Prodigies of Credulousness in the Ivory Tower of Utopia

“There are few ways,” Dr. Johnson said to a friend, “in which a man can be more innocently employed than in getting money.” 

This a great truth, and one might wish that The Wharton School had taken Dr. Johnson’s observation to heart. After all, this storied outpost of the University of Pennsylvania, is, or was, one of the nation’s premier business schools. As such it is, or rather it was, dedicated to instructing its students in the practical application of Dr. Johnson’s truism. To what end should management at a publicly traded company aim? Increasing shareholder value: period, full stop. 

In recent years, however, like its parent institution, and indeed like the education establishment in general, The Wharton School has become a repository of woke clichés and politically correct slogans. Toward the end of September, they took the momentous step of abandoning any pretense of being a business school. Doubtless they will continue to offer classes on finance and accounting. But the school’s “Curriculum Innovation and Review Committee” recently voted to approve two new majors and areas of concentration, one in “Environmental, Social, and Governance” issues (ESG for short), the other in “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion” (DEI). In other words, henceforth at Wharton students at both the undergraduate and graduate level will be able to major in virtue signaling.

I was recently at a panel discussion concerned with locating the origins of the ideology of “wokeness.” The term itself is of fairly recent vintage. I first heard it five or six years ago. But in essence wokeness overlaps largely with the phenomenon of “political correctness,” a pathology that in its American context dates from the 1980s but which has its roots in that hideous assault on civilization we call “the Sixties.” 

For many years since, “the Sixties” has been less the name of a decade than of an existential provocation. As a slice of history, the purple decade actually encompasses some 20 years. It began some time in the late 1950s and lasted at least until the mid-1970s. By then it had triumphed so thoroughly that its imperatives became indistinguishable from everyday life: they became everyday life. The Sixties mean—what? Sexual “liberation,” rock music, chemically induced euphoria—nearly everyone would agree with that, even though some would inscribe a plus sign, others a minus sign beside that famous triumvirate. The Sixties also mean free-floating protest and political activism, a “youth culture” that never ages, a new permissiveness together with a new affluence: Dionysus with a credit card and a college education. Above all, however, the Sixties meant the insinuation of political correctness into the conduct of life. 

Whatever else it was, then, the long march of America’s cultural revolution was a capitalist, bourgeois revolution: a revolution of the privileged, by the privileged, and for the privileged. How else could the toxic ideology of ESG and DEI have installed itself in our corporate and academic culture? In the 20th century, almost all political revolutions resulted in oppression (I count phenomena like Solidarity in Poland and the “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia as counter-revolutionary movements). By contrast, the cultural revolution in the West really resulted in a form of liberation—but one must still ask: liberation from what? And liberation for what? The answers to those questions tell us whether the promised liberation is genuine or fraudulent. A dose of heroin may induce the feeling of freedom; in reality, that feeling signals the onset of enslavement. 

The socialist economist Joseph Schumpeter was wrong when he predicted, in a postscript to Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy (1950), that the collapse of capitalism and a triumphant “march into socialism” would occur in America in the near future. What we have seen instead is an explosion of capitalist energy in the marketplace shadowed by a steady creep into nanny-state socialism fired by the woke imperatives of political correctness. But Schumpeter was uncannily right about the dangers bourgeois capitalist societies harbor within themselves. Perhaps he overstated the case when he asserted, in 1942, that “capitalism is being killed by its achievements.” But he was clearly on to something when he observed that 

capitalism creates a critical frame of mind which, after having destroyed the moral authority of so many other institutions, in the end turns against its own; the bourgeois finds to his amazement that the rationalist attitude does not stop at the credentials of kings and popes but goes on to attack private property and the whole scheme of bourgeois values. 

Rising standards of living, far from increasing allegiance to the regime that provides them, often paradoxically turn out to have the opposite effect: what Schumpeter calls the “emotional attachment to the social order” begins to disintegrate. In this sense, the cultural revolution is not so much anti-capitalist as a toxic byproduct of capitalism’s success: not so much anti-bourgeois as an expression of what Allan Bloom described as “the bourgeois’ need to feel that he is not bourgeois, to have dangerous experiments with the unlimited.” 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge once famously remarked that a “willing suspension of disbelief” was essential to maintaining “poetic faith.” Anyone who has looked back dispassionately at the founding documents and personalities of America’s cultural revolution knows what Coleridge was talking about. The “faith” in question may have been more spurious than “poetic.” But there can be no doubt that America’s counterculture—like all utopian movements—has exacted prodigies of credulousness from its myriad adherents, fellow travelers, and promoters. 

Utopian movements, like the woke attitudes that fuel them, succeed because they tell people something they wish desperately to hear. Whether or not the message is true is beside the point. It speaks to a deeply felt need, and that is enough. As we all know, “utopia” is etymologically equivocal. It can mean “the good place.” But it can also mean “nowhere,” “no place.” This fact seldom depresses the price of its real estate because, although the down payment for belief is steep, there are no monthly payments. The housing tracts in utopia remain glitteringly inviolable—that they are also uninhabitable is cheerfully overlooked. For the adepts of the Free Spirit in the 14th century, the good news was that they, the elect, were godlike creatures incapable of sin. For Karl Marx, a Communist paradise was waiting for that society brave enough to abolish private property and centralize the means of production. For Norman O. Brown, “the real world, which is not the world of the reality-principle, is the world where thoughts are omnipotent, where no distinction is drawn between wish and deed.” For the cultural revolutionaries of the Sixties down to our own day, the domiciles of utopia always boast numerous vacancies. 

Variations on such themes are as plentiful as they are preposterous. The list of agents for utopia is long and varied. It includes artists and intellectuals, entertainers, political activists, blatant poseurs, professional gurus, and many, many academics. In their different ways, these people pander to a generation’s vanity, ambition, cowardice, and lust for sensation; increasingly they pander to a generation whose vanity is its lust for sensation. They also serve, as Susan Sontag illustrated in her campy meditations on Camp, as a defense against the alarming assaults of ennui. Many promulgated—like Rousseau before them—that insatiable greed for the emotion of virtue which makes the actual practice of virtue seem superfluous and elevates self-infatuation into a prime spiritual imperative. That is precisely what is happening at places like The Wharton School (and they are legion) which, by placing the imperatives of wokeness at the center of their curriculum, betray their students by downgrading actual education to an afterthought. 

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