The phrase “virtue signalling” is a slur and it is everywhere; it is part of the Trumpian scream. Empathy, fellowship, society, love? To the critic of the “virtue signaller”, they are all vanity, whether online, at a protest or at the ballot box. This is psychological projection, but still interesting: where did it come from?
It first appeared in print in the Spectator magazine, in a piece by James Bartholomew in 2015. Bartholomew was the Earhart Foundation senior fellow in social policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA). The IEA is a neoliberal PR company disguised as a think tank. You will hear IEA men on the BBC arguing – while posing as impartial experts – against the plain packaging of tobacco, for instance.
The Earhart Foundation, meanwhile, was a neoliberal charitable trust, funded by oil money. It bankrolled Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek – the author of The Constitution of Liberty (1960), who also helped to set up the IEA – and many other neoliberal economists who want the state to shrink to the size of an ornamental golf ball.
First, the politics: in his jaunty, “guess-what-I’ve-noticed-y’awl-plain-folks” style, Bartholomew indicated he approves of privatising the NHS; that the minimum wage could be “absurdly high”, especially for the cretins who don’t deserve it; that the foreign aid budget is ineffective; that the Cameron and Osborne administration did too much for “the poor”. Then the slur: it is not enough to state your case; you must also debase your most powerful opponents. He does this, it seems to me, by imagining himself into a hellish parody of an Islington dinner party, and calmly unpicking – or rather inventing – the thoughts of those who inhabit this imaginary world.
So here came the virtue signaller, with his or her implicit affection for the minimum wage, the NHS, and the foreign aid budget. (He does not give much time to rebutting these real beliefs.) The virtue signaller is probably a member of the so-called liberal elite, which is yet another euphemistic slur. It means: an educated person of influence who disagrees with you.
To Bartholomew, the virtue signallers will say they like Mary Beard. They hate 4x4s and the Daily Mail. They like shopping at Whole Foods. Virtue signallers, Bartholomew then declares, are defined by their hatred, which is as furious an act of psychological projection as I can imagine.
Yet I cannot hate him; I cannot hate anyone who reports that he has learned that sometimes people say “Have a great evening” to each other, and is so baffled by their behaviour that he must invent a new category of narcissist to define them. Later, he wrote a further piece praising his initial piece and the invention of virtue signalling:
The lack of a phrase obstructed open discussion of what was going on . . . New phrases and words are the opposite of Newspeak. [This is from Nineteen Eighty-Four. By George Orwell. He has read a novel. He is – what? – intellect signalling?] They make expression and argument easier.
Open discussion of what is going on? Making expression and argument easier? I would say that what is going on is the debasement of kindness, of empathy and of love – as a concept, and for profit.
If you imagine – and then proselytise – that people cannot love each other, and that community can be dismantled for the benefit of the funders of the IEA, who cares if children smoke cigarettes? To insist that anyone who offers fellowship to a stranger has a narcissistic condition is not making expression and argument easier. It is failing to understand people who are nothing like you; or impugning them.
The phrase is not cultural commentary, then; it is not whimsical; and it did not come from nowhere. It is, rather, and its invention is dedicated to the enrichment of the plutocratic class, the decimation of any surviving welfare state anywhere on Earth, and, eventually I suspect, democracy itself. I hope, when the time comes, there will be a jaunty phrase for that.
This article appears in the 08 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The May Doctrine