Fighting for the Ancien Regime

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.

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6 Responses to Fighting for the Ancien Regime

  1. I am not hip to “ancien regime.” I suppose you mean some political and social system that no longer governs. I suppose therefore that you regard the Trump regime as something new, and because you are a historian, I suppose that you must be correct.

    But, as one who has dedicated the last sixty-one years to studying our political and social systems to determine what worked for the common good or worked against it, I can say that our systems, with a couple of dramatic exceptions, has always worked against the common good, and the Trump regime may be worse, but it is not really different.

    If you are saying that you and your fellows should work to defend our political and economic system as it has existed, and governed, for the past 280 years, then I am… well, I don’t know what to say… I suppose that I am speechless.

    From the beginning, our political and economic systems have worked against the common good. They have mistreated seven hated groups by denying them the rights, resources, opportunities, and protections that they need to be able to build long lives worth living for them and their loved ones. These hated groups are the not white, the not well-to-do, the not heterosexual, the not male, the not native-born, the disabled, and the not Christian. (My list is probably incomplete.) Our systems, and therefore at least one form of the ancien regime, are structured to protect the seven favored groups, Trump’s approach to governance is more angry and more hateful than the ones we have since Dwight Eisenhower was president, but even Ike blinked in 1956 when the Mansfield, Texas, school district refused to integrate after Brown v. Board of Education. The Democratic Governor of Texas ordered the Texas Rangers to go to Mansfield and keep black children out of white schools. He also authorized the Mansfield schools to transfer all black students to Fort Worth. President Eisenhower did nothing. As a result, the Texas Legislature passed unjust laws forbidding integration of the public schools. Mansfield’s evasion and defiance of a court order remained in effect until President Lyndon Johnson threatened to cut off their federal funding. Money, and force, are the only things that tyranni seem to understand.

    I don’t want to defend that part of the ancien regime.

    But I should cool off. You must be talking about the systems that exist in sheltered places, like, well, you know. But, I can’t let it go. Our education systems have failed miserably. Math courses do not reach rational thinking, English classes do not teach students how to recognize and evaluate subtle distinctions in the written word, instead they teach the Bard—what a joke. What a waste! History classes teach a story that is not true. Even when I was in college, the American History textbooks taught the story of Gone with the Wind for the history of the South, for the history of master and slave relationships. My God!! Our schools do not teach how the individual good comes from the common good. I suppose those texts have been improved, but I know the masters of our education system in Texas are doing their dead-level best to restore the antebellum culture of the South. I don’t want to defend that part of the ancien regime.

    Why do only the oppressed march in the streets? Why are they greeted with heavily armed and armored police officers? Why don’t the members of the ancien regime march on their own? Why aren’t they on the news decrying the shameful practices of our systems of economics and political?

    And what are they doing about global warming?

    I suppose you think you are doing your part by letting me post a comment and not deleting it. Well, that’s something, I guess.

  2. Thanks for this. It goes a long way towards explaining why, in recent years, my inner Episcopalian has been needling me to let it out.

  3. Kozmo says:

    Interesting blog post.

    But I’m not sure what you are getting at.


    “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.”

    I think you may be making a similar kind of mistake as the mistake you think comes from thinking “that virtue can only derive from marginality, a view that speaking from power is always a fallen and regrettable position.”

    To give a crude reading of what you are getting at, you are suggesting that somehow people who are enjoying the fruits of civil society, while probably working hard to maintain those fruits for others to enjoy should they care to must take the attack on them as a call to massively overhaul their practices.

    The problem is that we fail to communicate the benefits of our thing to outsiders.

    Where does this idea of marginality as virtuous come from? It is certainly a mistaken idea but it must come from some notion that the marginal were marginalized by a person or set of institutions. They are not acting, but being acted upon. This seems like a mistake.

    It is most definitely a mistaken idea if you are referring to people who don’t find the culture of community gardens or theater troops or universities compelling.

    Many of the people who I’m guessing (but not sure) you are thinking of aren’t marginalized. They have megachurches, and rotary clubs, and country clubs, and a whole alternate framework that gives them power and status and comfort and ideas. They don’t want our thing. They don’t need our thing. That should be fine.

    You are thinking we can defend ‘the establishment,’ i.e., the vegan who works for $40,000 at the dance complex or whatever by somehow making it clear to people that don’t like her thing that her thing is something that benefits them or they can understand.

    Do you really think that would work? How could that possibly work?

    We’re only central to ourselves. We’re not central to them. There is no way we can become central to them. They have radically different preferences and interests. I can’t even make my own teenager interested in the things I am interested in.

    What is being attacked as the establishment is a fantasy and a projection. It is imaginary. My guess is that you think if we make the reality come through, the fantasy will dissipate. But this is only true if the fantasy is an accident and serves no purpose. It would only work if people were confused in some way and others could change, become more appealing and set them straight.

    But what if the imaginary thing that you suppose we are to them–even calling this ‘the establishment’ is an imaginary projection–is very, very useful and even essential to a contrasting identity they’ve set up? What if it is very useful to articulate and mobilize people according to these types of group identifications? What if people *need* this construction of things both for their own sense of themselves as participating in power?

    Then any attempt to change to become more palatable or to dispel any illusions or to alter preferences is doomed to fail. What a lot of effort that would take. Isn’t it easier to let people form their identities as they choose but then try to create institutions to let you form yours?

    What is keeping people out of the urban centers these establishment lives flourish and education that will allow them to get one of these establishmentarian low-paying non-profit jobs? What are the barriers? They don’t want it. And they don’t want others to have it.

    We cannot beg or plead or hope that we can make things more palatable. We are out of power and they are in power and they are going to remake things as they like. There’s a wall around any sort of ‘real message’ we could hope to send and the people on the other side of the wall already know they don’t want the message.

    It’s questionable whether we have a democratic system now where messages even go through. However, our system itself up until recently actually had very forceful arguments about pluralism, diversity and difference. And many found those arguments very compelling. The people that don’t know the arguments–but this is not what they want. I’ve never had any success getting other people to want what I want when they are very happy with the thing they have. Have you?

  4. Tim Blankenhorn says:

    All this David Brooks/ancien regime stuff makes some sense. I am — we are most of us who happen by this blog — products of, and participants in, the Establishment. We buy cars with really good seats. We can taste the difference between Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. Yes, we know the difference between “who and “whom.” And now our hegemony is threatened. Anger and indignation.

  5. Timothy Burke says:

    Not especially. I suppose the thought experiment here is trying to separate out:

    a) who does not want pluralism and diversity because it is directly contradictory to their immediate self-interest.
    b) who wants pluralism and diversity *even though* it is directly contradictory to their immediate self-interest.
    c) who does not want pluralism and diversity because they think it’s something other than what it is or could be, or because they don’t like the people advocating it and the style of their advocacy rather than the concepts themselves.
    d) who wants pluralism and diversity but actually wants something other than what those mean or could mean, or because of social loyalties (e.g., don’t really like the ideas, just like the people advocating them)

    I think if you make a grid of those, you have some interesting population diversity in each quadrant. That makes a political and philosophical difference.

    I think many of us don’t know why we’re in favor of such things. I especially think we don’t know what it means that we are in favor even if (especially if) it is not in our immediate self-interest to be in favor of them. I think we’d benefit–and maybe even our opponents would benefit–if we had a better understanding.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    First reply is just narrowly on the pluralism/diversity point.

    The larger issue is marginality and the way we fight over that. Is Colin Powell marginal? No, but some of us have an investment in trying to point out that his personal non-marginality demonstrates nothing about race as a category. On the flip side, we have a lot of investment in using class/social structure to say: if you are a member of a megachurch, if Christianity and whiteness are at the center of power structures, etc., then you are not marginal. But we do have a habit of using some special-case escape hatches if we’re dealing with the heterogeneity of the political economies that Christian, white, male subjects may be emplaced within in structural ways. Scranton and the Main Line are different places in this sense and we have an impoverished language for talking about them. I think we have inconsistent ways of working marginality, centrality; power/subordination that are not about investigating those as empirical social categories but about treating those as prior ethical states. If there’s anything we should know in a post-Foucault context, it is that power is not necessarily a depraved ethical condition; that subordination is not necessarily a producer of intrinsic virtue, and that the categories we use to make people legible, manageable, knowable, should be regarded with a kind of permanent suspicion.

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