Subcultural Pluralism: Paradigm Shift at the End of Late Modernism

Paradigm shifts occur in every discipline with every fundamental advance in knowledge or technology. Major shifts in the cultural paradigm, by contrast, are infrequent, affect all aspects of society and denote the transition from one historical age to the next. The transition from industrial age Europe to modern society is an example of a major paradigm shift. Today, Western culture is undergoing another fundamental change in ideologies as the glimmer of a new social order emerges.

Analytic philosophers in the 1960-70s displaced many of the belief systems supporting modern society. Western philosophies, the colonial worldview, the eurocentric bias of history and the patriarchal hierarchies of our institutions were exposed as oppressive, self-serving and based on erroneous assumptions. The revelations of postmodernism brought about significant changes in the academic worldview, but arguably, not a major paradigm shift.

Deconstructionists disenfranchised the philosophic foundations of Western history and modern culture, but they did not furnish the impetus for restructuring society. This would require a subsequent set of circumstances exposing the social injustice of the established order while providing an alternative solution offering greater freedom and equality. As fate would have it, the combination of right-wing culture war, economic recession and social media provided both the scenario and moral imperative for generating a paradigmatic shift in cultural values.

In the decades leading up to the economic collapse of 2008, the distribution of wealth trickled upward from the pockets of the middle class while political attack ads, Fox news and radio talk shows manipulated conservative voters. The relentless harangue of culture war painted a picture of America in moral decline. Demagoguery and fear mongering polarized society and eventually undermined democratic ideals and humanitarian values that held the country together as a nation. The relationship between personal interests and social responsibility was thrown out of balance. The quality of life in America atrophied as humanitarian values gave way to survival instincts, religious rancor and the coded fascism of the right-wing agenda.

A rift occurred in the social fabric as the negative impact of morality-based culture war reached beyond the political wrangling of the two party system. When the recession hit, with the national economy staggering under the weight of foreclosures and unemployment, economic class structures in America collapsed into two groups -- the incredibly rich and everyone else. Social status was no longer a question of accumulated wealth. What mattered was on which side of the cultural divide you fell. The economic class struggle was superseded by the ideological struggle for our identity as a nation.

In the midst of a devastating recession and a national identity crisis, both sides of the cultural divide abandoned their pursuit of the commercialized American dream and turned their interests closer to home. Displaced consumers reached out in search of values lost to consumerism and culture war. People began to strengthen their bonds with family and friends in a societal shift that increasingly included social networking venues and information searches over the internet. Social media offered a much needed break with the past and a new vision of the future. While television audiences continued to be inundated by entertainment and news programming based on dramatized conflict and divisive social issues, social media offered common ground upon which to build relationships.

Two concepts, consumerism and subcultural pluralism, characterize divergent value systems in the transition from television-dependent to internet-engaged culture. Consumerism is the beliefs and practices of a consumer society born out of divine providence and manifest destiny. Subcultural pluralism is the next phase of pluralism in America, developing as society moves beyond the ideology of consumerism.

Pluralism in America has taken on a new look. It follows the evolution of the subculture in the age of mobile devices and the internet. Society has begun to coalesce into internet-engaged subgroups with similar interests, dress codes and behaviors. These are the subcultures of subcultural pluralism. They include any group with ideological differences that distinguish it from mainstream society: ethnic and minority groups, ideological and pop subcultures, the academic community, right-wing fringe groups, and in particular, internet-active social groups developing from within the ranks of the disaffected middle class. In the emerging social order, society is composed of a vast complex of more-or-less equally entitled subcultural groups connected by social media.

While social media is often touted as antisocial and contributing to the breakdown of society, within the subcultural group it represents the return to a more socially interactive lifestyle with a ‘retro’ quality (like sitting around an electronic crackerbarrel). The addition of new information and communication technologies fosters cohesion and interaction within the group and engenders a greater sense of community.

Subgroups within society are better organized and connected in ways that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago. The immediacy and intimacy of social networking venues reinforce social bonds. A camaraderie exists not found within the polarized dialogues of mass media and two party politics. Individuals are free to have multiple group affiliations and move between groups according to personal interests. Social grouping is stratified more by cultural and ideological distinctions and less by income brackets. There is less emphasis on class stratification and more on social equality within the group.

Herein lies the paradigmatic shift. What at first appears to be a subtle change in attitude marks the beginning of a liberating set of cultural beliefs and practices. The transformation is from a divided society of economic classes in television-dependent majority culture to a non-hierarchical social order of loosely-structured subcultural groups empowered by social media.

While the shift in societal structures is just starting to have an effect on established hierarchies and institutions, the symbolic experiences that enliven the burgeoning movement are already in play. High tech communication devices evoke transformative cultural experiences for everyone involved. As people encounter the world through the marvel of new technology, the latest high tech gadget becomes both medium and enigmatic symbol for a new way of being. These are the icons of a new age.  

On the surface, little appears to have changed in society. Middle America continues to be preoccupied with consumer ideologies and the hot button social issues of culture war. The corporatization of society goes on unabated and America still stands for imperialism in the global community. That having been said, attributes of the paradigmatic shift are now discernible against the backdrop of late modern society.

Contributing factors suggesting that American culture is moving beyond the parameters of late modernism include: the non-hierarchical social order of subcultural pluralism, the interactive group dynamics enabled by social media, the impact of social media on proactive democracy and the beginning of the global internet marketplace. Other indications that we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift include: the partial collapse of economic classes, the end of consumerism as the defining feature of American culture, the end of Modern art, the deconstruction of Western philosophies, the despiritualization of organized religion and the prevalence of agnosticism.