Pro-abortion counterprotesters chalk the wall of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral, the gathering place for a monthly anti-abortion vigil in New York City, May 6, 2023

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The Culture of Transgression

Our antinomian elite’s war against tradition has become a war against the working class

Michael Lind
August 01, 2023
Michael Lind
Michael Lind chronicles civilizational shifts and national trends, writing about American politics and culture with a deep understanding of history and appreciation for America's highest ideals.
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Pro-abortion counterprotesters chalk the wall of St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, the gathering place for a monthly anti-abortion vigil in New York City, May 6, 2023

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

Everywhere we see our political, cultural, and financial elites bankrolling activists to dismantle traditions. While flags and slogans celebrating racial or sexual identity are proudly displayed by Western governments and corporations, overt displays of national patriotism are regarded by establishmentarians on both sides of the Atlantic as vulgar and distasteful. Religions tend to be viewed with distrust and contempt by the trans-Atlantic elite, unless their premodern teachings have been modified into alignment with the views of the campus left. The Western canon, instead of being enlarged to include unjustly excluded authors, has been jettisoned, and liberal education has been replaced by ideological indoctrination in the name of “diversity, equity, and inclusion” (DEI).

Iconoclasm is nothing new in history. The term was coined to describe the controversy over icons in medieval Byzantium, and has come to mean any attack on cherished traditions and familiar imagery. Radical Protestant reformers broke the stained glass and smashed the statues of Mary and the saints. The Taliban dynamited Buddhist statues in Afghanistan in 2001, and later ISIS destroyed many ancient Mesopotamian monuments and statues.

In most historic cases, programmatic iconoclasm has been temporary and accompanied or followed by the fabrication of new traditions and the imposition of new orthodoxies. In communist Russia, the statues of the czars went down and statues of Lenin and Stalin went up.

Some on the Western right fear that the wave of statue-toppling which began with Confederate statues and spread to practically any historic statue in North America and Europe will lead to the rule of a woke Taliban. But the cancellation of the Great Books curriculum has not led to a new consensus canon featuring minority, female, and nonbinary authors along with a smaller number of “dead white males” who are deemed acceptable. Instead, much of the energy of woke jihadists goes into purging or censoring existing works of art and thought—rewriting the novels of Roald Dahl, for example—or randomly parachuting nonwhite or “queer” characters into movie remakes instead of creating something new.

The cultural ferment in contemporary North America and Europe does not feel like an interregnum between one cultural regime and a stable successor. It feels like a permanent revolution.

Put another way, the Western elite culture of transgression is an example of antinomianism, not iconoclasm. Unlike iconoclasm, antinomianism is not a temporary campaign of destruction of older iconography and traditions to clear the way for the imposition of new canons and orthodoxies. Derived from the Greek words meaning “against” and “law” or “norm,” the term antinomianism refers to the view that all laws and norms are oppressive always and everywhere, and that the act of transgression in itself is virtuous, if not holy.

Antinomian sects have popped up in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, usually to be repudiated and sometimes violently suppressed by the orthodox. Luther and his Catholic opponents could agree that Christian antinomians were heretics. In the early years of political or religious revolutions, antinomians sometimes flourish, only to be crushed by other revolutionaries whose goal is to create a new order, not permanent disorder.

At the moment, the fashionable justifications invoked by the elite antinomian vandals attacking Western society from within are climate change, anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia, and “anti-fascism” as a catchall category. Upper-middle-class young men and women who throw paint at artistic masterpieces or glue themselves to trains claim they are defending the earth’s environment, but they could just as well say they are fighting white supremacy or patriarchy. They are acting out the ethos of a Western elite culture that believes the act of transgression itself is virtuous; the alleged goal of the transgression is merely an excuse.

Call it “the culture of transgression” of the dominant overclass in North Atlantic democracies. The three saints of transgression are the illegal immigrant, the transsexual, and the woman who proudly celebrates abortion. All three are idealized by our revolutionary ruling class precisely because they violate traditional norms—the traditional norm of patriotism, based on the legitimacy of the city-state or nation-state or kingdom and its laws and borders; traditional gender norms; and traditional family norms, which celebrate the capacity of women to give birth and to nurture their infants and of men to provide for them. Most of what is called “progressivism” today is really transgressivism.

The cultural ferment in North America and Europe does not feel like an interregnum between one cultural regime and a stable successor. It feels like a permanent revolution.

By now the antinomians in Western nations have won their war against tradition in every realm. The members of the credentialed corporate-government-nonprofit-academic-media oligarchy, along with billionaire entrepreneurs and bankers who themselves are usually born into managerial-professional families, are almost all modernist in their aesthetics, libertine in their views of sex and recreational drug use, and dismissive of nationalism and patriotism and religion, which they regard as mental diseases of the lower classes. They work in offices designed by trendy “starchitects” decorated with abstract art, and often live in postmodern homes designed to be sterile, off-putting, and the very opposite of petty bourgeois comfort.

Having vandalized every premodern tradition, the elite antinomians of the modern West now don’t know what to do next. What should rebels against the bourgeoisie rebel against when the bourgeoisie has fallen?

The answer, it is increasingly apparent, is to rebel against the proletariat. Instead of shocking the bourgeoisie, our post-bourgeois managerial overclass now delights in shocking the working class. Most working class people in the U.S. and Europe of all races and classes live in suburbs or exurbs—therefore our elite pundits and academics constantly denounce suburban “sprawl,” idealize life in high-style micro-apartments and expensive designer tiny houses, and call for the replacement of cars by mass transit. Many working class people like to cook with natural gas, so naturally our elite seeks to ban gas stoves. Gasoline-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers? Forget it. California will ban gasoline-powered lawn equipment in 2024. Rising incomes that accompany development allow the masses to eat meat; therefore meat is redefined by the oligarchy as unhealthy and harmful to “the planet.”

Whatever working-class “normies” believe and enjoy, the most influential tastemakers of the trans-Atlantic ruling class denounce and seek to ban, using one of their three or four specious all-purpose justifications. If non-college-educated Americans were to take up square dancing as a fad, the powers that be in the media and academia would solemnly inform us that square dancing is problematically racist or sexist or worsens climate change.

To add insult to injury, when the multiracial working class rebels at the ballot box against this unrelenting and unprovoked bullying by the overclass and casts protest votes for demagogic and usually ineffectual anti-establishment politicians like Silvio Berlusconi or Donald Trump or Boris Johnson, the elite denounces the protest voters as irrational and bigoted cretins who threaten to overthrow democracy, liberalism, and the rule of law. By declaring the democratic preferences of the working class a danger to society, the West’s oligarchs justify subjecting their enemies to pervasive surveillance and other counterextremism measures originally designed for foreign terrorist groups.

We are hostages, then, of a trans-Atlantic ruling class which in turn is the prisoner of its own culture of perpetual antinomianism, of ceaseless rebellion, of never-ending transgression. The question is whether the state and capitalism, on which the overclass depends for its power and wealth, can maintain their legitimacy, now that Western elite antinomians—often through government agencies or corporations or banks they control—wage campaigns to wipe out the last autonomous institutions and inherited traditions in civil society.

My guess is that today’s wave of transgressive antinomianism will prove to be as unsustainable as those of previous eras. When the current rebellion by the managerial elite against the proletariat is exhausted, as the rebellion against the bourgeoisie was exhausted generations ago, there will be nothing left to rebel against except rebellion itself.

Most people in Western countries might welcome a revolution against revolution with relief.

Michael Lind is a Tablet columnist, a fellow at New America, and author of Hell to Pay: How the Suppression of Wages Is Destroying America.