A Class Is Not the Same As a Tribe
I want to give one cheer for Ross Douthat’s latest column, about the emerging shape of politics in the West as a contest between a nativist populace and cosmopolitan elites—or, rather, a globalized elite that is no less parochial than the populace, albeit differently so:
Genuine cosmopolitanism is a rare thing. It requires comfort with real difference, with forms of life that are truly exotic relative to one’s own. It takes its cue from a Roman playwright’s line that “nothing human is alien to me,” and goes outward ready to be transformed by what it finds.
The people who consider themselves “cosmopolitan” in today’s West, by contrast, are part of a meritocratic order that transforms difference into similarity, by plucking the best and brightest from everywhere and homogenizing them into the peculiar species that we call “global citizens.”
This species is racially diverse (within limits) and eager to assimilate the fun-seeming bits of foreign cultures — food, a touch of exotic spirituality. But no less than Brexit-voting Cornish villagers, our global citizens think and act as members of a tribe.
This is undoubtedly correct. But it’s worth pointing out that this globalist tribe is not, contra Douthat, a tribe “like any other,” any more than, say, the pan-European medieval Catholic clergy was truly comparable to, say, the tribe of Yorkshiremen. Meritocracy is a highly problematic ideology, but it’s not selecting for nothing. The winners in the contest for membership in a global elite are, in fact, an elite. They aren’t just a tribe—they’re a class.
Which is why Douthat’s peroration leaves me cold:
[I]t’s a problem that our tribe of self-styled cosmopolitans doesn’t see itself clearly as a tribe: because that means our leaders can’t see themselves the way the Brexiteers and Trumpistas and Marine Le Pen voters see them.
They can’t see that what feels diverse on the inside can still seem like an aristocracy to the excluded, who look at cities like London and see, as Peter Mandler wrote for Dissent after the Brexit vote, “a nearly hereditary professional caste of lawyers, journalists, publicists, and intellectuals, an increasingly hereditary caste of politicians, tight coteries of cultural movers-and-shakers richly sponsored by multinational corporations.”
They can’t see that paeans to multicultural openness can sound like self-serving cant coming from open-borders Londoners who love Afghan restaurants but would never live near an immigrant housing project, or American liberals who hail the end of whiteness while doing everything possible to keep their kids out of majority-minority schools.
They can’t see that their vision of history’s arc bending inexorably away from tribe and creed and nation-state looks to outsiders like something familiar from eras past: A powerful caste’s self-serving explanation for why it alone deserves to rule the world.
Indeed—but it was ever thus. What elite has ever not seen itself as rightfully placed at the top of the social pyramid? What tribe has ever not called its members “the human beings” while calling everyone else “barbarian?” Insufficient introspection and self-criticism on the part of our elites may well be a problem, but if so it’s a perennial problem of the human condition, and of elites especially, rather than uniquely of the elite of our moment. Douthat, ironically, sounds here a bit like the social justice warriors who he would otherwise deride. He’s calling for our multicultural masters to check their privilege.
If the new ruling class faces insufficient opposition, maybe one reason is the decay of the institutions that once would have provided representation to the classes left behind by globalization. In the absence of such organs capable of playing the give-and-take of normal democratic politics to win their half a loaf, populism assumes a demagogic and even apocalyptic form—or degenerates into a series of scams preying on the fears and anxieties of those they claim to represent for financial gain or political power.
Our populist moment shows ample evidence of both deformations of populism. The answer can’t be either a globalist elite that is “woke” to the plight of the white working class, nor a surrender to the charms of the knaves and charlatans currently bidding for power with that class’s backing. As ever, the only response capable of bearing fruit is to organize.