We are in the grip of an ideology that disowns our genius, denounces our success, disdains merit.
A few years ago the then-boss of Goldman Sachs explained to me the main reason he thought the firm had risen to such a dominant position in global investment banking over the previous half century. At the start of that period, banking was still dominated by a blue-blood class. In London especially, where I began my career in finance, the City was a place in which, in a still heavily regulated market, a slot in one of the big institutions was a coveted ticket to a life of riches.
But the tickets were available mainly to men from the right sort of background. The rules for identifying and selecting these men were opaque. There was no formal bar on anyone from a particular socioeconomic status being admitted to the magic circle—that would have been crass and, even then, illegal. Instead a complex system of semiotics did the job of weeding out the riffraff. A flattened vowel pronunciation, a vulgar word for lavatory, the wrong sort of shoes, and you were excluded without even understanding why. In Britain, the system’s overseers had an acronym by which the untouchables were designated: NQOCD, for “not quite our class, dear.”
Goldman came along and cut through this thicket of asinine, self-perpetuating privilege. It simply hired the best people for the job, however they spoke, whatever they looked like. As long as you were smart, driven, ruthless and committed to making money and beating the living daylights out of the competition, you were in. It worked.
I was reminded of this when I read last week that employees at Goldman have recently been encouraged by their leaders to embrace a full rainbow range of “pronouns” when identifying themselves in communications, including such neologisms as “ze,” “zir” and “zemself.”
It’s a small thing, another little step down in the long, steady descent of Goldman, which I’m told still hires a good number of people of genuine talent, alongside the rising numbers of identity-box-checking drones who help enforce the unspoken rules of woke compliance. We might dismiss it as another piece of ludicrous public-relations messaging designed to keep social-media storm troopers at bay. But I prefer the story I heard recently of a British army officer who, finding zemself seconded to a suitably modern government department and faced with a similar instruction to identify zis pronouns, promptly circulated a memo to colleagues with the declaration that his preferred pronouns were “colonel” and “sir.”
In its small way the Goldman memo colorfully captures the deepening mess the precepts of contemporary ideological orthodoxy are making of our society, our economy and our democracy. It highlights how the real progress made over decades toward a fairer and more equal society is being thrown away under the authority of a new set of rules and rulers as elitist and privileged as the old ones.
For those ancien régime aristocrats, it was having the right shoes or the proper accent. For today’s, it is adherence to the constantly changing rules of ideologically approved thought and language.
It was thanks to the radical meritocracy and audacious dynamism of institutions like Goldman that we were able to dismantle so much of the authority of elite power structures that restrained us from fulfilling our potential. The past 50 years have been marked by the genuine eradication of barriers to opportunity for the underprivileged regardless of ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or anything else. This is how we were genuinely starting to fulfill the promise of equality.
But the cultural revolution that began in the past decade is re-erecting those barriers and creating new elite power structures, elevated not by talent or hard work, but, curiously, by membership of the self-approved class, signaled by the right luxury beliefs and articulated by the right “inclusive” language.
Adrian Wooldridge, who has written a book on the rise of meritocracy, frames this in a recent article in the Spectator. The left, he says, is “creating a new social order based on virtue, rather than ability.”
Bear with me because I am going to extrapolate from these baneful developments to a much larger worry about the geopolitical conditions we confront.
As we survey the competition between global civilizations in the multipolar world we now inhabit, we see that the West is challenged as it hasn’t been in centuries. It’s axiomatic that a rising China and perhaps other powers look like formidable contenders for global leadership—with implications for our own security and prosperity.
But if we are losing that struggle, it isn’t because of the superiority of authoritarian, communist or autocratic systems. We know that liberal capitalism has done more for human prosperity, health and freedom than any other economic or political system.
If we are losing, it is because we are losing our soul, our sense of purpose as a society, our identity as a civilization. We in the West are in the grip of an ideology that disowns our genius, denounces our success, disdains merit, elevates victimhood, embraces societal self-loathing and enforces it all in a web of exclusionary and authoritarian rules, large and small.
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Appeared in the April 18, 2023, print edition as ‘If Western Civilization Dies, Put It Down as a Suicide’.