Among the many things that educated progressives failed to understand about the world around them over the last twenty years–and this is not just an American story, but a global one–is that we were not marginal, not since the 1970s. Neither were we the rulers of our societies, the top of the pyramid, the dominant, the 1%. We were not marginal, not dominant. We were somewhere, however, in the center of the infrastructures that sustained our national and local systems of governance, of cultural production, of civil society. We were, and perhaps still are, part of the system. The Establishment. And that has not been a bad or shameful thing, but instead a very good thing that is now threatened.
There are many professionals with progressive, liberal, centrist or even mainstream conservative political affiliations who understood this perfectly well. There were many who didn’t. Career diplomats at the State Department, lawyers working for large urban firms, surgeons working in major hospitals, financial executives working for banks, understood it. Many professors, non-profit community organization managers, actors, and others understood it poorly. Some thought that you were only the Establishment if you were wealthy, or white, or male, or held a certain set of specific political ideologies and affiliations. But you can trace the existence and continuation of a great many jobs–and life situations–to a political economy that depended on the civic, governmental and business institutions built up in the United States and around the world after 1945. The manager of a local dance company in a Midwestern city who only makes $40,000 a year and is an African-American vegan lesbian with a BA from Reed is still linked to the Establishment. That dance company doesn’t exist without the infrastructure where small trickles of revenue flow from cities, states, and nations into such organizations, without the educated professionals who donate because they believe in the arts, without the dancers themselves who chase a life of meaning through art but who also want to get paid. It’s not that there wasn’t art–or patronage of art–in the 19th Century or the early 20th Century–but there was less of it, and it was less systemically supported, and less tied to a broad consensus at the civic and social center about the value of art and education everywhere. Some of us are very powerful in the Establishment, some of us grossly misuse and abuse the power of the Establishment, some of us are the wealthy beneficiaries of its operations and others poorer and less powerful at its edges. But even out at the edges, still linked, still reliant on the system, and still in some sense believers in much of what the Establishment entails. The Establishment has had its etiquette, its manners, its protocol, its ways of being and doing, that were as known and familiar and accessible to the progressives who fancied themselves to be marginal and excluded from power as those who accepted that they were part of the Establishment.
This all sounds like I’m working up a big egalitarian spanking about how we needed to be less arrogant and all that. Relax. Maybe we did need to be less arrogant, but we also should have known we were defending institutions that we believed in against those who for some reason or another are dead set on destroying those institutions. That speaking from the center was not a sin or a crime. One of our great weaknesses at times has been how some of us have adopted an insistence that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position. Because we didn’t see our ties to the establishment as virtue and we didn’t understand that our forms of power were important for defending what we had already achieved, because we had a reflexive and attachment to the idea that we were in no way powerful, that our share of the status quo could only be found in some future progress, never even partially achieved, we were unready to wake up in the year 2016 and discover that we were not only a part of an ancien regime threatened by a mob, but that we actually wanted to defend that regime rather than rush to join the mob at the barricades. It would have been better if we’d defended it that way long before this moment. But it will help even now if we recognize that this is part of what we’re doing: defending a structure of manners, of virtues, of practices, of expectations, of constraints and outcomes, against people who either don’t recognize that this structure is important for them or from people who genuinely do not benefit from that structure. That we should not be ashamed to defend our loosely shared habitus, because it really is better for the general welfare than the brutalist, arbitrary, impoverishing alternative that the populist right is pushing forward in many nations.
The first thing we do to defend the minimum necessary infrastructure of our center is simply accept that we are the center, we are the norm, we are the majority. They are the margins, the minority, the outsiders, the threat. Meaning, we retrain ourselves rhetorically and imaginatively to stop seeing marginality as a state which necessarily confers virtue on those in it, and centrality as a morally depraved state that we should always seek to move away from. That’s a non-trivial shift in consciousness and rhetoric but it’s important. Even people mistreated or excluded in relative terms by the systems which are now under attack have a better chance to make those systems function more inclusively and with greater justice than they would under the new order that is seeking to seize the high ground of the government, economy and civil society.
The second thing we do is figure out which of the grievances that is bringing some people to the barricades require some response from us other than an obdurate defense of the way things have been. Where must our ancien regime bend and change if it is not to break? That work is as important fighting to preserve what’s worth preserving. I would suggest the following as starters:
a) We need new or at least refurbished underlying narratives about pluralism, difference, diversity which forcefully explain why they’re important and what we need to do to respect that importance.
b) We need a new vision of what we want existing systems and institutions to do about violence by loosely connected small groups against the rest of us. This includes both white male mass shooters in the United States and ISIS insurgents in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, and for that matter rogue cops who can’t seem to get behind the mission of “serve and protect”. We should start seeing these cases as related and we need to go beyond the usual conceptual frames we use (enduring, enforcing, military attack, controlling access to weaponry).
c) We need to acknowledge why the people on the barricades, some of them at least, might still be excited and pleased by the spectacle of Trump’s first days in office despite the crude brutalism of much of it, because they feel that at least something is happening, something is changing. If we’re going to defend the establishment, it needs to be an establishment that has the potential to do something, to change things, to be sudden and decisive. If we insist that the proper way to do things is always incremental, gradual, partial, procedural, the ancien regime will likely crumble under its own weight no matter what we do to shore it up.
d) We need to identify the necessary heart of our established systems and practices, whether it’s in a small non-profit, a government office, a university, or a corporate department, and be ready to mercilessly abandon the unnecessary procedures, processes and rules that have encrusted all of our lives like so many barnacles. Those of us who are in some sense part of the larger networks of the Establishment world, even at its edges, can endure the irrelevance of pointless training sessions, can patiently work through needless processes of measurement and assessment, can parse boring or generic forms of managerial prose to find the real message inside. We’ve let this kind of baroque apparatus grow up around the genuinely meaningful institutional systems and structures that we value because it seems like too much effort in most cases to object against it, and because much of this excess is a kind of stealthy job creation program that also magnifies the patronage opportunities for some individuals. But this spreading crud extends into the lives of people who are not primed to endure it, and who often end up victimized by it, and even for those of us who know our way around the system, there are serious costs to the core missions of our institutions, to clarity and transparency, and to goodwill. It’s time to make this simpler, more streamlined, more focused, without using austerity regimes or “disruption” as the primary way we accomplish that streamlining. We don’t need to get rid of people, we just need to get rid of the myriad ways we acquiese to the collection of more and more tolls on the roads we traverse in our lives and work.
e) We need to come up with heuristics that let us continue to stay connected online but that help us sort signal from noise in new ways.