No 29: In and outside the ‘Cathedral’: a challenge for social policy

'The Cathedral' is under attack by the alt-right and alt-light, and we who work within it have a duty to take this seriously and respond in kind.
(Creative Commons)

by Nick Ellison

Irrespective of our particular academic specialisms, the great majority of us — I’ll get to the ‘us’ later — who work in the social sciences, and certainly in social policy, have long regarded ourselves as social critics operating ‘outside’ or at least ‘to one side’ of mainstream society. Despite being employed in university social science departments in the main, criticising the actions of governments, exposing the ‘real’ interests of social elites, and analysing the causes and consequences of myriad social divisions in the name of greater transparency, democracy and social justice have been widely perceived as the core tasks. In social policy, this long — and I believe honourable — tradition has embraced, inter alia, neo-Marxist critiques of capitalist welfarism, the equally fervid defence of welfare and social justice against neoliberal ‘welfare reforms’ and extensive analyses of discrimination in all its forms. In many ways, social policy academics and commentators in the developed economies, ably abetted by a variety of third sector organisations and think tanks, have led the way in the fight against austerity politics with research publications and media contributions that highlight the significant consequences of government policies for some of the poorest and most disadvantaged sections of society.

These activities are, of course, admirable and must be sustained. But the world is changing and there is a need to recognise that, in certain circles, social policy and the social sciences, in general, are no longer considered to be particularly radical and indeed not on the ‘outside’ of anything anymore.

Enter ‘white nationalism’, the alt-right, the alt-light … and, not too far behind, Donald Trump. Whilst this assemblage of groups and motivations is by no means homogeneous, elements display a profoundly anti-democratic mindset that focuses its considerable vitriol on what is perceived as a self-serving social-liberal establishment, depicted as the ‘Cathedral’ (that’s ‘us’, by the way, and ‘us’ includes anyone — certainly academics and politicians — from the political left-of-centre to the far side of right-of-centre and all stops in between). While large sections of this neo-reactionary complex can be treated as wholly deranged, segments of the alt-right, and certainly key alt-lighters cannot be so easily dismissed. In the latter camp, rich and powerful individuals like Paypal boss, Peter Thiel, Steve Bannon, and arguably the CEO currently in charge of the White House, are joined by sophisticated neo-reactionary ‘accelerationists’ like Nick Land and alt-right bloggers such as the ubiquitous ‘moldbug’ (supported by Thiel) in a general critique of Cathedral orthodoxies. (Some interesting background on the individuals and issues discussed above can be found here.)

Much of the material that makes up this neo-reactionary ‘discourse’ is online. Print media are irrelevant, but, according to Angela Nagle, vast numbers of people are attracted to ‘meme factories’ such as 2chan, 4chan and 8chan, that provide space for politically rootless ‘transgressives’ to share their detestation (not too strong a word) of organised liberal politics. If incoherent outbursts of homophobia, misogyny and racism are default positions, Land, moldbug and others are pursuing a more politically coherent, and no less toxic, ideological path. Increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence, powerful computing and renewed interest in eugenics promise a hierarchical future in which genetically-selected elites monopolise executive power. There is no place for the inefficiencies and embedded corruption of old-style democratic politics in this brave new world. All that is required is gov-corp. Glimpses of this model can be seen in the semi-democracies of Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai — efficiently governed systems, low on crime and other social problems, that serve the long-term interests of ‘shareholders’ and in which the great majority of the population (obviously not ‘citizens’) is not expected to be politically engaged. Indeed, for moldbug (referred to by Land), to be so ‘would be to exhibit semi-criminal activities’.  

Why am I writing about these matters? Is it all rather far-fetched? Possibly. But possibly not. In the current political climate, there is a need to guard against a certain cosiness that accompanies contemporary discussions about welfare, citizenship and the politics of the liberal left-centre-right. The concern of social policy academics with the shortcomings of traditional neoliberalism, their abiding preoccupation with poverty and inequality, and, of course, the important debates about ‘identity’ and recognition — these are ‘known knowns’ and the stuff of daily discussion for those of us engaged in the social and policy sciences. But, despite substantial disagreements across the left-right spectrum, arguments about these issues nevertheless take place within the Cathedral. The ‘known unknown’ (because there is such little engagement with it) is the growing shadow of the ‘Dark Enlightenment’. Look outside the Cathedral and it’s possible to detect the outlines of, in Roger Burrows’ words, ‘an ideological struggle over articulating principles’. As social policy-ists, we need to look ‘out there’ as well as ‘in here’ and engage with the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian ideological thrust of the alt-right. There is an urgent need to protect shared values and practices even as they rightly remain subjects of vigorous debate.

Nick Ellison is Professor of Social Policy at the University of York. He Tweets @NickEllison7.

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