It certainly feels like tyranny of the particularly nasty, totalitarian sort when one’s employer, bank, professional society, and cultural centers are all sending out political manifestos on the need for “equity” and the villainy of “whiteness”, in eerie unanimity with all journalists and government officials, with these bodies promising to punish dissent in their respective spheres. However, it is not tyranny as we are used to thinking of it. It is not that a single central authority has seized all power and dissolved the intermediary institutions. The centralization is rather of a spiritual sort; there are still a plurality of institutions, but they are all controlled by people with the same beliefs, sympathies, and (anti-)culture. One could say that all power is with the government, media, large corporations, and academia, but stated like that, it hardly sounds anomalous, hardly more than the statement that the powerful are powerful. The feeling of oppression comes from the sense that these elite are all part of a single cabal. Yet, the fact that there is some degree of consensus among a society’s elite is also hardly anomalous or sinister in itself. Every society has a consensus; every society recognizes some beliefs as beyond the pale.
There is a certain belief, which one might call “procedural liberalism”, that the amount of constraint in a society is independent of how widely it chafes on the desires and beliefs of the populace; a society that punishes all communists is equally restrictive whether that society is 1% communist or 50% communist. However, my feeling of freedom certainly depends on the match, or lack thereof, between society’s constraints and my desires or principles. This is a point Zippy sometimes made in the context of critiquing the presumed normative force of freedom. However, the feeling of freedom, in the sense that the large majority do not have their beliefs being proscribed, is itself a major social fact, and one that has changed dramatically in a couple of years. In the case where proscribed beliefs are shared by nearly half of the population, and where these forbidden beliefs were considered acceptable only a few short years ago, one may doubt that their prohibition represents some sort of organic communal consensus.
The rapidity of escalation is particularly terrifying. I can remember how, as recently as 2019, there were nonpolitical entities, whose missions were simply orthogonal to the totalitarian demands of social justice: sports clubs devoted to fun, scientific collaborations devoted to research, businesses (small ones, anyway) devoted to profit. They did not have to declare themselves anti-racist, vilify their white predecessors, and threaten to punish their members for insufficient progressiveness. As late as 2015 there were controversial topics, subjects on which disagreement with the Left was socially disfavored but not institutionally punished. Today, it seems there are no topics on which a multitude of opinions are tolerated and no non-political institutions. As for the future, the only change we can imagine, the one almost certain to come, is ever more rigorous enforcement. No one imagines a future loosening of ideological constraints. To the extent we think about the future at all, it is to prepare for the next turn of the screw.
Tyranny is bad, but what comes next is worse. The next generation, mindlessly compliant to the only belief system it has ever been exposed to, will experience no sense of oppression, any more than Winston Smith did once he learned to love Big Brother. Given time, a forced consensus becomes real, as has often happened in the past. The official belief system will no longer be a tyrannical imposition, no longer a mismatch for any significant fraction of the populace, but it will still be false and wicked.