Posts Tagged ‘liberalism’
Is liberalism totalitarian? I don’t like it, and ‘totalitarian’ is a negative ideograph, so my answer is obvious. But to call liberalism totalitarian, we must first have a definition of totalitarianism; this is white magic, but it should still become black after a simple find and replace. This question unpacks to: what concept can we stick the term “totalitarianism” on so that it’s useful and it allows us to make a reasonable amount of sense of previous uses of the term?
“Totalitarianism”, in this corner of the internet, is frequently opposed to “authoritarianism”. Authoritarianism is of the right and exemplified by Singapore; totalitarianism is of the left and exemplified by North Korea. Authoritarianism is stable governance: it doesn’t care what you think and it doesn’t have to.
An authoritarian state has no need to tell its subjects what to think, because it has no reason to care what they think. In a truly authoritarian government, the ruling authority relies on force, not popularity. It cares what its subjects do, not what they think. It may encourage a healthy, optimistic attitude and temperate lifestyle proclivities, but only because this is good for business. Therefore, any authoritarian state that needs an official religion must have something wrong with it. (Perhaps, for example, its military authority is not as absolute as it thinks.)
There’s also the Wikipedia definition, which, while reeking of liberal white magic, is still not utterly without utility: there is one cluster-in-thingspace of teleological governments that seek to extend their influence as far as possible into the daily lives of its citizens and another cluster of “bland”, non-teleological governments who want nothing more than to stay planted on the throne and perhaps get watered twice a day by attractive concubines wearing shiny expensive jewelry and nothing else.
But what’s the most useful way to draw the line?
I said ‘teleology’ up there, didn’t I? So.
Here is a fairly representative bit of totalitarianism, written by a self-proclaimed liberal:
[People should] have to say,
“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”
“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.’”
And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.
Is the first statement equivalent to the second? Is Marion Barry Alexander the Great? Then what’s the difference?
The second implies a natural end toward which the computer lab in question is oriented and a code of behavior designed to make the lab a better one—where “better” means “better at being a computer lab” means “better fulfilling the natural end toward which the lab is oriented”. The first just asks about cultural differences: the telos of the thing is erased by the categorical—or total—telos of “empathy and accuracy”.
Concomitant with the total telos is total certainty: how can one promote the good-as-opposed-to-evil over the good-as-opposed-to-bad without being certain that the good-as-opposed-to-evil is known? How can one advocate the moral without morality?
Of course, totalitarianism isn’t always liberal; a good computer lab could be one that promotes the Juche Idea, one that furthers the proletarian revolution, or whatever. But the total telos is always there: the good is to be overruled by the just. All things must be oriented toward this total telos. Totalitarianism!
To call liberalism totalitarian, we must also answer the question: “what is liberalism?” We know what it is: it’s a school of political philosophy. The relevant part here is: what does it think? How does it ask about imperatives?
Liberalism began alongside urbanization and as a response to the questions it raised. In a village of a few hundred people, there is little, if any, pluralism: the villagers grew up in the village, think in the manner of the village, and generally buy into the village’s imperatives. But when thousands of villagers from thousands of different villages with different manners of thinking and different imperatives are driven from their villages to the cities in search of work, how can they live alongside each other, and how ought the government rule over such a pluralized constituency?
Fast forward a while and we get Rawls, whose writing style is so incomprehensible that I’ll pull from an encyclopedia instead. (If you think Moldbug is unreadably long-winded, just try working through someone who presents ideas that can be summarized in a few pages in the form of an 800-page book. The most significant writer in all of liberal political philosophy can’t put a single sentence the right way round! What would Nietzsche say?)
Each reasonable citizen has his own view about God and life, right and wrong, good and bad. Each has, that is, what Rawls calls his own comprehensive doctrine. Yet because reasonable citizens are reasonable, they are unwilling to impose their own comprehensive doctrines on others who are also willing to search for mutually agreeable rules. Though each may believe that he knows the truth, none is willing to force other reasonable citizens to live by that truth, even should he belong to a majority that has the power to enforce it.
One ground for reasonable citizens to be so tolerant, Rawls says, is that they accept a particular explanation for the diversity of worldviews in their society. Reasonable citizens accept the burdens of judgment. The deepest questions of religion, philosophy, and morality are very difficult even for conscientious people to think through, and people will answer these questions in different ways because of their own particular life experiences (their upbringing, class, occupation, and so on). Reasonable citizens understand that these deep issues are ones on which people of good will can disagree, and so will be unwilling to impose their own worldviews on those who have reached different conclusions. …
Reasonable Muslims or atheists cannot be expected to endorse Catholicism as setting the basic terms for social life. Nor, of course, can Catholics be expected to accept Islam or atheism as the fundamental basis of law. No comprehensive doctrine can be accepted by all reasonable citizens, and so no comprehensive doctrine can serve as the basis for the legitimate use of coercive political power. Yet where else then to turn to find the ideas that will flesh out society’s most basic laws, which all citizens will be required to obey? …
Rawls’s solution to the problem of legitimacy in a liberal society is for political power to be exercised in accordance with a political conception of justice. A political conception of justice is a moral conception generated from the fundamental ideas implicit in that society’s public political culture. A political conception is not derived from any particular comprehensive doctrine, nor is it a compromise among the worldviews that happen to exist in society at the moment. Rather a political conception is freestanding: its content is set out independently of the comprehensive doctrines that citizens affirm. Reasonable citizens, who want to cooperate with one another on mutually acceptable terms, will see that a freestanding political conception generated from ideas in the public political culture is the only basis for cooperation that all citizens can reasonably be expected to endorse. The use of coercive political power guided by the principles of a political conception of justice will therefore be legitimate coercion.
In a sentence: the good can’t be universal, but the just can be, so governments must rule according to the latter instead of the former.
Where Rawls goes boink is the case where the good and the just conflict, which they do. Liberalism is not a default position; it has its own interests, and whatever has interests has interests that conflict with others’ interests. And, since the just is universal (i.e. categorical, i.e. total) and oriented toward a specific vision of the world (i.e. telos), the criterion for totalitarianism obtains.
Nick Land asks: “How can reactionaries criticize free republics for falling apart? Everything reactionaries have ever respected fell apart.” So I replied, in a comment long enough to merit posting, after slight editing for standalone coherency. I’m not entirely convinced by this argument myself, and I’m not even sure how to put together the positive case for royalism that belongs at the end, but I find this historical narrative at least more credible than the Whig one.
Land assumes a higher degree of empiricism than is actually in the royalist argument: sure, reactionary institutions fell, but history proves nothing; all it can do is provide data.
It’s important to remember here that Moldbuggian royalism follows almost naturally from the libertarian thesis, given certain antitheses, particularly the empirical one that Moldbug notes. Starting from the premise that the Constitution went boink, that the structure endorsed by the libertarian cult of the Founders didn’t lead to the results endorsed, one can either go Chomskyan and blame it on the corrupting influence of eldritch horrors from beyond the Furthest Ring or look at it from what those of a less libertarian inclination might call a dialectical perspective: there are no demons, there is only the logic of the system played out to its natural conclusion. (Not in those precise words, naturally, but I’m nowhere near German enough to start speaking in formal logic about something I can’t draw truth tables of.) If the conclusion sucks under the latter perspective, it follows that the premises suck.
So, libertarianism is flawed not because of observed historical decay—remember, history proves nothing—but because observations of historical decay and the details thereof lead rationally/abstractly to the conclusion that (democratic) libertarianism is necessarily doomed to decay. Peter Thiel (who, I’m told, reads Moldbug) said that democracy and libertarianism are fundamentally incompatible, and Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Hoppe got there before he did. Also note the one-liner common among libertarian circles that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for lunch: libertarians have an instinctive distrust for democracy, but they only take it as far as the Founders did, and royalists argue that that’s not far enough. Even given a magic document (Moldbug: “there’s no such thing as a written constitution”), the democratic processes that exist in the American Constitution (which libertarians are remarkably reluctant to criticize) contain within them the seeds of inevitable decay: decay into universal suffrage and eventual conquest by imported muppets as factions compete to see who can marshal the most meat; decay into economic serfdom as the parasitic majority demands spoils; and decay into tyranny as the insecure mob quakes in its Uggs at shadow-monsters conjured up and magnified by the power-hungry or honest but stupid. (Celine’s third law!)
Of course, royalist institutions fell also, so you still get your demons: sola scriptura, the failure of Catholicism to protect Christendom from Christianity, presented the communist New Testament to a much wider audience than ever before—or, alternatively, the Anabaptists inherited the proto-Whig fraternist doctrine of the Inner Light from the Stoics through the mystic Meister Eckhart and passed it down to the Quakers—and this led to the creation of a political faction that slowly strangled royalism and colonialism to death and then blamed it on their internal contradictions. Civil war by proxy!
The relationship between Britain and Massachusetts, in particular, was much like that between a parent and a teenager. Independence or loyalty: it could go either way, at least for the moment. Scenario: your teenager starts cutting class. So you take her car keys away. So she throws your widescreen TV out the window. So you give her car keys back. Is this pattern of behavior more likely to result in independence, or loyalty?
Thus the establishment of a liberal-democratic creed-state. Fast-forward a bit, to after the first World War, and a combination of an economic crisis originating in said creed-state and France’s astounding idiocy at Versailles resulted in another world war, which led to the military conquest and progressive occupation and reeducation of large swathes of Europe and the near-total worldwide defeat on the battlefield of rightism and colonialism. (But even after that, Franco’s regime survived until the 1970s, only imploding after a high-profile attack from the nationalist-and-therefore-democratic ETA, the withdrawal of support by the liberalized Catholic Church, popular pressure stemming from economic prosperity in the USA-supported democracies, and the political inclinations of the university-educated king who Franco appointed and his father.)
Defeat on the battlefield! The end of history was won not by mere merit, but by the bombs of the militarily and geographically superior Whig army; and the Whig creed’s parceling-out of sovereignty carries within it the seeds of disorder and decay. What, then, is to be done?
This is the point where my understanding ends: the positive argument for royalism, as far as I can tell, draws heavily on Hobbes, Jouvenel, and Schmitt, and I haven’t read any of them. Moldbug makes the argument somewhere that since the democratic division of sovereignty leads to further division, in the form of increasing the scope of suffrage, the only way out is to limit it to one person, but that’s so unconvincing to me that I doubt that’s all of the argument—although it could be all of Moldbug’s, since he still has the libertarian mindset, which cares about the long term, whereas my psychological tendencies point more toward John Glubb and Alain de Benoist, and the premise that in the long term we’re all dead.
Quoth the lawn gnome: “The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, may have no analogue in the annals of parliamentary democracy.” (Old, but it popped up on Tumblr and I couldn’t resist taking a shot at it.)
The comic opera in Washington this summer, which disgusts the country and bewilders the world, has enough analogues in the annals of parliamentary democracy that one must begin to wonder if the annals are shitting themselves. Unless, of course, one is a useful-idiot of limp-wristed Universalist preachers and CIA demons.
Or does Chomsky really have that positive an opinion of George Galloway, Chrysi Avgi, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, or Marion Barry and the other crack-addicted DC tribal chiefs? I suspect he doesn’t much like Enoch Powell, the True Finns, the National Front, or Geert Wilders. And then, of course, there’s Satan himself, although his case is somewhat debatable. Political parties don’t keep their paramilitaries out in the open anymore. Usually. (Note, however, that some parties still have them. “The community will be satisfied if an arrest takes place,” (via GLPiggy) and if an arrest does not take place, what then? I note in passing that Trayvon Martin riots displays over a million search results on Google…)
Of course, the Great Cambridge Underpants Gnome isn’t concerned here with saying, “How can democracy go boink? Let me count the ways.” He is concerned with one particular way in which democracy can go boink—in other, non-progspeak words, one particular way in which democracy can play out its logic to a conclusion considered harmful. (Its logic! Its logic! To someone too dense to understand dialectics, all problems appear as demons corrupting an otherwise perfect system.) What Chomsky is saying is that democracy has been corrupted by the influence of money. In other words, people in more expensive suits than Chomsky are buying political favors. What he cannot say is twofold: first, that money essentially is power, and second, that there are some people who want more power, and will go about getting it by whatever means are most effective. He cannot say the former because it would require thinking about building incentive structures instead of spewing the buzzword-filled democratic-idealist drivel that keeps the suits shoveling buckets of power at him; he cannot say the latter because, well, he probably is one. And even if he isn’t, the shoveling suits above him certainly are.
Money is power, political influence is power, and democracy spreads political influence in such a way that politicians and money-men (large corporations, bankers, and other such bogeymen) can, and therefore will, develop mutually beneficial arrangements, wherein money-men use their money, in the form of donations and advertisements, to advance politicians who serve their interests, by either supporting their agendas or putting them directly in positions of power. This is basic. This is in Plato, for Zeus’ sake. I’d love to hear Chomsky’s proposal for democracy minus money-power, but I’d also love to see water that isn’t wet.
One of my classes this semester claims to be on the topic of “changing the world”: learning the methods of activism and the philosophical backings thereof in order to, as the course description puts it, “inform … decision-making about both ends and means in the struggle to change the world”. However, its actual content is concerned almost exclusively with a small subset of its possible range of topics: the behavior of the government. We are to focus not on our hideously small Overton window, but on SOPA and ACTA, to take one example: the topic of censorship is considered as the topic of state censorship.
This exclusive concern with the ‘public’ sector is a characteristic error of liberal political thought: the only power it recognizes is formal, centralized, and usually governmental. The glaring security hole should be obvious to anyone versed to any substantial degree in leftism or Moldbuggery. As Moldbug said:
A rule that tells us to “keep Mithra out of the schools” is overspecified, unless you think Mithra in specific is the great danger to impressionable young minds. If we keep Mithra out of the schools but we say nothing about Baal, Baal will outcompete Mithra and our children will grow up as Baalist bots.
Moldbug was referring to the separation of church and state—limiting the power of one kind of repeater will, at the very least, not touch the power of other kinds—but this applies equally well to forms of power. What difference is there in practice between thousands of small repeaters situated in a decentralized reinforcement mechanism such that they all send out the same packets and one large, sovereign repeater sending out the exact same packets? The same packets will be sent out either way, but the thousands will go unnoticed, and the one will not.
We can summarize this distinction easily by saying that liberalism, in many forms, is concerned solely with statecraft: the arrangement of the formal sovereign. Statecraft is a subset of politics: the arrangement of society, and the values and determiners of social standing therein. (Adjective forms: registerial, from Esperanto—any possible Latin root is already taken, and Greek would give something beginning with cyber-, which would be far too confusing—and political.)
The values and determiners of social standing thereof… We have already identified statecraft as our Mithra, the focus that brings about the security hole; could this be our Baal?
Well, who canned John Derbyshire? The state?
What was apparently important was not how mild he was but how mild-mannered he could present himself as being; the breach now, in terms of the National Review, may in the end be more one of politesse than politics.
Politesse. Civility, politeness, courtesy. Politesse fired Derbyshire. Values and determiners of social standing, in the ballroom, with a candlestick.
Note the strange liberal speech tic, the assumption that politesse and politics are mutually exclusive. It’s not a political matter, no, not at all; it’s just a matter of “being a good person”, as if such notions are utterly apolitical, outside the realm of dispute, right where liberalism wants them to be.
How, then, can activism, in the registerial sense in which it is taught, change the world? Trying to effect real change through activism is like trying to build a botnet using a hole closed back when OS/2 was the hot new thing, while there are millions of end-users running unpatched Windows installs as root who don’t know any better than to download
If you’re a fascist, say, no amount of activism will be as effective as getting the student body of Harvard into Von Thronstahl. It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference what the government does if the Cathedral priests of the next generation rattle on about ‘honor’ and ‘degeneracy’ the way ours do about ‘justice’ and ‘racism’. (Of course, I’m not a fascist, but there aren’t any bands with my politics. Maybe I’ll start one someday. Bet I’d suck less than Von Thronstahl, or, for that matter, NOFX.) The ‘struggle’ to which my professors refer is far more ideographic than registerial, unless you support the existing ideography.
It’s not entirely ideographic, of course, but this post is long enough already.
I’ve referenced the concept of ideography before, but I haven’t given it a proper treatment yet. In short, an ideography in the political sense is a set of ideographs: terms assigned a particular emotional load by an ideology for use in its rhetoric.
The use of ideographs will often seem absurd to readers outside the ideology to which they belong. An average American going through Nazi political material would almost certainly find the references to Volksgemeinschaft, das Führerprinzip, and Jewry to be, at the very least, disorienting, similar to the feeling one gets when traveling to a foreign country and finding that the toilets have foot pedals instead of flush handles. But then, so would the average Nazi upon hearing the constant references of Western political material to the somewhat isomorphic concepts of liberty, democracy, and fascism. For an example closer to home, consider the reaction of the average American ‘liberal’ (I’ll dispense with my usual scare quotes from here on out; just keep in mind that, contrary to my usual practice, all terms are to be taken in their usual American senses) to Newt Gingrich’s “secular socialism” routine.
Can an isomorphic example, of a conservative reaction to a sound bite applying the liberal ideography, be constructed? It is possible to come close, with, for example, the constant charges of racism leveled at just about every conservative figure and movement, but there is one crucial difference: liberals don’t respond emotionally to “secular socialism”, but conservatives most definitely do to “racism”. In fact, as the conservative line on affirmative action demonstrates, “racism” is just as much a part of the conservative ideography as the liberal one. And, for that matter, the white supremacist one: David Duke uses it.
Pretty pervasive ideograph we have here, if a former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan uses it to deliver the exact same emotional load as Tim Wise. They both agree that racism is a Bad Thing; the only difference is in the definition. Duke wants to apply it to Wise, and vice versa. Any debate between the two (ignoring that, in reality, at least one of the two would have to be carted off by security five seconds in) would almost certainly consist mostly of redefinitions of the term, and other ideographs common to the American political arena. These semantic games are common: witness the attempt of Roger Scruton, one of the few conservatives with two brain cells to rub together, to split the positions he disagrees with that can be supported by the positive ideograph “liberty” into a new, negative ideograph, “license”, instead of rejecting the ideograph altogether.
It is clear, then, that in addition to the conservative ideography, there exists an ideography shared by just about the entire American political arena, which I will call the American ideography. Its contents include, on the positive side, liberty, equality, freedom, democracy, progress, fairness, and justice, and on the negative side, racism, fascism, and anything related to Hitler.
The astute reader will, by now, have picked up on an omission: nowhere have I mentioned liberal ideography. There is a reason for this omission: there may be a few minor differences, but at least on the major points, the liberal ideography is the American ideography. Most ideographs used by liberals are also used by conservatives, and with the same intended effect. (This is less so on the alt-right; one of the many instances of convergent evolution between Mencius Moldbug and the European New Right is their explicit refudiation of that ideography.)
Now consider the history of the American ideography. Its terms’ associations have changed consistently, and in a consistent direction: leftward. Equality under the law became equality of opportunity, and is now becoming equality of outcome. Freedom from the tyranny of a single, unelected, overactive monarch became freedom from fear and want, and is now becoming freedom from any sort of moral judgment of all but the most repulsive forms of libertinism. And so on. Considering the structure and history of this ideography, and its identification with ‘Americanism’, there can be no American Right. The American ideography does not hold promise for conservatives, and yet they do not challenge it; in fact, they do the opposite, and in doing so, sign their own death sentence.
That is the failure of conservatism.
The absurdities of contemporary society outlined in my previous post come from one clear source: the individualist ideography. Human relations are cast as oppressive restraints, and their participants, due to their nature as interchangeable, detached souls existing outside all human constructs, must be liberated from all such oppression, set free to… well, to do what? Individualism is largely silent on that question, but in practice, all it frees most people to do (in the first world, at least; its policies have been far more disastrous in other areas, most notably the former Rhodesia) is march listlessly about in architectural monstrosities of glass and concrete on weekdays and hammer themselves into the ground with cheap beer at night. Meaningless people living meaningless lives, inhabiting places that cannot be homes, occasionally falling into narcissistic restatements, whether New Age or liberal, of the dogma that created their problems in the first place. Or, of course, drug addiction. Anything to escape the hell they have no language to acknowledge.
Without structure, there can be no virtue, only subsistence. Asian parenting tactics are widely opposed, and even in my opinion a bit extreme (mostly because they focus on the wrong things; Asian culture emphasizes skill in repetition over skill in thought, which is useful for getting the best government bureaucrats, but not much else), but when was the last time you saw a white college student with actual competence? As in parenting, so in society: lack of structure breeds failure and apathy.
I saw a high school acquaintance go down that road. He was on the MIT track, but due to circumstances nobody possibly could have foreseen, his train got derailed and he ended up in a party college for rich, nihilistic SWPLs, at which point his parents decided not to give a damn about what he did. He ended up changing his major to philosophy, dropping out, and becoming a drug dealer. Many other people were ruined by that college, that shining exemplar of liberal individualism and hedonism at work; several people I knew there are now reportedly homeless, permafried from acid and riddled with STDs. But our language has no words for such concepts. The absurdity of contemporary society is made apparent by the fact that words such as “wasted”, “trashed”, and “hammered” have taken on positive connotations. Productivity is for squares, bro. Real men fuckin’ party. Drop that Bach shit, let’s crank some Kanye.
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century arch-reactionary, saw this all coming:
In the progress of Emancipation, are we to look for a time when all the Horses also are to be emancipated, and brought to the supply-and-demand principle? Horses too have “motives;” are acted on by hunger, fear, hope, love of oats, terror of platted leather; nay they have vanity, ambition, emulation, thankfulness, vindictiveness; some rude outline of all our human spiritualities,—a rude resemblance to us in mind and intelligence, even as they have in bodily frame. The Horse, poor dumb four-footed fellow, he too has his private feelings, his affections, gratitudes; and deserves good usage; no human master, without crime, shall treat him unjustly either, or recklessly lay on the whip where it is not needed:—I am sure if I could make him “happy,” I should be willing to grant a small vote (in addition to the late twenty millions) for that object!
Him too you occasionally tyrannize over; and with bad result to yourselves, among others; using the leather in a tyrannous unnecessary manner; withholding, or scantily furnishing, the oats and ventilated stabling that are due. Rugged horse-subduers, one fears they are a little tyrannous at times. “Am I not a horse, and half-brother?”—To remedy which, so far as remediable, fancy—the horses all “emancipated;” restored to their primeval right of property in the grass of this Globe: turned out to graze in an independent supply-and-demand manner! So long as grass lasts, I dare say they are very happy, or think themselves so. And Farmer Hodge sallying forth, on a dry spring morning, with a sieve of oats in his hand, and agony of eager expectation in his heart, is he happy? Help me to plough this day, Black Dobbin: oats in full measure if thou wilt. “Hlunh, No—thank!” snorts Black Dobbin; he prefers glorious liberty and the grass. Bay Darby, wilt not thou perhaps? “Hlunh!”—Gray Joan, then, my beautiful broad-bottomed mare,—O Heaven, she too answers Hlunh! Not a quadruped of them will plough a stroke for me. Corn-crops are ended in this world!—For the sake, if not of Hodge, then of Hodge’s horses, one prays this benevolent practice might now cease, and a new and better one try to begin. Small kindness to Hodge’s horses to emancipate them! The fate of all emancipated horses is, sooner or later, inevitable. To have in this habitable Earth no grass to eat,—in Black Jamaica gradually none, as in White Connemara already none;—to roam aimless, wasting the seedfields of the world; and be hunted home to Chaos, by the due watch-dogs and due hell-dogs, with such horrors of forsaken wretchedness as were never seen before! These things are not sport; they are terribly true, in this country at this hour.
The main error of liberalism is its denial of human nature. We, the Whig says, are superanimal—fundamentally rational beings, homo economicus, separate from our hardware, and yet with no higher purpose than the base fulfillment of that hardware. (This, of course, is the Bentham/Mill debate, and the world, predictably, has taken Bentham’s side, leading to our current predicament. One cannot justify liberalism through Mill, for reasons explained best, albeit unintentionally, by Jeff Moss: Mill does not like big squooshy blobs.) If you build a contraption to dispense cocaine to a rat whenever it pushes a bar, the rat will waste away at the bar, forgetting even to eat; and in the end, we are but rats. At the very least, if you firehose dopamine down my mesolimbic pathway, I’ll fry like one.
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.