Culture is too important to be left to the sociologists

Wednesday, December 19th, 2018

Culture matters, Virginia Postrel reminds us:

The mid-20th century period in which the modern libertarian movement arose is now looked upon with great nostalgia, especially in the United States. As my friend Brink Lindsey puts it, the right wants to live there and the left wants to work there.

When Donald Trump says “Make America Great Again,” the again refers to the world in which he grew up. The war was over, standards of living were rising, and new technologies from vaccines to synthetic fibers promised a better future.

Social critics of the day deplored mass production, mass consumption, and mass media, but the general public enjoyed their fruits. The burgeoning middle class happily replaced tenements with “little boxes made of ticky-tacky.” Snobs might look down on the suburbs, but families were delighted to settle in them. Faith in government was high, and other institutions—universities, churches, corporations, unions, and civic groups—enjoyed widespread respect.

It looked like a satisfactory equilibrium. But it wasn’t. The 1950s, after all, produced the 1960s.

Consider a series of best-selling books: The Lonely Crowd, by David Riesman, published in 1950; Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand and The Organization Man by William Whyte, both published in 1957; and The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, published in 1963. All of these books, and undoubtedly others I’ve overlooked, took up the same essential theme: the frustration of the person of talent and integrity in a society demanding conformity and what Riesman called “other-directedness.”

These books succeeded in the economic marketplace, as well as the marketplace of ideas, because they tapped a growing sense of discontent with the prevailing social and business ethos. Their audience might have been a minority of the population, but it was a large, gifted, and ultimately influential one. Despite the era’s prosperity—or perhaps because of it—many people had come to resent social norms that demanded that they keep their heads down, do what was expected of them, and be content to be treated as homogeneous threads in the social fabric. The ensuing cultural upheaval, which peaked in the late 1970s, took many different forms, with unanticipated results.

One of the most paradoxical examples I’ve run across comes from Dana Thomas’s 2015 book Gods and Kings, on the fashion designers Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. It’s about Galliano, who was born in Gibraltar and grew up in South London as the son of a plumber. His career, Thomas comments in passing, was made possible by two cultural phenomena: Thatcherism and punk.

How could that be? After all, Thatcherism and punk are usually seen as antagonistic. I asked Thomas about it in an interview. “Both were breaking down British social rules and constraints,” she said. Punk brought together kids of all classes, while Thatcher’s economic reforms encouraged entrepreneurship.

    If you had an idea and you had the backing then you could make it happen, no matter what your dad did in life or your mother did in life or where you came from or what your background was, or where you grew up or what your accent sounded like. These were all barriers before. So it double-whammied for Galliano. It was great. Because it allowed him to get out of South London, get into a good art school and be seen as a bona fide talent on his own standing, as opposed to where he came from. And he was also able to get the backing to start his company, because there was more money out there. It gave him more freedom. Before punk and before Thatcherism, chances were the son of a plumber was not going to wind up being the head of a couture house.

If you care about the open society, how could you not be interested in a phenomenon like that? How exactly do such transformations take place, and what are their unexpected ripple effects? What processes of experimentation and feedback are at work? Could a young designer do the same thing today and, if not, why not? Are these moments of cultural and economic opportunity inherently fleeting?

(Hat tip to Arnold Kling.)


  1. Sam J. says:

    “…These books succeeded in the economic marketplace, as well as the marketplace of ideas, because they tapped a growing sense of discontent with the prevailing social and business ethos…”

    Or maybe they just advertised them more, talked about them more on TV and in print. Look at the crap that sells. Look at the society that we live in. Did anyone, anyone, see great masses of people demanding that we import another 100 million people? Did anyone ever hear anyone say all we needed was more illegal aliens to be happy?

    We were pushed. A bunch of this stuff was designed to cause doubt in society. To break it down and declare it unfit for, those that hated it. Who might that be? Could it be the same people who run the newspapers, TV, radio, magazines????

    Maybe it was hard to recognize back then but is there any doubt today that the press is huge festering mass of filth and lies?

  2. Graham says:

    I don’t normally go in for it but I find it increasingly hard to not notice that society in my lifetime (1970-?) has been radically reshaped according to notions that suit a congress of relatively small minorities, and continue to be so shaped, though their numbers grow when taken in aggregate.

    Not to be ungenerous, these minorities include those defined by: well above average facility with and fascination with (ever-)new technologies, well above average fascination with the aesthetics of things like fashion and design, people with money and some collection of talents or attributes that can get them more money in a certain set of social arrangements, people who like to travel at rates far above average, people who read about only these things, foodies, people who fit a very narrow style of very high-end bourgeouis lifestyle, and so on. I realize I have overlapped a lot. One other feature seems to be a weird combination of desire for adventure and obsession with safety, often in the same areas of life.

    That’s the neutral version, at any rate. your average schmo, even with a couple of university degrees, and in the humanities and social sciences at that, isn’t necessarily cut out for the world aborning.

    It’s a sort of combined progressive/libertarian paradise. I might start calling it Randian Socialism.

Leave a Reply