Dominion of the Omnipotent Victim
Cultural Marxism is causing the right to move into the space vacated by leftists, taking up positions once associated with classical liberalism, while old-style Marxists look on in bewilderment.
Below is a draft description of the nature and drift of Cultural Marxism which I adapted as a communication to the legendary Scottish Marxist, George Galloway, after he expressed scepticism about an analysis I proffered at a Fathers4Justice conference in London in 2016.
In my address to the meeting, I had spoken about the contagion of victimology, by then infecting a family law system (in Britain, but also that of Ireland) which was already profoundly biased against fathers, with the encroaching ideology of the Omnipotent Victim. Beginning his own address in his mellifluous Scottish accent, Galloway expressed puzzlement about what I had said, and remarked that it did not sound ‘like any kind of Marxism I have ever come across’.
George and I spoke briefly after the F4J event, and I promised him I would send him on a fuller account of my position on ‘Cultural Marxism’ — although I had, and have, some objections to that appellation. I subsequently wrote him a lengthy analysis, in which I harked back to the Frankfurt School and the evolution of political correctness, leading on to the cult of cancellation and the war on ‘disinformation’.
Recently, in his always engaging broadcasts on YouTube, he has displayed an openness to something akin to the perspective I articulated, noting repeatedly that those nowadays fighting hardest against the overweening censorship of free debate are on the right of the ideological spectrum, while those on the alleged left have now become the implacable enemies of freedom, cheering each new episode of censorship and clamouring for more of the same. Galloway’s conversion bespeaks a wider trend towards a convergence of former opposites — increasingly known as ‘horseshoe theory’ — that may yet point a new way forward for Western politics.
Below is the document and cover note I sent him, which really amounts to a description of the culture of victimhood generally called ‘Cultural Marxism’.
Letter to George Galloway
May 2nd, 2016
It was a pleasure to speak alongside you at the F4J meeting in London last week. I thank you most sincerely for the stance you are taking and the work you have done.
You asked me afterwards if I could send you some more detail in respect of my reference to 'Cultural Marxism.' Below is a provisional draft of a chapter for a book I'm working on, which expands the idea somewhat in the context of the thinking of the Frankfurt School.
Indeed, I know that you bridled at my use of that phrase — ‘Cultural Marxism’ — and, on further reflection, am moving towards the idea that you may have a point. The Frankfurt School intellectuals were originally Marxists, but they ended up a considerable distance away form what Marx himself proffered as an analysis of the world’s ills. Moreover, the great subtlety and variety of their work has been buried in what is a much reduced ideological presentation of their thinking. It strikes me that the term 'Cultural Marxism' may be something of a misnomer, having evolved from simplistic caricature into an easy jibe, a cheap shot. I think now that we need a new name for it. However, irrespective of what we call it, there is something here we need to look at, and the account below, though necessarily sketchy in terms of the overall breadth of the Frankfurt School's thinking, will give you a general sense of where I was coming from, and may fuel your own thoughts on these matters in one direction or another.
Beir bua agus beannacht,
(victory and salutations)
The Frankfurt School and the Culture of Victimhood
One of the legacies of the 1960s ideological culture to the present is what is called ‘political correctness’ (PC), which the average citizen perceives as a weird and slightly infuriating agenda to stop people talking about certain things, but in an irritating rather than a worrying way. The restricted topics form a pattern of sorts, but it is difficult for the uninitiated to say what it is. There is a general sense that it has to do largely with sexual preferences and ‘gender stuff’, feminist diktats and what is called 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism'.
The phrase 'political correctness’ has tripped off the lips of alleged conservatives for so long that it is no longer a tool of clarity. 'PC' is generally regarded as a prim, precious, faintly amusing obsession with the relentless promotion of 'equality', and ‘rights' for what are called ‘minorities'. Most people are unsure why such areas are subject to a particular regime of untouchability, but don't really worry about it too much because there are lots of other things to worry about already and, without getting into too much detail, they are broadly in favour of things like ‘rights’ and ‘equality’.
A standard meme of modern political discourse is the intellectual who, when challenged that some element thrown up by political activism or activity is ‘political correctness gone mad’, simply grins and shakes his head and says: ‘If I hear one more time this nonsense about political correctness, I'm going to start screaming!’ This manner of implying that PC is simply a perverse and eccentric invention of the enemies of ‘equality' and ‘rights’ is just one of the weapons in the armoury which has been developed to protect the very phenomenon being denied. Similarly, depictions of a continuing orchestrated conspiracy, which allows activists operating under the general banner of what has become known as ‘Cultural Marxism’ to dismiss claims of political correctness as 'conspiracy theory'. The point is that the conspirators are no longer around and are not needed now, having long ago constructed a mechanism that operates more or less by its own momentum.
What is called ‘PC’ is actually a highly disturbing climate of censorship, by which the advocates of an extreme radical programme of social transformation have succeeded in advancing their ideas and activities under its cloak of censorship and inhibition. In truth, what is called ‘political correctness' is actually a kind of force field thrown up around a phenomenon sometimes called 'Cultural Marxism', a mutated version of the original, directed at changing fundamentally the way Western societies conduct their everyday existences in the most intimate areas of their family and community lives.
Far from being harmless and slightly comic, what is called political correctness is a system of enforced cultural omertà with a view to the undermining of freedom of expression and the imposition of thought control — all directed at the inversion of the traditional social order and the creation of what would amount in effect to a totalitarian state. PC has its roots not in some post-feminist prissiness, but in a hard leftist sect known as the Frankfurt School, which gained serious traction for its ideas in post-WWII American academia.
Although the Frankfurt School began under the influence of the Italian Marxist intellectual, Antonio Gramsci, and had to begin with a clearly-defined set of intellectual leaders and thinkers — Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Wilheim Reich, Eric Fromm, Max Horkheimr, Herbert Marcuse — it is no longer possible to identify a leadership which might plausibly be accused of prosecuting this agenda, which has become so diffused and bound up in culture that subversion is no longer necessary. The thinking of the Frankfurt School began as the pursuit of a kind of post-Marxist social analysis in Germany in the 1920s, later moved to the United State to escape Nazism and was adopted by the 1960s counterculture, ostensibly to promote ‘tolerance’ of ‘diversity’ and alternatives to the conservative values of the time. The foundation document of the 1960s counterculture, bringing the Frankfurt School's ‘revolutionary messianism’ of the 1920s into the 1960s, was Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization, originally published in 1955 and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. The school’s ideas influenced a generation of feminist writers, including Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan and Kate Millet, and spawned the current contagion of Women’s Studies, which demonises males, and Afro-American studies, which do the same to white people. The core ethos of the emerging and increasingly convergent counterculture was alienation from pre-existing values and norms, repudiation of authority and the nuclear family, the reduction of the human project to the pursuit of sensual pleasure and consumerist adventuring, and the elevation of eros to the primary motivating dynamic of the human person. The Christian idea of the person as a uniquely dignified, creative being, capable of impressing him/herself on civilisation, was supplanted by the idea of the individual as heroic casualty of prior oppression. Thus identity rather than human dignity provided the defining ethos of the human journey.
The term ‘Frankfurt School’ was an informal umbrella-title used to describe the thinkers affiliated or merely associated with the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research. Marxist to begin with, they sought a synthesis between Marx and the works of major thinkers like Hegal and Freud. They did not describe themselves as ‘the Frankfurt School’ and exhibited neither unanimity nor conformity, but they did generate a particular set of tendencies which are now immensely powerful in modern culture, in particular the culture of victimhood nowadays dominating the political agendas of every Western society and the appropriation and frequent inversion of language in the cause of thought control and censorship.
The context of this ideology was the belief — based on the failure of the working classes of capitalist societies to embrace their historical destinies by following the call of communism — that a Marxist revolution confined to economics would not succeed. Rather than exhibiting a passion for the victory of the proletariat, the working class just wanted to improve their lives by becoming more prosperous, showing little interest in tearing down the system and taking control of the means of production in accordance with Karl Marx’s idea of their historical role. Hence, ‘Cultural Marxism’, which begat what we now recognise as modern feminism, the ‘gay rights’ movement and, latterly, the initiatives seeking to legitimise a multiplicity of gender types and cast doubts on the very validity of the concepts of masculinity and femininity.
In the beginning, most of the critical work of the Frankfurt School intellectuals focused on art and culture, on what they called ‘critical theory’, on the pervasiveness and embeddedness of propaganda, on the use of the higher art forms to carry the insidious ideology of the oppressor, on the banality of mass culture generated by what Adorno called the ‘culture industry’ and so forth.
The Frankfurt School intellectuals were preoccupied with the deconstruction of cultural totems so as to promote ‘liberation’, but for selected categories only. Whereas traditional theory sought to reveal the world as it was, critical theory sought to expose the ‘ruling understandings’ buried in worlds of art, literature and music, which facilitated the oppression of capitalist, authoritarian and patriarchal society. Adorno believed that both high art and mass-produced culture bore ‘the stigmata of capitalism’. Both forms, he wrote, ‘are torn halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.’ He also insisted that beauty was a misrepresentation of reality, and that the idea that art was a language of the sacred amounted to a lie. Much of the later Frankfurt thinking tended to adopt Freudian ideas — in The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno defined attachment to family as a ‘pathological’ condition.
Among the Frankfurt School’s most pervasive legacies are: a repudiation of the idea of verifiable objective truth — there is no such thing as universal truth or natural law; that good and evil are subjective notions which serve the interests of those seeking to define them; that the presence in a society of Christianity, capitalism, and the so-called patriarchal-authoritarian family, created a citizen prone to racial prejudice and fascism; and that those who insist on such concepts are by definition seeking to subjugate others and therefore ought to be opposed. The Frankfurt School advocated the dissemination of alienation from mainstream society and its ruling ideas, using cultural forms designed to persuade society that only by embracing Marxism could this alienation be dissipated. The intimated solution included: the replacement of the patriarchal social structure with matriarchy; the replacement of the belief that men and women are different with androgyny; and the belief that heterosexuality is normal with the belief that homosexuality is normal — all of which, when added together, becomes recognisable as the spine of the ‘liberal agenda’ of modern societies. These ideas, having been refined in the halls of American academe, were fed intravenously into mainstream culture via the 1960s counterculture, and soon gained a hold on the thinking of journalists, artists, musicians and others with cultural influence over, especially, young people.
Political correctness, which was the shield designed to protect these initiatives from attack, likewise infiltrated US academia and spread its tentacles across Western societies, gaining a grip on the legal cultures of many Western societies through institutions like the United Nations and the European Union. By the early twenty-first century, it had gained a grip on the English-speaking world, through the assiduous lobbying of groups like Amnesty and UNICEF, which most people still think of as straightforward philanthropic organisations — in reality highly ideological movements operating with a common though unstated agenda. PC values rapidly gained ground through the efforts of ‘liberal’ media such as the BBC and newspapers like the Guardian and the New York Times, which enable PC thinking to be transmitted as gospel to societal elites, political leaderships and innumerable institutions, including schools, civil service departments, political organisations, police forces, corporations and even armies and churches.
From the 1990s, with the ascent to power across Europe of left-leaning parties, the Frankfurt School programme, driven and camouflaged by political correctness, became the driving force of much of mainstream politics in many Western countries. Through political lobbying, infiltration of the education system and by shifting the weight of public policy from parliament to court, and — above all — relentless censorship and cultural prohibition of contrary ideas — modern society has been persuaded to, in effect, turn its value system inside out.
The chilling effect of political correctness is felt as a result of the imposition on politicians, academics, journalists and citizens a climate which conveys to them that it is forbidden to give voice to certain thoughts. Deviation from the principle of PC results in instant vilification and censure, with the increasing risk of loss of position and income. It becomes impossible to raise questions about urgent social questions such as the spread of a deeply damaging welfare culture, the exponential rise of single parenthood or the consequences of immigration policies which have changed the face of many Western societies, and also, in the most intimate realm, the marginalisation of fathers, the decoupling of biology from the cultural understanding of parenthood and the promotion under the guise of ‘new rights’ of radical notions of family diversity which remain untested in any social context. As these ideologies infect the legal systems of many countries, instances of people being investigated by the police and courts for such 'breaches' are becoming more and more common. Thus, public debate no longer describes objectively verifiable reality, but an ideologically constructed pseudo-reality in which certain matters become unmentionable and others utterly unchallengeable.
One of the techniques of the advocates of the ‘new rights’ is the bogus insinuation of comparison between the Frankfurt agenda and issues like ending slavery and achieving equal citizenship for black people. What is missed here, however, is the selectivity and incoherence of this agenda, which does not promote equality for all, but simply for a narrow set of categories of victim — the modern, reinvented proletariat, now deemed to be the historically venerated inheritors of the Marxist remit to overthrow the oppressive classes and usher in a new dispensation of freedom. By and large, when you subtract the sum of these victim groups from the whole of human society, you are left with one group standing: straight adult males, with particular prejudicial emphasis on Caucasians.
In fact, far from promoting true equality, PC promotes a ‘radical egalitarianism’ by appropriating traditional concepts of equality and perverting them into their opposites. In claiming to oppose past inequalities and tyrannies, the Frankfurt ideology and its progeny, moving under cover of the increasingly stringent and arcane rules of political correctness, has created a new tyranny, in which anyone who is not defined under PC terms as a ‘victim’ or member of a ‘minority’ is defined, instead, as the enemy, the oppressor in disguise.
When you rinse it right down, the PC/Cultural Marxist revolution has as its objective the emasculation of the white male and the eradication of all values and power systems which are laid at his door, including religion, tradition and the normative family. Perhaps the most awesome achievement of what is called Cultural Marxism is that, while it can provoke in mainstream society wholesale minor impatience and amusement concerning some of its ‘eccentric' or slightly ridiculous proposals, the PC force field ensures that it very rarely provokes a mainstream voice into words of support or sympathy for whomever becomes its latest target. This is in part because most people have been conditioned to take less than seriously matters relating to PC values, and in part because people do not want to be tarred with the brush that, by advertising its target as a purveyor of backwardness, bigotry or ‘hating', PC succeeds in drawing odium, scorn and derision towards anyone identified as speaking or standing against it.
Western civilisation has already become so contaminated by PC values that any initiative to name it or define it immediately sounds excessively pernickety and hyperbolic. As a result of the manipulation of language and logic already achieved by the Cultural Marxists, any attempt at a critique short-circuits on the host of new definitions we breathe in every day. Thus, a new form of thinking has been comprehensively ring-fenced at the levels of society where important decisions are made about future direction and policy. What appeared to begin as a form of courtesy towards vulnerable or marginal elements has become the default thinking of the power centres of society, impossible to challenge without risk of social denunciation. At the same time, the idea that PC could represent such a cover for malignant ideologies appears implausible, since such ideas have now become so diffused and engrained in culture as to require neither formal leadership nor subversive strategy. The real subversion takes place between the ears of people who are unaware that the very words they use to describe reality have been tampered with to make them more useful for certain purposes and utterly incapable of reaching the meanings they once unambiguously conveyed.
In fact, PC is a short-circuiting term that prevents people penetrating what is happening, keeping them on the surface of existing understandings and imposed definitions and agendas. Many people tend to think of PC as some faddish thing that’s come in and will go out again, a silly and puerile way of looking at reality, a phase we have to go through. But PC is more than a banal preoccupation with fashionable posturing. It’s already clear that behind it lies a determined initiative to change the meanings of fundamental things and in doing so render the world more in tune with the movement of technological change, which essentially means uprooting reality from its bed in nature, and humankind from both given biological truth and the patterns and wisdoms of the ages.
One of the characteristics of this culture, unsurprisingly, is incoherence. It is important to understand that this can appear as both a collateral element and also as a deliberately induced condition. For example, the Cultural Marxist ideology insists on a gender balance in all areas of employment and public life. The only place it does not insist on such a balance is in parenting, where it is decreed that fathers are largely superfluous and indeed that it is no longer even desirable that the parents of a child be the actual father and mother of the child or children. Modern society is told that it must ‘get over its obsession with biological parenthood’. Similarly in politics, where parties must now nominate a minimum number of female candidates — and yet, the same ideology, in a parallel reality, insists that there is no such thing as a fixed gender. A man can become a woman, or a woman a man, and this is a matter of personal choice.
In his book The Retreat of Reason: Political Correctness and the Corruption of Public Debate in Modern Britain, Anthony Browne defines political correctness as ‘an ideology that classifies certain groups of people as victims in need of protection from criticism, and which makes believers feel that no dissent should be tolerated.’ Browne plausibly describes a form of censorship that exempts particular listed categories of human being from the normal attrition of democratic society, and, under each heading, charges some unspecified ‘majority' with exercising a mandatory sensitivity towards these exemptions. The victims — the alleged casualties of Christian and patriarchal oppression: women, blacks, gays et cetera — became the alleged beneficiaries of this newly minted, but undeclared, Marxist revolution, while the ‘oppressors’ - males, ‘whites’, straights and Christians, became its targets and its victims.
The thinking behind this strategy originates with Herbert Marcuse of the Frankfurt School, who in 1965 published a seminal essay, ‘Repressive Tolerance’, in which he argued that, in order to achieve what he called ‘tolerance’, it was necessary to be intolerant towards certain opinions and attitudes. Tolerance, he wrote, is ‘a partisan goal’ — i.e. an ideological weapon to be used to silence and suppress all dissent concerning the desired objectives of those who deem themselves progressive. Early in the essay, he appears to be talking about the necessity to confront state violence and oppression, which is ‘tolerated’ in modern society because it sustains the status quo and the cohesion of society as a prerequisite of affluence. Many of his points are good ones: for example with regard to the baneful effects of systematic propaganda on both children and adults, in particular his point that ‘the exercise of political rights (such as voting, letter-writing to the press, to Senators, et cetera, protest-demonstrations with a priori renunciation of counterviolence) in a society of total administration serves to strengthen this administration by testifying to the existence of democratic liberties which, in reality, have changed their content and lost their effectiveness.’ In other words, a citizen can provide a gracing aspect to a repressive culture by participating in it even as a dissident.
As his argument develops, however, Marcuse constructs a quite horrifying farrago of illogic, setting out from the idea that, had tolerance been withdrawn from the Nazis from the outset, Auschwitz could have been avoided. He moves from here to equating ‘progress’ with the ‘civil rights’ of minorities, which he appears to regard as a fixed entity, in each case beyond any possibility of dispute and immune from any process of power mutation. Because these minorities are subjugated by ‘false consciousness,’ it is necessary to withdraw rights of free speech from certain categories of citizen who might be disposed to perpetuate the discriminatory situation. This ‘clear and present danger’ he equates to the experience of Nazism.
‘The small and powerless minorities which struggle against the false consciousness and its beneficiaries,’ he writes, ‘must be helped: their continued existence is more important than the preservation of abused rights and liberties which grant constitutional powers to those who oppress these minorities. It should be evident by now that the exercise of civil rights by those who don't have them presupposes the withdrawal of civil rights from those who prevent their exercise, and that liberation of the Damned of the Earth presupposes suppression not only of their old but also of their new masters.’
It’s a fantastic, fatuous and quite breath-taking argument, but it is, in fact, the core basis of what we in Ireland experienced in 2014 and 2015 in the context of the gay marriage ‘debate’: all that was necessary to disqualify an argument was to identify it as emanating from a ‘religious’ position. In a sense, gay marriage is no more than a battering ram which is being used to demolish the normative models and understandings identified by the Frankfurt School. The longterm objective is to transfer the role of de jure parent from actual parents to the state, which would then be enabled to reallocate children to different adults more or less at will, the ultimate purpose being total control of the human person. If this sounds implausible, I would simply ask people to reflect on when they started to think of gay marriage as a self-evident ‘human’ or ‘civil’ right. Or look at their favourite ‘liberal’ newspaper and run a check on when it started to carry articles about gay marriage. Most people will be very surprised at the outcome of such an investigation.
Marcuse essentially argued for the replacement of one elite by another: those identified as standing for the old values by those who opposed them precisely for this reason, the new intelligentsia which stands for progress in the only true sense. Among the many questions Marcuse’s proposal throws up are: Who decides what ‘progress’ — or, as Marcuse defines it, ‘improvement of the human condition’ — amounts to?; Who defines a ‘civil right’ and can this be done without reference to any democratic process or principle? Marcuse’s answer is that we currently have government by elites of politicians, generals and businessmen, ‘and political prerogatives for the intelligentsia may not necessarily be worse for the society as a whole’. This raises yet another question: how and by whom is an ‘intelligentsia’ defined or nominated?
Essentially, the Frankfurt School bequeathed us our contemporary all-pervasive ‘cults of liberation’, which define morality purely in terms of the achievement of freedom by victim groups from the alleged oppression of the old culture.
What you find with what is often called the ‘liberal agenda’ is that the same categories of activist happen to be involved in a range of different but related issues which are loosely categorised as ‘freedom’ issues: abortion, gay marriage, surrogacy, et cetera. The gay marriage campaigns are simply one element of a much larger picture, which is essentially about changing the very nature and meaning of concepts like ‘family’ and ‘parenthood’.
It is not an exaggeration to call this totalitarianism. The methodologies are profoundly totalitarian, because they rely on propaganda, demonisation, scapegoating of potential dissenters, corruption of media and politics, the mangling of everyday concepts and words. All these weapons are being directed at the reinvention of human anthropology, in the guise of ‘equality’, and enforced by a rapidly spreading omertà, an enforced mutism amounting to collective lockjaw.
Most of the time now, it is necessary to speak or write in code, to avoid pursuit by the guardians of the new orthodoxies. There is this odd situation whereby an overwhelming majority of the population is appalled and scarified by how things seem to be going, but dare not give any indication that they are dismayed. This generalised sense of confusion and disgust is a great secret, even between people who hold to the same view. At the level of the central conversations, the facts are denied or distorted to uphold the official line that only a tiny minority of recalcitrant throwbacks have any difficulty with anything that is happening. The relevant tendencies have a pattern, of course, in the obsession with personal freedom expressed sexually, and in the ‘rights’ of certain categories in the matter of doing whatever they please, in the relentless attacks on those who express themselves in certain ways — for example, religiously, traditionally, or in defence of males, men or fathers.
These agendas are driven in the media by what are termed ‘human stories’, but in truth these are carefully selected sociological stories, chosen and tweaked to indict the past and the way things used to be seen and done. There are the women who have been denied abortions and the women who have had abortions in spite of the prohibition. Both are deemed heroes. There are the men who are really women and the women who are really men, and the men or women who are men one day and women the next. What was once unheard of is now ubiquitous. Soon, a friend observed to me recently, you’ll have to ‘come out’ as straight. At the core of all this is what appears to be an attempt to insinuate sex and sexuality as the centre of human existence, human happiness, human being. It is not possible to dissent from it, even to ask that you be spared the details. In the alleged new era of truth-letting, no one is entitled to claim an amnesty or immunity. Because the lie has been sold that everyone was involved in suppressing and oppressing those who have now bravely risen up, everyone must show up to salute their bravery and applaud their freedom. ‘No thanks’ is not an acceptable response, being likely to qualify as hostility, which invariably has an ‘ism’ or a ‘phobia’ at the end of it.
This new culture has crept up on us, so that for a long time many people thought it was just a few isolated groups of soreheads demanding this and that entitlement they claimed had been denied them. Now, people are beginning to twig that this is not the case, that there is a pattern here and that it is growing more insistent and pronounced. The escalation of this new culture has taken on an exponential character, to the extent that it often seems to be dominating everything, or at least everything the media suggests as important. Chat shows are fixated with the stories of people who would once have been considered weird or offbeat. These individual stories seem, moreover, to be connected, and to be plugged into the central grid of a lobby sector that now appears to have the ear of government and instant access to the media. One story is crazier than the last, and tame compared to the next. But the weird thing is that nobody ever says — or at least not publicly — that the stories are crazy; instead, the subjects of them are congratulated for their ‘courage’ in speaking so personally about things that most people think should remain private. Anyone who dissents from this analysis is likely to be eviscerated — first on social media, and then in the mainstream, which is essentially the same people in, respectively, anonymous and bylined manifestations. People who would once have been objects of sympathy are now made into heroes (you’re not allowed, anymore, to speak of ‘heroines’). Most people are simply perplexed by all this and confounded as to where it is coming from. The idea that it is simply a series of isolated stories is starting to wear thin, and people are becoming more open to the idea that something fundamental has shifted in our culture, though they cannot even begin to say what.
A recent essay, entitled ‘Microaggression and Moral Cultures’, published in Comparative Sociology, provides an analysis of what’s happening in terms that I found especially interesting. The core point is that the Western world is moving on from its previous moral paradigm, in which differences between people were seen in terms first of honour and later of dignity, to a new culture based on the primacy of the victim. This had the ring of truth about it, since it was almost 20 years since I coined the phrase ‘omnipotent victim’ to describe the personality at the core of the coming culture. The idea is that disputes used to be negotiated between human beings — men, usually — through the medium of violence: gauntlets, duels, honour killings, self-immolations, wars and just plain actual bodily harm. Honour cultures are strong where the rule of law is weak, or where there is a withholding of loyalty to the dominant system. Honour remained a strong element in the Brehon laws, the old system of law in pre-occupation Ireland, which were underpinned by a tradition of imposing violence on yourself in the proximity of one who had wronged you — usually in the form of a hunger strike. Also, men protected themselves, their families, property and reputations by maintaining a reputation for retaliatory violence.
I’ve no doubt that residual memories of this way of seeing and doing were somewhere at the root of the thinking behind the Easter Rising — the idea of blood sacrifice and the self-immolation of men in the greater good. But a core element of the civilisation that spread through Europe following the Christian reawakening was the creation of systems whereby this culture was overwhelmingly supplanted by one focusing on the individual dignity of the human person, itself deriving from the Christian idea that God had made man in His own image. In this system, you were discouraged from defending your own honour, and instead invited to offer disputes for mediation by the state. This took the form of courts and jurisprudence, whereby issues were adjudicated upon by uninvolved, public officials, such as policemen and judges. Implicit in this was the idea that each human person had an equal entitlement to respect for his/her dignity. Thus, it was no longer necessary to be strong, or to personally risk your life to defend your honour: the state would do it for you. This resulted in an explosion of relative egalitarianism whereby, under certain headings, all human beings were regarded as having equal rights and an entitlement to equal protection. One of the benefits of the shift was that, because the process of seeking retribution in a dignity culture could be slow and unwieldy, many disputes fizzled out before they got to the top of the queue. Thus, there was a slowing down of the tendency of human beings to take offence: only the more grievous offences went all the way.
What is happening now, the theory goes, is that this culture is being transformed into a culture of victimhood, which would amount to the culmination of the efforts and initiatives of the Frankfurt School. The close scrutiny of the remaining relative inequalities that represents the late stage of dignity culture is leading to a kind of microscopic emphasis on the diminishing differences that remain. There’s a paradox here: this can happen only in a culture that has already achieved high degrees of equality. In this comparatively luxurious context, a new hyper-consciousness is developing about residual felt inequalities.
The present trends took off in American universities during the 1980s, rapidly spreading into the globalised US media, whence they were transmitted worldwide via the academic systems and media culture of all Western societies. At the core of this culture is the adoption of the residual grievances of recognised minorities: women, blacks and other ethnic groupings, homosexuals, et cetera. Instead of seeking satisfaction for these grievances through violence or in courts of law, members of these minorities increasingly seek support for campaigns of agitation among their peers and also their alleged ‘superiors’ in terms of cultural advantage. Exploiting the guilt implanted by ideological conditioning, they claim the backing of the entire culture of pampered, idealistic youth, who attend universities and consume the products of an increasingly technologised and globalised media.
This culture is somewhat opaque to the outsider but appears to be constructed on an arcane set of rules which, though inconsistent, follow a general pattern of valourising victims and condemning those perceived as successful and powerful. The issue is rarely as clear-cut as, for example, pure racism or outright homophobia, but tends to focus on nuanced grievances and offences which are very often identified and protested by the victim. The more equal a society becomes, the more subtle and nuanced do such complaints become, so that even what appears to be an insignificant matter in the eyes of a casual witness may provoke enormous outrage apparently way out of proportion with any objective assessment of the offence involved. Jokes, for example, are increasingly dangerous, as are compliments, chivalrous behaviour and sexual advances. Even a simple, apparently innocent question, such as, ‘Where do you come from?’ is capable of exciting accusations of racism or worse. The more elitist and privileged a setting or society, the more extreme the responses is likely to become — and to lower and lower levels of offence. Those driving the culture constantly preach about ‘equality’, but, as evidenced by the fact that victim ideology is at its strongest in highly privileged settings like universities, it is precisely the existence of a relatively high degree of equality that creates the pressure for, in effect, perfect equality. The closer this gets, the crazier the setting or society appears to become.
The way cultures shift from seeing something as an unequivocal wrong to seeing the same thing as a fundamental right is one of the most perplexing spectacles of our age. Intrinsic to the success of such projects is the abuse of language, the inversion of understandings and the relentless application of emotional pressure to the collective public consciousness. But even grasping the nature of such strategies is not enough — also required is a far deeper process of cultural excavation, to unearth the roots of the duplicities, the origins of the many necessary rapes of meaning and the shift from reason to emotion in public debate, which enables new and untested concepts and conceits to slip into our cultures and lives under cover of the falsehoods which modern ideologies have devised to confuse and confound us.
Whereas one can see a balance of merit in the evolution of an honour culture based on strength and violence into a culture where human dignity was respected, the same conclusion cannot at least as yet) be reached in respect of a shift from dignity to victimhood.
One might hazard the provocative argument that what is happening amounts to a kind of reversal of the evolutionary process. One of the core problems facing the human species at the moment is that the divergence between its capacity for technological advancement and the development of an ethical paradigm in which to contain and control such progress grows wider all the time. This means, in effect, that mankind is increasingly capable of discovery, innovation, and technical dominance over the environment, but nowhere near as clever when it comes to formulating moral and ethical understandings than might prevent this progress leading to harm rather than good. There is also the problem that scientific progress is something that arises from the discrete understandings of an elite, whereas the benefits can be dispersed to vast numbers of consumers, most of whom will lack the precise intellectual and moral scruples of the creators of devices and systems, which may, once handed down to the ground floor of a culture, have implications and consequences that were neither intended nor foreseen. These are dangers which in truth were predicted and analysed by intellectuals of the Frankfurt School, but unfortunately those who have reinterpreted their ideas have imposed a retrospective selectivity. In some ways, also, it is incorrect and misleading to refer to this as ‘Cultural Marxism’. Indeed, Marx is substantially innocent of any blame for what has emerged. The term ‘Frankfurt School’ is a useful instrument of orientation, but, as time goes by, things become infinitely more complex.
Ultimately, it is as if the civilisation of which we are part — perhaps under the tension of the disparity between its technological and ethical aspects — has turned around and started to retrace its steps. It returns, however, not to a culture in which honour is defended by physical violence, but to a state in which differences between peoples arising from facts and circumstances are treated as gross and punishable affronts to the dignity of those adversely affected. The disputes arising from these assertions of inequality no longer need to be mediated in neutral courts of law, but can be ventilated in the gossip chambers of the world wide web, where like-minded people, driven by curiosity, idleness and a desire to be approved of, lead to all-powerful convocations which can result in the evisceration and destruction of an accused party who is offered no real opportunity to mount a defence. Thus, the new culture, on its way back into history in search of solid ground to build its new edifice, bypasses the buildings which already exist — the courts, the parliaments, even the media houses — in search of a new seat of what amounts, in substance and effect, to anarchy.
What this means in practice is that, in the dispensation formed out of the ruminations of the Frankfurt School, the adult male has no place and no business seeking justice on his own behalf. The brand of reason that drives us towards the preferred destination of enlightenment and progress ordains that he needs to be held back until everyone else has caught him up and passed him out, which is to say the last straggler and laggard. The duration of his sentence — to injustice, to purdah, to untruth — is therefore as near to infinite as makes no difference.