Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

During the week I was discussing with a young colleague at work the preparation of a briefing. I gave them some guidance and some encouragement: the briefing did not need to be long, but the words ought to be carefully selected and focussed on what was most important. After all, I said, “Brevity is the soul of wit.”

To my surprise, my young colleague, who is aged somewhere in the late 20s and had studied journalism and international relations at university, said he liked that phrase, and had not heard it before. Taken aback, I confirmed with him that he was serious, and in truth had never heard the phrase.

This incident was a minor example of the impoverishment of the cultural commons we are witnessing today. How can it be that two university educated people from the same city, although not the same generation, do not share knowledge of this basic cultural reference, Shakespeare’s widely repeated and evergreen advice to any writer?

The cultural commons is being impoverished by cultural fragmentation, which in turn is generated by the profusion of wealth, self-expression, image-making and identity-formation in our affluent societies. Our garden is overrun with the sprawling higgledy-piggledy plants more and more of us have planted. We can no longer see the shapes and beds of the garden’s early design, and some of the more precious heritage plants are being smothered and deprived of light.

The fragmentation of the culture is not wholly a bad thing. Cracks of freedom open up. New voices emerge. Terrible new beauties are born. The art of living is rethought and remade. Like the breaking up of Pangea, new continents, new ecosystems of cultural forms, drift apart and forget the times when they shared a common identity. The fundamental processes of differentiation and development take hold, and, within the broken continents of a once shared culture, new dramas are performed in old theatres.

It is perhaps a fanciful, nostalgic dream to imagine that our cultures –  in today’s conditions of more highly educated people than ever before with more time, freedom and widely available means to produce, share and consume cultural artefacts – could ever be bounded by a single book of common prayer.  Noone in these conditions can stand against the forces of continental drift. The historical forces of divergence and convergence in our cultures are very strong and very deep. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto has argued that these antagonists have long fought their subterranean battle through the deep history of the world. Writing against a backdrop of political enthusiasm for globalization and its discontents, Fernandez-Armesto pointed to the long, deep history of divergence in human cultures which turned, around 1492, towards a history of convergence for another 500 years. Yet beneath the superficial unity of a world brought together in the name of Western culture, new dreams of differentiation were emerging:

“If recent history has a lesson, it is that whenever a big state is nestled, smaller-scale identities and political aspirations incubate under its shell until eventually they poke their beaks through the cracks and take flight.” Millenium (1995), p 704

I am perhaps a member of those dying generations who imagined a reforging of myth, tradition and culture through the 20th century practice of modernist bildung. I can see that this dream of a shared culture is impossible in today’s conditions. There is too much to read. There are too many human possibilities to explore and to encompass within any one story, without a constriction on freedom. The institutions of education have been overrun by commerce and new philistines. The great words are repeated incessantly by fewer and fewer of us; fewer seek the company of cold skulls over the frisson of the pumped up dance floor. There is a proliferation of cultural communities online, and yet no shared embodied customs: no church in which we stand to hear the common prayer; no university in which we practise bildung, rather than vocational learning. The besieged city has lost its theatre, which stands in broken, neglected ruins. Yet still, strange flowers grow among the ruins, and throughout the city small groups come together to create the rituals of new cults. Perhaps these new cults and strange flowers will sustain the generations to come?

I recognise the reality of these conditions, and still I mourn what we have lost. To echo Ezra Pound from last week’s post, I can only put my faith in the love of my true heritage, and trust that what I lovest well shall not be reft from me.

One thing we have lost amidst our cultural fragmentation, and which I encounter most days in my day job as a government bureaucrat, is a civic culture of governing. Our political communities have been shattered. We are riven by identity politics and hyper-partisanship. We fight culture wars and proclaim fluid fissured identities that separate us from traditions of civil dialogue. We have lost the art of talking to strangers, and working across the aisle. Government has become a  theatre of activists, spin-doctors, marketers of political brands, “social innovators” and a new mercenary class of political condottiere and consultocrats. This new class has colonised the institutions of government, and suborned once strong autonomous institutions, which through their autonomy had created traditions of value and their own esprit de corps – to the fractious, factionalised, fickle, impatient, self-absorbed purposes of this new nomenklatura.

The ascendancy of this new nomenklatura – which one day I will find a better name for – is only possible in the conditions created by the breakdown of civic culture and cultural fragmentation. They are the bandits who emerge when the city lies in ruins. It is the common complaint of these bandits that the people are fickle, have “expectations” that cannot be delivered, and lack trust. As the OECD says:

“Trust in government is deteriorating in many OECD countries. Lack of trust compromises the willingness of citizens and business to respond to public policies and contribute to a sustainable economic recovery.”

Foolish citizens and business: they do not respond to public policies in the ways desired by the new nomenklatura.

In truth, the problem of declining trust in political institutions, is better conceived as the collapse of authority of the new nomenklatura in liberal democracies. And that, I hypothesise, has its roots in the disintegration of the civic cultures that these elites attempt to govern. But the further exploration of this hypothesis will have to wait till my next post.



5 thoughts on “Cultural fragmentation and the collapse of authority in Western democracies

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  1. This reads like prophecy. Some immense writing. But something i am undecided on, as to whether it is beneficial any longer, owing to a large majority of these previous generations being white males from upper class, even aristocratic backgrounds. This is why i always held Blake in high esteem: a formidable mind, from working class origins, who was diligent enough to see the benefit in just working hard & self-study. i think that is a message worth communicating now, that yes, we are ore educated, but that we shouldn’t stop at the institutions for self-improvement, nor even give ourselves over entirely to the great thinkers of the past, but that we can amalgamate, apply to now, & like David Bohm advocated, have discussions. i have learned more asking bloggers like yourself questions than i ever could have imagined.


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