June 13th, 2005


Repressive inclusiveness

You just need to walk around a good ethnographic museum to see what a big and varied place the world used to be, how many fundamentally different styles used to co-exist quite oblivious—or even hostile—to each other. You leave with the feeling that there were more basic forms in the world than there are now, more different ways of doing things, and that each way of doing things integrated a distinct way of seeing things.

Repressive inclusiveness is a close cousin to something I've talked about often in these pages: pompous universalism. They're cousins because they're both sworn enemies of difference, diversity and particularity. The people most guilty of repressive inclusiveness are politicians and mass-producing manufacturers. You see it when centrist liberal democratic politicians, desperate to please all the people all the time, work hand-in-glove with commercial interests practicing "synergy", streamlining their operations by merging with rivals, getting bigger, simplifying their structures as well as their product ranges. Repressive inclusiveness is a feature of the age of synergy, which is the new name we've given monopoly capitalism.

Repressive inclusiveness poses as something progressive. All ages, 8 to 80! One size fits all! Fun for all the family! Guaranteed to please! The downside is obvious: when you claim that one size fits all, you're not looking at all the different shapes of people there are out there. When you say that everyone's sure to enjoy something, you're disregarding the fact that one man's meat might be another's poison. When you sell off-the-peg clothes, you put the tailor and his tape measure out of business. And when you "practice synergies", merge with rivals, cut corners, focus on core markets rather than niches and minorities, take over the market, your one-size-fits-all philosophy becomes a form of repression. The mountain no longer comes to Mohammed, Mohammed must come to the mountain. But hey, it doesn't matter who Mohammed is, you aren't looking at him at all, his race, colour or creed no longer interests you. Your one-size-fits-all philosophy is really a fear and hatred of difference, but it poses as inclusiveness and lack of discrimination. You concentrate on the mere opportunity of all to buy the single product you're proposing, rather than trying to build a complex variegated market (or political spectrum) which might represent different tastes and needs. Your failure to discriminate is not high-minded, it's an aspect of your insensitivity to the actually-existing diversity out there. Your corporate structure no longer allows you to make risky little products for pesky little markets. Suddenly necessities become luxuries the system can't afford, but we're compensated by the fact that the one thing we are offered is proposed, inevitably, as a luxury accessible to all.

Inclusive exclusivity. Our equality of opportunity (but don't get too excited, the opportunity is just to choose the one product on offer) explains the paradox that products are often presented as inclusive and exclusive at the same time. Sure, there's only one product being offered, but that's because it's the best, top of the range. But thanks to inclusive exclusivity, now everyone has a chance to taste the best. The same goes for political systems. Western democracy may be in crisis, but we want everyone all over the world to have the chance to try it because it's "the only game in town". And so we bomb people and impose it. Of course, if we were really interested in inclusive exclusivity we'd probably approve of the fake Chanel t-shirts and Louis Vuitton handbags being sold on the streets of China, but it seems we want China to police its intellectual property rights so that the money keeps flowing in to Chanel and Vuitton instead of poor people.

There are periods of hope when something comes along which represents "the other". I'm thinking of the early days of BBC 2, or the early days of Virgin Records. Suddenly the world is full of flying teapots: weird and wonderful bands like Gong and Faust, TV shows featuring intellectuals, pythons, and the tuareg. But repressive inclusiveness invariably returns within about five years, as market logic reasserts itself (even on public service TV) and the new channels start proposing "something for everyone" instead of something for, well, someone in particular. Someone more intelligent than average, or more curious than average.

Moronic irony: A clever (but cynical) manufacturer with only one product to offer encodes it so that it means different things in different markets. As Jonaton Yeah, the cynical editor of Sugar Ape magazine, put it: "Stupid people think it's cool, clever people think it's a joke... still cool." And so the universal, inclusive product is likely to cater to the lowest common denominator, but contain some hidden encoded wit for the smart. The "pompously universal" product is a prole product (jeans, say) with a smidgen of snob appeal (special stitching) for connoisseurs, or a child product with some witty asides for the parents (the Simpsons).

At the moment it's a kind of thoughtcrime to imagine a world where repressive inclusiveness is replaced by its opposite, liberating exclusiveness. Imagine a world where politicians didn't say "We all have the same interests, let's look at what we have in common" but "They (Africans, Iraqis, whoever) have different interests from us, let's try to address those." The risk of admitting difference is conflict, but the risk of not admitting it is its silent erasure.

There are more people alive now than there have ever been, but fewer styles, fewer ways of being, fewer real differences. It makes you wonder what tomorrow's museums will contain. A pair of jeans, a car that looks a bit like a BMW, the layout of a parliament building... and a huge list of the languages, tribes and species we erased or merged into invisibility?