How Democracies End: A Bureaucratic Whimper?

Victor Davis Hanson writes that democracies end “not with a loud boisterous bang, but with insidious and self-righteous whimpers.”

I am less sanguine than he about what we may eventually discover about Mr. Trump’s decisions and behavior, but I do agree with him that Mr. Trump poses less of a threat to liberty than his critics do.  (Or the prior administration did!  Although the Obama administration never tweeted nasty attacks on journalists, it did spy on and prosecute them.)

Here is VDH:

We are all worried, on occasion, by nationalist and anti-democratic movements abroad in former democratic countries. We all sometimes wish Donald Trump would ignore personal spats and curb his tweeting and thus let his considerable accomplishments speak for themselves.

But that said, the current and chief threats to Western constitutional government are not originating from loud right-wing populists in Eastern Europe, or from Trump wailing like Ajax about the rigged deep state.

Rather, the threat to our civil liberties is coming from supposedly sanctimonious and allegedly judicious career FBI, Justice Department, and intelligence agency officials, progressive and self-described idealistic former members of the Obama national security team, and anti-Trump fervent campaign operatives, all of whom felt that they could break the law—including but not limited to illegally monitoring American citizens, and seeking to warp federal courts and even the presidential election because such unsavory and anti-constitutional means were felt necessary and justified to prevent and then subvert the presidency of Donald J. Trump.

It is willful blindness for progressives and NeverTrump Republicans to overlook what has happened only to damn what has not happened. The dangers in America are not from transparent right-wing authoritarians (who are easily spotted in their clumsiness), but from mellifluous self-styled constitutionalists, whose facades and professions of legality mask their rank efforts to use any anti-constitutional means necessary to achieve their supposedly noble egalitarian ends.

This is the way democracies end—not with a loud boisterous bang, but with insidious and self-righteous whimpers.

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Behind every confessed double standard there is an unconfessed single standard

Jonah Goldberg on Progressives and Power back in 2013:

Charlie Cooke had a very good column and follow up post this week on progressive disdain for our system of separated powers. What liberals want, according to Charlie, is an “elected king” who can do whatever he wants. I agree with him almost entirely. For instance, he doesn’t say it, but this is exactly what Thomas Friedman wants. It’s what all the pseudo-eggheady-jagoff technocrats always want. The desire to simply impose “optimal policies” heedless of democratic or legal impediments lies behind virtually every technocratic fad of the last couple of centuries. We know what to do, and the problem with democracy is that the rubes won’t let us do it! Stuart Chase, one of the architects of the New Deal (who some say coined the term), openly pleaded for an “economic dictatorship.” After all, he asked, “why should the Russians have all the fun remaking the world?”

But here’s where I disagree a bit with Charlie. The key issue for progressives has never been the form power takes, but power itself. You want my five-second lesson in progressive history? No? Sucks for you, because I’m going to tell you anyway: They always go where the field is open.

That’s it.

When the public was on their side the progressives relied on the public. That’s why we have the direct election of senators. That’s why women got the franchise. Etc. In his early years as an academic Woodrow Wilson wanted Congress to run the country — the way parliament runs England — and relegate the president to a glorified clerk. When the public became unreliable and Congress was no longer a viable vehicle, progressives suddenly fell in love with a Caesarian presidency. Indeed, Wilson himself, the former champion of Congress, became an unapologetic voluptuary of presidential power the moment it suited him — and nary a progressive complained (save poor Randolph Bourne, of course). The progressives rode the presidency like it was a horse they never expected to return to a stable. And when that started to hit the point of diminishing returns, they moved on to the courts (even as they bleated and caterwauled about Nixon’s “abuses” of powers that were created and exploited by Wilson, FDR, and Johnson). After the courts, they relied on the bureaucracy. Like water seeking the shortest path, progressives have always championed the shortest route to social-justice victories.

My point is that I think Charlie is entirely right that progressives want to maximize their power. But the elected king scenario is just one of many they’d be perfectly happy with. If they could have a politburo instead of a unitary executive, they’d probably prefer that. But the point is that the instruments are, uh, instrumental. The core imperative is power. We see this in miniature when liberals don’t control the presidency but do control Congress. Suddenly, it’s vital that the “people’s house” exert its constitutional prerogatives! When the president is a Democrat he needs to rule unimpaired. When he’s a Republican, his dictatorial tendencies must be held in check. When liberals want to reinterpret the Constitution by judicial whim or fiat, it’s proof that the Constitution is living up to its nature as a “living, breathing, document.” When conservatives actually want to amend the Constitution — the only legitimate and constitutional means to change the meaning of the Constitution, I might add – it is a horrible affront to the vision of the Founders!

Once you realize this it helps explain so many of the Left’s hypocrisies and alleged double standards. I say alleged, because they aren’t really double standards. You can only have a double standard when you actually believe something should be a standard. Ultimately, for progressives these procedural debates about how power is used in America are just that: procedural debates. The alleged standards at stake are evanescent and petty –for liberals. The only true standard is whatever advances the progressives’ ball downfield. That is the very heart of “social justice” — doing whatever “good” you can, when you can, however you can. As they say, behind every confessed double standard there is an unconfessed single standard. And for progressives, the single enduring standard is “whatever works for us.”

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Book Review: Suicide of the West

Here is Michael Brendan Dougherty’s review of Jonah Goldberg’s latest book, Suicide of the West – How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy.

For an excerpt of the book, check this out.  Now onto the review:

sowBefore social media, Jonah Goldberg would respond to obstreperous emails from a much younger version of me with a characteristically light touch. And although some people still consider me a young and fresh writer, I can find an email exchange from almost twelve years ago in which Jonah and I are talking about James Burnham, the one-time Marxist who became one of the most serious figures here at National Review. Back then it was still common to call all the cranky right-leaning intellectual dissenters “paleo-cons.” The “paleo” label usually did more to obscure than illumine; it united people who disliked the war in Iraq or who just disliked the editors of certain conservative magazines. But these paleo-cons otherwise would disagree about almost everything else. Jonah told me that he found it odd that so many paleo-conservatives claimed to like James Burnham. He thought that if James Burnham were alive today, most paleos (presumably even myself) would hate his guts.

Jonah was probably right. Still, occasionally, I thrill to reading Burnham. It appeals to some fatalistic mood in me. In The Machiavellians, Defenders of Freedom (1943), Burnham interprets for American readers a number of Italian political thinkers, and his takeaway presents just about the bleakest view of the state and society imaginable:

The Machiavellians are the only ones who have told us the full truth about power. . . . The primary object, in practice, of all rulers is to serve their own interest, to maintain their own power and privilege. . . . No theory, no promises, no morality, no amount of good will, no religion will restrain power. Neither priests nor soldiers, neither labor leaders nor business men, neither bureaucrats nor feudal lords will differ from each other in the basic use they will seek to make of power. . . . Only power restrains power. . . . When all opposition is destroyed, there is no longer any limit to what power may do. A despotism, any kind of despotism, can be benevolent only by accident.

Burnham writes as if he is letting readers in on an awful secret about history and politics. However, this knowledge prejudiced Burnham’s own judgment. His view of power made the predictive reliability of his punditry as bad as or worse than average. For this reason his columns in National Review are fascinating. Burnham was so convinced of his theory that power is protected by force and fraud that he often overrated political movements precisely when he found them most irrational. You can find him suggesting in the pages of our venerable magazine that America’s black-nationalist movement has great prospects for achieving its aims. It can be bewildering for an outsider to read, because Burnham seems to be denigrating the movement in the harshest terms. It’s irrational, its historical claims are without merit, it is based on a spurious mythology. And then he wraps it up by saying that more or less it has all the ingredients of a sound and successful enterprise. I’m exaggerating for effect, but only just barely.

In any case, when Jonah told me he was writing a book called “Suicide of The West,” I was more than intrigued. Like Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe, it repurposes an old title and promises some gloomy reading. That’s my kind of thing. And now that we’re getting into my substantive thoughts, I’ll switch to the less familiar form and, like a proper reviewer, call him by his last name.

Just to clear the decks, I want to say something about the Jonah Goldberg style, which is underappreciated. My copy of the book has some stuff written by the publisher, talking up Jonah’s “trademark blend of political history, social science, economics, and pop culture.” Good enough for ad copy, but I think it misses Goldberg’s real genius, as a teacher. What Goldberg does better than any other writers is communicate lots of big ideas to the widest possible audience they can reach. It’s a style of writing that offends the self-serious who willingly write for a smaller, more selective audience. Jonah’s book imitates and ultimately transcends the great dorm-room bull session. And he will use every hook he can get into the reader. It’s an uncommon gift.

Goldberg’s borrowing from Burnham is appropriate because he too is writing about politics and human nature on a similarly sweeping scale. Goldberg’s Suicide of the West is written to defend what he calls “the Miracle” of liberal democratic capitalism. This miracle is the font of our prosperity, and of political arrangements that are far more congenial to human flourishing than anything that came before. Essentially before the Miracle, human life was nasty, brutish, and short. The amount of material progress made in the last 300 years is many, many, many multiples of the material progress made in the millennia that are before that in history and prehistory. We are richer and freer and live longer lives than ever before.

“Miracle” is an apt word for getting across his thesis. For one, the Miracle cannot quite be recreated in a lab. You can tease out and describe the political, philosophical, and religious ideas that made it possible. You can study the evolving habits of being and institutional conflicts that nurtured it in infancy. Like a supernatural event, the Miracle mysteriously builds on and perfects something natural. That is, it recruits our human nature into more productive and civilizing purposes than we would choose for ourselves, unaided by its light. And finally, the Miracle is vulnerable to our return to what’s natural.

Goldberg’s book, in a way, is a rejoinder to Steven Pinker’s recent efforts. For Pinker, the Enlightenment provides an almost unstoppable engine of material and civilizational progress. You just have to beat back the religious cranks and dumb political theories that occasionally get in the way of its progress. Goldberg is here to remind us that in fact the great engine of Progress depends on a complex mix of religious, institutional, and cultural inputs. Press too hard on any part of it and the whole thing can fall apart. Goldberg emphasizes civilization’s vulnerability.

Although a friend of mine calls this Suicide of the West cheerier and more optimistic than Burnham’s own, I found its thesis, if anything, more discomfiting. In Burnham’s world, one set of irrational myths about power is merely exchanged for or replaced by another. The West retreats, and managerialism replaces it. Or black nationalism, perhaps. But there is a chance for liberty to reemerge if there is a balance of powers checking one another again. In Goldberg’s Suicide, the end of the Miracle is a return to power worship, unfreedom, clientelism, war, and shorter, less rewarding lives.

And this is why Goldberg arms himself against what he sees as the enemies of liberalism. Populism and nationalism are enemy ideologies (or moods, in his telling) that can recruit the most powerful impulses in human nature to destroy liberalism. He actually is quite right about some of the characteristics and dangers that these can present to a liberal order. And I agree with him about the vulnerability of the liberal order. But I tend to agree with Patrick Deneen that liberalism’s current vulnerability is due not to our political defections from it but from its own dominance and preeminence in the life of the West. Reading Goldberg’s Suicide finally illuminated where my disagreements come from.

I admit that nationalism is often a kind of eruption within politics. And nationalisms need to be judged by the worthiness of the project they are engaged in, and by the means they use. There is a massive difference between a nationalism that wants a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin, and peacefully votes in candidates to Westminster to effect that outcome, and a nationalism that seeks Lebensraum by means of ethnic cleansing and genocide.

By my lights most of the nationalism in Europe today is an effort to restore popular sovereignty, and democratic legitimacy to government. It is a reaction to a political class that, in a splurge of optimism, tried to move the policy preferences of liberals for the ever-freer movement of goods, capital, and people into unquestionable dogmas that democratic politics could never restrain or modify. In the case of Hungary, I think there is a larger, fitful, and more explicit attempt to restore and maintain elements of a pre-liberal order that liberalism ultimately depends on. But, yes, I’m troubled by some of what I see and hear out of Budapest as well.

Instead of a diminution of liberalism in the West, I think I see the logic of liberalism intruding where it has no place. Separated from any reciprocal sense of duty, the language and habits built around “human rights” can make our natural selfishness more destructive. This sovereign individual is becoming incapable of making covenants with his nation, and even his loved ones. In the hyper-liberal order, commerce is now more important than the bonds of religion and family. We have a society in which credit-card debt is legally much more difficult to escape than a marriage. A religious group that tried to deploy social stigma to effect discipline and respect for its doctrines would be the subject of immense scandal. But the government garnishing your wages to pay for a student loan it gave you for a useless degree is just ho-hum.

The complex mix of social, political, and cultural attitudes produced by hyper-liberalism seems to be overcoming our human nature. I’m less worried about foaming tribalists drunk on natural passion than I am of a generation of grass-eating males, who mute the natural passions and ambitions through drugs, pornography, and the flickering of the backlit screens. And so, in the immediate future, I don’t fear a return to the natural, I fear our continued flight from it. Conservatives used to look at the falling rates of teen pregnancy in the 1990s as a sign of healthy recovery after the antinomian cultural revolution. Now I look at them with utter dread. This isn’t a return to chastity. It’s young people barely venturing out to do “what comes natural” and bonding with each other at all. Americans have fewer friends than they did a generation ago. They socialize less. They marry less. They have fewer children. And the ones we do have are more often than not half-abandoned by their fathers. But they certainly still participate in commercial society, and a small segment of them dream of creating the next major technological breakthrough.

Much of the nationalist reaction we have seen in America seems to me more like a futile gesture against the grass-eating-male future rather than a real political movement. This is particularly true of the alt-right variety, a movement that exhibits all the characteristics of abandoned male adolescents, who have too much time in front of screens and not enough real life.

The diminution of religion and the refusal of so many to create a posterity is fatally weakening Western man’s capacity to lay aside his immediate desires for any greater good. There is simply no reward in his sacrifice if its value is not recognized in the hereafter, among his descendants, or by his society. This total disenchantment of our social life, in turn, gives even greater incentives for those with power to further de-rationalize any sense of national or “tribal” obligations, as they seek to liberate themselves from any residual duties to their own countrymen.

Trade, commerce, and invention all seem secure to me and able to withstand the current political spasms. What I worry about is that a society that de-rationalizes all sense of duty, sacrifice, and even glory will become so unlovely that anyone with a beating heart will wish its destruction even at the cost of trade, commerce, and invention.

Goldberg and I differ in our analysis in that way, but we aren’t so far apart as I’ve made it seem above. Suicide of the West makes ample room for the claims of family and civil society on the individual. Goldberg’s concluding recommendation that we dedicate ourselves to the “dogma” that makes liberalism possible is a deeply conservative one, which distinguishes him from liberals like Pinker. It is a stance of gratitude for what we have, one that enjoins us to something like piety. And ultimately, his vision of liberalism is one that is beneficent, and brings out of us the loyalties and self-sacrifice that would make liberty sustainable. His labor in this book is his own act of genuine piety, and like all such acts, it will move those who do not have a heart of stone.

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Fortresses and virgins

I share this bit from Cafe Hayek partly because of what it says about science but mostly for the awesome Ben Franklin quote.

In last week’s podcast I spoke with Ian Ayres about the power and limitations of data analysis. Ayres emphasized the power and I kept mentioning the limitations, especially in the postcript I added after the interview. I want to clarify a few issues. My basic point was that when it comes to high-powered sophisticated statistical techniques, our biases as researchers and as consumers of that research often triumph over truth. The truth is elusive in complex systems with many things changing at once. It’s hard to isolate the independent effect of one particular variable. When scholars can run hundreds of multivariate regressions at very low cost, it easy to convince yourself that the results that confirm your prior beliefs are the “right “ results. The ones that failed must be the “bad ones.”

When I was in college at U of NC, I took a wonderful course from Richard Smyth where I learned about the American philosopher Charles Peirce and the philosophy of pragmatism. Peirce and the Pragmatists, which include William James and others, believed that the rationalism of Descartes had a dangerous element of hubris. The worship of rationality could lead to deluding oneself to the reliability of one’s thoughts. Prof. Smyth but it this way—your grandmother is right. She believes in certain things. When you ask her to justify her beliefs she shrugs and says she can’t. Some things you do because that’s just the way they’ve always been done. You feel superior to your grandmother because you only do things that are rational. If you can’t justify something via reason, you simply reject it. But your grandmother (and Hayek), were on to something. Norms of behavior that survive, survive because they’re effective even when no one understands why.

Prof. Smyth discussed the Cartesian belief that you should examine every one of your beliefs. If it passes the test of reason, keep it. Otherwise, throw it out. Seems reasonable. But the pragmatists argued that that was akin to examining the planks of your boat while you were at sea. Tearing them out because they look imperfect is the road to ruin. It’s particularly true when you’re less than objective in deciding whether to reject or accept a belief.


Unrelated to post, but funny.

Smyth quoted Benjamin Franklin: When fortresses and virgins get to talking, the end is in sight. That is—when you’re besieged, once you start negotiating, it’s easy to talk yourself into giving in and finding a way to justify it as the right thing to do.

All of which is to say that we shouldn’t pretend to be scientific when we’re only doing something that has the veneer of science. That’s much more dangerous than saying, I don’t know or we can’t answer that question.

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that Ian Ayres or John Lott (whose work came up in the conversation with Ayres) are biased researchers. I also did not mean to imply that data and evidence are irrelevant in how we form our beliefs about what is true. Or that our biases never get overturned. The example of Friedman and Schwartz’s Monetary History of the United States is the gold standard. Facts can be decisive. Statistical analysis can persuade. But I am struck by how few controversial viewpoints in the field of economics have been accepted based on sophisticated statistical analysis. By sophisticated analysis, I mean for example, the use of instrumental variables with a data set that has limited information about the myriad of factors that affect the variable we care about.

Where does that leave us? Economists should do empirical work, empirical work that is insulated as much as possible from confirmation bias, empirical work that isn’t subject to the malfeasance of running thousands of regressions until the data screams Uncle. And empirical work where it’s reasonable to assume that all the relevant variables have been controlled for. And let’s not pretend we’re doing science when we’re not.

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Faith in an imaginary humanity

Very interesting piece from The Times Literary Supplement, written by John Gray, entitled The problem of hyper-liberalism

Let’s not overlook the threat to liberalism from The Left.

In the past higher education was avowedly shaped by an ideal of unfettered inquiry. Varieties of social democrats and conservatives, liberals and Marxists taught and researched alongside scholars with no strong political views. Academic disciplines cherished their orthodoxies, and dissenters could face difficulties in being heard. But visiting lecturers were rarely dis­invited because their views were deemed unspeakable, course readings were not routinely screened in case they contained material that students might find discomforting, and faculty members who departed from the prevailing consensus did not face attempts to silence them or terminate their careers. An inquisitorial culture had not yet taken over.

It would be easy to say that liberalism has now been abandoned. Practices of toleration that used to be seen as essential to freedom are being deconstructed and dismissed as structures of repression, and any ideas or beliefs that stand in the way of this process banned from public discourse. Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philos­ophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project. When students from China study in Western countries one of the lessons they learn is that the enforcement of intellectual orthodoxy does not require an authoritarian government. In institutions that proclaim their commitment to critical inquiry, censorship is most effective when it is self-imposed. A defining feature of tyranny, the policing of opinion is now established practice in societies that believe themselves to be freer than they have ever been…

This “illiberal liberalism” on campuses has become politically significant:

Anxiously clinging to the fringes of middle-class life, many faculty members have only a passing acquaintance with the larger society in which they live. Few have friends who are not also graduates, fewer still any who are industrial workers. Swathes of their fellow citizens are, to them, embo­diments of the Other – brutish aliens whom they seldom or never meet. Hyper-liberalism serves this section of the academy as a legitimating ideology, giving them an illusory sense of having a leading role in society. The result is a richly entertaining mixture of bourgeois careerism with virtue-signalling self-righteousness – the stuff of a comic novel, though few so far have been up to the task of chronicling it. We are yet to see anything quite as cutting as Malcolm Bradbury’s The History Man (1975) or Saul Bellow’s The Dean’s Dec­ember (1982), where the campus radicals of a generation ago were depicted with dark humour and cruel wit. Despite being on a larger scale than ever before, the campus may be too small and self-enclosed a world to interest many novelists today.

Yet the identity politics that is being preached on campus has effects on society at large. Mark Lilla’s The Once and Future Liberal (TLS, February 9) has been widely attacked for claiming that a Rooseveltian project of building a common identity that spans ethnicities can produce a more enduring liberal politics: any such view, faculty inquisitors hiss, can only be a disguised defence of white supremacy. Lilla’s book cannot be faulted on the ground that it harks back to Roosevelt. By attacking a liberal conception of American national identity as a repressive construction, hyper-liberals confirmed the perception of large sections of the American population – not least blue-collar workers who voted Democrat in the past – that they were being excluded from politics. Showing how the decline of liberalism in America has been mostly self-induced, Lilla’s book has performed an important service. If his analysis has a fault, it is that it does not go back further in time and explore the moment when liberalism became a secular religion.

The author traces the origins of “the Religion of Humanity” back to Comte and Mill:

Much influenced by Auguste Comte, he [Mill] was an exponent of what he and the French Positivist philosopher described as “the Religion of Humanity”. Instead of worshipping a transcendent divinity, Comte instructed followers of the new religion to venerate the human species as “the new Supreme Being”. Replacing the rituals of Christianity, they would perform daily ceremonies based in science, touching their skulls at the point that phrenology had identified as the location of altruism (a word Comte invented). In an essay written not long before the appearance of On Liberty but published posthumously (he died in 1873), Mill described this creed as “a better religion than any of those that are ordinarily called by that title”.

Mill’s transmutation of liberalism into a religion marked a fundamental shift. Modern liberal societies emerged as offshoots from Jewish and Christian monotheism. The idea that political and religious authority should be separated is prefigured in the dictum of the charismatic Jewish prophet who came to be revered as Christianity’s founder: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s”. In seventeenth-century England, Milton defended freedom of conscience and expression as a condition of true faith, while John Locke saw toleration as a duty to God. When they claimed universality for these values they did so in the belief that they were divinely ordained. Mill and the secular liberals who followed him did not give up the claim to universality. They made it all the more strongly, and in a more radical form. What this meant for Mill becomes clear in the third chapter of On Liberty, “Of Individuality as one of the Elements of Well-Being”. Here, freedom no longer refers only, or even mainly, to protection from coercion by the law or other people – a system of toleration – but to a radical type of personal autonomy – the ability to create an identity and a style of life for oneself without regard for public opinion or any external authority. In future, only a single type of life would be tolerated – one based on individual choice.

It is a problematic vision, some of whose difficulties Mill glimpsed. A society that promotes individuality of this kind will iron out differences based in tradition and history; but since much of the diversity of human life comes from these sources, the result may be mass conformity. Again, in a society of the sort Mill envisioned, other religions and philos­ophies would be gradually eliminated. But if only one view of the world is acceptable, what becomes of intellectual diversity? This was not a theoretical risk for Mill. He found it exemplified in Comte, whose philosophy he came to believe led to “liberticide” – the destruction of intellectual freedom that comes when everyone is required to hold the same view. A hostile critic of liberalism who valued free inquiry only insofar as it was useful in weeding out irrational beliefs, Comte welcomed the rise of an intellectual orthodoxy with the power to impose itself on society. Mill was horrified by the prospect. He could scarcely have imagined that such an orthodoxy would be developed and enforced by liberals not unlike himself.

If history and observation are any guide, humankind does not gradually achieve “its goals,” but muddles along with conflicting goals (and values).

Liberals who rail at populist movements are adamant that voters who support them are deluded or deceived. The possibility that these movements are exploiting needs that highly individualist societies cannot satisfy is not seriously considered. In the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation such needs have been dismissed as atavistic prejudices, which must be swept away wherever they stand in the way of schemes for transnational government or an expanding global market. This stance is one reason why anti-liberal movements continue to advance. Liberalism and empiricism have parted company, and nothing has been learnt. Some of the strongest evidence against the liberal belief that we learn from our errors and follies comes from the behaviour of liberals themselves.

And now back to the threat from an “apocalyptic” and “millenarian” Left:

That modern politics has been shaped by secular religions is widely recognized in the case of totalitarian regimes. Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government (TLS, December 22 & 29, 2017) is a magisterial account of Bolshevism as an apocalyptic sect, which differed from earlier millenarian groups in the vast territory over which it ruled and the scale of the power it exercised. Whereas Jan Bockelson and his early sixteenth-century Anabaptists controlled only the city of Münster, Lenin and his party ruled over the peoples of the former Romanov empire. By destroying existing institutions, they aimed to open the way to a new society – indeed a new humanity. The Bolshevik project came to nothing, apart from death and broken lives for tens of millions. But the Bolsheviks would not be the last millenarian movement to seize control of a modern state. In his pioneering study The Pursuit of the Millennium (1957), Norman Cohn showed how Nazism was also a chiliastic movement. Mao’s Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s Cambodia can be added to the list. Much of twentieth-century politics was the pursuit of apocalyptic visions by secular regimes.

While liberals have been ready to acknowledge that totalitarian movements have functioned as corrupt religions, they resist any claim that the same has been true in their own case. Yet an evangelical faith was manifestly part of the wars launched by the West in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. No doubt these wars served geopolitical strategies, however poorly thought out and badly executed, but underpinning them was an article of faith: that slowly, fitfully and with many relapses, humankind was evolving towards a worldwide society based on liberal values. Existing humans might vary greatly in their devotion to these values; some might be bitterly hostile to them. But this was only a result of having been repressed for so long. Sweep away the tyrants and their regimes, and a new humanity would emerge from the ruins. And when it failed to materialize, it was only because there had been insufficient preparation for its arrival.

Certain freedoms, “late growths of Judaism and Christianity” which have existed mostly in the “liberal West” and in just the past few centuries, will be transcended as transnational humanism replaces old cultural constructions with new ones.

Hyper-liberals will reject any idea that what they are promoting is an exorbitant version of the liberalism they incessantly attack. Yet the belief persists that a new society will appear once we have been stripped of our historic identities, and switched to a system in which all are deemed different and yet somehow the same. In this view, all identities are equal in being cultural constructions. In practice some identities are more equal than others. Those of practitioners of historic nationalities and religions, for example, are marked out for deconstruction, while those of ethnic and sexual minorities that have been or are being oppressed are valorized. How this distinction can be maintained is unclear. If human values are no more than social constructions, how can a society that is oppressive be distinguished from one that is not? Or do all societies repress an untrammelled human subject that has yet to see the light of day?

The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God – a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion. Parallels with the new humanity envisioned by the Bolsheviks are obvious. But it is the affinities with recent liberalism that are more pertinent. In the past, liberals have struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberty with a recognition that people need a sense of collective belonging as well. In other writings Mill balanced the individualism of On Liberty with an understanding that a common culture is necessary if freedom is to be secure, while Isaiah Berlin acknowledged that for most people being part of a community in which they can recognize themselves is an integral part of a worthwhile life. These insights were lost, or suppressed, in the liberalism that prevailed after the end of the Cold War. If it was not dismissed as ata­vistic, the need for a common identity was regarded as one that could be satisfied in private life. A global space was coming into being that would recognize only universal humanity. Any artefact that embodied the achievements of a particular state or country could only be an obstacle to this notional realm. The hyper-liberal demand that public spaces be purged of symbols of past oppression continues a post-Cold War fantasy of the end of history.

Liberals who are dismayed at the rise of the new intolerance have not noticed how much they have in common with those who are imposing it. Hyper-liberal “snowflakes”, who demand safe spaces where they cannot be troubled by disturbing facts and ideas, are what their elders have made them. Possessed by faith in an imaginary humanity, both seek to weaken or destroy the national and religious traditions that have supported freedom and toleration in the past. Insignificant in itself and often comically absurd, the current spate of campus frenzies may come to be remembered for the part it played in the undoing of what is still described as the liberal West.

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Seizing the cultural means of production

Pretty good summary of how culture is upstream of politics:

One can look at the Frankfurt school’s cultural Marxism not as a replacement for classical Marxism, but as the accelerator pedal that was missing from the wheezing, stalling vehicle. The cultural Marxist agrees with the classical Marxist that history passes through a series of stages on the way to the final Marxist utopia, through slavery and capitalism and socialism and ultimately to the classless society. But the cultural Marxist recognizes that communists will not get there by economics alone. In essence, cultural Marxists shrewdly realized that the classical Marxists would utterly fail to take down the West with an economic revolution; capitalism would always blow away communism, and the masses would choose capitalism. Cultural Marxists understand that the revolution requires a cultural war over an economic war.

How The Frankfurt School came to America:

The key figures of the Frankfurt School included Georg Lukacs, Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich — who literally wrote the book and coined the term, The Sexual Revolution — Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, and others. The formal school began in 1923 as the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt in Germany. Among its driving forces from within Moscow was Willi Munzenberg, the so-called Red millionaire. “We must organize the intellectuals,” exhorted Munzenberg.

And so they would. And how did they slither into America?

The threat of Hitler’s Germany drove the Frankfurt School out of Europe and into the welcoming arms of America’s left-wing colleges. … So, they and their Institute came to New York City, specifically to the campus of Columbia University, already a hotbed of communism.

Pleading the case for them at Columbia was John Dewey, founding father of American public education, progressive fool, and communist sympathizer. Thus, their primary area of operation would be the educational system — the schools, the universities, and particularly the teachers’ colleges. It was no coincidence that Columbia housed the nation’s top teachers’ college — a creation of John Dewey.

The subsequent march through the institutions can be credited to “the most dangerous socialist in history,” Antonio Gramsci:

Whereas Marx and his original followers were all about class economics, seeing wealth redistribution and the seizure of the means of production as the key to their vision, Gramsci looked to culture. If the Left truly wanted to win, it needed to first seize the “cultural means of production”: culture-forming institutions such as the media and universities and even churches.

Not until leftists came to dominate these institutions would they be able to convince enough people to support their Marxist revolution. “This part of his thesis was like manna from heaven for many left-wing Western intellectuals,” writes Sam Gregg. “Instead of joining a factory collective or making bombs in basements, a leftist professor could help free society from capitalist exploitation by penning essays in his office or teaching students.”

And in a really radical stroke — one too radical for its own time, but that would ultimately succeed — Gramsci and his heirs insisted that these leftist intellectuals needed to question everything, including moral absolutes and the Judeo-Christian basis of Western civilization. They needed to frame seemingly benign conventions as systematic injustices that must be exposed. This is where we got professors fulminating against everything from “the patriarchy” to “white imperialism” to “transphobia.” By the 21st century, even biological sex was no longer considered a settled issue. As I write, the New York City council offers public employees the option of choosing from 31 different gender identities. Of course, that’s nothing compared to Facebook, which at various times in the last three years has listed 51 gender options, 535658, and 71.

There was no traditional institution off limits to the cultural Left.

In fact, so “critical” was the cultural-Marxist left of anything and everything that it would brand itself as “critical theory.”

The worst part? Your typical hipster at Starbucks likely has no clue that “she’s engaging in a vast cultural Marxist revolution.”  But she is.

Sam Gregg puts it well: “The worst part of Gramsci’s legacy is that it has effectively transcended its Marxist origins.His outlook is now blankly taken for granted by millions of teachers, writers, even churchmen, who have no idea that they are committed to cultural Marxism.”

That’s so true. And so, adds Gregg, “the vast structures of cynicism which Gramsci’s ideas have built, which honeycomb Western society today, will prove much tougher to dismantle than the crude cement blocks of the old Berlin Wall.”

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A combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau


Happy 200th Birthday Karl… you anti-Semitic bastard, you.

You were right.  We should listen!

Actually… not quite right.  A reasonable critique of the excesses of capitalism, most notably the 19th-century version of capitalism?  Ok.

But your recommendations?  Whoo-boy.  What a mess.

Seriously wrongwrongwrong.  In ways guaranteed to fail in practice.  In ways that led to the murder of scores of millions, the enslavement of hundreds of millions, and the oppression of hundreds of millions (over a billion?) more.

(UPDATE 5/12/18, added here instead of at the end of the post.)  Andrew Stuttaford writes:

To deny that Karl Marx was, at times, a startlingly original thinker, would be nutty. To deny that he was, in many respects, one of the most lethal of a long line of millenarian preachers, is to embrace ignorance. And to deny that his work inspired the death of maybe one hundred million victims is something altogether more sinister. Marx may or may not have anticipated the scale of the slaughter to come, but he understood perfectly well that mass murder was part of the package.

Given where the world now is, and given where the growing cultural hegemony (© Antonio Gramsci, Marxist) of the left now is, it is, I suppose, unsurprising, if disgusting, that the two-hundredth anniversary of Marx’s birth, which fell on May 5, has been marked quite so reverentially.

(end of UPDATE)

In a long but worthwhile piece in Commentary, from which I’m going to excerpt a bit here, Jonah Goldberg argues that “Marx didn’t supplant old ideas about money and commerce; he intensified them.”

Goldberg first outlines how commerce had been stigmatized since antiquity: the Greeks, the Romans, early Christianity, the Catholic Church, Martin Luther…  Luther despised commerce, and his views of Jews “were just as immodest.”

That may have changed a little bit in the “somewhat more prosperous and market-driven medieval period,” as it morphed into a flavor of Antisemitism.

In the medieval mind, Jews were seen as a kind of stand-in for mercantile and usurious sinfulness.  Living outside the Christian community, but within the borders of Christendom, they were allowed to commit the sin of usury on the grounds that their souls were already forfeit. Pope Nicholas V insisted that it is much better that “this people should perpetrate usury than that Christians should engage in it with one another.”  The Jews were used as a commercial caste the way the untouchables of India were used as a sanitation caste. As Montesquieu would later observe in the 16th century, “whenever one prohibits a thing that is naturally permitted or necessary, the people who engage in it are regarded as dishonest.” Thus, as Muller has argued, anti-Semitism has its roots in a kind of primitive anti-capitalism.

Goldberg concludes this brief history with, “Three centuries later, Karl Marx would blend these ideas together in a noxious stew.”

Next up, discussion of the labor theory of value and the stigmatization of moneymaking:

The idea at the center of virtually all of Marx’s economic writing is the labor theory of value. It holds that all of the value of any product can be determined by the number of hours it took for a laborer or laborers to produce it. From the viewpoint of conventional economics—and elementary logic—this is ludicrous. For example, ingenuity, which may not be time-consuming, is nonetheless a major source of value. Surely it cannot be true that someone who works intelligently, and therefore efficiently, provides less value than someone who works stupidly and slowly. (Marx anticipates some of these kinds of critiques with a lot of verbiage about the costs of training and skills.) But the more relevant point is simply this: The determinant of value in an economic sense is not the labor that went into a product but the price the consumer is willing to pay for it. Whether it took an hour or a week to build a mousetrap, the value of the two products is the same to the consumer if the quality is the same.

Marx had philosophical, metaphysical, and tactical reasons for holding fast to the labor theory of value. It was essential to his argument that capitalism—or what we would now call “commerce” plain and simple—was exploitative by its very nature. In Marx, the term “exploitation” takes a number of forms. It is not merely evocative of child laborers working in horrid conditions; it covers virtually all profits. If all value is captured by labor, any “surplus value” collected by the owners of capital is by definition exploitative. The businessman who risks his own money to build and staff an innovative factory is not adding value; rather, he is subtracting value from the workers. Indeed, the money he used to buy the land and the materials is really just “dead labor.” For Marx, there was an essentially fixed amount of “labor-power” in society, and extracting profit from it was akin to strip-mining a natural resource

Because Marx preached revolution, we are inclined to consider him a revolutionary. He was not. None of this was a radical step forward in economic or political thinking. It was, rather, a reaffirmation of the disdain of commerce that starts with Plato and Aristotle and found new footing in Christianity.  As Jerry Muller (to whom I am obviously very indebted) writes:

To a degree rarely appreciated, [Marx] merely recast the traditional Christian stigmatization of moneymaking into a new vocabulary and reiterated the ancient suspicion against those who used money to make money. In his concept of capitalism as “exploitation” Marx returned to the very old idea that money is fundamentally unproductive, that only those who live by the sweat of their brow truly produce, and that therefore not only interest, but profit itself, is always ill-gotten.

Then onto the romantic roots of scientific socialism:

Marx was a classic bohemian who resented the fact that he spent his whole life living off the generosity of, first, his parents and then his collaborator Friedrich Engels. He loathed the way “the system” required selling out to the demands of the market and a career. The frustrated poet turned to the embryonic language of social science to express his angry barbaric yawp at The Man. “His critique of the stultifying effects of labor in a capitalist society,” Muller writes, “is a direct continuation of the Romantic conception of the self and its place in society.”

In other words, Marx was a romantic, not a scientist. Romanticism emerged as a rebellion against the Enlightenment, taking many forms—from romantic poetry to romantic nationalism. But central to all its forms was the belief that modern, commercial, rational life is inauthentic and alienating, and cuts us off from our true natures.

As Rousseau, widely seen as the first romantic, explained in his Discourse on the Moral Effects of the Arts and Sciences, modernity—specifically the culture of commerce and science—was oppressive. The baubles of the Enlightenment were mere “garlands of flowers” that concealed “the chains which weigh [men] down” and led people to “love their own slavery.”

This is a better context for understanding Marx’s and Engels’s hatred of the division of labor and the division of rights and duties. Their baseline assumption, like Rousseau’s, is that primitive man lived a freer and more authentic life before the rise of private property and capitalism.

Long before Hitler, Marx pens an essay “On the Jewish Question” …

For Marx, then, the Jew might as well be the real culprit who told Eve to bite the apple. For the triumph of the Jew and the triumph of money led to the alienation of man. And in truth, the term “alienation” is little more than modern-sounding shorthand for exile from Eden. The division of labor encourages individuality, alienates us from the collective, fosters specialization and egoism, and dethrones the sanctity of the tribe.

Marx’s muse was not analytical reason, but resentment. That is what fueled his false consciousness. To understand this fully, we should look at how that most ancient and eternal resentment—Jew-hatred—informed his worldview…

The atheist son of a Jewish convert to Lutheranism and the grandson of a rabbi, Karl Marx hated capitalism in no small part because he hated Jews. According to Marx and Engels, Jewish values placed the acquisition of money above everything else. Marx writes in his infamous essay “On the Jewish Question”:

Let us consider the actual, worldly Jew—not the Sabbath Jew … but the everyday Jew.

Let us not look for the secret of the Jew in his religion, but let us look for the secret of his religion in the real Jew.

What is the secular basis of Judaism? Practical need, self-interest. What is the worldly religion of the Jew? Huckstering. What is his worldly God? Money [Emphasis in original]

The spread of capitalism, therefore, represented a kind of conquest for Jewish values. The Jew—at least the one who set up shop in Marx’s head—makes his money from money. He adds no value.

… in which he alleges that the “inhumanity of present existence” has Jewish causes:

This is the essence of Marx’s view of alienation. Marx believed that people were free, creative beings but were chained to their role as laborers in the industrial machine. The division of labor inherent to capitalist society was alienating and inauthentic, pulling us out of the communitarian natural General Will. The Jew was both an emblem of this alienation and a primary author of it:

The Jew has emancipated himself in a Jewish manner, not only because he has acquired financial power, but also because, through him and also apart from him, money has become a world power and the practical Jewish spirit has become the practical spirit of the Christian nations. The Jews have emancipated themselves insofar as the Christians have become Jews. [Emphasis in original]

He adds, “The god of the Jews has become secularized and has become the god of the world. The bill of exchange is the real god of the Jew. His god is only an illusory bill of exchange.” And he concludes: “In the final analysis, the emancipation of the Jews is the emancipation of mankind from Judaism.” [Emphasis in original]

In The Holy Family, written with Engels, he argues that the most pressing imperative is to transcend “the Jewishness of bourgeois society, the inhumanity of present existence, which finds its highest embodiment in the system of money.” [Emphasis in original]

In his “Theories of Surplus Value,” he praises Luther’s indictment of usury. Luther “has really caught the character of old-fashioned usury, and that of capital as a whole.” Marx and Engels insist that the capitalist ruling classes, whether or not they claim to be Jewish, are nonetheless Jewish in spirit. “In their description of the confrontation of capital and labor, Marx and Engels resurrected the traditional critique of usury,” Muller observes. Or, as Deirdre McCloskey notes, “the history that Marx thought he perceived went with his erroneous logic that capitalism—drawing on an anticommercial theme as old as commerce—just is the same thing as greed.”  Paul Johnson is pithier: Marx’s “explanation of what was wrong with the world was a combination of student-café anti-Semitism and Rousseau.”

Goldberg also argues that Marx’s writing is “drenched with references to capital as parasitic and vampiric” and, as a result, an update to the ancient blood libel:

The constant allusions to the eternal wickedness of the Jew combined with his constant references to blood make it hard to avoid concluding that Marx had simply updated the blood libel and applied it to his own atheistic doctrine. His writing is replete with references to the “bloodsucking” nature of capitalism. He likens both Jews and capitalists (the same thing in his mind) to life-draining exploiters of the proletariat…

Marx’s vision of exploitative, Jewish, bloodsucking capital was an expression of romantic superstition and tribal hatred. Borrowing from the medieval tradition of both Catholics as well as Luther himself, not to mention a certain folkloric poetic tradition, Marx invented a modern-sounding “scientific” theory that was in fact reactionary in every sense of the word.  “If Marx’s vision was forward-looking, its premises were curiously archaic,” Muller writes. “As in the civic republican and Christian traditions, self-interest is the enemy of social cohesion and of morality. In that sense, Marx’s thought is a reversion to the time before Hegel, Smith, or Voltaire.”  

In fairness to Marx, he does not claim that he wants to return to a feudal society marked by inherited social status and aristocracy. He is more reactionary than that. The Marxist final fantasy holds that at the end of history, when the state “withers away,” man is liberated from all exploitation and returns to the tribal state in which there is no division of labor, no dichotomy of rights and duties.

Marx’s “social science” was swept into history’s dustbin long ago. What endured was the romantic appeal of Marxism, because that appeal speaks to our tribal minds in ways we struggle to recognize, even though it never stops whispering in our ears.

Goldberg ends the piece with discussion about the timeless appeal of Marxism:

[Marx’s ideas] conformed to older, traditional ways of seeing the world—far more than Marxist zealots have ever realized. The idea that there are malevolent forces above and around us, manipulating our lives and exploiting the fruits of our labors, was hardly invented by him. In a sense, it wasn’t invented by anybody. Conspiracy theories are as old as mankind, stretching back to prehistory… To a very large extent, this is what Marxism is —an extravagant conspiracy theory in which the ruling classes, the industrialists, and/or the Jews arrange affairs for their own benefit and against the interests of the masses…

A second reason Marxism is so successful at fixing itself to the human mind is that it offers—to some—a palatable substitute for the lost certainty of religious faith. Marxism helped to restore certainty and meaning for huge numbers of people who, having lost traditional religion, had not lost their religious instinct. One can see evidence of this in the rhetoric used by Marxist and other socialist revolutionaries who promised to deliver a “Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.”

When God became sidelined as the source of ultimate meaning, “the people” became both the new deity and the new messianic force of the new order. In other words, instead of worshipping some unseen force residing in Heaven, people started worshipping themselves. This is what gave nationalism its spiritual power, as the volksgeist, people’s spirit, replaced the Holy Spirit. The tribal instinct to belong to a sacralized group took over. In this light, we can see how romantic nationalism and “globalist” Marxism are closely related. They are both “re-enchantment creeds,” as the philosopher-historian Ernest Gellner put it. They fill up the holes in our souls and give us a sense of belonging and meaning.

For Marx, the inevitable victory of Communism would arrive when the people, collectively, seized their rightful place on the Throne of History.  The cult of unity found a new home in countless ideologies, each of which determined, in accord with their own dogma, to, in Voegelin’s words, “build the corpus mysticum of the collectivity and bind the members to form the oneness of the body.” Or, to borrow a phrase from Barack Obama, “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

In practice, Marxist doctrine is more alienating and dehumanizing than capitalism will ever be. But in theory, it conforms to the way our minds wish to see the world. There’s a reason why so many populist movements have been so easily herded into Marxism. It’s not that the mobs in Venezuela or Cuba started reading The Eighteenth Brumaire and suddenly became Marxists. The peasants of North Vietnam did not need to read the Critique of the Gotha Program to become convinced that they were being exploited. The angry populace is always already convinced. The people have usually reached the conclusion long ago. They have the faith; what they need is the dogma. They need experts and authority figures—priests!—with ready-made theories about why the masses’ gut feelings were right all alongThey don’t need Marx or anybody else to tell them they feel ripped off, disrespected, exploited. They know that already. The story Marxists tell doesn’t have to be true. It has to be affirming. And it has to have a villain. The villain, then and now, is the Jew.


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