Did Populism Start A 21st Century Anti-Clerical Revolution?
Exposed by the fight against populism, the 20th century secular clerisy have made new enemies
I had often read the term clerisy used in today’s context to describe the NGO-media-academic-professional activist class, and thought of it mainly as a propaganda term. Now that the dust has settled, I do think the clearest way to understand the simultaneous class and culture war nature of populism that made it different to existing right and left categories is that it was a struggle between the clerisy - a vast secular moral teaching class created in the 20th century who accrue power, set the terms of moral virtue and prestige and parasite existing wealth through producing and maintaining ideology - and those who found themselves outside the clerisy, subject to its punitive rules without gaining any benefits from its parasitic existence.
Before Bismarck’s Kulturkampf anti-clerical resentment had grown over church control of education, exemptions from tax and civil law, moral hypocrisy and zealous enforcement of moral taboos. The Catholic Church had issued condemnations of nationalism, free speech and popular sovereignty. Accused of betraying conservatism, Bismarck is said to have introduced crude discourse into political life and used the creation of a social insurance safety net, what became the modern welfare state, as a strategy to limit the influence and appeal of both the socialists and the clerisy who engaged in poor relief.
The objects of hatred for populists in recent years were not all of the rich or all of the professional class, leading some to claim it was simply an incoherent generalized culture war of resentment without class politics. But it was always clerics or those who sided with the clerics that the populists attacked. The three main clerical institutions are academia, the NGO sector and the media, and everywhere these were the main target of populist attack, whether the cleric was a billionaire funding a foundation or a journalist living on meager pay but clearly employed to impose their moral rules often through unjust public punishment. The main reason “left-populism” never worked is because, despite getting off to a plausible and electorally viable start, it quickly became filled with clerics, their values and thus also their collective self-enrichment and power strategies, which the anti-clerical public bitterly resent.
The values, teachings and institutions of today’s secular clerisy were formed in the mid twentieth century to provide a strong moral framework of good and evil that would be conducive to the needs of the ruling class of Pax Americana. The fundamental moral principles in today’s clerisy, which we treat as a new phenomenon, were already settled in all the secular clerical institutions by the early 1970s - feminism, youth culture, globalization, identity politics, multiculturalism, sexual freedom, the technocratic application of science as the solution to social ills and so on. The clerisy’s role ever since has been to teach the public that these were superior values to the systems of all other existing and past forms of society.
What changed since then however is primarily a question of scale, inevitably later followed by runaway unchecked power. Every society has a moral teaching authority of some kind but today the institutions and the size of the clerisy as a class have grown out of all proportion. The Foundations and NGOs began their rise since the creation of the United Nations in 1945 when the term NGO was coined and today there are over 1.5 million of them in the US alone and an estimated 10 million globally. Since the 1960’s the rapid growth of universities and exploding graduate numbers in the US have been similar to but preceded NGO growth by a decade, leading Cliodynamics scholar Edward Turner to conclude that “The proximate mechanism for the surge in INGOs was an expanding supply of credentialed professionals rather than a greater demand for their services” in which an over-supply of elite aspirants led to “the creation of auxiliary vehicles for maintaining wealth and status.”
Rural or periphery white working class and self employed men without a college degree undoubtedly formed the embattled core of populism because they were the group with the least to gain and most to lose from cleric controlled society - heavily taxed for their work, not a member of any protected identity group, outside of all forms of virtue and prestige endowed by the clerisy and often made a scapegoat in the clerisy’s own wealth and power strategy. Although Trump was defeated, the clerisy drew unprecedented attention to themselves and revealed themselves in a very negative light to the rest of society in order to defeat him. We’re now less likely to think that their newspapers or their prizes or their academic titles are signs of admirable qualities or real expertise worthy of public trust. In the aftermath of their self-exposing battle against populism, I see new factions popping up including within more elite circles and among break-away figures from the clerical institutions, who each have their own grievances.
Matt Taibbi wrote a recent article titled “Congratulations, Elitists: Liberals and Conservatives Do Have Common Interests Now.”
The truth is, Trump conservatives and ACLU-raised liberals like myself, Greenwald, and millions of others do have real common cause, against an epistemic revolution taking hold in America’s political and media elite. The traditional liberal approach to the search for truth, which stresses skepticism and free-flowing debate, is giving way to a reactionary movement that Plato himself would have loved, one that believes knowledge is too dangerous for the rabble and must be tightly regulated by a priesthood of “experts.” It’s anti-democratic, un-American, and naturally unites the residents of even the most extreme opposite ends of our national political spectrum.
The alliance he points to here is an interesting one because it is two forces of progress, not reaction - Trump’s economically productive but “poorly educated” class coalition, who were always more nationalist and heretical than conservative and who wanted to topple the parasitic moral teachers, and ex-institutional figures who are animated primarily by concepts of human freedom and the progressive ideal of truth. There is an idea out there that the clerisy are just the latest manifestation of liberalism and progress, which I’ve often thought and said myself, but objectively aren’t they increasingly blocking the process of truth seeking and scientific innovation that gave the bourgeois age its extraordinary transformative powers? They still serve the 20th century function of teaching the moral virtues of Pax Americana but their dogmas increasingly constrain progress in a Lysenkoist fashion - forcing people to accept an ever growing number of absurd and obviously untrue things - and they have to use harder power tactics to suppress all kinds of truths. The chaotic response of the clerisy to Covid is just the latest example, where they deemed it Sinophobic to pursue all avenues of truth. Now other scientifically advanced world powers are rising who are not constrained by these dogmas.
It is not impossible to imagine others joining the coalition in a more organized fashion in the years ahead, like people in fields of science or the arts who find it increasingly impossible to navigate the minefield of moral taboos set by the clerisy. These groups each have their own interests in opposing the same clerisy that limit all forms of innovation through the moral suppression of truth and free inquiry. I was certainly not on team Trump in 2016 but my own turning against the clerisy came from witnessing the ways in which they have made it impossible now to have any campaign of economic justice that isn’t immediately taken over by them and turned into a social engineering crusade, which ultimately operates as a self-empowering and self-enriching strategy. The answer to every one of their invented problems always seems to be more money and power for them, as the Swedish populist Malcom Kyeyune has often pointed out.
I still think that ultimately the capitalist class are in the driving seat of history today and in the mid twentieth century the clerisy served their interests perfectly - they provided a moral framework to globalize economics and expand the pool of labour and consumption. But capitalism also requires constant innovation which means at the very least science must be allowed to be unrestricted. As the overgrown and power-mad clerics who parasite more and more of society’s wealth increasingly push to ban taboo-breaking science and all forms of unconstrained truth seeking, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that a significant faction of the capitalist class itself may pull the plug on them, especially as growing powers like China can operate without these constraints. I think there will likely be more break-away elites, more Peter Thiels and more Tucker Carlsons and more Glenn Greenwalds in the near future who already find common cause with the existing base that Trump tapped into.
At their current enormous levels of power, the clerisy is too big to take on directly and anyone who tries will have the full force of all of the institutions against them. One vulnerability they do have is people of quality voluntarily leaving if the conditions allow it. An economically viable exit strategy that allows greater freedom, which is already happening in media, could conceivably happen in other institutions like academia, if someone figures out the right model. How long will their prestige last - the only thing they have to sell - if all the best scholars and thinkers that people want to hear from and that come up with new innovations leave and then use their years of pent up frustration to expose the institutional rot from the outside, as some break-away figures are doing with the media today? As for the NGOs, they cost society billions but have no legitimate reason to exist outside of what the modern welfare state could provide for a fraction of the cost and without the moral strings attached. If they become more discredited and weakened couldn’t a Bismarck figure do what he did with the church and ally factions against them combined with the electoral promise of sharing their wealth and power?
Today’s clerics often like to say that the segment of society that is against them are bitterly left behind by history, that they’re enemies of progress. But objectively they are the ones now most standing in the way of the progressive ideals of the bourgeois age like truth seeking and innovation and the conditions they wish to impose on every other sector of society are becoming intolerable. In the West, cultural and intellectual life are clearly dying under them. A clerisy created for the 20th century may outlive its usefulness even to a significant faction of the economically productive elite. If you believe class conflict is the driving force of history then we can also see that multiple class factions are now amassing against the clerisy’s reactionary attempts to hold on to their power, which has become vast, parasitic and surplus to requirements. Unlike the moral system of the Catholic Church of Bismarck’s day, there is no redemption or brotherly love or pro-social communalism in the doctrine of the new clerisy and a whole new coalition of strange bedfellows are waking up to the fact that their vision is not only dystopian but is filled with anti-social poison no society can survive.
'The clerisy' is an excellent term and this is a great analysis. I hope you're going to write a book about this. The NGOs in particular are very significant and get very little attention, but they seem to be effectively making the running, not to mention writing the language.
One thing I'd take issue with is your use of the terms 'progress' and 'reaction', as if they were uncomplicated; and as if it were clear that one side was good and one bad. It doesn't look that way to me: not only does an unquestioning pursuit of 'progress' look like the heart of the problem, but various forms of 'reaction' are a useful counterpoint to it. To me, the failure of 'progress' in almost every department is a bomb under the left as well as the bourgeois century.
I would still read that book though.
Many things I would like to comment upon, but instead of bloviating I'll try my best to make my main point concisely in re: "The three main clerical institutions are academia, the NGO sector and the media."
Speaking from a US perspective, I'd add the intelligence agencies, especially the CIA -- whose links to and manipulation of the other three institutions has been extensively documented. Marks and Marchetti explicitly analyzed the Agency's clerical/insular culture in their early exposé THE CIA AND THE CULT OF INTELLIGENCE (1974): https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/342587.The_CIA_And_The_Cult_Of_Intelligence
Seen through the lens of your analysis here, it's not difficult to make some assumptions about why US military intelligence (DIA, the service intel branches, and to some extent NSA, which belongs to DOD) are frequently at loggerheads with CIA. The military -- through necessity -- is an innately populist institution; the majority of recruits are from the lower half of the socioeconomic strata. The CIA has always stressed its elite, credentialist Ivy League image (even though it struggled at many times in its history to recruit actual Ivy Leaguers).
Military intelligence people have a tough row to hoe. The command structure tends to divert weird/smart poor kids into intel rather than combat arms. They get to be part of the clerisy, but it's always made clear they won't make it to the top; kind of like Discalced Carmelites. (Chelsea Manning is a key example.)
Great article by Seymour Hersh, if you haven't seen it already: https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v38/n01/seymour-m.-hersh/military-to-military US military and CIA literally backing opposite sides in Syria.