Fashionable apathy and the power elite

by Rob Horning

3 August 2008


Wright Mills’s The Power Elite is pretty dated now, especially the first 200 pages of so, which elucidate the specifics of the nascent 1950s military-industrial complex in mind-numbing detail. But it’s worth plodding through all that to get to the thundering denunciations of American complacency that follows, which have lost none of their sting over the years. He laments the loss of a Habermasian public sphere (though the degree to which this ever existed is debatable) and blames a media-sponsored celebrity cult for keeping the public, disintegrated into a mass of alienated individuals capable of thinking only of their own limited self-referential interests, stupified and distracted from the workings of the true “power elite”—the Ivy League-educated managerial class who come from the established rich families. The media fosters a “psychological illiteracy” that encourages stereotyping over thinking, making it harder for us to perceive the totality of society in its functioning (as Lukacs laments about in History and Class Consciousness). “The man in the mass does not gain a transcending view from these media; instead he gets his experience stereotyped, and then he gets sunk further by that experience.” This in turn makes us more vulnerable to media manipulation, since we lack the basis to critique its representations.

The media provide much information and news about what is happening in the world, but they do not often enable the listener or the viewer truly to connect his daily life with these larger realities. They do not connect the information they provide on public issues with the troubles felt by the individual. They do not increase rational insight into tensions, either those in the individual or those of the society which are reflected in the individual. On the contrary, they distract him and obscure his chance to understand himself or his world, by fastening his attention upon artificial frenzies that are resolved within the program framework, usually by violent action or by what is called humor. In short, for the viewer they are not really resolved at all…. There is almost always the general tone of animated distraction, of suspended agitation, but it is going nowhere and it has nowhere to go.

This leaves people in a state of semi-helplessness, incapable of complex thought. “Rather than that internal discussion we call reflection, he is accompanied through his life experience with a sort of unconscious, echoing monologue. He has no projects of his own: he fulfills the routines that exist. He does not transcend whatever he is at any moment, because he does not, he cannot, transcend his daily milieux. He is not truly aware of his own daily experience and of its actual standards: he drifts, he fulfills habits, his behavior a result of a planless mixture of the confused standards and the uncriticized expectations that he has taken over from others whom he no longer really knows or trusts, if indeed he ever really did.” And since the media is controlled by the elite, its effectiveness enriches them further.

As a consequence of the degraded citizenship, democracy is a hollow illusion, an ideological alibi for the status quo. Voting is a mere expression of nationalism as opposed to a true political choice. And a “conservative mood” overtakes intellectuals who are disillusioned by the failure of liberalism to preserve a thinking public. At the heart of this mood “there is a knowledge of powerlessness without poignancy, and a feeling of pseudo-power based on mere smugness. By its softening of political will, this mood enables men to accept public depravity without any private sense of outrage, and to give up the central goal of western humanism—the presumptuous control by reason of man’s fate.” The word smugness serves as a trigger for me, and it makes me want to link this conservative mood with today’s hipsters, as per the previous post. The problem with hipsters is not their fashion-following phoniness; it’s their smug abdication of responsibility in favor of an egocentric apathy. Hipsters are conservatives posturing as progressives, often professing to be liberals while their practice refutes the claim. Mills’s description of the 1950s conservative mood suits hipsterism to a tee:

it is not a snobbery linked with nostalgia, but on the contrary, with what is just one-step-ahead-of-the-very-latest-thing, which is to say that it is a snobbery based not on tradition but on fashion and fad. Those involved are not thinking for a nation, or even about a nation; they are thinking of and for themselves. In self-selected coteries, they confirm one another’s mood, which thus becomes snobbishly closed—and quite out of the main stream of the practice of decision and the reality of power.

(This reminds me of my own indifference to the business world when I was a graduate student, and thought I was well informed on everything important—you know, semiotic theories of gender and decentered subjectivities in 18th century novels and that sort of thing. My arguments about these subjects with my peers were so vital. Mills saw the conservative mood as facilitating “historical development without benefit of idea.” This is the sense, perhaps, in which hipsterism is the dead end of Western civilization. Mills’s book is useful for linking hipsters to the larger problem of the meaningless political sphere, which seems to have spawned them. But it doesn’t shed much light on how to reinvigorate political involvement, how to make the basic acts of citizenship in a democracy not seem trivial or merely self-referential. Could “youth” culture—in reality the culture of grown adults who can affect the structures of society in a meaningful way—form for itself a politically literate, unified, and efficacious sphere of action? Is there anything else to do but resist what is currently dominant, or does any positive action stand only to be co-opted and reassimilated by the forces of conservative “smugness”?

The relation between hipsterism and conservatism-in-effect apathy makes it almost ironic that McCain’s campaign is trying to paint Obama as a kind of king of the hipsters. Andrew Sullivan makes the obvious point that this is no substitute for actually crafting policy positions (the Republicans are the dead end of Western Civilization). But this of course makes them the natural allies of hipsters, who also stand for nothing. These attacks are just another feat of projection, as when McCain plays the race card by accusing Obama of playing it.

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