Personal Liberation and Political Enslavement

The Age of AcquiescenceThe ubiquity of market thinking has transformed combative political instincts into commercial or personalized ones or both. Environmental despoiling arouses righteous eating; cultural decay inspires charter schools; rebellion against work becomes work as a form of rebellion; old-form anticlericalism morphs into the piety of the secular; the break with convention ends up as the politics of style; the cri de coeur against alienation surrenders to the triumph of the solitary; the marriage of political and cultural radicalism ends in divorce. Like a deadly plague, irony spreads everywhere.

What lends this thinking and behavior such tensile strength is its subterranean connection to the sense of personal liberation. One of the great discoveries of the feminist movement was that “the personal is political.” This undermined axiomatic assumptions about female inferiority and subordination from which patriarchy will never recover.

However, personalizing of the political also carried with it unforeseen consequences as the aperçu migrated into the wider world, carried there by the tidal flows of consumer culture. Nowadays we live in a political universe preoccupied with gossip, rumor, insinuations, and innuendo. Personal transgressions, scandals, outré behavior, and secrets have become the pulp fiction of politics. Our times didn’t invent that. Grover Cleveland was regularly raked over the coals for having an illegitimate child. Warren Harding’s sexual adventures were notorious. This is to cite two of many possible examples. Nonetheless, this kind of inquisitorial and, let’s be frank, voyeuristic pursuit, of venial sins as the way of sizing up political life, has reached heights undreamed of. And this can be entertaining — indeed, it may be intended by the media to be so, as it is eye- and ear-catching. It displays a kinship with the inherent sensationalism of consumer culture more generally. It is also, often, if not always, stupendously trivial or only marginally relevant, but is treated in exactly the opposite way. We have grown accustomed to examine all sorts of personal foibles as if they were political MRIs lighting up the interior of the most sequestered political motivations.

Credit this hyperpersonalizing of political life with keeping interest alive, even if it’s a kind of morbid interest in the fall of the mighty or the wannabe mighty. Otherwise, for many millions of citizens, cynicism (and only cynicism) prevails. The system seems transparently to have become an arena for gaming the system. Cycles of corruption and insiderism repeat with numbing frequency and in a nonpartisan distribution, verging on kleptocracy.

—Steve Fraser
The Age of Acquiescence

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