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Rage Against the Ism
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Rage Against the Ism

Don’t reduce your life to the abstract.

Supporters of Socialist Appeal attend a protest in 2021 in London. (photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images)

Dear Reader (especially those of you “glorifying bacon”),

So in Wednesday’s G-File, I said that I wanted to continue a thought about what I called “words hurtism” but didn’t have time. 

Just to explain what I meant by “words hurtism,” it’s the pervasive idea that saying mean or offensive things is a kind of violence. It’s all over the place: In many corners of intellectual life people find themselves arguing that mere speech is violence while violence is merely speech. Tearing down a statue is a form of expression no worse than the expression of the statue itself. 

But that’s not the thought I want to run with. It’s the “ism” that I attached to “words hurt.” 

Look, I’m an ism guy. I write about isms for a living: Capitalism, conservatism, socialism, fascism, nationalism, liberalism, progressivism, postmodernism, communism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, identitarianism, this-ism and that-ism. What has two thumbs and likes to argue about isms? This guy. 

I remember how I didn’t like Ferris Bueller’s sermonette against isms

Not that I condone fascism, or any ism for that matter. Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism, he should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon, “I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.” Good point there. After all, he was the walrus. I could be the walrus. I’d still have to bum rides off people.

What bothered me at the time was that it suggested all isms are equally bad. Catholicism and Satanism are isms, but one is definitely better than the other. 

With the benefit of age, I’ve come to dislike the mantra to “believe in yourself,” too. Of course, it depends what you mean. If it just means “have some self-confidence,” I think it’s good advice—advice I give my daughter all the time. 

But if by “believe in yourself” you mean make yourself the measure of right and wrong, true and false, good and bad, then count me out. “Ignore the rules, go with your gut. Trust your instincts. Be true to yourself, that’s all that matters.” That’s Romantic, Rousseauian, claptrap. One of the most important lessons of parenthood is that Romanticism is often the opposite of good parenting. “I know the rules say ‘Don’t run with scissors’ but you have to be true to yourself and trust your instincts, so have at it!” 

Rousseau, the father of Romanticism, more than any other intellectual introduced the idea that feelings are a more reliable, more authentic, guide to life and reality than reason. 

“Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor in exact truth, but in a mode of feeling,” explained the poet Charles Baudelaire. The Romantic temperament looks out at society and sees corruption and the imposition of cruel, confining, conformity on the free spirit. It is a reaction to modernity, a term not coincidentally coined by Baudelaire, “a renegade poet, a syphilitic art critic, and, above all, a disaffected and alienated student of a society undergoing the pressure of a transition.”

William Blake, perhaps the greatest Romantic poet, wrote that “A Robin Red breast in a Cage / Puts all Heaven in a Rage.”  The cage for Blake was the Enlightenment, or, if you prefer, reason. The cold, mechanistic, physics of Newton and the demystifying power of reason generally took all the poetry out of life.The Romantics complained that science yanked the authority to explain nature—both human nature and Mother Nature alike—from the priests and poets. Capitalism, industrialism, and other isms of modernity stripped meaning from institutions of mysterious antiquity. The Romantics raged against the machine. 

But if you’ve read Suicide of the West, you’ve heard all this before.  

So let’s get back to isms. 

A highfalutin term for creating abstract theories about real life is “reification.”

 Actually, reification has two meanings. One is “the act of treating something abstract, such as an idea, relation, system, quality, etc., as if it were a concrete object.” This confusion of words for things is a great peeve of mine. In logic, there’s a reification fallacy, in which we confuse the model for the reality: The map isn’t the territory. 

More on that in a moment.  

The other definition might sound like the opposite process: “the act of treating a person as a thing; objectification.” But the two definitions are actually complementary because when we turn abstract ideas into real-world things we often turn real-world people into abstractions. In Das Kapital, Karl Marx offers the following disclaimer: “Individuals are dealt with only insofar as they are personifications of categories.” In other words, the personal motives, ambitions, and beliefs of industrialists, workers, peasants, aristocrats, et al. are erased. All that matters is the theory. The people are slaves to the narrative. 

Such thinking is all around us. “Wokeness,” we are constantly told, is a force, a thing, an animating spirit. It is the “real threat.” Or maybe it’s “hate.” No wait, it’s “white supremacy.”  Correction: It’s liberalism.

For instance, in Regime Change, Patrick Deneen argues exhaustingly (though not exhaustively) that classical liberalism “is a revolutionary doctrine that aims at the constant transformation of all aspects of human social organization.” The American conservatives who want to conserve the ideas of the founding are really seeking a regime of unceasing instability. In other words, it can’t just be that liberalism as a system has X results that Deneen doesn’t like, it must be that the defenders of that system desire the results Deneen describes. 

Again, this mode of analysis is everywhere. If you’re merely not racist as opposed to “anti-racist”—in Ibram X. Kendi’s formulation—you are willfully taking the side of racism. If you don’t want to get rid of your gas stove, you are “for” climate change. If you think women’s sports should be the exclusive reserve for biological women, you must hate transgender people and that’s your only motivation. If you think there are objective, rational, explanations for the gender pay gap, you are a willing abettor of structural inequality. The theory determines the motive, the ism rules the individual. 

Historians fall for this kind of thinking all the time. They start with a theory of an ism and inject it into the past like some dye marker illuminating everything. Richard Hofstadter convinced himself that “Social Darwinism” explained the late 19th century and early 20th, then cherry-picked the facts to fit the ism. The fact that various industrialists didn’t know anything about Social Darwinism—or Darwinism—was simply proof of how deeply the ism had seeped into the flesh of America’s elite. Cornelius Vanderbilt, a supposed Social Darwinist, read one book in his entire life, Pilgrim’s Progress. He didn’t crack it open until he was in his 70s. “If I had learned education,” Vanderbilt famously quipped, “I would not have had time to learn anything else.”

I got to thinking about all of this after rereading a fantastic essay by Robert Nisbet (which I borrow from in this “news”letter). 

He writes:

Amusingly, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the word reif (or rief) just before reification, defining it as the act of robbery or as one who commits the robbery. Reification is in its way robbery: the stealing of life from the individual and the concrete in order to secrete it in some ontological invertebrate. Considering the combination of robbery and violence, we might even think of reification as mugging.

Ironically, Irving Kristol, another intellectual hero of mine, famously defined a neoconservative as a liberal “mugged by reality.” What he meant is that reality has a way of yanking people out of their theories. Nisbet’s point is that theories have a way of yanking people out of reality.

In this great tug-of-war, the isms are winning. Which brings me back to that Romanticism stuff. 

Revolutionary avocado toast.

When I was looking for G-File topics a couple hours ago, a Dispatch colleague suggested I write about this story. Here’s the crazy long headline and subhead: 

Millennial and Gen Z economic malaise is creating a ‘treat culture’ as they turn to tiny purchases for a dose of daily escapism

Late-stage capitalism has the youth spending on the smallest pleasures. “It’s almost like your Sisyphean existential rebellion via artisanal ginger ale.”

Let’s start with the phrase, “Late-stage capitalism.”

Late-stage, or simply “late capitalism” is a concept as old as Marxism. As a popular phrase it probably begins with Werner Sombart at the beginning of the 20th century. The basic idea is that capitalism is winding down. We’re on the cusp of some successor system, usually socialism. But these days some rightwingers have their own version of a successor system which they don’t call socialism or corporatism, either out of ignorance or deference to marketing considerations. The post-liberals and nationalists have their own version of late capitalism, it’s just late liberalism. They don’t like the way things are and believe that all you have to do to destroy the current system is prove that it’s wrong and it will just go away. It’s a Romantic impulse fueled by a desire to be in charge of something new instead of being merely part of something old. As Blake wrote: “I must Create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.” 

The relevant point is that there’s no actual evidence capitalism is ending. For all we know we are still in the first chapters of capitalism. Sure, there’s evidence that attitudes toward capitalism and socialism are changing. But they’re always changing. Again, there’s evidence that some Republicans are falling in love with statism and industrial policy. Bernie Sanders can always be counted to yell at any clouds that look like capitalism. But I’m quite confident that most of the artisanal ginger-ale-quaffing Zennials waging a Sisyphean existential rebellion against late-stage capitalism are not particularly fluent in any of that. The end of capitalism has been a secular millenarian obsession since the invention of the word. And, as with every generation, young people love to turn their frustrations, ennui, and desire for self-assertion into a revolutionary pose against some monolithic system holding them back.  

But according to this hilarious article, young people are buying Diet Cokes and ice cream cones as a way to rebel against the system. “No amount of abstaining from avocado toast will be enough for us to afford to buy houses when the cost of living has far outstripped wages for decades, so we may as well enjoy the little indulgences that make life pleasurable,” a 27 year-old nonprofit worker said. “Treat culture,” she explains, “is related to burnout, hot girl walks, and being young in a decaying empire.” 

Whatever you say. 

In a funny way this is the ultimate triumph of capitalism. Old school Marxists used to whine that capitalism was constantly creating new consumer goods, often transforming luxuries into necessities, in an effort to distract the proletariat from achieving revolutionary class consciousness. It couldn’t be that capitalism was creating cool stuff thanks to the efforts of thousands of independent businesses trying to make a profit by giving people what they wanted. It had to be a perfidious plot to perpetuate the system. This attitude is still on display in Bernie Sanders, who whines that Americans have too many kinds of deodorant to choose from.

But now, the people who traffic in terms like “late capitalism” say that catering to your personal wants and desires—so called “treat culture”—is an act of rebellion against capitalism. “Gotcha!” chuckle our capitalist overlords. Let the fools have their tartar sauce—or avocado toast. 

Still, as happy as I am to take wins for capitalism wherever I can find them, this attitude is profoundly unhealthy. It makes me rethink my complaints about Ferris Bueller’s “Believe in Yourself” exhortation. Bueller wasn’t offering a barbaric yawp of Romantic self-assertion, he was saying that you shouldn’t let your life be controlled by abstract isms to the point where you outsource your aspirations to a system. Life is what you make of it, not what a system gives you. 

 For the post-liberals—of the right, but also the left—economic and political liberalism is a system of constraints, oppression, confinement. And, to be fair, liberalism does circumscribe your naked, noble-savage freedoms (though not necessarily your liberty). Unlike in a state of nature, you can’t murder people or steal their stuff, for instance. But beyond that kind of stuff, it doesn’t tell you what to do or say or believe. Yeah, you have to work. But show me a system where that’s not true. 

Nisbet’s point was that reification robs people of agency of individuality. It robs history of contingency and complexity. It steals the richness of life and denies the humanity of people you disagree with. People can’t simply be wrong, they must be knowing agents of villainy. 

The system—or at least our system —doesn’t do that. People do that to themselves by imagining a sinister motive or purpose to the system and the people running it. It fuels the conspiratorial view that all bad things only happen when unseen forces intend them to happen.  When we reduce all politics to a series of competing isms, we are reducing ourselves to abstractions within those isms. Be the walrus. 

Various and Sundry

Canine update: So there’s very, very good news. Earlier in the week, Zoë woke up very stiff and lethargic. We were worried she had some tick-borne infection. She even refused treat time (and regardless of what I wrote above, my dogs are deeply committed to treat culture). Even Gracie was concerned. After getting refused admittance on an emergency basis by two different vets (grrr), the Fair Jessica finally got an appointment yesterday. It was, as usual, stressful. The vet thought Zoë had fluid around her heart and could have a cardiac event any moment. So my wife found a canine cardiologist (I think just typing those words cost me $100). Well, Zoë got a clean bill of health. Her blood pressure is fine and they found nothing wrong with her heart, which makes sense given how full of love it is. I don’t think I have to tell people what a relief this is. It may be my own rebellion to the reification of our age, but I love my dogs—and cat. Anyway, she still might have an infection, we’re waiting for results. But she seems much better. She fully participated in treat time this morning. Of course, Pippa knew she was going to be fine all along.

ICYMI

And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.