The theory and practice of oligarchical egalitarianism

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 11.48.42Dalrymple Q&A

You have spoken, doctor, of what you call the reversal of the direction of emulation. What do you mean?

Until quite recently, emulators emulated those higher in the social scale than themselves, which meant that there were more emulators than emulated. Now it is persons in or from a higher social class who emulate those in a lower social class.

How do those persons from a higher social class do this?

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.02.44They adopt the manner of speaking, dress and cultural tastes of those below them. Intellectuals affect vulgar expressions, and anyone with an avowed uninterest either in sport or in popular music is suspected at once of enmity towards the people.

What is the meaning of this change in the direction of cultural influence and aspiration?

It signifies the complete ideological victory of egalitarianism, from which few dare derogate.

Is not this all quite bogus?

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 12.28.29Of course. There is a vast difference between the pays idéologique and the pays réel. The desire for social and economic advance, to be at the top rather than at the bottom of the social scale, is as acute as ever. The scramble for position and prestige is ferocious.

The pretence must be kept up, must it not?

The desire to stand out from and above one’s fellows cannot be avowed, except perhaps in the context of sport.

Musée du quai Branly, Paris

Masks, Musée du quai Branly, Paris

Granted that the downward cultural aspiration of members of the corrupt élite is purely defensive, how do they maintain the fiction?

If they indulge in egalitarianism in the symbolic field, they hope that their economic inegalitarianism will go, if not unnoticed, at least less noticed. Once they are in private, they can drop their affected egalitarianism for public consumption and become what they are in reality, namely ferocious élitists.

Erzherzogin Maria Antonia am Spinett. Franz Xaver Wagenschön, c. 1769. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

Erzherzogin Maria Antonia am Spinett. Franz Xaver Wagenschön, c. 1769. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna

So the downward cultural aspiration, or apparent aspiration, is to the élitists vital.

It is the means by which the contradiction between the pays idéologique and the pays réel is reconciled, though only in appearance. And in a society in which what is virtual is as important as, if not more important than, what is real, an apparent reconciliation is as important as a real one.

Is there not a difficulty with this?

The problem is that what starts as affectation becomes habit which becomes character. In the end, the play-acting becomes real. If Marie Antoinette had played shepherdess for long and often enough, that is what eventually she would have been. The coarseness of popular culture triumphs — by degrees, to be sure — over all other forms.

What is the effect of the false egalitarianism on social mobility?

Snakes and ladders, late 19th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

Snakes and ladders, India, late 19th century. Victoria & Albert Museum, London

The fact that the higher echelons now ape the lower means that the lower have no need to aspire to anything in order to imagine themselves to be rising in the social scale, for there is nothing higher to emulate. The false egalitarianism serves to conserve the social structure as a fly is conserved in amber. Social mobility falls while culture becomes less refined.

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