nydwracu niþgrim, nihtbealwa mæst

reactionary futurism, critical legalism

How the American left really died

with 6 comments

The New York Times, that modern-day Pravda of left-liberalism, recently ran a review of a book purporting to explain the demise of the American left. The explanation given—that leftists failed, for unknown reasons, to maintain an “animating vision” of socialist utopianism—is, as one would expect giv1en the Pravdan nature of the NYT, absurd, but the reviewer inadvertently mentioned a real explanation for said demise.

The left generally failed, according to Kazin, when it emphasized atheism, collectivism and ideological purity. It has been more successful when taking the form of broad, heterogeneous movements struggling for individual rights. Witness the rise of gay marriage, arguably today’s most effective left-leaning social campaign. Viewed as a utopian dream, it promises to transform the institution of marriage. But viewed as a civil rights matter, it simply aims to include more people in an existing institution.

By this statement, one can easily predict, given any leftist policy goal, whether it will succeed or fail: it will succeed if it involves expanding individual freedom, commonly known euphemistically as “civil rights”, and it will fail otherwise. On its face, this may seem like an odd statement; leftism, after all, is fundamentally collectivist, so why are its successes limited to a domain in which it does not lie? But it fits the reality of the situation well enough that, despite its initial counterintuitiveness, there must be a way to make sense of it.

And, in fact, there is: leftists succeed in implementing any policy goal that moves American society further toward the liberal ideal of maximized individual liberty. (Americans may be confused by this statement, since that ideal is much more commonly associated with libertarianism than liberalism in America, but libertarianism is simply a subspecies of liberalism that believes nongovernmental forces cannot restrict liberty.)

A clear example of this is American feminism, which, according to Christina Sommers, can be divided into two camps: ‘egalitarian’ (that is, liberal) feminism, currently the dominant philosophy in feminism, and ‘conservative’ feminism, the illiberalism of which has gotten it written out of the historical record, despite having been historically far more effective than egalitarianism:

Willard, a suffragist and leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, is another once esteemed figure in women’s history who is today unmentioned and unmentionable. Willard brought mainstream women into the suffrage movement, and some historians credit her with doing far more to win the vote for women than any other suffragist. But her fondness for saying things like “Womanliness first—afterwards what you will” was her ticket to historical obliquy.

Approved feminist founders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony promoted women’s suffrage through Wollstonecraft-like appeals to universal rights. Their inspirations were John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and Wollstonecraft herself. Stanton wrote affectingly on “the individuality of each human soul,” and on a woman’s need to be the “arbiter of her own destiny.”

What then, in practice, is leftism in America? It cannot be proper leftism, because proper leftism, as per Kazin, has not been successful; what has been successful is liberalism, which commonly disguises itself as leftism. This may be confusing to Americans, who have most likely never encountered a proper leftist and, if they have, were most likely too distracted by the rhetorical similarities between the two to tell the difference. (Liberalism and leftism are both progressivist ideologies, but they have one easily noticeable difference: the eschaton that liberalism would immanentize is one of atomistic individuals with maximum license and no connections to anything or anyone, with the possible exception of the benevolent State, whereas leftist utopian projects demonstrate at least a faint grasp of human nature. More on that later.)

American ‘leftism’, considering its in actu effects and its rhetoric of “civil rights” and “individual liberty”, can only be described as liberalism, or, more insightfully, as ultra-Americanism:

But when we look at the actual political motifs in the two kinds of anti-Americanism, we see very little in common – besides of course hatred of America.

Clearly it’s this word anti-American that’s confusing us. If we split it in half we can see the trend clearly. To be counter-American is to resist American political theory. To be ultra-American is to accept American political theory so completely that you become more American than America itself, and you feel America is not living up to her own principles.

But what is American political theory? It is, quite trivially, the dominant political ideology in America. Considering the history of American politics, it is clear the American political theory is fundamentally liberal, and that said history can be summarized as the bringing in line of American society to a distinctly un-nuanced reading of that oft-quoted clause in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness

Liberty is license, happiness is hedonism, and our political discourse has been shaped in such a way that liberal hegemony currently goes unchallenged. The left, then, did not die due to lack of an “animating vision”; it was co-opted by liberalism.

About these ads

Written by nydwracu

September 23, 2011 at 04:05

6 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. The progressive ‘liberals’ today are direct descendents, ideologically, of the classical ‘liberals’ of yore, upon whose principles the United States of America was in fact founded. The main difference I can see is that they have evolved from a belief in the primacy of the individual as an individual, per se (without bothering to define that, what it means, its implications, etc.), into a belief in primacy of the individual as a self-defined member of one or more various groups; the next biggest difference, which flows out of that main one, is that the view of the role of the State ended up changing, from having a relatively limited state, having a ‘referreeing’ role, if you will, to having a more comprehensive state, which seeks to ‘level the playing field’ between the different groups, by taking a more interventionist stance, to try to bring about equality of outcomes, for the different groups, out of a belief that justice and fairness requires such.

    Whereas leftism superficially is similar, but sees people more as members of the groups than liberalism does, because though both the left and liberals have embraced identity politics (sex, race, sexual orientation, etc.), the left originally came out of the ‘class struggle’, i.e. Marxist class politics, and, as such, is fundamentally collectivist, de-emphasizing the importance of the individual in favour of the group. In that, leftism shares with traditionalist conservatism, this belief that the community / group, is more important than the individual as such, that his/her desires often need be subordinated to that of the group, for the greater good of society. Liberalism, in either its traditional or modern forms, refuses to acknowledge such.

    Will S.

    September 26, 2011 at 16:43

    • The way I have read Marx is that he didn’t devalue individual development at all; rather, he couldn’t see individuality flourishing without demolishing the contradictions under capitalism that don’t allow us to develop the interests we want to — in fact, how can we even realize those desires when we have to sell our labor in order to survive? Our identities, not our commodified selves, are realized through the interdependency of others. Even in the miasma of the culture we live and breathe, we only develop a “self” through how we perceive others, how we present ourselves, and in turn how others perceive us. One of liberalism’s faults indeed is that it fails to understand the force institutions and ideology have on us collectively, treating systemic and institutional problems as merely individual failings. However, this can also be interpreted in a way that means we don’t have any individuality even under massive superstructure, but that isn’t the case either as so many social constructivists will try to boil down actions of individuals to. I don’t mean to say that “alienation is now complete,” but there is room for individual needs and development in collectivist societies. I think its integral to them. How society is and how it should be isn’t reducible to terms such as collectivist or individual. One requires the other in order for humanity to thrive.

      kariflack

      September 26, 2011 at 23:43

  2. [...] – whom I haven’t been reading until recently, my apologies – on ungovernments and the American left. From the latter: "Considering the history of American politics, it is clear the American [...]

    Randoms « Foseti

    September 27, 2011 at 19:58

  3. My favorite illiberal feminist:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norah_Elam

    icr

    September 28, 2011 at 09:49

  4. Dear sir, I must first confess that I’ve always considered you the wisest/sanest “reactionary” around (not much of a compliment, as we’d both agree… okay, you’re better than all of them put together). Predictable, given my libertarian-leaning communist views – but maybe that’s more than tribal bias.

    On to the post, I 100% endorse the above comment on Marx. There simply IS no meaningful individuality outside of a collective experience, any dichotomy between the two is a bullshit delusion caused by local historical contradictions. So a “pure” individualism or a “pure” collectivism is incoherent, and the second-closest condition would be some self-perpetuating vortex of madness, violence and cruelty on the model of Congo or Sparta. Likewise, anything approaching eudamonia would involve a flourishing of this dialectically united thing we don’t even have an agreed term for.

    (For a poetic glimpse of this dialectic I have in mind, see e.g. The Story of a Head That Fell Off, a sublime short story by Akutagawa.)

    Which leads me to my complaint.

    …the eschaton that liberalism would immanentize is one of atomistic individuals with maximum license and no connections to anything or anyone, with the possible exception of the benevolent State, whereas leftist utopian projects demonstrate at least a faint grasp of human nature. More on that later…

    …Liberty is license, happiness is hedonism, and our political discourse has been shaped in such a way that liberal hegemony currently goes unchallenged.

    I rather agree with what I perceive as your intent here (as much as I can profess to agree with a self-professed fascist), but the denotation is needlessly provocative, and the connotation just makes me angry. My cultural tradition is different from American “liberalism” or “conservatism”, and I do NOT believe that “license” is any kind of liberty at all! I do NOT believe that “hedonism” is any kind of happiness at all! I think that the universal-emancipatory project of the Left, to even have any logical coherency, must by definition include civic responsibility, historical memory and the mutual, rational acceptance of individual choices& consequences within a society. Not for the sake of appearsing the Right, not even for some kind of long-term security and self-preservation, but for any given moment to make sense at all.

    It is impossible to destroy any sort of slavery as long as one still behaves as an escaped slave – to the dark glee of slavery’s proponents – and not as an emancipated citizen. The American Left in particular could sure use some more Frederick Douglass and some less Lyndon Johnson.
    (Then again, the American Right, when describing a society it despises as “Orwellian” and quoting St. George smugly, ought to remember that he wrote, and stood by, Homage to Catalonia)

    P.S.: Regarding that last one, I also wanted to comment with some fully-general anti-Right stuff, drawing on Adorno and Le Guin and The White Ribbon and the Milgram Experiment… fuck it, maybe later.

    P.P.S.: as passive-aggressive and whiny as it might sound, I’m queer in a remarkably homophobic country, so your invocations of “individual freedom” in such a context are starker and more personal to me. “Freedom for whom, to do what” indeed!

    P.P.P.S.: sorry for this awful, forced, Vogonian style, I’m all sober and fuzzy-headed tonight.

    P.P.P.P.S.: looking from the outside… your views on modern Western culture are largely under-nuanced, parochial and project your self-loathing all too straightforwardly. I’m sure you do not desire the kind of pity that such self-loathing invokes.

    multiheaded

    February 11, 2013 at 14:15

    • (sorry this took so long, health problems got in the way)

      There must be a way to synthesize the individual and the collective in a useful way, but as far as I know, it hasn’t been done yet. The closest I’ve seen is a one-liner thrown off in passing by Alain de Benoist:

      Membership in the collective does not destroy individual identity; rather, it is the basis for it. When one leaves one’s original community, it is generally to join another one.

      And although the dangers of collectivism are well-known, the dangers of individualism are not, not at all: especially not the danger noted by Moldbug, that collectives still form, collectives as powerful and Balkanoid as those under explicit collectivism, except they are not recognized as such:

      Are you a progressive because you started by believing in nothing at all (“We are nihilists! We believe in nothing!”), thought it through, and wound up a progressive? Of course I can’t speak for your own experience, but I suspect that either you are a progressive because your parents were progressives, or you were converted by some book, teacher, or other intellectual experience. Note that this is exactly how one becomes a Catholic.

      And if collectivism exists unrecognized, the dangers of collectivism must also exist unrecognized: hence the BDH-OV conflict, hence self-proclaimed humanists advocating genocide, hence radical communists with white man’s burden–in the original sense.

      Anyway:

      I do NOT believe that “license” is any kind of liberty at all! I do NOT believe that “hedonism” is any kind of happiness at all! I think that the universal-emancipatory project of the Left, to even have any logical coherency, must by definition include civic responsibility, historical memory and the mutual, rational acceptance of individual choices& consequences within a society. Not for the sake of appearsing the Right, not even for some kind of long-term security and self-preservation, but for any given moment to make sense at all.

      I don’t trust ideographs to carry semantic content, and I’m not about to align myself with a tradition where it it is neither unacceptable nor uncommon to loudly proclaim the desire to kill everyone who vaguely resembles my family, but I think I’d agree. Certainly with the next paragraph, anyway; have you ever read Quentin Skinner or Philip Pettit? (If I hadn’t read Moldbug, I probably would’ve ended up a communitarian. Analytic philosophy is too detached from the world for my taste, but it does have its moments.)

      I don’t mean to say that everyone to the left of Carlyle wants people to start acting like escaped slaves; only that the dominant progressive position is pushing in that direction. That position doesn’t care about preserving a healthy society consisting of (in your terms) emancipated citizens instead of escaped slaves; all it cares about is that there are social barriers it hasn’t yet broken and power it hasn’t yet seized. (Never trust a social movement that doesn’t see any good in anything outside its sphere of influence!) Crime? Who cares! Justice for Trayvon! Drug addicts? Fuck ‘em, open the floodgates! Depression? First-world problems; we must remain focused on important issues, such as how the college’s philosophy club has an argumentative atmosphere and is therefore oppressively masculine! (No, really, I’ve heard that.) The distance between the Frankfurt School and the Vogons is comparable to the distance between either of them and the fascists. Give me Marcuse any day; anything but the Gawker network! (Although as far as stated political projects go, you really can’t beat Nick Land. I simply cannot empathize with morons, except insofar as they have the capacity to stop being morons. Not that that’s linked to IQ; the dumbest person I’ve ever encountered goes to Harvard, and most of the runners-up went to Reed.)

      I’d certainly like to hear the general anti-Right stuff. Objections beyond the level of shuffling ideographs are entirely too rare these days.

      nydwracu

      February 15, 2013 at 14:34


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 101 other followers

%d bloggers like this: