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The Lonely Crowd

The Lonely Crowd: The Multicultural Fallacy


David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) was one of the most influential books of the last century. You rarely hear of it nowadays but perhaps its time has come again since it provides an invaluable tool for understanding modern social issues. It predicts that multiculturalism will fail in the UK, and it reveals that there is in fact no clash of civilisation between the democratic West and the Islamic East. The true clash is between incompatible sociological systems.

Riesman scrutinised the ways in which people formed their core values and attitudes and identified three distinct types of person and corresponding social systems, labelling them as 'tradition-directed', 'inner-directed' and 'other-directed'.

In a tradition-directed society, inherited conventions and belief systems are of paramount importance. Everything is inflexibly handed down from generation to generation, and there are severe penalties for anyone who attempts to break free. Shame and honour feature prominently in the thinking of such societies. As a result, behaviour changes little over many centuries.

The archetypal tradition-based model in the present day is the Islamic world. Many Muslims today probably behave quite similarly to the original Muslims of 1400 hundred years ago. This is not a rapidly-evolving, dynamic social model. It's fearful and suspicious of change, and likely to lash out against it. Change can represent only one thing - a threat - to tradition-directed communities. If the Koran has already provided all truths relevant to the human condition, what point is there in debating issues, seeking innovative discoveries, exploring new things?

Islam provides the most prominent tradition-directed societies (culminating in the Taliban who are intent on returning Afghanistan to its primitive condition when it first converted to Islam many centuries ago), but most religious believers who cite a holy book that claims to reveal absolute, eternal truths and who express a wish to follow these revelations dogmatically, fall into the same category. Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians are obvious examples.

In the West, the vast majority of people are 'other directed', meaning that they look to what others around them are doing and try their best to fit in with the prevailing fashions. This is an outlook that allows for rapid change. Something that was 'in' yesterday can be 'out' today. These other-directed people make the ideal subjects for consumer capitalism. They are easily influenced, highly susceptible to advertising and crave being in vogue. They are terrified of being 'abnormal' and shunned by their peer group.

Other-directed people tend to be flexible and happy to accommodate others. Modern companies favour this type of personality, and it has become the overwhelming norm in the workplace. Riesman says, 'The other-directed person wants to be loved rather than esteemed.' Such people seek to be emotionally in tune with others, and they dislike conflict. They are essential for the smooth operation of modern companies, but they aren't independently minded and have little initiative. Their obsession with others gives them a 'keeping up with the Jones's' mentality. A society dominated by other-directed individuals lacks credible leadership, is not concerned with self-knowledge, and arguably trivialises human potential. Today, the triumph of the other-directed is almost complete. Companies are full of emotionally well-adjusted incompetents. They control virtually all aspects of society. However, as Riesman points out, the costs of this dominance may be high. When conformity has been placed above individuality, society loses its ability to think clearly. Isn't that the most characteristic aspect of modern Britain - its hostility to serious ideas?

Riesman says that other-directed individuals have an internal 'radar' for sensing and responding to their peers, making them 'capable of a rapid if sometimes superficial intimacy with and response to everyone.' They are 'at home everywhere and nowhere.' This is both their triumph and their tragedy. Ultimately, they are reflections of all the people they meet rather than real people in themselves.

Because they aren't grounded in any deep values, do not have an inner moral compass, and are being buffeted by the pressures of the contemporary world all the time, the other-directed have no identity other than that conferred on them by their peer group and current trends. All of their relationships are potentially transient because they themselves could go out of fashion amongst their peers and be cut adrift. For this reason, they are fearful and insecure. Although they are obsessed with relationships, they are unlikely to form any with deep roots. Therefore, in a profound sense, they are both alone and lonely even in a huge crowd, hence the title of Riesman's book.

One might say that they are hardly people at all but merely units of consumption that fuel the economy. In Marxist terms they are alienated from their labour and from themselves. In existentialist terms, they are living in bad faith because they do not take responsibility for their lives and choices and simply drift along in others' wakes.

The final of Riesman's categories, and by far the rarest, is that of the 'inner-directed'. These are individuals who evolve their own values, based on their personal experiences and understanding. Often, their parents are freethinkers who have created the environment that allows them to develop in this way.

According to Riesman, the Europeans who first settled in America were tradition-directed, most having fled religious persecution in their homelands. The American War of Independence brought inner-directed individuals to the forefront, and many of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence, such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, were of this ilk. By the twentieth century, mass industrialisation had appeared, accompanied by huge, complex cities bustling with millions of people from many different cultures. Within this hotchpotch, none of the old tradition-directed cultures could hope to prevail. There were too few inner-directed individuals to guide society, so the other-directed filled the vacuum, and that's what we're saddled with today: a shallow, ephemeral, consumerist society lacking any coherent values.

The movie Pleasantville in which a couple of modern teenagers find themselves trapped inside a black and white 1950s TV show provides a fabulous illustration of what happens when other-directedness collides with a tradition-directed society. By the end of the movie, the black and white show has been transformed into full colour and the cast of characters seem much freer than before, yet there's a powerful sense that innocence and stability have been lost, and that the new freedom of the characters will quickly degenerate into mindless hedonism.

Tradition-directed individuals cite prophets as their main inspiration while other-directed types are heavily influenced by the lyrics of their favourite pop stars, the witterings of their favourite celebrities, catchy lines of dialogue from their favourite movies, and catch-phrases from their favourite comedy shows. Inner-directed people will cite philosophers such as Nietzsche, Camus and Baudrillard, and will take a keen interest in existentialism and postmodernism.

Tradition-directed individuals think of the 'truth' as absolute and eternal, other-directed individuals will follow whatever the current fashionable truths are, while inner-directed people will debate whether 'truth' exists at all or is simply a humanly constructed perspective. Tradition-directed societies are masculine, aggressive, patriarchal and hierarchical and place high value on obedience, loyalty and duty. Other-directed societies are usually feminine, consensual, cooperative, empathic, egalitarian and place high value on emotional intelligence. Inner-directed societies can be quite confrontational and inflexible because the people in these societies are not looking to others for approval, and are quite certain that they are right. They place high value on IQ and rational debate. They tend to be contemptuous of both tradition-directed and other-directed individuals.

Riesman's scheme allows us make sense of a host of difficult problems. Multiculturalism, the belief that significantly different cultures can live in harmony, learn and benefit from each other and create a diverse, energetic, more prosperous society, is seen to be hopelessly misguided since it completely ignores the incompatibilities of the different cultures. Tradition-directed communities are simply incapable of any kind of healthy mixing with either inner-directed or other-directed communities. They will inevitably become ghettoised and fearful, and from their ranks fanatics will appear who will wish to attack the surrounding society, which they will perceive as decadent and threatening. Multicultural Britain has become a collection of mutually suspicious ghetto communities that can never work constructively together. Why maintain the pretence any longer?

As for the 'clash of civilisations', it can now be viewed as simply a tradition-directed culture (Islam) standing in opposition to an other-directed culture (the democratic West). Such cultures have nothing in common and there's no possibility of a meeting of minds. The best policy is for such opposed societies to stay well clear of each other, with the possible exceptions of trade and tourism.

Why did the Coalition fail so dismally in Iraq? The answer is obvious. Coming from an other-directed perspective, the Coalition thought that all it had to do was get rid of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi people would transform themselves into lovers of western-style capitalist democracy. In fact, their plans were doomed to fail from the start because they were confronting a tradition-directed society resistant to the blandishments of Western consumerism.

Why are kids glued to the Internet now? The Internet provides the ultimate other-directed platform. Kids revel in keeping in touch with their peers from all over the world. MySpace and FaceBook are the essence of the other-directed mindset. Actual physical contact is much less important than feeling yourself part of some comforting global community of like minds. Yet these relationships are essentially illusory.

Why are celebrities practically worshipped these days? Other-directed people are obsessed with fashion, and celebrities are those who dictate the latest fashions. Celebrities enjoy the glamorous lifestyle that the other-directed crave. They form the ├╝ber peer group to which all peer-obsessed individuals wish to belong. They are zeitgeist figures, embodiments of the tastes of the age. Tradition-directed societies are largely immune to them, as are inner-directed individuals. The cult of the celebrity can truly exist and flourish only in other-directed societies. In fact, you only need to look at the endless shelves of women's magazines proclaiming the latest celebrity tittle-tattle to see that this cult is essentially a female phenomenon.

Why are black boys running amok in some inner city areas? These kids, lacking any parental control and largely excluded from the education system, have become extreme examples of a highly masculine form of other-directedness. Their peer group - their gang - sets all of their values for them. Anti-authoritarian rap songs and violent movies like Scarface (showing the irresistible rise of a non-educated, ruthless thug) are where they derive their dog-eat-dog inspiration. They have no respect at all for any tradition-directed influences, and there are no inner-directed individuals amongst their ranks. They are a terrifying example of what happens when tradition-directedness and inner-directedness break down entirely. Whereas feminine other-directedness emphasises harmony, masculine other-directedness revolves around respect based on brute force. It's little more than the law of the jungle.

Solzhenitsyn characterised America as a society of spoiled children, sunk in mindless egotism. We could easily say the same of the contemporary UK. This is largely what other-directedness achieves. As for tradition-directed societies, they are backward and hostile to change. Only a society governed by the inner-directed could ever be admirable, but the likelihood of inner-directed individuals succeeding in an other-directed society is close to zero. They are outsiders, voices like Nietzsche's crying in the wilderness. What would you rather read - Baudrillard's speculations on hyperreality or the latest instalment in the life of Jade Goody? For other-directed people there's no contest. Who cares about thinking when there's good celebrity gossip to read?