For most people with no ties to or other affiliations with the city, it’s a safe bet that Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania still conjures images of the hard-working, blue-collar steel town that is the namesake of the city’s NFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Even the one-hit wonder moribund USFL franchise, the Pittsburgh Maulers, invoked the Mauler as the team logo, noting in the team guide:
"A 'Mauler,' by definition, is a steelworker who forged metals in the mill with a maul or heavy hammer. He repaired railroad or steel mill tracks with spikes driven by a maul...The Maulers' logo depicts a "Mauler" swinging a sledgehammer or 'maul' as the long-handled hammers are referred to in the steel, river, and railroad industry. One of the more famous 'Maulers' of all-time is the legendary John Henry, who was a famous steel and railroad worker by trade."
Downstream of Pittsburgh’s Renaissance: The Successor Ideology
In what follows, I explore the transmutation of the cultural and behavioral ethos of Pittsburgh as I perceive it through the conceptual lens of Wesley Yang’s notion of a “Successor Ideology.” Not only do I find Yang’s Successor Ideology concept insightful and penetrating, I find his reflections on the academic, social, and political forces giving rise to and maintaining the movement both remarkably lucid and of great explanatory value in what is undeniably a larger strategically organized political radical progressive movement currently ascendant within the United States specifically and the West more broadly. Indeed, I believe the similarities of this movement and the concepts of identity politics and Neo-Marxism are hard to deny when one examines the evidence.
As Wesley Yang describes in a recent Substack offering of his own:
I have coined the term Successor Ideology to name this species of bourgeois ultra-radicalism that has become [the] official value system of a rising generation of office-holders and office-seekers.
And further in a recent tweets reply describing the core of the ideology and the functional motivation of the activists who are at the heart of the Successor Ideology movement:
In a 2019 piece, John Tierney writing for the City Journal was exemplary in his explication of the facilitating factors and underlying educational and philanthropic mechanisms involved Pittsburgh’s renaissance from steel-town to brain-town. In the piece, he articulates with some clarity one of the less appreciated sociopolitical influences of the Pittsburgh renaissance that was otherwise viewed—not without good reason as it was a life vest in a sea of economic decline—in a beneficial light:
Pittsburgh is attracting professionals of all ages who crave an urban experience, the kind flocking to New York and San Francisco for Jacobs-style neighborhoods. The good news is that they can now find that in East Liberty.
The bad news is that they’ve brought their progressive politics with them, which means they still don’t understand Jane Jacobs’s message. And that brings us to the second lesson from Pittsburgh’s renaissances: the master planners never go away—they just change tactics.
I saw this one recent afternoon at the Whole Foods in East Liberty, now so successful that it needs a bigger store to handle the crowds. It was planning to move to an empty block nearer the core of the shopping district, just the sort of development welcomed by ELDI’s planners. But because the block’s owner had torn down his old apartment buildings to make room for the store, the move had become a cause célèbre for anti-gentrification activists. They’d lost their court fight, but they were still trying to stop the relocation by embarrassing Whole Foods and threatening to boycott the new store.
Two dozen of them had shown up this afternoon at a weekly rally for “housing justice” and a protest march through the organic-produce section. Only one of the protesters had lived at the former apartment complex, and he was the only one with a coherent agenda: a payoff. Though he had already collected a relocation fee from the block’s owner and long since found another apartment nearby, he wanted to extract more money from the owner or from Whole Foods.
Thematic sociopolitical consistency is also reflected in the below tweet reply to a tweet thread discussing this piece in Palladium on the experience of Chinese professor and author Wang Huning as as a visiting scholar in the United States. As the piece notes, Huning’s most famous work was his 1991 “America against America” in which he:
concludes that America faces an “unstoppable undercurrent of crisis” produced by its societal contradictions, including between rich and poor, white and black, democratic and oligarchic power, egalitarianism and class privilege, individual rights and collective responsibilities, cultural traditions and the solvent of liquid modernity.
The Personality and Behavioral Signature of the Successor Ideology
To better appreciate why a shift from a blue-collar, manual labor, industrial economy city to a white-collar, intellectual elite city has had profound repercussions on the cities cultural ethos and identity, it is necessary to examine both: A) where the Successor Ideology was incubated and emanated from; and B) what are the personality and behavioral characteristics of the ‘creative class’ and other individuals who largely comprise the ideological movement and how are they distinct, at the group level, from the personality and behavioral characteristics of the former blue-collar, working-class population.
A strong argument can be made that the Successor Ideology is essentially thinly-veiled Neo-Marxism (that is, Marxism applied to individual rather than class-based characteristics; e.g., race, gender identity) and that the movement originated in the Academy (cf. David Horowitz and also this 1964 piece in The Atlantic by Nathan Glazer), especially in the Social and Educational Sciences and those fields under the rubric of identity and gender studies—and more broadly the studies of oppressed groups including women and minorities (cf. Bruce Bawer’s ‘The Victims’ Revolution’). Indeed, its expansive reach now presently encroaches on the hard science disciplines in the Academy. This has occurred in parallel with an aggressive, all-encompassing promulgation of and adherence to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) dictums. This is driven by an ever-expanding bureaucratic behemoth that extols morality and virtue on behalf of efforts to correct historical wrongs inflicted on marginalized groups, yet in practice having little or null effects on advancing their academic or economic success or standing while also simultaneously undermining the culture they are espoused to act on behalf of in the form of a reactionary antiauthoritarianism.
Despite a lack of direct empirical research addressing the issue, as I have suggested above a plausible case can be advanced that the movement has its origins in the Social Sciences. This would explain, for example, why it is within these disciplines where some of the most egregious displays of illiberalism—frequently under the guise of ‘safetyism’ from harmful speech—are seen today (although not exclusively as evidenced by recent events at Yale law school). A natural question one might ask, then is what is it about Social Science disciplines in interaction with a shifting political landscape that created a fertile ground for genesis and maturation of a Successor Ideology and a professional managerial class (PMC), a core feature of which is manifested in
I posit, based on my own work and reflections informed by evolutionary developmental and personality psychology, that it is due in no small degree to the fact that disciplines within the broad umbrella of the Social Sciences, especially the language arts, education, and psychology select for a distinct personality type characterized by higher levels of trait neuroticism, anxiety, narcissism, and empathisation, among other classic psychometric constructs. More broadly, these disciplines track with higher levels of personality and behavioral characteristics that would appear to track with recent formulations of the psychological trait construct of femininity.
Relatedly, the focus on the therapeutic/grievance and the more broad notion of ‘safe spaces’ is characterized by heightened anxiety and hypervigilance; this personality type overlaps in large degree with a political orientation that is consistent with the Successor Ideology and the PMC or ‘creative class’ of elites that have served as its core incubator in the universities and tech industries (see Ehrenreich & Ehrenreich, 1979, who describe the PMC as comprising de-racinated, credentialed professionals, such as culture industry creatives, journalists, software engineers, scientists, professors, doctors, bankers, and lawyers, who play important managerial roles in large organizations). Indeed, as noted by Catherine Liu in Virtue Hoarders, C. Wright Mills saw this type of worker as susceptible to “market discipline and its prefab, reified versions of personality and intersubjectivity” while Christoper Lasch “believed the white-collar, managerial classes to be hopelessly and collectively hypnotized by their own narcissism.”
There is overlap however, among this broad suite of personality and behavioral traits that track with the Social Sciences and the PMC and personality and behavioral traits that track with computer engineering, mathematical, or otherwise ‘hard science’ disciplines (e.g., trait systemization). Nonetheless, a case can be made that individuals from these disciplines and fields within the ranks of the Successor Ideology movement and the PMC reflect the more strategic psychopathic element (consider the personality of Foucault) of its embodiment. Indeed, Barbara Ehrenreich in a follow-up to the piece describing the PMC above noted that the hippie had morphed into the yuppie or young urban professional who reconciled 1960s hedonism and 1980s debt-fueled consumerism. Strikingly, Liu notes the resemblance of this personality description to the fictional Patrick Bateman in American Psycho where “Bret Easton Ellis makes yuppie sadism seem transgressively antiliberal, exciting, and glamorous.”
This element of the PMC may be thought of as the ‘operational command center’ or ‘command module’ of the movement that provides the justification and legitimization for the wholesale movement and especially the activist praxis for the grassroots activists who proselytize the ideology in the name of morality and virtue as their personality disposition (greater trait emotionality and empathisation) confers a probabilistic vulnerability to hijacking by this justificatory and moralizing messaging.
Interestingly enough, Foucault and Lasch had an interesting and unlikely intellectual convergence as noted by Blake Smith in this City Journal piece. Elaborating on the strands described above regarding the personality traits that appear to characterize individual actors within the broad Successor Ideology movement and the PMC or ‘creative class’ of elites:
Self-Destructing Renaissance? The Paradox of the Successor Regime
Perhaps, as Euripides noted: “It is change; All yields its places and goes.”
Though no doubt true that change is endemic to all geographic regions, the degree of penetrance of change into the very cultural fabric of a region invites us to examine regional historicity at a more fine-grained level of analysis. The cultural psyche of contemporary Pittsburgh appears to me barely tethered to any strands of its industrial past. Gone is the can-do work ethic ethos of the Steelworker or Mauler, replaced by a new ethos of the Google tech worker programming code for driverless vehicles or the bohemian artist in the transformed Bloomfield-Lawrenceville section of Pittsburgh, a now quasi Seattle east in character. Undoubtedly, the surrounding university ecosystem has contributed in large part to this change in cultural landscape as described above in the Tierney City Journal piece.
My own perception of the city I spent a good deal of my youth in, and where my parents now reside, is consistent with Tierney’s broader portrait. I routinely notice a postmodern-infused appearance to many individuals I see in passing that did not exist—certainly not at a sensory-threshold awareness level as this—previously. Hair colors across the rainbow seem much more likely to be encountered than what I recall from my youth. One long-time resident noted to me that yard signs aligning with contemporary progressive causes, such as Black Lives Matter (itself having Marxist connections), and utopian-sentiment “Love is Love. All are Welcome Here” seem more pervasive & ubiquitous.
Yet, these are only superficial indicators belying what I perceive to be a deeper merging with a postmodern, radical progressive ideology most recently politically facilitated by former democratic mayor, Bill Peduto. In this AARP interview, Peduto himself echoes Tierney’s insights into how Pittsburgh transformed itself, yet—tellingly—Peduto emphasizes that Pittsburgh retained its can-do work ethic whereas Tierney notes the empty performative progressivism that is antithetical to the essence of the practical ‘can-do’ work ethic.
Indeed, Liu captures a core essence of this cultural landscape sea change in her introduction to Virtue Hoarders where she notes that the “Yuppies [of the PMC] helped to birth a new world order for capitalism, a world of public austerity and private luxury, globalized economies and shiny cities surrounded by devastated hinterlands, a world of offshored labor and lightening-quick capital flows (italics added).” Later, she reflects on the postindustrial ethos of PMC radical feminists as it pertained to womens’ sexuality and specifically the Emma Sulkowicz ‘mattress affair’. I found the relevance to the cultural transmutation of Pittsburgh I describe here in the context of the Successor Ideology especially insightful. As Liu describes: “Like all endurance-based performance art, the senseless expenditure of physical effort is a display of the elites’ absolute freedom for the necessity of physical labor. From this point of view, Sulkowicz’s performance of mattress carrying makes a mockery of the physicality of manual labor…Sulkowicz…was responding to…and reproducing the regime of postindustrial work, a kind of work that entails the constant production of publicity-garnering activity in the name of self-branding (italics added).”
What should not be lost in the above description by Liu is that a core feature the postindustrial work she describes is abstract, often drawing on performative (read: artistic) emotive elements, freed from physical manual labor. Herein lies a crucial point to understanding the cultural transmutation of Pittsburgh: the replacement of manual labor with abstract, largely language-based work essentially replaces the personality and behavioral traits that track with masculinity with those which track with femininity. The mauler becomes the failed artist or poet. The unit of labor in the former is tangible in the physical sense of an object (the spike) being hammered. The later is not. The output is abstract, its knowledge content signal value itself a floating signifier —one of the core tenets of post-structuralist theory — “untethered from any referential determination to objects in the empirical world.”
The paradox at the heart of the Successor elements that rescued a dying industrial behemoth and transmuted it into a tech and health services beacon is also outlined in the Palladium piece on Wang noted above. As noted in the piece:
But while Americans can, he says, perceive that they are faced with “intricate social and cultural problems,” they “tend to think of them as scientific and technological problems” to be solved separately. This gets them nowhere, he argues, because their problems are in fact all inextricably interlinked and have the same root cause: a radical, nihilistic individualism at the heart of modern American liberalism (italics added).
A signature aspect of many Successor ideologists is a utopian mindset that perceives human existence as untethered from any universal behavioral interdicts (cf. Philip Rieff). This mentality was clearly conveyed by Ben Shapiro in a recent podcast episodes discussing a core aspect of the left’s view of modern-day labor when he reflected that their current stance towards pandemic-related economic policy belies their belief that work is inherently burdensome and that if one can be “freed of the burdens from work, so we can all be free to become pottery artists, or painters and poets”; In a subsequent podcast, discussing this article in The Nation Shapiro notes the view of the radical progressive left (namely AOC) as it relates to work being a form of oppression: “If you are free from the predations of work (all work being a form of exploitation) you’ll become an artist and a poet.”
More broadly is the idea that any form of objective reality is oppression. It is worth noting here that artists and poets tend to be associated with colloquial notions of femininity. However, it is crucial to distinguish (as Rieff does in the passage below remarking on Wilde’s vision of the artist as the “true revolutionary figure”) between the failed artist from the true artist. The former is the type that characterizes the Successor Ideology while the later takes years of hard work—along with ascetic self sacrifice—as true art is seldom “about me.” Performative narcissists refuse to take this step, which is the first towards making true art.
Taken to its extreme, the Successor Ideology would seem to be self-immolating. It veers toward a terminus of what Rieff described as Wilde’s impossible culture; the post-modern mentality that:
This sensibility is consistent with Yang’s notion of ideological succession:
The Successor Ideology itself may endure with the funding and sinecures (particularly in the Academy), and the individuals of the PMC and activist class to push the agenda, but what is clear is that the cultural psyche has been irrevocably altered. The ‘can-do’ work ethic that gave Pittsburgh its physical place on the map and its image in the public imagination has evaporated. A postreligious secular culture, itself a characteristic of the PMC and liberal academia, has weakened a common cultural structure provided by credal belief; like other Rust Belt cities, Pittsburgh was a city of immigrants with strong religious traditions. The words of Paglia “the artist as enemy of God” seem to have an uncanny relevance. The question that remains is whether the postindustrial transmutation in cultural psyche that makes a mockery of physical labor has irrevocably altered the psychic essence of a city whose signature physical labor was primary force in the physical and cultural building of a country now under the encroach of globalization, PMC, and the Successor Ideology.
I am so happy to have discovered you and your writings! I am a life long resident of Western PA. Born and raised in a small rural factory town 30 miles outside of Pittsburgh. I married and started a family and have lived in an affluent suburb very close to downtown for 20 yrs. Sad to report that the small rust belt towns outside of Pittsburgh are struggling mightily in their attempts to adapt and survive.
“ I routinely notice a postmodern-infused appearance to many individuals I see in passing that did not exist—certainly not at a sensory-threshold awareness level as this—previously.”
I had this exact experience and I remember precisely the first time. 5 years ago our little family decided to spend a day in Lawrenceville during the holiday season. We parked the car and started to walk through the area. I immediately felt a little out of place. My husband and I are Gen-X and our daughter at the time was 15. The majority of people I saw were young millennial families and couples and most definitely hipster aesthetic in dress, piercings and ink. Our teen was the one who suggested the trek, enamored with all things “hipster” at the time. I felt so out of place. We experienced the same thing when we visited Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn NY, except with far more hostile glares. 😂 I thought maybe I was imagining it but now I feel validated. It was more than a generation gap thing. It’s a seemingly vast difference in lifestyle, culture, values and beliefs.
I definitely have experienced and witnessed changes to our city as well as our current suburb over the past 20 yrs. Politically left PMC has definitely taken over in our area.
One thing I find intersting is the political shift of election results in our suburb. In 2008 and 2012 the divides were more narrow R 45% D 54% -2016 R 36% D 63% 2020 R 32% D 67%
We had a contentious school board election this last year and the D team won. I am relieved our daughter has graduated but of course still have concerns over her university experiences.
As a parent it’s felt at times downright treacherous to navigate the rapid shifts in culture. It still does.
As someone who until very recently lived in PGH, I mostly don't see it as a Successor Ideology city. That one story about the Whole Foods is entirely cherry-picked considering the rapid rate of construction in the Strip, Lawrenceville, and East Liberty; the YIMBY signs everywhere in Shadyside; and the anti-Successor Ideology engineers throughout the city. Gainey winning the primary aside (and I was against him), I feel optimistic for the city long-term because of the largely international, STEM bent of the transplants here.