Belmont Club » December Down Under
(this just needs to be linked to and preserved)
As I recall, Mark Latham, one time leader of the ALP (that’s the Australian Labor Party, our democratic socialist party, for the benefit of overseas readers) was quite enamoured of the term “aspirational”, and I’m sure it’s regarded as no crime in any western country to try and improve your lot in life by earning a living and spending some of it on lifestyle.
I’ve heard the word “aspirational” used before, and among its many meanings there is one which means ‘acting above your station’. There is some antipathy bordering on contempt which seizes a certain class of persons, who accustomed to thinking themselves superior, feel revolted by the sight of the Chan-nny-come-lateleys engaging in conspicuous consumption. And while this is occasional and certainly not universal, it always got me to thinking about why the hatred of “aspirationalism” was highly correlated with sneering at materialist American consumption.
It is perhaps because America was the first nation in modern history where status came from the uninherited aristocracy of success. What was wrong with America was not that some people were rich; but that the cast of rich people kept changing. There was something wrong with these jumped-up, grubby guys being the “best people”; some defect in the system.
Some writers believe that Kim Philby and his crew felt more comfortable throwing in with the Soviets than subordinating themselves to the crude, disgustingly naive, but rich and powerful Americans. It was the last protest of a fading imperial class. They would show, if only for the last time, how much more clever they really were. “One does not look twice at an offer of enrolment in an elite force,” he said, explaining his decision to join the Soviet secret service. It wasn’t about love for the common laboring man at all; just all about showing the “aspirationals” their place.
In the long run, political scientists may eventually conclude that the only novel form of Western politics to emerge in the last 500 years was from the American Declaration of Independence. There are only two actors in the Declaration: the Creator and the People. No middlemen, no permanent class of intermediaries were prescribed. The Declaration even did without the King.
That was, and perhaps continues to be an unthinkable step for some to take. Some individuals will always believe in the need for a class of nobles who must stand between brute man and nature. Someone to tell them how to propitiate Gaia; to dole out the housing; to decide how long you live. In that regard perhaps Marxism and Leninism will be found to simply be a disguised form of aristocracy. A way to keep aristocracy around while pretending it had been abolished. What is the Vanguard of the Proletariat, what is the Party, what is the Nomenklatura except aristocracy by another name?
The American form of democracy may not be very different in practice from the various other European forms, but philosophically it stands apart. That accounts for its peculiar hostility to Marxist ideal. Marxism is such a European idea. How funny it is to hear Christianity described as “Western” when it had its origins on the Eastern shore of the Mediterranean. But Marxism had its origins in the reading rooms of the British museum. In all its forms, Marxism presumes an almost implicit acceptance of the existence of an “enlightened class”; and that in part accounts, I think, for why it is so easy for those who have a high opinion of themselves to become Marxists.
You don’t have to convince celebrities, ennobled scientists, and the Great and the Good that Marxism is the natural order of things. They’re halfway there already in any society in which aristocracy is seen as a natural condition. Perhaps that is why in any Latin American country the intelligensia and the social elites always have a soft spot for Marx or Che. What was Che but another General El Bruto with a stylish haircut and a nice beard? It may also explain why Americans look so foolish waving their credentials and celebrity around claiming quasi-elite status. Marxism ill becomes American political tradition for the simple shallow reason it that sounds unnatural, like Brad Pitt trying to speak Italian in Inglorious Basterds. Grrraztzie. Maybe Europeans can carry Marxism off far more naturally because it is deeply rooted in thousands of years of Continental culture. But from Keith Olbermann? Uh-uh. The problem with Keith isn’t, as Ann Coulter thinks, that he isn’t really from an Ivy League school. It isn’t the delivery; it isn’t the lack of some mystereious je ne sais quoi. The problem is that no matter what your provenance this Great And Good s**t just sounds ridiculous in the political context.
Today China and India are on the verge of becoming the new aspirational cultures. And if they wear pants that are little too short, or haircuts that look a little too cheap or buy wine by the brand, instead of by the bouquet and undertones, so what? It’s their money. And by and by, just like the Americans, it will dawn on the sneerers that they don’t aspire to be like them. They hear a different drummer in their heads. They’ll go straight from aspiring to be like the Great and the Good to being the Great and the Good themselves. And by then the only thing the faded old order can do is betray them in spite. And even that will ultimately be futile.
It’s terrible blinder, vanity is. The world changes and none of us stays in it long enough for the world to stop when we leave it. And maybe wisdom consists of taking a deep breath at the window and saying, “this is the day the Lord made. Thanks for the ride.”