inversions & deceptions
in the new hegemony

an  OXFORD FORUM  website

The meaning of ‘mediocracy’

There is a new model of society. Let us call it mediocracy: rule by the mediocre, the triumph of style over substance.

In a mediocracy, real cultural progress is impossible because it requires conditions that are incompatible with a commitment to egalitarianism. There is no room for genuine cultural innovators, because one cannot permit any individual to think they are special. Nevertheless, mediocracy maintains a cultural elite, to validate its ersatz culture and to protect it from criticism.

A mediocracy lives off the cultural capital accumulated in the past, perpetually recycling the old products, though with increasing mockery. The illusion of cultural fitness is maintained by having institutions with the same names as the old ones (‘universities’, ‘philosophy’, ‘theatre’) and some resemblance to the originals.

Mediocracy is not concerned with the quality or content of culture, but it does care to some extent about appearances. It is not interested in having genuine art, or real education, but it wants to be able to say “we have art” and “there is lots of education”. Its aim is to redefine existing activities to the point where it becomes impossible to complain that they no longer exist.

Mediocracy has two approaches to transforming culture. Dumbing down involves coarsening and trivialising output to the point where it becomes stupefying rather than enlightening. Sexing up involves wrapping up the trivial and vacuous in jargon and technique, in order to render it sufficiently opaque for its vacuity to be concealed. Often both qualities are combined, resulting in a low-grade product with a veneer of esoteric complexity.

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The underlying ethic of mediocracy is not obvious, because it is not the same as that which it professes. What mediocracy claims to prize above all else is fairness, usually conceived in terms of equality. But a mediocracy never becomes particularly equal, however much it indulges in ostensibly equalising policies. A mediocratic society is as hierarchical as any other. Mediocracy seeks socialisation rather than equality. What it wants is not for everyone to be equal, but for everyone to be equally answerable to the collective. It wishes to reinstate the social group (tribe, nation, global village) to centre stage, after a hiatus during which control was lost to the asocial individual.

The world of mediocracy is one in which not much matters, except asserting the primacy of ‘social’ values. This determination to put the social first means that a number of things are sacrificed, e.g. liberties, privacy, genuine diversity. Sometimes the sacrifices are acknowledged; more often they are glossed over. The main reward for these sacrifices is the supposed ‘niceness’ of mediocracy — a society that is more caring and fair, and in which there is more cultural opportunity for everyone. But in fact there is nothing caring or fair about a mediocratic society. Nor is there more genuine opportunity. The selling points of mediocracy are illusory.

The main distinguishing feature of the mediocratic ethic is dishonesty. Mediocracy stresses the importance of one thing while engendering its opposite. Some of the time this dishonesty is concealed. But, as in George Orwell’s 1984, mediocracy’s ability to brandish contradictions is also part of its power.

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Integral to mediocracy is a new image of the individual. The model of what it means to be human has become ‘emancipated’ — freed from the myths of religion, and enlightened by the discoveries of biology and psychiatry. According to the new model, the individual is little more than a bag of physiology, ruled by lust and greed. If he has qualities that are not entirely captured by mechanical explanations, they are attributed to his being a social animal, and to having a cultural heritage determined by his upbringing.

Ironically, this change in the image of the individual is linked to what in a mediocracy is called individualism, an ethos supposedly associated with a decline in respect for traditional sources of authority. The term “individualism” is misleading, since what actually declines is respect for all individuals. A mediocracy ‘knows’ that anyone with a potential claim to significance is merely human, and therefore predictable and somewhat contemptible.

This pseudo-individualism, a crucial feature of mediocracy, illustrates the mediocratic tactic of appearing to support the opposite of its real agenda — a strategy which helps to mislead potential critics. In fact, mediocracy is anti, not pro, the individual. It encourages people to make choices only to the extent those choices are trivial.

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A mediocracy appears to be post-everything. Its citizens have seen it all and done it all. They know that everything is taped, that everything has been explained and reduced. There are no important mysteries left. There are no principles worth fighting for. All has been deconstructed and demystified.

This sense of total scepticism is however somewhat illusory. Mediocracy may appear to favour debunking, but it is a highly selective debunking. There are many things which the citizens of a mediocracy are not sceptical of, but dogmatically accept. They believe that science explains rather than merely predicts, and that it is the only thing that does; that state education is a good idea; that everyone is driven by sex; that less inequality is better than more; that redistribution is morally admirable; that belief in national superiority is bad.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which nothing is really important enough in a mediocracy to be taken seriously. Everything is flexible, contingent, subject to expediency. A moral injunction may seem unshakeable — e.g. one must never be rude about other races, or treat women like chattels — but one should not be surprised if blatant transgressions, in a suitable context, are tolerated with equanimity. It is all part of the mediocratic message: society is free to forbid or allow as arbitrarily as it pleases; the individual’s role is not to question but to obey.

The tolerance of double standards is crucial to mediocracy. Much of its ideology conflicts so blatantly with common sense that the mass cheerfully ignores it, or pays it no more than lip service. The fact that the mass does not take up the received wisdom with the ideal level of enthusiasm is accepted as unavoidable. Members of the intelligentsia, on the other hand, are required to (and do) take mediocratic ideology very seriously indeed. If they fail to, they are liable to find themselves ejected from their positions and their livelihoods threatened. This suggests that it is primarily the intelligentsia at whom the ideology is targeted.

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The key characteristics of culture in a mediocracy are grimness, boredom and dishonesty. Mediocracy’s high culture is depressing, vacuous and pretentious. Its popular culture is ugly, aggressive and degraded.

If cultural deterioration is acknowledged in a mediocracy it is blamed on marketisation. The implication is that cultural products are somehow traded more than they used to be, which is specious. Culture has always been bought and sold, and would not get produced at all without someone to pay for it.

What is different about a mediocratic market for culture is that purchasing power is in the hands of the mass consumer and the state, rather than in the hands of a small elite. The characteristics of the prevailing culture will therefore reflect the tastes of the mass, and the ideological preferences of the political class, rather than the tastes of the bourgeoisie. This point — that it is empowerment of the mass and of the collective which drives cultural change in a mediocracy — is ideologically unpalatable and therefore suppressed. It is more convenient to blame the market, especially as this can be used to justify intervention.

One way to think about culture in a mediocracy is to consider the mediocratic demand that everything should be determined collectively. It is clear that much of the cultural landscape society inherited was not the result of collective deliberations, but of individual decisions facilitated by unequal distributions of resources. In other words, from the collective’s point of view, our cultural progress was accidental and unintentional.

Once we move to a more egalitarian model, the question arises, what is it that the collective wants? One could postulate that it simply wants more of the cultural products it now takes for granted, and only needs to make up its mind how to get them. (Do we need to have markets? Must we allow inequality? How much inequality?) But mediocracy may be easier to understand if we adopt the hypothesis that the collective does not care particularly about culture, and is prepared to sacrifice it for the sake of the ‘ethical’ goal of re-subordinating the individual to society.

© Fabian Tassano


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