Social Trust & Soft Totalitarianism
A little news: I have decided to make the glorious little Eighth Day Books in Wichita the exclusive online seller of signed (via bookplate — it’s a Covidtide thing) copies of all my books.
Eighth Day has sold a ton of bookplate-signed copies of Live Not By Lies. If you want to get the book at rocket speed, order from one of the big guys. But if you want to get a signed copy, and support a fantastic small business, order from Eighth Day — it’ll take a little longer, maybe, but I think it’s worth it. Wherever you order it from, I think this book is going to have a very long tail, as the truth of the situation in our society becomes clearer to Christians and others.
To that point, reader Jon F. put me on to David Brooks’s great new essay in The Atlantic about how the collapse of social trust bodes very ill for America.
I was genuinely stunned by how close Brooks’s diagnosis tracks with what I write in Live Not By Lies. David’s a friend, so I sent him a note congratulating him on a terrific piece, and sending condolences over the apparent fact that he is finally as gloomy as I am. David wrote back to mention that he had just ordered my book, and was eagerly awaiting it. I was thrilled to hear that he’s going to read Live Not By Lies, and really interested to see that his own independent research and analysis confirms a key part of my diagnosis. Let me explain.
First, what is Brooks’s thesis? From the opening section of his essay:
This essay is an account of the convulsion that brought us to this fateful moment. Its central focus is social trust. Social trust is a measure of the moral quality of a society—of whether the people and institutions in it are trustworthy, whether they keep their promises and work for the common good. When people in a church lose faith or trust in God, the church collapses. When people in a society lose faith or trust in their institutions and in each other, the nation collapses.
This is an account of how, over the past few decades, America became a more untrustworthy society. It is an account of how, under the stresses of 2020, American institutions and the American social order crumbled and were revealed as more untrustworthy still. We had a chance, in crisis, to pull together as a nation and build trust. We did not. That has left us a broken, alienated society caught in a distrust doom loop.
When moral convulsions recede, the national consciousness is transformed. New norms and beliefs, new values for what is admired and disdained, arise. Power within institutions gets renegotiated. Shifts in the collective consciousness are no merry ride; they come amid fury and chaos, when the social order turns liquid and nobody has any idea where things will end. Afterward, people sit blinking, battered, and shocked: What kind of nation have we become?
We can already glimpse pieces of the world after the current cataclysm. The most important changes are moral and cultural. The Baby Boomers grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, an era of family stability, widespread prosperity, and cultural cohesion. The mindset they embraced in the late 1960s and have embodied ever since was all about rebelling against authority, unshackling from institutions, and celebrating freedom, individualism, and liberation.
The emerging generations today enjoy none of that sense of security. They grew up in a world in which institutions failed, financial systems collapsed, and families were fragile. Children can now expect to have a lower quality of life than their parents, the pandemic rages, climate change looms, and social media is vicious. Their worldview is predicated on threat, not safety. Thus the values of the Millennial and Gen Z generations that will dominate in the years ahead are the opposite of Boomer values: not liberation, but security; not freedom, but equality; not individualism, but the safety of the collective; not sink-or-swim meritocracy, but promotion on the basis of social justice. Once a generation forms its general viewpoint during its young adulthood, it generally tends to carry that mentality with it to the grave 60 years later. A new culture is dawning. The Age of Precarity is here.
One question has haunted me while researching this essay: Are we living through a pivot or a decline? During past moral convulsions, Americans rose to the challenge. They built new cultures and institutions, initiated new reforms—and a renewed nation went on to its next stage of greatness. I’ve spent my career rebutting the idea that America is in decline, but the events of these past six years, and especially of 2020, have made clear that we live in a broken nation. The cancer of distrust has spread to every vital organ.
Renewal is hard to imagine. Destruction is everywhere, and construction difficult to see. The problem goes beyond Donald Trump. The stench of national decline is in the air. A political, social, and moral order is dissolving. America will only remain whole if we can build a new order in its place.
As regular readers of Brooks’s columns and books know, he always does a deep dive into social science research. He does the same in this essay. I won’t repost here the details, but I trust you will read the piece and see for yourself. Before he gets into the nitty-gritty, Brooks writes that we are living through the failure of the optimistic post-Christian dream of freedom that emerged from the 1960s. I wrote about this in The Benedict Option, in my discussion about Philip Rieff, the anti-culture, and the triumph of therapeutic culture over the moral culture (or rather, the displacement of moral culture by therapeutic culture. At the time, David was skeptical about my cultural pessimism. He seems to have come around:
For his 2001 book, Moral Freedom, the political scientist Alan Wolfe interviewed a wide array of Americans. The moral culture he described was no longer based on mainline Protestantism, as it had been for generations. Instead, Americans, from urban bobos to suburban evangelicals, were living in a state of what he called moral freedom: the belief that life is best when each individual finds his or her own morality—inevitable in a society that insists on individual freedom.
When you look back on it from the vantage of 2020, moral freedom, like the other dominant values of the time, contained within it a core assumption: If everybody does their own thing, then everything will work out for everybody. If everybody pursues their own economic self-interest, then the economy will thrive for all. If everybody chooses their own family style, then children will prosper. If each individual chooses his or her own moral code, then people will still feel solidarity with one another and be decent to one another. This was an ideology of maximum freedom and minimum sacrifice.
It all looks naive now. We were naive about what the globalized economy would do to the working class; naive to think the internet would bring us together; naive to think the global mixing of people would breed harmony; naive to think the privileged wouldn’t pull up the ladders of opportunity behind them. We didn’t predict that oligarchs would steal entire nations, or that demagogues from Turkey to the U.S. would ignite ethnic hatreds. We didn’t see that a hyper-competitive global meritocracy would effectively turn all of childhood into elite travel sports where a few privileged performers get to play and everyone else gets left behind.
I don’t think that we can blame all this on the Left. Yes, from a moral and cultural point of view, the Left has pushed for the destruction of all the norms. But the Right did the same thing in pushing for globalist economics. Both sides are culpable — not in the same way, but they are culpable.
Drawing on social science statistics, Brooks demonstrates that social trust, which is absolutely key to running a successful society, really has collapsed in this country. This is especially true among Millennials and Generation Z. It has collapsed on several fronts, as Brooks notes, but I found these points the most interesting:
First, financial insecurity: By the time the Baby Boomers hit a median age of 35, their generation owned 21 percent of the nation’s wealth. As of last year, Millennials—who will hit an average age of 35 in three years—owned just 3.2 percent of the nation’s wealth.
Just 3.2 percent! I had no idea it was that bad. Here’s another:
Then, identity insecurity. People today live in what the late sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called liquid modernity. All the traits that were once assigned to you by your community, you must now determine on your own: your identity, your morality, your gender, your vocation, your purpose, and the place of your belonging. Self-creation becomes a major anxiety-inducing act of young adulthood.
Readers of The Benedict Option know that I make much of Bauman’s liquid modernity theory. Brooks’s invocation of it in this context brings to mind the things I’ve been reading and listening to about the epidemic of transgenderism among young teenage girls. As a society, in the name of freedom, and in rebellion against givenness, against reality, we have decided to allow our youth to go psychologically off the rails. What happens when the liquidity of modernity dissolves even maleness and femaleness? We are living through the answer.
Brooks writes powerfully about how all the guideposts have dissolved into thin air, and with it, trust in institutions. The Covid-19 crisis has been an apocalypse that has unveiled all the social rot within.
So what’s next? Brooks:
Cultures are collective responses to common problems. But when reality changes, culture takes a few years, and a moral convulsion, to completely shake off the old norms and values.
The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual. We’re seeing a few key shifts.
This is huge. Huge! Brooks takes note of the “key shifts” — again, you’ll need to read the essay to see them — then concludes:
The cultural shifts we are witnessing offer more safety to the individual at the cost of clannishness within society. People are embedded more in communities and groups, but in an age of distrust, groups look at each other warily, angrily, viciously. The shift toward a more communal viewpoint is potentially a wonderful thing, but it leads to cold civil war unless there is a renaissance of trust. There’s no avoiding the core problem. Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.
Read the whole thing. Seriously, do: it’s one of the most important things you can read right now. Brooks says that there’s no way to return to the nation we once were, and that the only plausible future for America is one of “decentralized pluralism.” Can we make that work? Judging from the essay, he doesn’t have a lot of hope. Join the club, friend.
Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function. This is a fundamental truth that Dante Alighieri knew back in the calamitous 14th century. This is why Dante put traitors at the bottom of Hell: because a society without trust becomes unlivable. Today, a reader e-mailed me to say how Covid has changed things for him in his daily life:
However, since March I’ve been pretty astonished at the reactions I’ve seen from neighbors and coworkers. We are very friendly with most of the neighbors on our street and our children frequently play outside with the other children who live on the street and we often chat with the other parents as we watch our children playing together. However, since March all of our neighbors except for one have stayed completely inside their houses and give us unfriendly looks when they drive by and see our family playing outside. I get the feeling that if we lived in one of the places where you can get in trouble for being outside your house that several of my neighbors — who we were previously (and hopefully are still) pretty good friends with — would absolutely report us to the authorities. I don’t know everything about my neighbors but I know that in general they are Christians and they aren’t leftists.I’ve experienced the same thing at work. I work on [job description] and we were considered “essential” so we’ve never closed down our facility. We have specific situations where we have to follow certain protocols like wearing masks and washing hands and whatnot and I follow all of the rules the company has set, but in situations where we don’t have specific instructions I don’t wear a mask or anything. I have gotten quite a bit of (mostly passive-aggressive, but sometimes overtly confrontational) nasty comments from coworkers whom I either had friendly relationships with previously or don’t really know all that well. I have been astonished at how fast people around me have changed, at least in how they appear to me. Do you think these sorts of changes are unique to this situation and that things will revert back after the pandemic hysteria has calmed down or do you think this is a catalyst for a more overtly totalitarian society as you’ve described in your book? I’ve gone back and forth personally and think it will be somewhere in the middle of those two things but I’m curious how you think our current climate will dovetail into possible exacerbating the creeping totalitarianism we were already experiencing before covid ever happened.
Young people are just far more liberal than their elders were at the same age, a shift linked to social changes beyond any party control, in particular the long decline of the cultural memory of Christianity. In the long term, these wider cultural trends will probably change back; for one thing, conservatives consistently have more children than liberals, and a political philosophy based on super-sub-replacement fertility won’t last forever — but that is way in the future.
Even more worrying for Conservatives is the fact that whole professions and high-status institutions are moving to the Left, not just in more obviously liberal sectors like academia or journalism but among doctors, scientists and the civil service, not especially Left-leaning areas until recently. Conservatism has become associated with low social status — see a St George’s avatar on someone’s Twitter bio and you can guess their income and education levels — and historically people follow the belief systems of those higher up the social scale.
But the wider anti-conservative cultural moment goes beyond this, and the most aggressive form of activism is now driven by big business — Woke Capital — which stood solidly behind the summer protests, as it now does with all radical movements (except those few that harm the bottom line). Leftism is not something limply subsidised by the state, it is the culturally dominant power, intimately tied in with the very individualism and consumerism previous Conservative policies have helped to promote. It is the politics of the individual who finds meaning with group identity politics because their prospects of a home and a family are slipping away.
“Totalitarianism in power invariably replaces all first-rate talents, regardless of their sympathies, with those crackpots and fools whose lack of intellect and creativity is still the best guarantee of their loyalty,” wrote Arendt.
All politicians prize loyalty, but few would regard it as the most important quality in government, and even fewer would admit it. But President Donald Trump is a rule-breaker in many ways. He once said, “I value loyalty above everything else—more than brains, more than drive, and more than energy.”
Trump’s exaltation of personal loyalty over expertise is discreditable and corrupting. But how can liberals complain? Loyalty to the group or the tribe is at the core of leftist identity politics. Loyalty to an ideology over expertise is no less disturbing than loyalty to a personality. This is at the root of “cancel culture,” in which transgressors, however minor their infractions, find themselves cast into outer darkness.
The people I spoke to seemed less concerned about giving up some privacy if it meant a significantly higher degree of security and certainty. Many perceived the new social credit system as a national project to boost public morality through fighting fraud and crime and combatting what is currently seen as a nationwide crisis of trust.
The culture that is emerging, and which will dominate American life over the next decades, is a response to a prevailing sense of threat. This new culture values security over liberation, equality over freedom, the collective over the individual.
To grasp the threat of totalitarianism, it’s important to understand the difference between it and simple authoritarianism. Authoritarianism is what you have when the state monopolizes political control. That is mere dictatorship—bad, certainly, but totalitarianism is much worse. According to Hannah Arendt, the foremost scholar of totalitarianism, a totalitarian society is one in which an ideology seeks to displace all prior traditions and institutions, with the goal of bringing all aspects of society under control of that ideology. A totalitarian state is one that aspires to nothing less than defining and controlling reality. Truth is whatever the rulers decide it is. As Arendt has written, wherever totalitarianism has ruled, “[I]t has begun to destroy the essence of man.”
As part of its quest to define reality, a totalitarian state seeks not just to control your actions but also your thoughts and emotions. The ideal subject of a totalitarian state is someone who has learned to love Big Brother.
Our own scientists are developing the technology to surveil our inmost thoughts — and doing so in the name of figuring out how better to sell us things. From LNBL:
Your smart refrigerator is sending data about your eating habits to someone. Your smart television is doing the same thing about what you’re watching. Your smart television will soon be watching you, literally. Zuboff reports on prizewinning research by a company called Realeyes that will use facial data recognition to make it possible for machines to analyze emotions using facial responses. When this technology becomes available, your smart TV (or smartphone, or laptop) will be able to monitor your involuntary response to commercials and other programming and report that information to outside sources. It doesn’t take a George Orwell to understand the danger posed by this all-but-inescapable technology.
Your smart device will theoretically be able to monitor how you react emotionally to programming of an ideological nature. Don’t like the scene with a transgender romance in a new series? Your device will record that, and send the data somewhere. This is not science fiction; it’s real. Once again, from Live Not By Lies:
Kamila Bendova sits in her armchair in the Prague apartment where she and her late husband, Václav, used to hold underground seminars to build up the anti-communist dissident movement. It has been thirty years since the fall of communism, but Bendova is not about to lessen her vigilance about threats to freedom. I mention to her that tens of millions of Americans have installed in their houses so-called “smart speakers” that monitor conversations for the sake of making domestic life more convenient. Kamila visibly recoils. The appalled look on her face telegraphs a clear message: How can Americans be so gullible?
To stay free to speak the truth, she tells me, you have to create for yourself a zone of privacy that is inviolate. She reminded me that the secret police had bugged her apartment, and that she and her family had to live with the constant awareness that the government was listening to every sound they made. The idea that anybody would welcome into their home a commercial device that records conversations and transmits them to a third party is horrifying to her. No consumer convenience is worth that risk.
“Information means power,” Kamila says. “We know from our life under the totalitarian regime that if you know something about someone, you can manipulate him or her. You can use it against them. The secret police have evidence of everything like that. They could use it all against you. Anything!”
Kamila pointed out to me the scars along the living room wall of her Prague apartment where, after the end of communism, she and her husband had ripped out the wires the secret police used to bug their home. It turns out that no one in the Benda family uses smartphones or emails. Too risky, they say, even today.
Some might call this paranoia. But in light of Edward Snowden’s revelations, it looks a lot more like prudence. “People think that they are safe because they haven’t said anything controversial,” says Kamila. “That is very naive.”
So: we will not be able to run a successful society in the absence of social trust. In what Brooks aptly call the Age of Precarity, young people — all of whom will have grown up acculturated by invasive digital technology and the abandonment of typical norms of privacy — will seek out means of gaining social trust in the absence of human contacts. That’s where the social credit system comes in. And that’s where the abandonment of bedrock liberal norms like free speech and freedom of religion changes our politics. One last quote from Live Not By Lies:
Soft totalitarianism exploits decadent modern man’s preference for personal pleasure over principles, including political liberties. The public will support, or at least not oppose, the coming soft totalitarianism, not because it fears the imposition of cruel punishments but because it will be more or less satisfied by hedonistic comforts. Nineteen Eighty-Four is not the novel that previews what’s coming; it’s rather Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The contemporary social critic James Poulos calls this the “Pink Police State”: an informal arrangement in which people will surrender political rights in exchange for guarantees of personal pleasure.
Soft totalitarianism, as we will see in a later chapter, makes use of advanced surveillance technology not (yet) imposed by the state, but rather welcomed by consumers as aids to lifestyle convenience—and in the postpandemic environment, likely needed for public health. It is hard to get worked up over Big Brother when you have already grown accustomed to Big Data closely monitoring your private life via apps, credit cards, and smart devices, which make life so much easier and more pleasurable.
I wrote my recent book to help traditional Christians (and conservatives in general) prepare for life in the shadow of therapeutic totalitarianism. David Brooks has not yet read Live Not By Lies, but his new essay helps explain the book.
Hey readers, we have a hurricane hitting us here in south Louisiana tonight. The wind is picking up outside as I write this late on Friday afternoon, so I’m going to go secure some final things in the yard before the storm hits after dark. I’ll approve comments as I can, but it is likely that we will lose power for some time. Please be patient, and I’ll see y’all on the other side of this thing.