Mediocracy: definition, etiology and treatment

Fabian Tassano has coined the interesting noun mediocracy, which he gives two meanings: “(1) the rule of the mediocre; (2) the triumph of style over substance.”

His book of the same name—which for some reason is almost impossible to get in the US, and I am grateful to the author for sending me a review copy—is a comprehensive and witty dictionary of British mediocracy, specifically in its New Labour flavor. If you’ve ever been east of Nantucket, or you’ve read Peter Hitchens’ Abolition of Britain, you may be aware that the old country has experienced something of a political transition in the last 50 years. One special feature of the new British regime is a vicious hatred of excellence and exclusiveness, perhaps best typified by the egregious educrat Tony Crosland, who once said “if it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England.” Since history is always fascinated by destroyers, I wouldn’t be surprised if Tassano’s label has some legs.

Of course we have mediocracy on our side of the pond as well, though the blend is slightly different. Americans call it political correctness, a cumbersome phrase with no redeeming qualities. The British Fabian associations may be slightly off, but surely “mediocracy” is better than “PCism,” with its paucity of declensions and its odd Trotskyist overtones. Besides, dissident terminology needs to be refreshed regularly, as society comes to associate it with the figures whom the authorities present as typical dissidents. Such hooligans are invariably unhip, so their terms become unhip. And so does anyone who uses them. And it’s the task of all dissidents, left or right, right or wrong, to be cooler than the State.

In any case: I am supposed to be reviewing the book, not the word. And I recommend both. Each page in Mediocracy is its own soundbite, with its own Orwellian ort of mediocratese, defined by the author and illustrated with a quote or two from some ennobled mediocratic ass. The effect is half Devil’s Dictionary, half diversity workshop, half Lingua Tertii Imperii. Suitably repackaged and miniaturized, I feel, it could be quite the hit on the Harry Frankfurt cash-register market. (If you need a preview, Tassano’s blog has exactly the same format.)

Tassano’s thesis is that the modern English language is contaminated with “inversions and deceptions,” aka, built-in lies. In UR’s doxology of corruption, we’d call this wholesale disinformation. Of course Mr Blair also had some thoughts on the matter.

A good example is the mediocratic definition of the word radical. Tassano’s old definition is implying a break with prevailing intellectual or moral conventions. His new, or inverted, definition, is criticizing bourgeois concepts such as individuality or privacy. He comments:

Mediocracy, like 1984’s Oceania, requires its audience to believe in a continual need for ideological battle. Although the war has been won, and everyone has absorbed the required beliefs, the fight against the former enemy (capitalism, Christianity, conservatism, etc.) can never cease. Any sign of resistance must be treated as proof that the enemies of mediocracy are still powerful.

Under mediocracy, the ‘discoveries’ of modernism—reflexivity, secularism, loss of the self, social construction, etc.—have been fully assimilated. Yet mediocratic culture continues to assault the straw man of traditionalism, who can somehow never be quite dead enough.

It is important that critique of the non-mediocratic continues to carry the ‘radical’ label, however much such critique has become dogma.

Now, this is very true, and not unenlightening. Perhaps there’s a slight percussive quality to 160 straight pages of it. But anyone who’s not a Landwehr veteran has spent his or her entire educated life in a mediocracy. And there is no reeducation without repetition.

However, while reading Mediocracy I realized that I had a simple editing suggestion, which perhaps could be applied in a new US edition. It can be expressed as a simple vi command: %s/medi/dem/g. This should be applied to the covers, front matter, and all text. I feel it would spice things up a little and make for better talk-show coverage.

So, for example, the above would read:

Democracy, like 1984’s Oceania, requires its audience to believe in a continual need for ideological battle. Although the war has been won, and everyone has absorbed the required beliefs, the fight against the former enemy (capitalism, Christianity, conservatism, etc.) can never cease. Any sign of resistance must be treated as proof that the enemies of democracy are still powerful.

Under democracy, the ‘discoveries’ of modernism—reflexivity, secularism, loss of the self, social construction, etc.—have been fully assimilated. Yet democratic culture continues to assault the straw man of traditionalism, who can somehow never be quite dead enough.

It is important that critique of the non-democratic continues to carry the ‘radical’ label, however much such critique has become dogma.

Because—what does mediocracy call itself? What do mediocrats call themselves? Why not take them at face value? If you are criticizing some philosophical system, religious doctrine, alien sci-fi cult doxology, etc., why not do it the courtesy of using the name it uses for itself?

This edit is congenial to almost all of Tassano’s definitions—even democracy itself:

The theory of democracy is that everyone’s view is given equal weight. In practice, if no genuine alternatives are offered, the weight of each voter’s view is zero. In a democracy, the political elite proceeds largely as it wishes, with the electorate’s contribution limited to derision.

Some organisations in a democracy may have sufficient financial power to put the case for mildly dissenting viewpoints which, not surprisingly, tend to be biased towards a particular group of constituents (e.g., smokers). ‘Making things more democratic’ comes to mean ‘eliminating the influence of such organisations’, thus eliminating the only significant source of real diversity.

Can you tell what this passage said before the search-and-replace? And does it matter?

Now, I’m pretty sure Tassano does not agree with this. I get the impression that he thinks what most people think: that mediocracy is a corruption of democracy, not the real thing, just a kind of voodoo zombie impostor which has hijacked the good name of true democracy.

However, let’s look at what we know. What we know is that all democracies in the world today are mediocracies. We know that past democracies contained non-mediocratic elements. We also know that they contained aristocratic elements that today’s mediocrats consider non-democratic. And we know that in mediocracy’s Russian cousin—people’s democracy—many people who criticized the regime phrased their criticisms as ways to restore socialism, to make it truer to its own socialist ideals. Which turned out to be rather beside the point.

It strikes me that the simplest interpretation of these facts is that democracy is a degenerative political condition, a pure and unmitigated evil. This doesn’t mean that there are not worse systems of government than democracy. Nor does it mean that all the entirely unrelated features of healthy societies that have somehow become associated with this management selection algorithm, such as freedom and law and iPods, are bad. All it means is that, if the Duke of Wellington were still in charge, Britain might be a much more pleasant place today.

(Certainly its crime rate would not have risen by a factor of 47 during the 20th century—that’s not 47%, folks, that’s 4700%. I also suspect it might still have its Empire, its industries, etc. Of course, today’s Britons are well-trained to believe that all these changes were for the better, or at least inevitable. But I suspect the Englishmen of 1907 would have begged to differ.)

What is mediocracy, anyway? I think an accurate definition is “coherent democracy”—that is, a democratic political system which has succeeded in fully coordinating its public opinion, generally through a cradle-to-grave information system in which the perspectives of official and quasiofficial educators and journalists become synchronized. Since educators and journalists educate and inform the next generation of educators and journalists, it’s not too hard to see how this might work. It’s the political equivalent of a laser. A small amount of political divergence survives in today’s mediocracies, but it’s negligible by historical standards.

Specifically, the mediocracy we have today is best characterized as a nontheistic theocracy. Its official tradition is the modern descendant of Calvinist Protestantism I call Universalism. The cultural ancestors of the Universalists have been called Progressives, Fabians, Unitarians, Evangelicals, Nonconformists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Chartists, Methodists, Dissenters, Puritans, Roundheads, etc., etc., etc. Any good Anglican, from any date between 1660 and 1960, would have identified the current Archbishop of Canterbury as a hardcore Dissenter or “low church” man, and they would certainly accept this as final and conclusive evidence that the conquest of Britain by Massachusetts is complete.

If this theory is correct, Universalism is the legitimate modern heir of an old and very respectable stream of thought, which has produced an enormous amount of cultural value. So perhaps the problem is simply that, while Evangelicals and their doctrines are a healthy ingredient in a healthy society, it’s bad news when they achieve total dominance.

So, as a critic of mediocracy, it’s very natural to think that the obvious solution is “uncoordinated democracy”—that is, democracy in which there are actually meaningful, substantive divisions and fluctuations in popular political opinion, and in which such fluctuations, expressed electorally, can actually result in actual, significant changes in government personnel and procedures.

There are two problems with this solution.

One, it’s extremely obvious. People have been trying it more or less continuously for the last 50 years, and mediocracy continues its advance. Perhaps this is because wishing that public opinion were X, whereas it is actually Y, does not constitute a procedure for converting Y into X—even if X is right and Y is wrong. Furthermore, mediocracy is very good at defying public opinion—for example, on immigration. It can do this because it knows that time is on its side. Public opinion in a mediocracy always converges on official opinion. Sometimes this process is slow, but I know of no exceptions.

Two, it simply assumes, without any evidence or reasoned thinking at all, that democracy is a good thing. Of course, everyone believes democracy is a good thing. But is this a good reason for believing anything? I believe Professor Dawkins has a few thoughts on the subject.

If you accept the theory that public opinion is always wise opinion, you are forced to accept not only democracy, but also mediocracy. If you don’t, how can you believe in democracy? Democracy as a modern political system is always associated with Universalism and its ancestors, and unbelievers in Universalism have tended to express their distaste for it in terms both pungent and prescient. This does not make democracy wrong, but it don’t make it right, neither.

The term I prefer for uncoordinated democracy is ochlocracy—that is, mob rule. If you think “real democracy” is a good thing, you might want to look through its history a little, making some effort to distinguish between reality and lipstick. Ochlocratic elections, for example, are almost always associated with paramilitary violence. Most people know that the US Civil War was a breakdown of electoral conflict into war proper—but how many of us have heard of the Republicans’ paramilitary arm, the Wide Awakes? In fact, mob violence was a ubiquitous feature of American democracy from its birth to the New Deal (when it became mediocratic).

Mediocracy is a problem, no doubt. But it is not the worst thing in the world. One of the main problems with mediocracy is that it depends on centralized control of public information, a control which is rapidly evaporating with phenomena such as home schooling, Blogger, YouTube, etc. Military-grade hatred is not at all hard to find in today’s mediocracies. It is only confined to a marginal fringe by the inertial remnants of old-line journalism, which are rapidly evaporating. And the official universities, which were once at least bastions of moderation, have evolved—for very sensible adaptive reasons—into Universalist madrassas at best, and Petri dishes of Chomskyite political hydrophobia at worst.

Ergo, I conclude, mediocracy is an extremely dangerous condition in need of urgent treatment. If it survives in its present state, the future holds nothing but Brezhnevist sclerosis, possibly with newer and better iPods. If nothing else, its financial system is quite unsustainable. If mediocracy collapses and we see a new birth of Internet-powered ochlocracy, Chomskyites will be fighting white nationalists in the streets. And the latter, being better armed and trained, will almost certainly prevail. Do you want this? I’ll bet some UR readers want this. I don’t.

So what is the treatment? I find that people who grew up believing in democracy have a strong urge to separate solutions into two categories: democratic and nondemocratic. Of course, there is nothing wrong with a democratic election in which the People express their realization that they have been duped, suckered, and taken for a two-hundred-year ride, but that ride is over, finito, done. But—if you agree with me that democracy is the problem, not the solution—there’s also nothing wrong with a military coup in which the military expresses this same realization.

Perhaps the great tragedy of democracy is that mob power became identified with political power at exactly the last point in history at which mobs were militarily relevant. In the age of the machine gun, the military is at all time sovereign whether it likes it or not. As long as it acts in a unified and disciplined way, it can do whatever it wants. As the experience of China shows, it’s by no means always a mistake to fire into a mob. If the sovereigns of the Concert of Europe had realized that technology was on their side, the murderous degringolade of the 20th century might never have happened.

However, neither democratic or nondemocratic means can terminate mediocracy without a clear and effective program for the new regime. The method matters less than the endpoint. As a maximalist program, of course, I recommend full neocameralism. However, there are many ways to manage a state that involve neither neocameralism nor democracy—Singapore and Dubai being excellent examples.

The most important realization is the fact—elegantly demonstrated by proto-neocameralist city-states such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai—that politics is not necessary to a free, stable and productive modern society. This proposition has not been demonstrated above the urban level, which is one reason that a new regime should move aggressively to decentralize, dissolving national and transnational political bodies in favor of independent cities or regions.

Eliminating politics is not a trivial operation. The goal of politics is power, and for a fairly long transitional period after the abolition of democracy, large numbers of people will continue to harbor the hope that they can achieve power by focusing and controlling public opinion, in the old mediocratic style. While preventing this is ultimately the task of the security forces, there is no need to make their job any harder than it needs to be.

Therefore, the sine qua non of any regime change whose goal is to defeat mediocracy is the complete defeat and liquidation of the old mediocratic power structure. There is absolutely no need to restrict freedom of speech, or any other personal freedom. The problem is entirely organizational. Disestablishment of the Universalist information organs is sufficient.

Mediocracy can be defeated by one principle of good government: separation of information and state. The state must care what its citizens do. It has no good reason to give a rat’s ass what they think.

This principle implies a number of specific rules, such as separation of church and state, separation of education and state, separation of science and state, separation of art and state, etc. If we apply the same “strict scrutiny” presently given in the US to the first of these, we end up with a system in which the state is entirely out of the business of managing public opinion, thus breaking the feedback loop of mediocracy.

Furthermore, in a regime change, the only goal of the new regime is stability and success. The new regime is establishing law in a lawless state, in which law has degenerated into a morass of ritual and procedure. If it was concerned with following the rituals and procedures of the old regime, it would not be a new regime.

Therefore, it is justified in seizing, and either dissolving or privatizing according to its best judgment, all subsidized or officially supported information organs of the old mediocracy, including universities, newspapers, TV and radio stations, schools, etc. Probably the first option is the safest. Most of the real estate of the top mediocratic universities is centrally located, and quite valuable. Redevelopment options will not be hard to find.

In a post-mediocratic state, education is a purely parental responsibility. Young people will learn whatever their parents choose to teach them, or have them taught, or expose them to. Official involvement in this process, even in the form of subsidies, is unthinkable. Likewise, journalism is a purely private function. When the state discloses information, it does so under the equivalent of Reg FD, releasing all information to all bloggers at the same time. There are no press conferences, leaks, unofficial sources, off-the-record conversations, etc., etc. Modern government has no need for even quasiofficial information organs. As for the broadcast spectrum, it should be turned off and resold for peer-to-peer networking.

Of course, perhaps there are other ways to defeat mediocracy. If anyone can suggest any, I’d be curious to hear them.