In response to: Totalitarianism, American Style

In Search of an American Aristocracy

Editor’s Note: The first step in winning a war is to recognize the fact that you are in one. This means, first and foremost, to come to know your enemy and his goals. In a recent essay for this site, Glenn Ellmers and Ted Richards of the Claremont Institute make a compelling case that the present enemy—the “woke” or group quota regime—is a totalitarian threat, and that its aims are nothing short of revolutionary. While our own troubles may seem far removed from the hard totalitarianism of the twentieth century, Ellmers and Richards argue that the six traditionally accepted elements of totalitarianism are already present in woke America. What’s more, they identify three factors that are unique to the tyranny of the present day.

The American regime was founded by intellectual giants: men like John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who, even in their devotion to equality, recognized the necessity of great men for the preservation of a republic. In an important way, argues Micah Meadowcroft, the regime change underway has been defined by the replacement of this natural aristocracy with a “global elite” untied to America or its constitution. This is the seventh in a series of nine contributions by leading experts on the nine defining elements of what Ellmers and Richards dub “Totalitarianism, American Style.”

When in 1813, early in the epistolary reconciliation of their twilight years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson shared their mutual preoccupation with the idea of a natural aristocracy, they could not set aside biography entirely. As Jefferson concluded, despite their abiding differences of opinion, “We acted in perfect harmony thro’ a long and perilous contest for our liberty and independence. A constitution has been acquired which, tho neither of us think perfect, yet both consider as competent to render our fellow-citizens the happiest and the securest on whom the sun has ever shone.” 

Regardless of whether, as Jefferson proposed, autochthonous aristoi were the source and summit of republican liberty or, as Adams worried, lions and eagles whose ambitions must be bound by the chains of a mixed regime, they had both been as younger men the best of their colonies and come together with others like them to bring forth a new nation. They were our Founding Fathers and, without hereditary title, an American aristocracy.

Today, there is no American aristocracy worth the term, and despite breathless liberal fantasies about President Trump, no lions or eagles either. We do not even have an American elite, except in the most basic social science sense. Instead our civic life is managed by a global elite, functionaries of what, as Glenn Ellmers and Ted Richards described in the opening salvo of this series, an international order “in which American sovereignty becomes insignificant.” 

For American sovereignty means the will and self-government of the American people, and the common opinions and interests of these liberal globetrotters, especially “leftist attacks on ‘nationalism’” and dreams of a borderless world subject to the free movement of trade, persons, and capital, obviate the reciprocal nature of “any connection they have with their fellow citizens.” They are without thumotic attachment to home and place—without thumos at all, men without chests, as C.S. Lewis put it—and the pursuit of their appetites and faith in their own intelligence “effectively mean subordinating the interests and independence of the United States” to the soft totalitarianism of a global technological regime.

Ellmers and Richards briefly survey the American and Continental antecedents to this homogenizing global elite in their essay, and so this entry will not be a genealogical account of their origin. It is the psychology of this social aspect of our new totalitarianism that concerns us here. 

If Jefferson and Adams were right to observe that there are aristocrats of nature, who emerge of necessity from the mass of mankind, then their apparent disappearance demands an explanation. Something has been done to suppress the spirit of the naturally best—their spiritedness that, rightly educated, can make them good guardians of their people and their home, and miseducated makes them would-be tyrants standing head and shoulders above everyone else. Our global elite are, instead of stand out characters, a caste of colorless officialdom. For all their preoccupation with color and diversity, they are conformist to the extreme. 

Behold the world’s middle management. They attend an endless circuit of conferences, the World Economic Forum at Davos being only the most notorious, to discuss global issues between bites of short-rib risotto and sips of the wrong but expensive wine. They worry about things like world health and pandemic preparedness while stepping over their fellow citizens dying of drug overdoses in the street. In banks, NGOs, the HR departments and executive suites of multinational corporations, in the beige halls of governments and multilateral institutions, in university offices and philanthropic foundations, they drone on and on, busy bees, thinking without wisdom and consuming without taste.   

The global elite are a product of their environment. Whatever spark in them opposed the crushing technicity of modern mass society was snuffed out. The corruption of the best is the worst, and the fewest of the few are—turned from natural aristoi—an unnatural elite, elite in and because of their unnaturality. In the late 1940s, the German-Italian Catholic theologian Romano Guardini observed that the “most highly developed individuals of the mass, its elite, are not merely conscious of the influence of the machine; they deliberately imitate it, building its standards and rhythms into their own ethos.” 

The machine is here shorthand for the whole of technological post-modernity, the bureaucratic complex of military, economic, and political rationalization eating the world as quickly as communication and information technics can fit it to a plate. As Helen Andrews wrote in her own contribution to this series, the distinctive institutional feature of the machine, and the new totalitarianism emerging from it, is anonymity. The development of mass society after the industrial revolution seemed to demand, in its anonymizing and atomizing aspects, an expert control that was impersonal and depersonalizing. 

This tendency has only increased, and thus the ethical crisis of our time is the exercise of power without responsibility. Our global society is characterized by an attitude to power that treats it as a natural force along the lines of weather or pre-Christian gods, something capricious for which no one is answerable. Processes, policies, and standards multiply and persist alongside layers of bureaucracy, not to do more things better but to substantiate a moral lacuna between actor, action, and consequences. 

On the world stage, this irresponsibility and the self-effacing un-ethic it reflects have become especially obvious in the hypocrisy of the global elite regarding the so-called “rules-based international order.” The political economist Jerome Roos lately pointed out in the New Statesman that the “rules-based” tic in foreign policy sermons is of relatively recent origin, in the economic multilateralism of the heady ’90s, especially the creation of the World Trade Organization and China’s eventual ascension to it. 

Invocation of the “rules-based international order” has time and again evoked Americans’ affection for the rule of law so that their national sovereignty might be further undermined. It describes, in mechanical terms as reminiscent of Fordism as of Hobbes’s Leviathan, the efforts within globalization to impose structures of governance above government. At the same time, on the international stage, it has been a thin veil, easily torn, for the hard power of the U.S. military, a bad attempt to depoliticize clinging to a unipolar moment that died somewhere between Baghdad and Beijing. 

The failures of the “rules-based international order” are a negative illustration of the reality that someone is in fact always in charge, that there is no exercise of power without responsibility. This is the very thing our global elite seek to deny, not only to the American people, but to themselves. That no one has been held to account for the subprime mortgage crisis, or decades lost and millions killed in the Middle East, has only served to call attention to the reality that there are someones—with names and addresses, birthdates and death dates—responsible for these disasters.  

The reader who fancies himself something of a hard-nosed realist, or of a third-worldist lefty bent, may be tempted to limit this psychological sketch to a de facto American elite running an American empire from behind an emerald internationalist curtain. But as the essayist N.S. Lyons argues in his magisterial “China Convergence,” our new era of bipolarity provides no guarantee of particularism. The global elite of the semi-liberal West and the elite of the Chinese Communist Party are both conforming to a depersonalizing and inhuman technological order. They grow to fit the same machine and so grow alike.

Heads and stomachs there are everywhere, but men, nowhere to be found. Observing our global regime and its absence of true aristocrats, Jefferson and Adams would probably be tempted to blame each other. Is this Adams’s institutionalist—mechanical and legalist, rules based—mixed regime grown too weighty for even great men to move? Did Jefferson’s upstarts of towering genius and boundless ambition make revolutions so violent they have put even human nature into question? Could they have failed because they succeeded? 

Those are questions of history. Back to psychology, spiritedness, and maybe a little hope. In the populist and nationalist upheavals of the last decade, peoples all over the world have made clear that they refuse to let their cultures and societies be dissolved away without a fight. Like noble dogs, they love what is familiar and are angered by the impositions of foreigners. 

But, as Guardini wrote, “Perhaps modern nationalism is the peoples’ last attempt to defend themselves against absorption—a defense by means of a formal system which will, however, gradually succumb to other still more abstract principles of power.” The masses awakened may be enough to defeat particular representatives of the global elite, but if the machine that makes them is to be broken, then we are back in 1813 and looking for aristocrats by nature. 

Micah Meadowcroft is Research Director of the Center for Renewing America.