French sociologist René Girard described how a person may easily slip from being a role model to a rival, for those who follow a leader also often want what he has. In order to distract the follower from potential regicide, a role model must set up a scapegoat who can be blamed for failure and towards whom aggression can be channeled. Frequently, however, there is another mechanism at play in these dynamics. The follower may find himself in an increasingly weak position, less and less able to stand at parity with his role model, because the thing which made the latter successful, the apparent source of that leader’s higher status is, in reality, a counterfeit. In politics, a term can have multiple meanings, to the point that, through rhetoric and semantic confusion, people can be convinced to assiduously pursue their own disempowerment.
If we are to convince others to work against their interests even as they continue to try to imitate our success—following us without ever replacing us—we will have to encode the language we use with opposite meanings: “One law for them, and another law for us,” per a certain 1980s English punk band. I do not claim that this is always conscious, only that, often, it describes reality. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
For a Europe that was reeling from the end of the First World War, nationalism and Woodrow Wilson’s self-determination of peoples meant the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the promotion of nationhood on a narrowly linguistic basis. For President Wilson’s country, however, it meant continental economies of scale from Atlantic to Pacific, almost entirely incomparable to the micro-states of which the Balkans was now to consist. For this reason, however rightfully skeptical of the political class at the helm of the European Union, Europeans who took umbrage in President Trump’s 2016 call for a return to the nation as fundamental unit of political participation and geopolitical alignment should remember that his nation is, in starkly material terms, a different animal to any of its old-world counterparts today.
For the United States, economic liberalism has often meant unleashing the tremendous force of the market to meet demand, after having set up advantageous, powerful economic entities through government intervention and protectionism. As development economist Ha-Joon Chang discusses, between the end of the Anglo-American War (1816) and the First World War, this included “tariffs on manufactured imports … at 40-50% … the highest of any country in the world.” But, for South American countries during the 20th century, economic liberalism meant negotiating bilateral trade agreements with their richer, northern partner, focusing on their comparative trade advantage, and hoping that those low value-added exports would siphon capital into higher value-added ones, all without setting up the policies to foster these or the social fabric to retain them.
In some countries, plurinational or multinational serves to justify the state’s authority over diverse regions. During a recent speech, Vladimir Putin questioned the legality of insulting Islam, adding his real politic rationale:
Russia was formed as a multinational and multi-confessional state, and we are used to basically treating each other’s interests and traditions with respect. This is indeed a very powerful base of existence, a solid basis for the existence of Russia as a multinational state.
Bolivia also describes itself as plurinational, by which it means that the state represents the various indigenous peoples within its borders. Separatism, however, is a crime in Bolivia. Contrastingly, in Spain, “plurinational” is used by those political factions that, while being proximate to Bolivia’s Evo Morales, nevertheless govern with, and further the ambitions of, separatist parties (which Morales opposes). The Spanish plurinationalist also champions (vacuous) historical narratives that bolster sedition. I am referring to the political party Podemos and the socialists. A less controversial term that functions the same way is “federal,” which is nearly a synonym for national in places like the United States, while having the opposite connotation in Spain. To sum up, what is presented as rhetoric meant to alleviate division (as it seems to do elsewhere) is wielded as part of the arsenal of those entrenched interests that are precisely responsible for fostering that division, allowing them a temporary plausible deniability.
Let’s look at one last double-meaning, that of diversity. Today, for some, diversity means cheap migrant labor from economically depressed parts of the world. Diversity in this sense constitutes a workforce unlikely to unionize due to linguistic and cultural barriers, as well as reticence to provide clients with informal workarounds, lacking the common cultural frames of reference and those understudied non-verbal cues that so powerfully militate against bureaucratization and following the “letter of the law.”
After a leak of internal documents, the Amazon-owned supermarket company Whole Foods was discovered to be using something called a “heat map” to visualize and monitor unionization across its many locations. This map worked to correlate the likelihood of union formation to various factors, concluding that more diversity makes for less unions:
The heat map is powered by an elaborate scoring system, which assigns a rating to each of Whole Foods’ 510 stores based on the likelihood that their employees might form or join a union. The stores’ individual risk scores are calculated from more than two dozen metrics…Store-risk metrics include average store compensation, average total store sales, and a “diversity index” that represents the racial and ethnic diversity of every store. Stores at higher risk of unionizing have lower diversity and lower employee compensation, as well as higher total store sales and higher rates of workers’ compensation claims, according to the documents.
On the political plane, artificially engineered diversity may mean that a population at large is unlikely to engage in the equivalent of unionizing—organize locally, articulate their interests coherently, make consumer decisions to sustain traditional institutions and small businesses, and so on.
Whereas diversity is equivalent to profit-maximizing and a pliable workforce for some, then, for others, it represents wider economic trends that lead to a shrinking middle class, a more precarious (and more service-based) working class, the end of cultural homogeneity and an ascendant caste system in which material deprivation does not rescue one from being accused of a mysteriously immutable, racially-based privilege—if one happens to be of European descent while in financial dire-straits.
What Amazon’s heat map has discovered empirically is what Hannah Arendt and the Italian elitists theorized decades ago: elite power increases with social atomization (this kind of elite, we should specify, is one for which auctoritas is eclipsed by mere potestas—that is, a bureaucratic technocracy).
Social atomization is ultimately equivalent to homogenization, but the latter is precisely not a state of universal solidarity but universal mistrust. The horizontal bonds are broken and distributed among differentiated sources of authority, all replaced by more and more centralized sources of official discourse. In this state, individuals (or, at best, nuclear family units) act as self-interest maximizers and are fully receptive to the prompts of approved culture makers, consuming and reproducing something like Adorno’s “culture industry.” Diversity, then, would appear to be a kind of antechamber, a tribal prelude to the homogenized social mass of individual atoms for whom the top-down reception of blockbuster and mainstream media-generated artefacts constitutes their only “culture.” Whether woke business and the political class can successfully digest the peoples it intends to use in this way is an open question.
The key to how double-meanings operate is not simply that a single trend benefits some while hurting others, or even that the implementation of an idea can make the difference between prosperity and poverty (as in the case of what is referred to as “economic liberalism”). The key is that a false consciousness is promoted among those who do not benefit so that they will identify with those that do, making them believe in benefits that never accrue, and seeing those who point this out as precisely the obstacle blocking the positive change they were promised. Nationalism continues to be the solution, even after rendering a people geopolitically impotent and ravaged by internecine conflict; liberalizing continues to be the solution, even after decades of remaining uncompetitive; diversity continues to be enriching, even after soaring crime and falling wages. On the other hand, those who do recognize this often react absurdly (“if Chicago School recipes failed, Marxism will succeed!” “If diversity really meant mass migration, the immigrant is my enemy!”), becoming the caricature that keeps society polarized.
For our part, if we intend to disrupt these discord-sowing, homogenizing systems of control, we should not allow terms like nationalism, liberalism, or diversity to divide us. Of course, nationhood, liberty or the market (as distinct from a market-society) and social differentiation or cultural exchange are all wonderful. We will likely encounter people who agree on the substance of things disagreeing over whether to champion these terms or not. We should forgo the semantic issue altogether, perhaps point out that such terms mean different things in different contexts, and that they are being instrumentalized to further the opposite of what they promise. And as always, the key to breaking disempowering dynamics is to stop taking the role model seriously, stop desiring to signal our belonging with him (belonging to him), and so begin resisting.