Welcome to Year Zero
A Tentative Beginning in a Subdued Key
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of America announced last year that it would set diversity quotas for any film eligible to win a best picture award. In order to enforce these targets, there will be regular surprise inspections into the racial origins and gender identity of cast and crew.
At the time of this announcement, I joked on Twitter that such inspections would be ideal work—cushy, low-risk—for former police officers from soon to be abolished, defunded, and/or "reimagined" departments: "Defund police in order to fund racism police."
Last year’s joke is this year’s policy.
The Small Business Administration prioritized emergency Covid grants to restaurants by race. The Department of Agriculture prioritized funding to black farmers. The state of Vermont allowed BIPOC residents early access to the vaccine. The state of California mandates diverse representation on corporate boards. San Francisco introduced a pilot public/private partnership program offering monthly cash payments reserved exclusively for black and Pacific Islander women.
None of these are "excesses" of the anti-racist movement. They are the practical application of the principles laid out by the anti-racist texts that became required reading across corporate America during the racial reckoning of 2020. In the words of one of the two most required authors, Ibram X. Kendi, "the only remedy of past discrimination is present discrimination."
Some of these measures almost certainly violate the Constitution and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The courts brushed them back in certain cases and will likely continue to do so as challenges emerge. But that we enacted them is a victory for those seeking the drastic expansion of what they call "race-conscious policy" beyond the relatively constrained area in which affirmative action in college admissions, government contracting, and hiring has been allowed to operate.
Among Biden’s first acts in office was to issue an executive order that has been taken as a warrant by those keen to extend this mandate further—into the provision of medical services by race and other areas to equalize outcomes wherever statistical disparities in outcome persist. Those disparities were henceforth to be understood as the product of a foundational, pervasive, trans-historical, and unyielding racism that can only be dislodged through the overt distribution of opportunity and reward by race in pursuit of "equity", which has displaced mere equality as the aim of racial activism.
The installation of these policies, and the sea-change in elite consensus that they enact, happened with little public deliberation or debate. Instead, we saw the policing of contrary views out of circulation, first by administrative authorities at universities, and later through broader campaigns to stigmatize the common moral intuitions of a supermajority of the American public. What were once held to be “colorblind ideals” of impartial treatment on the basis of individual attributes have been reclassified as a form of white supremacy on the “pyramid of white supremacy” presented as dogma in now pervasive diversity, equity, and inclusion training sessions.
It took a decade or so for the theory of "colorblind racism" to move from academia to corporate America, and another half-decade for it to be explicitly endorsed by the federal government. It amounts to a quiet overturning of the post-1964 racial consensus. “Cancel culture”, which has created a situation in which 62 percent of the American public told pollsters that they afraid to share their political opinions, was always simply a means to an end—the noisy herald of a mandated adherence to new dogmas to come. The agenda is here today, in the process of being rolled out at scale across a range of institutions, including K-12 schools. The means must therefore be judged in relation to the ends they have secured. They have already begun to transform the schools and to exert influence over law enforcement in ways that are changing the character of education and city life.
How far this will go, what sorts of resistance it will meet in the courts and other venues, whether the institutional consensus around it will hold firm in the face of political resistance, is all to be determined. What is not in dispute is that the federal government and other private entities have already crossed a Rubicon and signaled a willingness to defy legal precedent and public opinion in accordance with the ruling consensus of the new regime that they have thereby inaugurated.
I call this regime the Successor Regime. 2021 is its Year Zero.
This Substack will describe the ideological fever that overtook the governing and chattering classes in America during the Trump years. Its subject is the bourgeois moral revolution, many decades in the making, that flowered at the midpoint of the decade, composed in equal measure of new political propositions, new moral premises, and new psychological underpinnings, in pursuit of what it declares to be "social justice". It will excavate the historical lineage of the diffuse and decentralized movement behind this ideology, chronicle its unfolding, and reflect on the consequences likely to flow from it.
It will serve as an ongoing contribution to a larger project of which it is a part—the writing of a book-length account of the peculiar species of authoritarian utopianism sweeping through the ruling institutions of American life, which I have termed "the Successor Ideology."
Coined spontaneously on Twitter, it has since been memed into a precarious half-existence by a handful of writers in search of a verbal shorthand for the otherwise nameless and amorphous force transforming the way we think and talk about identity throughout the Western world.
Other names that are used for this doctrine tend to express either adherence—"social justice","critical studies"—or hostility—"Cultural Marxism", "political correctness"—or refer to one of the many constituent parts—"anti-racism", post-structuralism, deconstructionism, post-colonialism, gender theory — of an ideology that is more than the sum of its parts. Successor ideology is a placeholder term that performs a necessary function.
As it marches through the various institutions, scaling up through a combination of social contagion and institutional capture, the Successor Ideology brings practices once confined to left activist spaces into new territory: struggle sessions, campaigns of rectification, rituals of purgation and repentance, denunciation and confessional, unencumbered by due process, which it explicitly abjures as an instrument of an unjust status quo.
Tying together an unwieldy and often contradictory assortment of claims is the underlying doctrine that Western culture is a matrix of interlocking oppressions advantaging some categories of people at the expense of others (the white over the non-white, the male over the female, the the straight over the homosexual, the cisgendered over the transgendered, the abled over the disabled)—and the belief that nothing short of a total act of "dismantling", "decolonization", or "abolition" of the various institutions that enact ongoing "structural violence" will suffice. Although this language is hyperbolic and untethered from reality, it serves as a rallying call and statement of common purposes for the faction of those who speak it — the members of the “activist class” who work in the donor-funded nonprofit activist sector.
In immediate political terms, the Successor Ideology calls for a radically less disciplinary criminal justice system—where movements to abolish police and prisons seek a totalizing remedy to the racially disparate incarceration rates—and a radically more disciplinary classroom, workplace, bedroom, and boardroom—where providing safety from the micro-aggression, the unwanted advance, the mansplanation, calls for rigorous enforcement of an ever-burgeoning set of mandates regulating speech and thought.
How this inversion of the moral order—in which it is criminal justice rather than crime that is the greatest menace to communities afflicted by crime, and where it is the stable middle class family that is the true seedbed of the structural violence that menaces America—came to become constitutive of bourgeois respectability itself is a story at once intellectually null (because victory was secured largely through emotional blackmail and intimidation) and sociologically fascinating (because victory was secured largely through emotional blackmail and intimidation.) It is a story in which the Trump presidency plays an important role, but largely as that of the foil of the larger forces he summoned up in opposition to himself. It is the story that has been told only obliquely and in fragments by a media more prone to compulsively acting out the absurdities and excesses of the movement than dispassionately chronicling it.
In the midst of a sea-change in the premises undergirding political and cultural life, the imperative to reasoned reflection and deliberation becomes stronger than ever. The Successor Ideology is communicated through a series of assertions, which may or may not be true. It contains an implicit theory of the individual and the individual’s relationship to the collective, which may or may not be tenable. It rests on certain premises about the nature of American society, which may or may not be accurate. We will test these assertions, theories, and premises, as if deliberation and debate were still the coin of the realm.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was not a writ of divine justice. It was a negotiated settlement between various parties that included among them the pro-segregationist wing of the Democratic party. We’ll be reviewing the historical and theoretical literature on the critique of such laws in good faith and with an open mind, but without a spurious even-handedness. For the basic intuition shared by a super-majority of American citizens that the distribution of opportunity and reward by race is both morally wrong and will have negative externalities not outweighed by the positive gains is likely to prove in the long run to be a sound one. Virtually everyone who is not part of the small vanguard devoted to driving the Successor Ideology understands this; they also understand the consequences of saying so aloud.
The person who anticipates having to say so (because he can do no other than say what he thinks to be true) will do well to have a means of support independent of a media in the grip of the successor ideologists. Thus I am launching this Substack, as a kind of crowd-funded think tank of one. It will be the primary venue for my writing and my sole source of regular income.
This Substack will create what I hope will prove to be a novel literary form: the public and contemporaneous record of a writer preparing himself for an undertaking for which he is not yet qualified at its outset: to write the single synoptic account of a long episode in the history of social change in which we are living. It will be a kind of non-fictional Flowers for Algernon, in which the author begins with a handful of intuitions and ends having mastered the broad corpus of subjects—history, philosophy, and the law—required not just to expound knowledgeably on the phenomenon under discussion, but to answer the many deeper questions raised in the course of such an investigation: about the nature of progress, the fate of liberalism, and the challenge of coexistence in a pluralistic society.
Much of it will consist of a reading diary that looks back at the relevant history—of civil rights, feminism, the New Left, and the new social movements it spawned. It will also tell the story of various figures caught up in the frenzy. Every cancellation is, among other things, an absorbing human drama that illuminates the world that changed around the cancelled, and not always for the worse. An honest account of the Successor Ideology must include an accounting of what problems and perplexities drew its adherents to it, and a tallying up of the harms and benefits that have accrued. It will also reveal a world in which the safeguards against arbitrary punishment for those deemed to be among the class of the oppressors have been withdrawn as a matter of principle.
It will also seek to model the sort of writing and thinking that I think of as threatened by the rise to hegemony of identarian monomania. There will be occasional essays in the Hazlitt mode, short profiles, feuilletons in which I will continue to write as if I am free to say and think whatever I wish. I may even try my hand at fiction. I would have been quite content to be a genteel belletrist and writer of narrative non-fiction. I am agreeable by nature and not especially courageous. I did not particularly want to witness a technological succession or an ideological frenzy, and I take no joy in having a great enemy to struggle against — fighting a culture war is for others with different dispositions than my own. But enacting the values that I consider to be reasonable and right is a duty I will strive to discharge.
I thus hope to scale up and elaborate into a minor art form the work that networked friends have been doing in private venues since the ideological succession began — separating truth from illusion, reality from histrionics, fortifying ourselves to withstand the onslaught around us.