Friday 17 April 2009

Changing cultural paradigm

Subcultural pluralism and the new social order: the end of the culture war and the dawn of a new American society

From 1991, right wing political pundits waged a campaign of fear mongering and character assassination of the liberal community to consolidate a voter base for the conservative agenda. The slanderous tirade of culture war kept the public distracted whilst exploitive policies were passed under the guise of traditional values. Over the years, rampant greed and deceit fomented a lack of confidence in America’s governing bodies and our economic institutions. The controlling oligarchy betrayed our underlying ideals of equality and fair play. We still live by democratic ideals, but do not trust the leaders of government and industry. In the economic downturn, society has lost faith in the ideological underpinning of consumerism and modern society.

The heavy-handed campaign to demonize the liberal agenda polarized the nation; the culture war was too effective. The common bonds of trust that unified the country were tested as one half of the population turned against the other. As a result, a rift occurred in the modern paradigm. The culture war played a pivotal role in bringing about conditions that will ultimately bring an end to the modern era.

Paradigm changes occur in every discipline, with each advance in knowledge or technology. Major shifts in the cultural paradigm, on the other hand, are all-inclusive, infrequent and have recognizable impact on the social, cultural and political priorities of society. The transition from pre-industrial age Europe to modern society is an example of a cultural paradigm shift. Today, Western culture is going through another fundamental change in priorities as a new social order emerges to displace the hierarchy of the majority culture.

The second phase of the industrial revolution gave rise to modern society. Key features include capitalism, political democracy, humanist values, Kant’s transcendental idealism and Newtonian physics. Along with the emergence of the bourgeoisie, modern art and the belief that the world is knowable through reason, the modern era incorporated political, cultural and economic policies based on progress and the ideals of equality and freedom. The advent of postmodernism in the 1960s brought about changes in modern society, but arguably, not a major paradigm shift. Although postmodernism displaced occidental philosophy and many of the working ideals associated with the modern era, it did not provide the impetus for restructuring society. This would require a set of circumstances that exposed the social injustice inherent to the existing political and economic infrastructure while providing an alternative solution.

America is no longer the ‘melting pot’: it no longer assimilates minority groups into the majority culture. Instead of a homogeneous cultural majority imposing Western values on ethnic minorities, we now have heterogeneous cultural pluralism developing through acculturation. Ironically, while under political pressure to conform to the dominant culture, cultural pluralism flourished in America. Minority groups participate in majority culture without fear of forfeiting their identity as a subculture. Religious groups, ethnic minorities and ideological subcultures coexist and tolerate the customs of other groups. Cultural pluralism is defined in terms of the rights of minorities in relation to the dominant culture. A new dynamic is at work in America today. A democratic, non-hierarchical pluralism empowered by communication technologies is replacing the dominant culture.

Society has lost interest in product consumption as an end it itself and is turning its attention closer to home. After decades of brutal political policies and their damning effects on personal incomes, the cultural majority abandoned its preoccupation with consumerism for renewed interest in family, friends and social groups with similar interests. Divided by culture war and living on the edge of economic ruin, the cultural majority began realigning itself on a subcultural model providing equality and belonging not available in the traditional social hierarchy. What seemed at first to be a subtle shift in social and political priorities marks the end of modern society.

As America endures the economic downturn, the new social order is developing in the rubble of disenfranchised culture. The cultural majority is undergoing a transition from a society of economic classes, consumer ideals and credit spending to a more group-oriented society. The shift is from finding cultural value in buying and owning the consumer products of media-produced trends, to fostering a more individualized personality and participatory culture. This change in priorities empowers an otherwise beleaguered society and gives the public a sense of dignity and authority.

A subculture is any social group with ethnic, geographic or ideological distinctions that distinguishes it from the rest of society. A neighbourhood is a subculture. Ethnic minorities and racial groups, gay and lesbian communities, even horse owners, wine tasters and rodeo clowns represent subcultures. Terrorist and fascist groups not withstanding, subcultures are tolerant, egalitarian, cooperative, flexible and as a rule disassociate themselves from the consumer ideals of majority culture.

Close knit subcultures are no longer bound by physical proximity. Ethnic minorities have spread out from urban centres to smaller communities around the country while maintaining culture bonds through new personal communication venues such as camera phones, texting and social networking on the internet. Similarly, a subculture (Goth subculture for instance) can attract remote participants who will pattern their lives on the ideals and persona of a subculture without ever having been in face-to-face contact with other members of the group.

The dominant culture, that hierarchy of economic classes composing the cultural majority, abandoned the corporate sponsored right wing political agenda, not only because of the immorality of oppressive social and economic policies, but because the gratification and prestige of consumer indulgence were no longer available in the economic downturn. As the cultural majority lost faith in consumer ideals, cultural pluralism evolved into non-hierarchical pluralism. In the new arrangement, rights and privileges inherent to democracy are expressed throughout society without oppression of the lower classes, which appears to be an inevitable outcome of capitalist economies with a hierarchically structured cultural majority.

The rift created by culture war consolidated the vast and diverse multicultural network of subcultures and hyphenated Americans into a political force bound by humanitarian values, democratic ideals and the need to level the playing field. To the left of the culture war divide lay pluralism, but pluralistic society is not necessarily liberal: it includes all political views. This multicultural group, coexisting in the shadow of the dominant culture, was thrust into prominence as consumerism lost its hold on the cultural majority. It became the model for the new social order.

Cultural changes currently taking place at a grassroots level in America may take longer to be realized in Western Europe. The rich cultural traditions of European countries constitute dominant majorities better able to withstand the whims of commerce and changing social conditions. As the global economy went into recession and America was forced to abandon its preoccupation with consumerism, it had no historical traditions to steer its course, and in its cultural isolation, no set of established social and cultural relationships with other countries to cement its identity. 

The allure of consumerism faded with the economy. The subcultural model was already in place, and the charm of a more community-oriented culture brought the subculture into power. Communication technologies have given the non-hierarchal social order control of its own destiny. Before cellphones and the internet, interaction within the subgroup was limited and so was the group’s potential as a political force. Things have changed. Today, with relative ease, people can download camera phone videos and disseminate information across the country within hours. With camera phones in hand, the new social order has the means to police social equality and individual freedoms and reign in corporate misconduct through citizen reports and political action organized over the internet. The breakdown of traditional social hierarchies in combination with advances in communication has ushered in a new era of participatory democracy.

The new technology-enhanced social order potentially negates the Marxist supposition that late-capitalism is always followed by socialism. In America, the subculture is not interested in revolution or usurping capitalism. The array of overlapping subgroups are not vying for power, they seek freedom from oppression to express the values of the group. Pluralism in America is not a source of division. The expression of cultural diversity is tempered by the need for national unity. All of society shares in the national identity, linked by humanitarian values and constitutional ideals. Independent subcultures maintain their autonomy even as they rally together before the impending collapse of the bourgeoisie.

While the economic policies of the past several decades made the rich richer, they drove the rest of society to the brink of economic ruin. Without expendable income, the cultural majority fell into decline as participants abandoned the ideals of consumerism. Their defection signaled the end of credit spending as a national pastime. The era of consumer hedonism appears to be over and an era of increased civic responsibility has begun. In the new social order, conspicuous consumption is considered unethical and corporate graft a crime against the people. Even though the capitalist elite control a disproportionate percentage of the wealth, there is no clear hierarchy in subcultural pluralism. Within the new social order, the status of the capitalist elite is reduced to that of irresponsible subculture. The rich have become outlaws, held in contempt along with street gangs and skin heads.

The culture war rages on between the conservative dominant culture and the more progressive liberal pluralistic view of America. Over the past few months, right wing culture war proponents have been marginalized as an exploitive and anachronistic subculture. Society no longer subscribes to the notion that corporate influenced political policies represent Christian values. The transition to subcultural pluralism, with its golden rule of equality among subcultures, has already taken hold in society. We are no longer swayed by the prejudices of the dominant culture. Ironically, as the rhetorical drone of culture war rises to its next crescendo, its effect is to solidify the opposition and push society further to the left.

During the reconstruction period the economy will develop around the new social order and adapt to a smaller and more diversified market. The influence of mainstream popular culture on the consumer will be reduced as society rejects the priorities of the dominant culture. Media-produced trends already target subgroups and are developing niche markets within society. Each subculture presents its own unique opportunities for commercial ventures. In the future, the growing number of smaller niche markets will enable a rebirth of entrepreneurial capitalism.

The mainstream news media will reflect changes in society by covering a greater variety of views and subject matter. Coverage will spread out to follow the ever-expanding set of experiences of nonhierarchical pluralism. While the media may present a broader range of topics, there will always be a central focus on national and world events. The contents of broadcast and print news media will return to investigative journalism, if only to compete with internet news sources. The role of news media in the new social order will be to expose injustice and forge consensus on issues of national interest with a less prejudicial examination of relevant topics; that is, news coverage not propagandized by the agenda of the Patriot Act or compromised by the priorities of corporate sponsors.

With the new generation came a new social order, connected by leading-edge communication devices, socially grouped through ideological and ethnic interests and eager to participate in the emergence of non-hierarchical pluralism. The conditions that created and sustained the dominant culture and the avid consumerism of modern society in America are over. Society is at the end of the modern era and the new era of subcultural pluralism has begun. The new cultural paradigm will no longer be ‘modern’. Contemporary society has begun embracing the democratic ideals of equality and freedom exemplified by the new social order just as Western Europe adopted the ideals of modern society in the late 19th century.

Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Culture Wars in association with the Battles in Print, specially commissioned essays for the Battle of Ideas festival, with 2010’s essays now online.

Marxists Online
Marx, Engels, Lenin and beyond

New Left Review, international Leftist journal

Mute Magazine, culture and politics after the net

Red Pepper, influenced by socialism, feminisim and environmental politics

Dissent Magazine, US Leftist journal for the clashing of strong opinions

And its counterpart, Commentary, general, yet Jewish

Granta, magazine for new writing

Wikipedia, ze internet encyclopedia

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online, all things philosophical