boy-pop-idol kind of way; additionally, he drove a luxury car and seemed to be well-heeled. I found myself intrigued. By the time Bobbie and I spoke about MGTOW again, I was far less benighted than I had been during our first conversation, but no less skeptical. It was hard not to be, just as it was hard not to dismiss MGTOW as an online fringe group. In a way, that’s what it is. But MGTOW is also more than that: it is part of a broader reaction to the onslaught of feminism; and, as such, it deserves some commentary.

Unlike men’s rights groups (MRGs), which have a longer track record, MGTOW is a newer concept. It also differs markedly from men’s rights groups: MGTOW advocates are men who have thrown in the towel insofar as women are concerned. As the name suggests, they are men doing their own thing, which is very unlikely to include women. In the event that it does, the women in question are more likely than not to be prostitutes, courtesans, or just agents of promiscuity – the MGTOW community deplores pursuing anything serious with the fairer sex. MRGs, on the other hand, do not seek to withdraw from serious interaction with women; rather, their objectives revolve around asserting the rights of men, and ensuring that men are treated fairly and equitably by society and by the law. For all their differences, though, both men’s rights groups and MGTOW could only have come about in an environment that has succumbed to the perverse effects of feminism.

Many claim that the appearance of such movements is a reaction of those men who, in the wake of the emancipation of women, are struggling with the new competition. Not every man can handle that. For a man who can’t, life has become tougher; but it’s a fair price to pay for gender equality. No doubt that’s part of the story. But it’s not by any means the whole story. The truth is that, in many Western societies, a growing number of men believe they are under attack. Owing to the often unreasonable, if not nefarious, impact of a feminist-driven agenda, many men have been left feeling confused, stigmatized, and maligned. MRGs and MGTOW are their concerted responses.

It is argued that men have also been beneficiaries of the emancipation of women: after all, never before has it been so easy for a man to “score”. In fact, things are a little more nuanced: one or two centuries ago, going to prostitutes was de rigueur; in fin-de-siècle Vienna, for instance, hiring a girl for sexual services in the streets was as easy as getting a pack of cigarettes – this has been well chronicled. Today men who patronize prostitutes are seen as psychologically corrupt; the red-light industry comes with a major stigma in the West. In some jurisdictions, you can even get nabbed for being a punter. Paradoxically, the stigma associated with prostitution is a result of the sexual revolution: normal men shouldn’t need prostitutes, the thinking goes, given that women are so accessible. But that’s not how things work in real life. Those who stick to the ease-of-access-to-sex argument forget that copulation is easy enough only for those men who are young and decent-looking; men who are older and not so decent-looking are essentially out of luck.

Moreover, sexual culture has been characterized in recent times by a remarkable shift in emphasis, which is now put on the hedonistic dimension of sex rather than on the reproductive one. Of course, hedonism has always been an enormous part of it. Sex has got to be pleasurable: how else do you get two people to rub against each other? In the past, though, when traditions were strong, men went to bed on their wedding night to make their wives pregnant; women were supposed to safeguard their chastity until they were married and ready to be impregnated. In other words, society regarded sex as an instrument of population growth. Back then a man who had just gotten married did not need to worry about failing to meet some expectations when he lay down with his wife: unless she was a “fallen woman”, it was unlikely she had other points of reference. Anyway, his objective was to beget the next generation and not satisfy the Mrs. Men did not need to fret about their performance; their sex did not have to be ridden with angst.

This is not the case today. When a man starts courting a woman, he must face the reality that he might have five – or perhaps fifty – predecessors against whose copulatory feats his own pirouettes are bound to be compared. His job is not to make her pregnant; it is to please her – and if he fails at pleasing her, he fails as a man. While I am not advocating a return to the halcyon days of the great past, when women wore chastity belts and kept themselves pure until their wedding night, it is worth pointing out that in many ways the sexual revolution has put men under a lot of psychological and mental pressure.

Women were once encouraged, if not expected, to become mothers. Today they are encouraged to have “fun” and indulge in such pleasure-seeking proclivities as they might have; they can settle down later – if at all. They’re not told that their ability to conceive drops dramatically as they cross over into their thirties, but that’s a different story. Why spoil the girls’ fun? They have their jobs, they have the pill; they’re independent. Men used to be breadwinners and fathers – that was their raison d’être. Since women are now full participants in the labor force, they don’t need breadwinners; and since they’re no longer encouraged to become mothers, they’re not especially motivated to look for paternal figures for children that they may never have. They’ve been persuaded they no longer need men that much; men have lost their raison d’être. Put differently, men are no longer all that necessary; if anything, they are somewhat superfluous. It is unsurprising that such messages are not received very well in some quarters.

As a result of constant gender engineering efforts undertaken by ultraliberals, men also feel a lot less manly. There are considerable differences between men and women. This is not tantamount to saying that men are superior to women; they’re just different. These differences are manifested in all sorts of ways. On a primitive level, they are manifested in sexual behavior. A man always needs to prove his manhood: every time he enters sexual congress, he is required to have an erection. If he’s unable to have one, he has failed – by definition. Like a thespian performer who must prove himself every time he’s on stage, a man needs to prove himself every time he has sex. Women never have to worry about demonstrating this kind of rigorousness. It’s possible to fake ecstasy, but it’s impossible to fake an erection, certainly not by any natural means. At the same time, the reproductive life of a man is considerably longer than that of a woman. As was mentioned earlier, a woman’s ability to conceive begins to fall once she hits the age of 30, and the decline is a rapid one. A study done by the University of Edinburgh has demonstrated that a woman will have lost 90% of her ovarian eggs by the time she reaches the age of 30. It’s unfair, but such is human anatomy; and no ideological prestidigitation will ever change that. But gender equality warriors are trying to adjust reality to their doctrine. As a result, anatomy and biology have become subservient to ideology. The consequences have been described in previous blog posts: women have become more masculine; men, more feminine. For many men, this is as silly as it is humiliating (although women have also had to deal with some of that fallout, given the number of young women with “issues” these days).

Men have also been subjected to demonization. It is widely accepted now (by many men too) that women have been oppressed by men for centuries. That is a gross distortion of the real historical situation. Yes, women have been oppressed for centuries. But men have been oppressed as well. Until recent times, the story of humanity was, unfortunately, the story of oppression. There’s this absurd idea that women were forced to perform backbreaking labor, while men sat back and took it easy. Not so. Men toiled as hard as women did – in the fields, in the mines, in the factories. What’s more, when nations and states went to war, it was men and not women who were sent off to the killing fields to be used as cannon fodder. A picture’s worth a thousand words – see a symbolically rich painting by Johann Peter Krafft called The Departure of the Militiaman, which shows the head of a household who’s about to leave to fight, while his wife stays home with the child; or read Tolstoy’s War and Peace in all its sprawling majesty, where the men are despatched to paint the earth crimson, while the women flit about in aristocratic salons. The message is the same: men were sent to kill and be killed, while women stayed behind. So who were the oppressed?

Yes, the glass ceiling did exist, but it’s best not to overstate it. Pace feminists and ultraliberals, the world was not run by a sinister patriarchy. England had a queen in the 16th century – incidentally, one of the country’s most famous monarchs. Russia, which typically lags behind Western societies when it comes to social issues, alone had four empresses in the 18th century. Women with epistolary ambitions could become outstanding writers – it was not solely a man’s world. Let’s name the names: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, George Sand, the Brontë sisters . . . By 1880, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s novel Anne had sold more than 50,000 copies. Many of these writers did not even bother to take on male pseudonyms. Was there absolute equality? No, but this might be explained by the intrinsic differences between men and women, and not by any predilection on the part of men to deny women opportunities.

En passant, I also note that, in those days of “patriarchal oppression”, great works of literature were produced; today, on the other hand, with the glass ceiling having been definitely shattered, literary output should be twice as good – instead, modern culture is mostly dross. And the fact that there was a time when it was almost impossible for a woman to attain the same status as that enjoyed by a man should be weighed against the fact that men paid dearly for their privileges – unlike women, they were expected to die on the battlefield when called upon to do so. Yet men continue to be accused of having oppressed women for centuries; they continue to be portrayed as violent tyrants and untameable satyrs whom society must neuter. At a certain point, for certain men, this kind of talk begins to grate.

The social changes mentioned earlier have also coincided with the economic winds of change. The increased outsourcing of blue-collar jobs to low-cost zones has left many men jobless and unable to adapt to, and insert themselves into, the new economy. Left in the dust by the digital world, they’ve been forced to abide by the rules of what can justly be called the “femcentric age”.

For that is what it is.

Although many people – women especially, but not exclusively – complain that our society is run by men and for men, this is not true. Our culture is actually very female-centric, fuelled as it is by a consumerist ethos (consumerism – shopping – is more female than male) and an obsessive quest to satisfy the modern woman. “Do you know . . . what it feels like for a girl” – so goes the refrain in a Madonna song; and modern culture demands of men to be acutely aware of what it actually feels like to be one. “What do women really want?” This is the “accursed question” of our times. Inspired by the egocentric, narcissistic contortions of the insatiable modern woman as shaped and presented by the entertainment industry and the media – the modern woman who is always in pursuit of the most skilled lover she can sleep with, the richest man to wine and dine her, the most handsome companion to grace her social media photo gallery – women expect men to cater to the needs of that culture and the modern woman it services. Note that this modern woman is not a mother or a mother-to-be; this modern woman is unabashedly single and hedonistically oriented. She is entitled to be pleased; modern culture and society exist to please her. It is for that reason that this age can, with a little bit of mischief, be called “the age of the vagina” – not the age of the woman, but the age of the vagina, since it is based entirely on the idea of pleasure and not on that of responsibility. Those men who refuse to kowtow to the demands of this culture are branded as men who are out of touch, men who don’t get it, men who are attached to the old ways. Sexists and misogynists, basically.

I remember having a tipple with two acquaintances a few years ago, both of them men in their mid-twenties. As so often happens with a male-only gathering, conversation soon turned to women – specifically, to gender issues. Looking downcast at one point, staring at the ground in melancholic abjection, the two gentlemen – both very intelligent and well-rounded – mumbled something about it being so unfair that women were still treated so unequally. At the same time, they worked for a company that prided itself on its commitment to gender equality, in an industry where women had never had it so good; certainly not a single female colleague of theirs had any reason to complain, and they admitted as much. Yet they felt unspeakably guilty. Is that the state of the modern man in the femcentric age?

Little wonder that some men decide to revolt. Men’s rights groups and MGTOW are manifestations of that revolt. What is one to make of them, though?

However valid its arguments might be, the MGTOW community (some might call it a movement; personally, I am not so sure) is inherently anti-social. Who are these men going their own way? They’re men who are rejecting traditional intercourse and interaction with women. Such a rejection is neither healthy nor productive. The primary function of the human species is propagation. Rejecting man’s reproductive duties means rejecting the continuation of the human race along with the debt that one owes to one’s progenitors. This attitude is selfish and irresponsible; the refusal to marry and have children will, quite simply, ultimately lead to extinction. It’s a dead end, but MGTOW adherents tend to sneer at such words as “responsibility” and “debt”. Indeed, this kind of sentiment was often expressed by Bobbie when we spoke. Après moi, le déluge! There were not the slightest stirrings of protest as far as the status quo was concerned; Bobbie’s whole mindset could be summed up by the words “who cares” – we’re here to gratify ourselves and nothing else. This is the mirror image of the modern single woman – it is just as puerile as it is, in the long run, unsustainable.

It is also not a little ridiculous at times. While looking for more information on the MGTOW community on Youtube, I unearthed a number of videos posted by a few MGTOW activists in one city. Aside from elucidating their ideas and doing the virtual equivalent of nailing their theses to the door, they also organized various social events in their area, which they would film for the viewing benefit of remote Youtube confreres. I saw one such recording, made during a barbecue outing. The sight of these men talking about how they could improve their lives over barbecue, with not a single woman to be spotted anywhere, was a sad one to contemplate. These men did not suggest confidence or strength; if anything, there was something distinctly neglected and despondent about them. They evoked the kind of feeling that one might experience in the couloirs of a retirement home or in the hallways of a hospital – instead of coming across as men going their own way to chart their great destinies, they looked like males who were evicted from normal life. If their goal was to show the beauty of a world that did not include women, they failed – at least, with me.

Men’s rights groups (MRGs) are a different beast. They deserve to be taken more seriously, not least because they are not withdrawing from life. They are unwilling to put up with the encroachment of militant feminism upon their rights, and they are ready to assert their rights and to influence legislation as necessary. That commands respect. Their arguments are valid and deserve to be heard – and some women are reaching the same conclusion. US director Cassie Jaye is one of these women. She made an excellent documentary, The Red Pill, which shows that men’s rights activists are not the misogynists or haters of women that they are often portrayed to be, and that they have a valid message worthy of our attention. The movie also debunks the myth of patriarchy and illustrates how the law – in the US, at least – often favors women more than it does men in matters of divorce law and child custody. The documentary ends with Jaye’s proclamation that, whatever she is now, she knows she’s no longer a feminist. So much the better.

Yet there’s something about men’s rights groups as such that gives me pause, and I think I’ve identified the culprit. My ancestors fought against the Nazis in the Second World War to defend their land and their homes, and they were forced to put up with privations that would be hard to imagine today. These men saw what must have been the nadir of Western civilization, and they came back with the scars, wounds, and medals to prove it. They did not need any rights groups to defend their interests. For better or for worse, they were men. Men’s rights groups – they wouldn’t have been able to understand the very idea. If our ancestors were to look at the men of today, the men of the femcentric age, they’d probably see pygmies.

There’s still room for optimism. I’ve lost contact with Bobbie, but the last time I spoke with him, he was in a serious relationship; and while he did say that his lady friend was a no-nonsense woman, he no longer spoke about the MGTOW community or about designing artificial sex partners for lonely men to cavort with. Yet when I look at statistics and the world around me, my optimism fades. The age of femcentrism is contributing to a major demographic hollowing-out of many Western societies. If this continues – and there is at present nothing to suggest that it won’t – Bobbie might want to take another look at the sex robots idea; there could be some money in it still. There’s just one problem, though: at this rate, there might come a day when there won’t be very many men left in Western societies to actually buy them.

The migrant debacle

By Eugène E.

In December of 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has never come across a photo op he didn’t like, descended upon Toronto’s Pearson International Airport to greet the first group of Syrian migrants – out of a total of some 25,000 – that his government had decided to admit into Canada. The embodiment of Canada’s ultraliberals – people who effortlessly combine deep pockets with hippie reflexes – the PM was all smiles. “Welcome home”, he was heard to say to one family.

Last week police in the Canadian province of British Columbia finally made an arrest in connection with the murder of 13-year-old Marrisa Shen in the summer of 2017. The suspect is a Syrian refugee who appears to have entered the country earlier that year. Bearing in mind that those who are charged with crimes are innocent until proven guilty, prudence is in order. However, assuming that the authorities have got their man, what inferences can we make? Do we now have carte blanche to make blanket statements about Syrian refugees, much less about the Syrian community in Canada? Absolutely not. We can, however, confidently say that the government, inspired by misguided ultraliberal sentiment, has let in scores of people who should have never been allowed to set foot in Canada; and in the case of the Syrian migrants, neither ignorance nor naivety is a valid excuse.

No government can be expected to vouch for the impeccable behavior of every asylum seeker and refugee that it takes in. But in an age when Islamic terrorism happens to be one of the main stories, one need not be an astute analyst to appreciate that welcoming tens of thousands of migrants (there are an estimated 50,000 in Canada now) from a region that is a cauldron of terrorism and violence is a decidedly ill-advised idea. However many legitimate refugees there might have been among those Syrian migrants who were accepted, it seems to me that national security should supersede the importance of being “nice”. But there was virtually no opposition to Trudeau’s juvenile can-do effervescence, and such rumbles of dissent as might have been heard and heeded in a more cool-headed environment were largely muted. An unwillingness to take in Syrian migrants was perceived as either uncharitable or, worse, xenophobic; and no Canadian wants to be thought of as uncharitable or xenophobic. Especially xenophobic.

I remember expressing my doubts sometime in early 2017 to one gentleman who worked for CBC, the country’s national public broadcaster. The gentleman assured me that the vetting process had been rigorous – the federal government had taken no chances. This was shortly after Donald Trump had settled down in the White House and decided to turn away migrants from certain countries. Juxtaposed against Trump’s avowedly hostile attitude towards migrants from Muslim nations, which was seen as hideously hidebound, bigoted and narrow-minded by all right-thinking, tolerant ultraliberals, Trudeau appeared as the golden boy of ultraliberalism, a man who symbolized the right way of thinking – the right way of thinking as it has been conceived and formulated by the ultraliberal movement. Providing a sharp contrast to the events south of the border, Trudeau’s integrationist approach was cheered to the echo.

In a spirit reminiscent of the ethos of the Soviet Union’s ideological apparatus, the CEO of a Toronto-based IT company I was involved with at the time encouraged his employees to append their signatures to a letter, which was in the process of being circulated in the industry. Motivated by opposition to Trump’s immigration policies, the letter was an appeal for diversity and pluralism; it was signed by captains of the industry as well as by the rank and file. Looking at all the signatures on the list, I wondered whether the people who had added their names to the letter with such alacrity would also be willing to take responsibility if a beneficiary of their idealism committed a terrorist atrocity.

In 2015 German Chancelor Angela Merkel decided to open doors to more than a million migrants from Syria and beyond. Unlike the uninspiring Trudeau, Merkel at least managed to come up with a slogan of sorts (“Wir schaffen das” – we can do it). No amount of wir schaffen das is likely to attenuate the dramatic and potentially irreversible impact of a decision that will have far-reaching consequences for Germany’s security and demography. We have already been treated to quite a preview: the New Year’s Eve sex assaults in Cologne in 2015, the Berlin truck attack in 2016 – the list is a damning one. In recent weeks, demonstrations broke out in the German city of Chemnitz after a German man had been reportedly murdered by two refugees, one Syrian and the other Iraqi. Photos showed thuggish-looking far-right nationalists marching – never an attractive sight. But, as one article reported on a town-hall meeting held in Chemnitz to address the incident, there was another face to the choir of protests: that of nurses, teachers, doctors, and lawyers concerned about the effect that Merkel’s wir-schaffen-das doctrine was having on the safety, security, and social cohesion of their community. Such voices of legitimate protest have been forced to be silent for far too long: when normal channels of communication are blocked, the floor is turned over to extremists. When you see a bunch of skinheads whose insalubrious chants you must endure, the responsibility, to a considerable degree, lies with those who have foisted on society a level of tolerance that simply cannot be absorbed by society, and who subsequently, having chased all the moderates away, triggered a violent reaction from the fringes.

The crime with which the Syrian refugee has been charged in the Marrisa Shen case is not a terrorist act. His motives are thus far unclear but, more likely than not, the crime was born of a very disturbed mind. But what if one of the Syrian refugees accepted through Trudeau’s refugee program ends up committing an act of terror on Canadian soil? I fear there’s a fairly high risk of such an occurrence in Canada, a higher one still in Germany. Late last year, a report authored by Canada’s auditor general concluded that the federal government had been mostly unable to track the outcome, and measure the impact, of its refugee program. Translated into layman’s terms, the government was not entirely sure where the Syrian refugees were and what, exactly, they were up to. Considering the security dimension involved, this kind of negligence borders on the criminal.

Faithful readers of this blog know that I am very careful when it comes to predictions. I am only slightly less careful when it comes to prescriptions – God knows that are enough people dispensing those. However, I’d like to suggest two measures that should make it easier for societies to shoulder the burden of all resettlement initiatives to which said societies, usually with minimal consultation, are asked to submit. Namely, I propose that:

  1. Those who are enthusiastic about accepting scores of Syrian migrants open their own homes to at least one such migrant (ideally, the host should not be related to the country from where the migrant is coming, and the migrant to be hosted should be a young male). If you want to have Syrian migrants enter en masse, please be prepared to have a Syrian male in his twenties living under your roof. 
  2. Those policymakers who pursue such ultraliberal policies in the sphere of immigration be criminally liable for any terrorist activities undertaken by those who benefit from their policies. If you admit 50,000 Syrian migrants into the country, despite many warnings and prior experience, and one of them blows something up, you will be considered to have aided and abetted the perpetrator.

In a perfect world, the above proposals would also be applied retroactively, but ours is a very imperfect one. Even without retroactive effect, however, I am sure that the number of advocates of open-border policies would drop significantly if the above recommendations were to be implemented. Accountability is a very efficient tool. Alas, it is also not a strong suit of the average ultraliberal. The bien-pensants wax poetic about values and then have everyone else deal with the fallout. In the ultraliberal world, accountability is subject to a very austere rationing scheme: you don’t have to worry about getting too much of it.

Until the day when our world becomes a little less imperfect and a bit more skeptical about vacuous ultraliberal ideas, I’m afraid we’ll see more violence – violence that would be perfectly preventable if only society had better leaders.

 

#MeToo – decoding misandry

By Eugène E.

It is sometimes said that a revolution is a self-cannibalizing event; it typically devours itself. Almost a year has passed since the #MeToo movement burst into the annals of history. While to call it a revolution is rather flattering – a revolution sweeps away the old order and imposes a new one, and #MeToo is not quite there – the zeal with which it erupted was revolutionary in nature, and its effects could be sufficiently far-reaching yet. But some might wonder whether #MeToo hasn’t started to devour itself. The movement was certainly dealt a blow recently, when it emerged that the actress Asia Argento, one of its doyennes, had paid a tidy sum (just under $400,000) to a man young enough to be her son, following a complaint made by the young man that the actress had engaged in just the kind of behavior that made #MeToo a movement and Asia Argento one of its faces.

Argento has denied the allegations, but she’s admitted that monies did change hands. According to the actress, the payment was not an admission of guilt; rather, she was pushed into paying off the accuser by her then-companion, the late Anthony Bourdain, to avoid negative publicity. Color me unconvinced.

I am not sure what to make of the accuser, who claims to have been traumatized by the experience. If the accusations are true, Argento might have violated the laws dealing with statutory rape in the jurisdiction in question, but the man was 17 at the time the incident is alleged to have happened, an age at which one can operate a vehicle where I live (and probably where the accuser lives, too). The modern young male can drive on a highway, but is traumatized by receiving oral sex from a not unattractive woman. There was a time when, in wealthier families, the paterfamilias would hire a young maid in order to initiate an adolescent son into the mysteries of manhood (writing about fin-de-siècle Vienna, Zweig mentioned that in his memoirs, if memory serves). Now young men complain about it and say this sort of thing is traumatic, although it seems to be the kind of trauma that can heal with the help of a little bit of cash – on the order of $400,000, to be exact.

It’s worth remembering that young women who have yet to reach the age of majority are in greater need of protection than young men. Since claiming that there are differences between men and women qualifies as apostasy these days, this is denied; but the experience of being seduced by an older female will have a different effect on an underage boy than it will on an underage girl seduced by an older man. A photo apparently showing Argento and the accuser in bed together posing for a selfie has just been released; the photo is said to have been taken at the time of the incident, and the victim does not look in the least bit traumatized.

One can say that the modern young male necessarily corresponds to the watermark of his time – as does the woman currently facing the accusations. Whatever the truth of the matter, the allegations don’t make Asia Argento look very good. By extension, they don’t make the #MeToo movement look very good.

We ought not to be surprised by all this. Long-term readers are aware of where the Axis of Reaction stands with respect to the #MeToo movement. I’ve felt skeptical about #MeToo since the early days of the Weinstein saga; in fact, the first Axis of Reaction blog post (https://axisofreaction.com/2017/10/26/misandry/) was dedicated to this topic. Everything that has happened since then only reinforced the view familiar to readers of this blog, which is that #MeToo is an ideologically based power grab that masquerades itself as an agent of social justice.

There are a number of considerations that support this view.

1. While I have no intention of expressing any kind of solidarity with Harvey Weinstein or of defending him – he does have a lawyer, after all – there was something odd about the suddenness of the accusations against the man. For years Weinstein had appeared to be a much respected Hollywood linchpin and a man everyone wanted to be friends with. All of a sudden, we were asked to believe he was Satan’s emissary. Could it have been true? Certainly. Not to mention that social movements can take shape rapidly in the age of social media. Yet it is hard to imagine that a phenomenon such as #MeToo can emerge out of a void. The pressure must have been building up for a long time; all that was needed was a scapegoat. Weinstein was that scapegoat. My personal inclination is to distrust all movements that require scapegoats for validation, and history bears out that view.

2. The extent and scope of the accusations made it clear that many people had known about Weinstein’s proclivities for some time – people who had enough clout to come forward. But they hadn’t come forward, not until the turn of events compelled them to do so. That turn of events was the #MeToo movement, and the sight of all these indignant faces who were now all too eager to add their names to the #MeToo manifesto suggested that the movement was rife with opportunists.

3. The #MeToo movement was presented as a “mainstream” problem. Actually, it was more of a Hollywood problem. Without questioning the authenticity of some of the complaints against Weinstein and other men who have been served up to the #MeToo guillotine, it’s worth asking whether, in a number of instances, it wasn’t a case of some wildly successful women who had paid a certain price for their success, on their own volition, and who now regretted having paid it.

Do the voices of the #MeToo movement care about gnawing problems in wider society involving abuse of, and violence against, women? I doubt it. Like Hollywood itself, the #MeToo world is an insular one. The stories of the #MeToo women represent a world that is not overly interested in new entrants, who will only increase competition and supplant those who are already in.

Violence against women should be dealt with by reintroducing a system of values, by instilling discipline in our youth, and by reforming our justice system to make it a system that will uphold our values and ensure that the importance of discipline is never forgotten. Presently, our values are fluid and rickety, with a heavy ultraliberal bias; discipline is given short shrift; and the justice system in many Western countries, insofar as punishment and retribution are concerned, is frankly a bit of a joke. Without values and discipline, men will not respect other men; equally, they will fail to respect women. To respect others, people need to be inculcated with the right values at an age when such inculcation can be expected to be effective. I note that it has become socially acceptable, at work and in public places, for men to cuss freely in the presence of women and even children; this is now the norm. There are no barriers and no moral restraints. How could there be? In a world where one’s comfort supersedes one’s sense of duty, no one is accountable to anyone. Board a streetcar or a bus in my city, and you are bound to see a young man (i.e., under forty) who will sooner let hell freeze over than give up his seat to a woman old enough to be his mother – I see it all the time.

On the other hand, women are no longer encouraged to be women in the traditional sense. Being feminine is passé. Women are advised to avoid cultivating their femininity, to engage in all sorts of adventures with their bodies, to swear at their leisure – emancipation, baby! But how can a man respect a foul-mouthed woman covered with piercings and tattoos from head to toe? When it’s not unkemptness, it’s often indecency. Teenage girls believe that exposing as much as flesh as the law will allow them, with things literally hanging out, makes them look sexy; actually, it just makes them look vulgar. The problem with vulgarity is that it commands little respect.

If we want to create an environment that is safe for women, then, we need values, discipline, better policing, and a justice system that will reinforce all those other things. If these proposed solutions might not work as well as I think they will, they will still outperform the #MeToo movement, which relies on hollow sloganeering and rancid histrionics.

4. It is unusual for people preaching tolerance and acceptance to attempt to throttle those who disagree with their sermons, but this is something of a specialty for ultraliberals and their ideology, of which, as mentioned earlier, the #MeToo movement is an offshoot. Those who have dared to question the #MeToo movement found themselves in a very uncomfortable situation. When Catherine Deneuve expressed her doubts, she was subjected to something of a virtual lynching and was eventually forced to recant. The vehemence with which the #MeToo movement persecutes opposition suggests it is not on sure footing; more to the point, it is unsure of, or does not quite believe in, its own truth.

5. #MeToo bills itself as a movement against sexual harassment. If that were all there was to it, there would be no movement. Most decent people – men as well as women – want to stamp out sexual violence. Decent men don’t grope women or grab them by their body parts, certainly not against their will. We don’t need the #MeToo movement to tell us that. So why did the movement come about?

Let’s be clear. The goal of the #MeToo movement is not to represent oppressed women. The goal is to build a society in which there are fewer men – not fewer men in general, but fewer men at the top of all power structures. To achieve this objective and confer upon it the necessary legitimacy, it is necessary to construct a narrative that casts men as the enemy. According to that narrative, society is hostile, unfair, and oppressive to women; women do not enjoy the same opportunities that men do; priapic ogres lie in ambush everywhere to pounce on their female victims – in short, the narrative shows that the world is tyrannized by a patriarchy that needs to be done away with, once and for all. Men are demonized; ultimately, the movement that purports to fight against sexism ends up promoting misandry.

All the recent talk about the chronic underrepresentation of women in certain jobs, about the immutable existence of sinister old-boy networks, and about ubiquitous sexual harassment at the top of hierarchies – all of that is not accidental. Some of these complaints are legitimate. The problem, to go back to the original thesis, is that there is a big difference between social justice and power struggles. Gender warriors talk about the lack of women in governments and on the boards of Fortune 500 companies, but they’re not too concerned about the paucity of women on construction sites or about the near-total absence of women manning garbage trucks. They certainly don’t bemoan the fact that the overwhelming majority of US soldiers who have fallen in combat in the last century were men – gender equality does not apply to private eschatology. Gender warriors huff and puff about male networks, yet they have no problems promoting “safe spaces” for women, which are essentially men-free zones – hypocrisy galore. Ambitious women should not be thwarted. Elbowing one’s way into the couloirs of power is a natural enough desire, after all. I only insist that we call things by their proper names and avoid conflating private ambitions with social justice.

But such conflation cannot be avoided, because it might deprive the ultraliberal movement of its thrust. Oprah Winfrey made it clear earlier this year, when she delivered her “your time’s up” speech. Few asked Winfrey to identify the intended recipients of her message. We were made to believe that she was referring to powerful men who abused their power to satisfy their carnal cravings. Actually, what she really said was that men’s time was up. White men especially. We’ve had enough of you; we want less of you now. Some might roll their eyes: it’s such a cliché for a white male to complain that white males are now the only group it is acceptable to bash. Perhaps, but then clichés can be valid, too. Nor should clichés be mistaken for exaggerations.

Crazy Rich Asians was released last weekend in North America. The movie has an all-Asian cast; as one newspaper gushed, it is not so much a movie as it is a “moment”. At last, Asian-Americans, heretofore severely underrepresented on the big screen, were given the opportunity that had been so long in coming.

It can be conceded that Asian-Americans have been underrepresented in Hollywood, although perhaps not for the reasons that are commonly mentioned. Values might be at work here: Asian-American parents would probably react differently to a child who announces he wants to be a novelist than the parents of a white American child who wants to do the same. There is a greater probability that artistic ambitions might be viewed as frivolous by an Asian-American family than by a Caucasian one, which might be more accepting of such aspirations. This could partially explain why relatively few Asian-Americans drift into Hollywood in the first place: instead of being repelled by racial barriers, they may be guided by the more materialistic values of the milieus from which they originate.

Regardless of the genesis of their underrepresentation, if more Asian-Americans want to be on the screen, so much the better. If the intention of the people behind Crazy Rich Asians is to create a world where folks have a fair and decent chance of realizing their full potential, whatever their race, that world will not be a bad place to live in. But it’s rather strange that the film promises this new color-blind world, free of racially inspired atavism, and yet freely drags race right into it. It claims it doesn’t want race to be a factor, yet it makes race a factor. Note that no one is talking about the quality of the film – which seems to be a typical made-in-Hollywood crowd-pleaser – but everyone is talking about the fact that, finally, the cast is all Asian (which also implies that there are no white faces for a change, though this is tactfully omitted). Without race, there would be no film; race appears to underwrite the movie’s plot. In fact, it is the plot; everything else seems to be secondary. The bright tomorrow, then, is formulated along the drab lines of today. This is akin to affirmative action: we need to have more minority groups represented in such and such institutions, so we therefore introduce quotas to have less whites in these institutions. The idea that to be fair to some, we need to be unfair to others, strikes me as fairly ignoble. True fairness, the color-blind kind of fairness, should never rely on unfairness to promote itself.

It should be noted that the actress who plays the main character in Crazy Rich Asians is a big supporter of both the #MeToo movement and the whole Time’s Up enterprise. Nothing astonishing here. It should also be noted that there have already been complaints about the movie from Asian quarters. Some have remarked that the movie fails to show the entire spectrum of the many Asian ethnic groups in existence; others seem to resent the fact that the movie, though it uses Singapore as its setting, does not portray its smaller Malay and Indian communities as much as they deserve. On and on it goes. Keeping in mind what was said earlier about revolutions devouring themselves, this kind of hubbub is fairly predictable.

But I would not want to steal anyone’s “moment”. The laws of history have their own logic. In the meantime, it appears that Asia Argento needs to answer a few uncomfortable questions. One of them is quite simple: you too? If the accusations made against Argento are true, she can still say, “me too”; but the meaning would be quite different this time.