Third Order Thinking:
1 May 2019

Not so very long ago, I found myself judging current events in terms of something that I called “Third Order Thinking.” I can’t remember where I gathered the dust from which I fashioned this new criterion, but I was newly aware of something hitherto unremarked that happened in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Perhaps it was unremarked because, in fact, this “something” was something that didn’t happen.

I can tell you, roughly, that this something was the failure — “failure” is probably a bad choice of words, and one of my objectives in undertaking this inquiry into Third Order Thinking is to find a better one — the failure, as I say, of the rump of the newly-liberated Third Order to develop a new program or mission. Perhaps you would have a better idea of what I mean if I said “Third Estate.” You may recall from school that the body politic of royal, pre-Revolutionary France was divided into three classes: the clergy, the nobility, and everybody else. The vast majority of the members of the Third Estate were peasants. But other, much smaller groups were included in the Third Estate by default, because their members were neither priests nor aristocrats. Most notable among these other groups were the forebears of the bourgeoisie, the “middle class” that would be credited, quite incorrectly in my view, with having engineered the Revolution.

Even if it was not actually responsible for igniting the overthrow of the ancien régime, the bourgeoisie had a mission, which after 1789 became clear to the point of stridency: the extension and stabilization of commerce. This sort of purpose was what the rump of the Third Order lacked. (I will explain my use of the word “rump,” which might seem even more wrong-headed that “failure,” in a future entry.) Instead, the rump persisted in the passivity (punctuated by violence that only rarely amounted to political action) of the old-time peasantry. Although many voices were raised throughout the next two centuries to protest the miseries and urge the betterment of the Third Order — in other words, to advance a mission for it — these voices belonged without exception to members, usually disaffected sons, of the breakaway bourgeoisie. The rump did not speak for itself.

The rump did not speak for itself, that is, until the advent of television. At first, of course, television was designed for the educated, affluent bourgeoisie that could afford television sets, this was no longer the case twenty-five years later. After fifty years, it was possible to imagine that, in television, the rump of the Third Order had not only discovered but tuned its very own medium, through which it spoke to the world with characteristic indirectness. Through television, the rump’s habits of mind, its outlook on the world — what I call Third Order Thinking — had naturally spread through all the classes and economic levels of the Western democracies, so that it was no longer correct to associate Third Order Thinking with the old peasantry’s social successors, the proletarian or working class.

The principle objective of Third Order Thinking is survival, at most a modicum of prosperity in the short term. Third Order Thinking is uncomfortable and awkward with long-term views, in part because the long term is more abstract, more beset with variables, than the short term. Any member of the Third Order who develops a knack for long-term thinking will almost certainly drift into the bourgeoisie, either in person or through (educated) children. Thus the Third Order is continually purging itself of intellectually-active minds. This is curiously reminiscent of the way in which the bourgeoisie of the ancien régime continually purged itself, as its wealthier exponents traded their fortunes for ennobling titles.

All but the keenest members of today’s bourgeoisie, however, have adopted the Third Order’s relaxed approach to everyday life and general distrust of higher authority: we all live pretty much as peasants. (Comfortable, well-fed, healthy peasants, to be sure.) Whether the ambitious, evolving mission of the bourgeoisie will be eroded into insignificance by this concession remains to be seen, but the prevalence of Third Order Thinking has already put Donald Trump in the American White House and yoked Britain to Brexit, and we can be sure that it will not help us to deal with the colossal challenges of robotics and climate change.