A Study of Vision | Ben Nettleton
Civilisation is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilisation would die, and we should be savages again.Will and Ariel Durant
I am compelled to write this, for the current state of affairs is wringing deep with the stain of a progressive vision. This commentary is a diagnosis of the appeal of progressivism and its evident consequences in the modern world. This may also be taken as a quick summarisation of the central themes of Thomas Sowell’s book ‘The Vision of the Anointed’, however, I am solely focusing on the theory of the progressive (or ‘anointed’) vision.
The appeal of progressivism is ultimately made possible through a world view of a limitless human nature (or the vision of the anointed as Sowell aptly names it). I will make this very clear from the offset- progressive ideas in themselves aren’t all necessarily morally bad or socially decadent. Hence the appeal and the fact a number of these ideas have taken hold in society with general acceptance. Changes to social policy are not the issue- not all change should be opposed. Progressives with this anointed vision have existed throughout history and with varying degree of advocation. My concern here is the analysis of the appeal of the current or prevailing vision of the progressive mindset. Moreover, it is the sheer power and scale of control that this vision has in most social, cultural and political institutions today. The very fact that this is a prevailing vision means it is one which many of its assumptions are taken de facto by many people, who are perfectly reasonable so-called “thinking people”, often with no shred of empirical evidence demanded.
The appeal is not in the results of any policies derived from this vision, which are ignored and even suppressed. The appeal is in the vision with its narcissistic, ‘moral high ground’ of meliorism or utopianism. Even to the hardcore progressive, the vision always outshines reality. Reality in this case is that we live in a limited world where humans are fallible. For progressives, reality is where the categorisation of individuals into group identities of various intersecting ‘oppressed’ physical features or characteristics, equipped with unique knowledge possessed only to them. Combined alongside mere ‘compassion’ for said groups alone is sufficient for ‘virtuous’ radical changes to be implemented on their behalf; of which the burden of proof for these changes are never provided and the gathering of evidence before and after a policy change is never accounted for. Unfortunately, this is now reality. Progressives always begin by highlighting a social problem; viewing the state with what Christopher Lasch called ‘the new therapeutic conception…’. Ultimately, social policy is derived from a differential rectitude aptitude, whereby such solutions to social problems must be made solely by virtuous elites and ‘compassionate’ anointed activists or thinkers.
Imagine the prevailing vision as an open bear trap.Once you step a foot into this trap you stand to lose it. As a progressive, you are never done with the vision and activism. You are certainly not considered an autonomous individual, but a simple, unitary cog in a holistic outfit. Attempts to leave the trap are damaging and costly. Why do people step in the trap? Three reasons spring to mind: 1) ‘self-congratulatory virtue-signalling’ progressives of an already liberal predisposition, 2) the increasing isolation and political polarisation forces alignment (to belong in a group than be the ‘outsider’), and 3) fear and coercion of real-life consequences of being the ‘outsider’ and/or holding the ‘tragic’ vision tends to cause people to submit anyhow to the dominant anointed vision. The benighted must be brought to eviscerate their ‘false consciousness’ that they are under, and uprise. Any benighted recalcitrance results in those individuals being attacked ad hominem, regardless of the arguments made. Their ‘true’ reasons unmasked (normally via spates of tweets), resulting in potential ‘cancellation’ and potential damaging of livelihoods.
I ask a rhetorical question: if the vision was actualised, what is there left in such an anointed world for the progressive? The only possible answer is to take charge of this world. Otherwise, why would progressives be so insistent to evangelise others and to lead them into following the ‘trap’ vision? Answer: they have to be the teachers, the policy-makers, the leaders, the dictators- the benighted public, living under a ‘false consciousness’- merely tools to such ends and then oppressed or worse. Their entire ‘faith’ is firmly fixated in such conviction that progress and demolishment of the existing systems and what they supposedly symbolise (i.e. oppression, white supremacy, patriarchy etc.) will inevitably lead to something better. So, why is this appealing? I think it is the ‘Utopian hypothesis’, which supplants reality- identity, grace and purpose are all derived from the hypothesis with no acceptance of its dangerous consequences, or blame and responsibility being placed at their feet.
The belief in the ‘Utopian Hypothesis’ has the assumption of a private knowledge. Nowadays, such knowledge has its origins from decades of largely unchallenged works of ‘woke scholars’ (‘scholar’ being a strong word). The progressive elite wrongly compare their knowledge to the general public. They ignore the total knowledge of millions of people through social processes and decisions that cannot feasibly be understood or utilised. Only with a claim to this knowledge can progressives reject any ‘past’ knowledge for their ‘present’ knowledge (customs and traditions are viewed as irrelevant), and ultimately it allows for a rejection of the benighted public (e.g. Brexit).
In short, Sowell writes: “the hallmark of the vision of the anointed is that what the anointed consider lacking for the kind of social progress they envision is will and power, not knowledge. But to those with the tragic vision, what is dangerous are will and power without knowledge- and for many expansive purposes, knowledge is inherently insufficient.”
This connects with a private language, which is only possessed by the progressives. Increasingly, this language is becoming amorphous (e.g. their definition of racism), resulting in many ordinary benighted people unable to comprehend and engage in their debates. Conservative attempts to engage only appear to legitimise the anointed vision’s perspective (i.e. their debate, their terms). This is a microcosm of a much larger cyclical process ingrained in the West. Liberal democracy is continuously engaging in such debates, on the highest levels, only to result in the anointed vision setting the social policy. Results, often detrimental, are ignored, or worse, blamed on another problem, hence starting the cycle again.
The limits of humans and human nature are not viewed as boundaries to work within, or, as Edmund Burke writes that “We cannot change the Nature of things and of Men, but [we] must act upon them the best we can”. Rather, they are boundaries to overcome and rationally conquer. To transform humans and ergo society to have “men as they may hereafter be made”, as William Godwin writes, echoing the horrors of the twentieth century experiments with altering man and society to a rational, utopian plans envisioned by anointed thinkers and leaders.
Today, far greater emphasis is placed on cultural values and social problems (‘cultural hegemony’ vis-à-vis Antonio Gramsci). Once culture is dominated by progressive ideas, progressives attain a greater leverage over governments, mass media and mega corporations. Why? Old elites do not want to lose their power, to see it placed into the hands of the growing progressive elites. It is easier to submit and assist progressive narratives than challenge them. Plus, elites have already legitimised social/systemic problems in the anointed worldview via the simple act of engagement. Furthermore, such systems have slowly been infiltrated by progressively-educated students, workers and managers for decades through socialisation. This follows Gramsci’s marxist approach of ‘cultural hegemony’, where socialisation is controlled by an elite to control and manipulate ‘consent’ of a prevailing vision amongst everything and everyone. It is questionable that anyone today is truly an ‘outsider’ given that most social, economic, political and cultural interaction is marred by this prevailing vision.
So, power is nothing for a vision, unless that power be hegemonic and a worldview is placed dominant in the majority of the existing systems. The emphasis on governmental power by conservatives, as can be witnessed by the ‘conservative’ facade of the 80-seat majority Conservative Party present in office, poses no threat to the prevailing anointed vision. It is increasingly apparent that culture is the battleground, where conservatives suffer most heavy losses. Having lost the social institutions and cultural landscape to the prevailing image, conservatives themselves are little but conservative in name-only once they attempt to interact with the existing systems and try to acquire or preserve power for themselves. Most are merely ignorant and foolishly dismissing of the appeal and effectiveness of the prevailing vision- conservatives are on a decaying sail boat, hoping the wave of progressivism won’t send them under to drown.
Therefore, it is easier to advance a message of hatred than to present a plausible alternative of reality. It is more politically-charged to utilise discontent (or ‘compassion’) of people – to identify the enemy or oppressor – framing the narrative and anointed vision onto a self-conceived false reality. Given that it is always easier to tear things down and set things alight than to create them anew. The rational plan, they advocate, will work so long as the ‘right’ people have power. What ensues after destruction is chaos and reactionary repression; where what matters is the upkeep of the vision. There is no ‘tolerance’ or ‘compassion’ left in this anointed, utopian picture. The ‘problem-policy’ cycle perpetually revolves. What is left is a delusional Social Realism; ignore the detrimental results and hope for a better tomorrow, whilst every shred of civilisation is sacrificed upon the progressive altar.
So what’s the appeal then? Short answer: the vision- the vision at whatever cost to reality.