Selfish, Whining Monkeys

By Rod Liddle

When did narcissism become the definitive dysfunctional condition of our time? Some people would point to Tom Wolfe’s christening of the 1970s as the “Me Decade” or Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism, published in 1979, but I think these were prophetic voices from the cultural antennae of the race, and I think Lasch anyway was onto something a little different than what we mean by narcissism, a diagnosis more classically grounded in then current models of psychology.

The ‘80s were a bad decade too, and when David Sirota wrote his critique of the pop culture of the time (Back to Our Future) he specifically called out its selfishness and “virulent egomania.” This was the Thatcher and Reagan ‘80s, when there no longer was any society but only the grasping individual. Things were clearly on a narcissistic trajectory, though I don’t recall the diagnosis being made quite as often back then.

A decade later, Bill Clinton would present himself as the love child of the counterculture and neoliberalism, the two self-centered ideologies that columnist Rod Liddle identifies as having given birth to the present age.
Of course this was all before the advent of Donald Trump, a figure viewed by many professionals as showing clear indications of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). But even before Trump’s election it seemed as though narcissism was popping up everywhere. In 2014 Jean M. Twenge and W. Keith Campbell warned of The Narcissism Epidemic. Also in 2014 Aaron James proffered Assholes: A Theory, which defined the titular condition as sharing many features with NPD (with James even admitting at one point that “being an asshole is probably only one version of the disorder”).

That same year (2014, still pre-President Trump) saw the publication of Rod Liddle’s Selfish, Whining Monkeys: How We Ended Up Greedy, Narcissistic and Unhappy.

Obviously all of these people were responding to something in the culture and the way we live now. Trump was more symptom than cause: the cherry on top of a cake that had already been baked.

A preliminary note before I get going. Liddle is, at least in Britain, a controversial figure. Indeed he courts controversy, and on more than one occasion has been taken to task for crossing over the line into open racism and misogyny. I don’t want to get into any of those arguments here, as I don’t think the essays in Selfish, Whining Monkeys do cross that line (though there’s probably enough here for readers so disposed to conclude that Liddle is a rotten person). Instead, I think it’s worth focusing on what is of value in Liddle’s analysis of the zeitgeist and how it is we got here.

We begin with the selfishness of the monkeys (us). Which is to say, our narcissism. Liddle sees this, as I’ve already mentioned, as the idiot child born of Frankfurt School Marxism and Chicago School economics. Both schools stressed the supremacy of the individual: the former as leading the struggle against capitalist consumerism and traditional authoritarian political structures, the latter as the engine driving us toward capitalism’s (and history’s) triumphant end.

But whatever its ideological origins – and they are likely more complex than Liddle has them – narcissism is firmly in the saddle today. In some ways this is benign, as in our fetishizing of working out at the gym. In other ways, however, it is a real problem, and one that admits of no easy solutions. This is because narcissists know that they are right, and much of our current culture supports them in this.

Liddle pillories the narcissistic certitude of ideologues of the left and right, who share “a grim insistence that everything they say is beyond possible contradiction and that those who dare to contradict them should be punished somehow.” One thinks right away of the bubble-blowing effect of the Internet that allows the narcissist to spin a cocoon about him or herself, a technologically-enhanced tunnel vision which encourages an intolerance toward the very existence of other opinions. Or even other people. Liddle caustically calls the Internet

a medium which accommodates itself perfectly to our almost infantile narcissism, our big-I-am willy-waving and relentless solipsism. Its apogee was back in 2006, when Time magazine chose its Person of the Year, and guess who won? Yes, it was You! Yes, You! Every one of You, everyone in the world sat behind their little screens tap tap tapping away. You’ve won! All the people people beavering away at their blogs, their take on the world (comments: 0), all the monomaniacal communities. Congratulations – You are the most important person in the world. Hell, shucks and so on – be honest with Yourself. You always were. As if it needed Time magazine to tell you that.

Liddle writes in this jokey manner throughout, but he wants to make a serious point. Of course selfish, whining monkeys, or narcissists, or assholes, are annoying, and not always in a humorous way. That’s a given. But they also represent something worse: a social disease that prevents us from taking collective action for the common good. Whether you locate the source of the malaise in the ‘60s counterculture or the ‘80s individualistic revolution, or some “poisonous cocktail” combining the two, “the appetite for collective solutions to national problems was almost eradicated from the public mind, and in its place we had a vaulting personal acquisitiveness and a diminished concept of what constitutes society.” Indeed, determining that society as such does not exist, “and that it is up to us as individuals to make our mark in the world, then necessarily the amount of respect we have for other people – now viewed merely as competitors – will diminish also.” Furthermore, since nothing that happens to anyone else, living or yet to be born, is of any consequence to the narcissist they are free to indulge in the shortest of short-term thinking. Only immediate personal benefits count. What this all adds up to is no laughing matter.

The other point Liddle makes that deserves attention comes in his critique of the “faux left.” By the faux left he means bourgeois metropolitan liberals, “people who consider themselves of the left, or leftish, but whose views are often wholly irrelevant to the poorest indigenous sections of our society, or actively hostile towards them.” That word “indigenous” is one that gets him in trouble, because what Liddle is talking about here is the white working class. It’s important to note however that he’s not making the case that this is a class that is particularly hard done by but rather that it’s one that the faux left doesn’t care about. They can go on virtue signalling, meaning taking noble public stands on issues that cost them nothing, or which even provide them with benefits. A chief example here being immigration, where the liberal elite signal the importance of diversity and open borders while taking advantage of cheap gardeners and nannies.

Yes, things are a lot more complicated than this. Still, what Liddle represents is a point of view that resonates with a lot of people, and his analysis isn’t that far removed from that of Thomas Frank in Listen, Liberal. Only replace the faux left with Frank’s Democratic elite, the Brexit voter with the Trump voter, and you have a pretty good correspondence. In both cases you have the left behind looking for help in right-wing ideologies after the (faux) left has abandoned them. Narcissism in effect becomes a defence mechanism. In the end Liddle comes full circle, to “narcissism, once again”: “We demand to be heard because we know that underneath we count for less than we once did.” This is a downward spiral indeed, and we haven’t come close to reaching its bottom yet.

Review first published online May 22, 2018.