I’ve tried this before, and perhaps will have to again, but this is worth doing, even if it takes a few drafts.
Most definitions of the Left focus on their obsession with equality, and that’s certainly a good place to start. The drive for equality is endless, allowing the Left to remain in constant motion: there are always some respects in which people are treated equally and others in which they’re not. It is impossible to treat people equally in one way without treating them unequally in other ways. Equality, despite the common disclaimer, does mean “the same”—citizens are equal, that is to say, the same, insofar as they can all vote. But this sameness now foregrounds differences: citizens with money have more influence beyond their single vote, some citizens are more knowledgeable than others, some find it easier to get to the polls than others, they are equal politically but unequal economically, etc. If sameness/equality is what we want, it makes sense to treat differences as suspect, and that, indeed, becomes the most economical approach to leftism, as we have seen in the current sex wars, where the furious attempt to make one of the more obvious and permanent differences among individuals, that of sex, irrelevant, has no end in sight. We will not have sexual equality until all differences, or at least any difference from which one might draw and invidious distinction in any area of human existence whatsoever, between men and women, and between hetero- and homo-sex are eliminated. As I suggested in my previous post, since this can never be accomplished, the inevitable result is continual violence against reality that just re-surfaces the differences in new ways. It would be easy enough to show that the same holds for racial and economic equality. But it makes for permanent employment for activists.
This is all true, and it explains a lot, but still seems to me to remain within “Newtonian physics”—it takes a homogeneous social space, in which individuals circulate and collide, for granted. Things, including people, can only be the same in relation to some common measure, and someone we imagine applying that measure. The source of the measure in question is that of the modern notion of “rights,” which makes all individuals equal in relation to the government. (Victimary thinking is, ultimately, only an intensification of this longstanding process.) So, it is the state, the heir to the ancient empires, which first reduced all members of the governed population to equidistant margins from the imperial center; or, more precisely, citizens erected such a state to encode and enforce their own resentment of it. The only way to remain immune to leftism is to bind equality of treatment up with shared obligations within forms of cooperation serving specific purposes (which provide the measure in those spaces)—business, schools, trade associations, spaces of inquiry, neighborhood associations, and so on—within a pluralist frame in which no form of cooperation has authority over any other. In other words, a society with endlessly proliferating, non-hierarchical centers—garlic to the vampirism of the left. The state is a necessary precondition for the left, then—it is only possible to imagine endlessly reducing the entire population to sameness once a sovereign bureaucracy cataloguing and accounting for everyone is in place. The imaginary of the Left is intrinsically bureaucratic, constantly on the hunt for unclassifiable differences and anomalies. Even so, for the Left, bureaucracy is always a sign of failure: once the oppressive differences have been abolished, people should spontaneously arrange themselves symmetrically in relation to the center—the abolition of the state still haunts the state soaked imaginary of the Left. Bureaucracy is always called into being when those differences have resisted elimination, or when new, and even more egregious, differences emerge out of the wreckage of the first attempt at differencide. Leftists start off as enemies of the state (historically, the absolutist monarch), which simply means they model themselves on the state that has reduced them to equidistant peripheries as well as on their resistance to that state.
But, still, why do those people comprising the Left want these unachievable, even insane, things? You can never get a straight answer to this question—if you pose the question, what would be a “good society,” you just get a list of hate objects, which are preventing us from doing all kinds of unspecified things, in response. The most coherent answer was probably Marx’s—the equalization of all individuals corresponds to the development of the productive forces, which in turn benefits virtually everyone. But the coherent answer is obviously false, and therefore ultimately incoherent—technological developments generate more differences, differences in human abilities, human desires, and available modes of representation. Eric Voegelin sees modernity as a whole as a post, even anti-Christian gnostic faith: in the terms I have been using here, that would entail a belief that the existing social world, in all of its details, is a product of an evil imperial center that has made us all equal in destitution, material and spiritual; behind that evil existing world is another world, governed by a good imperial center, in which those who see and cleanse themselves of the evil world participate. This explains a lot, as well, especially if we identify modernity with Leftism, in which case the seemingly irresistible progress of the Left would simply follow from the unmoored, post-Christian civilization set in motion by the Reformation and then Enlightenment. The decisive dividing line is the separation of rights from embedded obligations in all the modern republics, real and aspired to. But, still, why the fatal deviation?
By “modernity” I would mean the forgetting of the civilizing process within civilization (postmodernity would be the remembering of the forgetting, but a deeper forgetting of the civilizing process itself). The common association of modernity with the emergence of the market provides us with a good example of this forgetting. Impersonal exchanges carried out through money can take place between communities or within communities—presumably the former developed first, and pre-existed by millennia the latter. Traders moving between communities would always be vulnerable to raiders; exchange could only take root within communities under the sovereignty of some empire, which treats property owners as equal in relation to itself. The same is true of the modern market, which emerges under the protection of, first, the monarchical state and, then, the republics that emerged precisely to protect the newly formed markets. In other words, not “the,” but a particular kind of market emerged—one on which, for one thing, the participants could pretend to disembeddedness relative to the surrounding communities, a pretense which took the form, for example, of the state eliminating and/or replacing forms of property and exchange that didn’t suit the “modern” model. When we speak of “the” market, we evince forgetting of the process that produced this network of markets. Indeed, the development of “the” market might be an index of forgetting, just as it is an index of a more advanced, more tumultuous, deeper and internally vulnerable form of civilization.
Eric Gans, meanwhile, sees the difference between Right and Left in terms of the tension between firstness and reciprocity. The right supports the process of innovation and differentiation while the left tries to ensure that the results can be made compatible with the moral model of reciprocity. This analysis implies the permanence of the Left/Right distinction, and supports the assumption that the Left will always be at an advantage, since innovations and differentiations are difficult to create and even more difficult to control, while finding failures of reciprocity is like shooting fish in a barrel, since any innovation can only spread more or less gradually, exacerbating old asymmetries and creating new ones. But once you have inscribed the Left within the originary configuration, you can only hope to appease it, rather than abolish it; and the only way one can really hope to appease it is by addressing its most reasonable and realistic claims. This entails treating leftist complaints as if they are ultimately about the distribution of goods and resources, with perhaps a bit of recognition of formerly excluded identities. But this can never succeed if the Left’s most reasonable and realistic demands are really distractions from its real concerns—hooks for new recruits and camouflage for political warfare.
It is not necessary to ascribe originariness to the Left/Right configuration. The right exists only because of the left—the left is what set “modernity” in motion; the right has always been reactive. There are other possible relations between founders and inheritors, donors and recipients, creators and disseminators. The relation between Judaism and Christianity is certainly not analogous to the relation between Right and Left. Nor is the relation between the founders of disciplines and those who labor in the spaces they have founded. Or between inventors, producers and consumers. The Left/Right configuration is parochial and contingent. There is no originary reason for the existence of a large numbers of people who will never stop denouncing existing institutions until all individuals, in all respects and all areas of their lives, can be subjected to a common measure—which is to say, never. Reciprocity is built into firstness (the donor presupposes a recipient), and resentment (always conjoined with gratitude) is built into reciprocity, and the moral model is always active, but never on the left—it is in our daily interactions within institutions that we work on evening out the discrepancies between our shared projects and the way those projects are marred by desires and resentments they have been supposed to have transcended.
If a male scientist continually remarks on a subordinate female colleague’s appearance, or takes advantage of relations of physical proximity to grope her, the problem is really less one of male-female inequality than of a failure to adhere to the norms of the discipline. Scientists can only work together if they are all, while in the lab, absorbed in their shared attention to the work. The relation of subordination, which has a purely functional meaning within the workplace, is being mapped onto a male-female dynamic imagined to be in place elsewhere—it may not even be a relation of inequality, strictly speaking; rather, it might just be the convention whereby men pursue women, who are presumed to be deferring the advances of men for the sake of testing and selecting possible mates. Whether that form of male-female interaction (which does distribute power between the sexes and does not sanction sexual assault) should be reformed in some way cannot be a problem for the pair in the laboratory—their business is simply to keep it out where it doesn’t belong, whether in a crude or more refined form. Indeed, the very importation of that male-female dynamic to this inappropriate space, a transgression in itself, encourages the transgressor to adopt its cruder forms. The only real answer here is for scientists to act as scientists should—and that will take care of other issues, such as women being treated fairly when it comes to pay and promotions (and it might facilitate more acceptable forms of the romantic attachments that will inevitably form when men and women share the same workplace—there is an eros to shared devotion to some transcendent object). There will, indeed, be times, where the mapping of various male-female dynamics over the personnel in the labs is so powerful that the real qualities of the women scientists are obscured, and attention must therefore be paid to that mapping. In such cases, the disparity between disciplinary norms and imported conventions may need to be “performed.” But this is still just another way of getting at the problem of scientists adhering to the disciplinary norms they have tacitly committed to.
But how is it possible for scientists to act as scientists should, for business people to act as business people should, teachers to act as teachers should, police to act as police should, and so on? Asking the question presupposes the conquests of civilization: as I have been arguing in recent posts, the result of the virtuous circle of deferral and reward (material, intellectual and spiritual). Only the suppression of barbarism (honor culture and the vendetta) and savagery (nomadic raiding of the products of incipient civilization) makes it possible to slice society up into different “functions,” each with its own purpose, its own ethics, its own rules and forms of association—in short, its own discipline. But a crucial part of civilization is the forgetting of the civilizing process—the desires and resentments that have been curbed are also placed out of sight, producing things like an “unconscious,” where fantasies of, say, killing those who have interfered with your reception of the rewards you so richly deserve, can be deposited. And yet civilization is hard, and it remains hard. It’s hard to be in a room full of attractive people and not respond to their attractiveness. It’s hard to see a counter full of food when you’re hungry and not just reach for what you want. It’s hard to have power over people and not use that power to avenge slights, or satisfy fantasies of domination. It’s hard to be berated and humiliated in front of a room full of people and not lash out, or even allow one’s facial expression to betray anger. Of course, once you are able to do these things, they are routine and no longer hard, because your commitment to something more important, to the discipline, along with long years of elementary training in sitting still, sharing with your neighbor, leaving a room in an orderly manner, etc., makes self-restraint possible—but for this to happen those “barbaric” desires and resentments must also disappear as objects of sustained attention. If you are constantly reminding yourself you can’t take a swing at the department head as he details your failure to meet production quotas, you aren’t quite “there” yet.
And there are and probably always will be lots and lots of people in any civilized order who aren’t quite “there” and never will be—that is, who will never stop mapping the savage and barbaric, in a sense “natural,” responses to physical attraction, a range of unsatisfied appetites, insult and frustration onto civilized, disciplinary spaces. They cannot stop carrying out vendettas and forming raiding parties on the representatives of civilization, even if they do so in more or less veiled and hesitant ways. Civilization can never be complete, in part because it can never rest upon its past accomplishments—there are always residues and recrudescenses of savagery and barbarism to mop up (relaxing civilizing restraints, which inevitably happens once they have become successful and therefore seem to have lost their purpose and become rote and mean, will also encourage these reversions). I suppose this is a way of saying that civilization is always on a war footing, even though war, for the civilized society, is the worst form of barbarism, which civilization only recognizes the necessity for war as a last resort, even while engaging in an endless series of internal and metaphorical wars. Even in war, though, civility, which is to say discipline, is possible.
No civilization has ever entirely freed itself from its imperial origins. The West has come the closest, which is part of the reason why the West has a Left (thousands of years of Chinese civilization doesn’t seem to have produced one). Empire is civilizing and decivilizing, and this ambivalence haunts Western civilization, in particular through its monotheistic faiths. The Left inhabits this ambivalence, finding hideous empires everywhere while fantasizing its own to eliminate the others. The Left presumes itself constitutively civilized, insofar as it obeys the hidden imperial imperative to reduce all beings to the primal condition of equality to which they are (paradoxically) progressing; the Left is in fact engaged in a constant vendetta and piratical raid on civilization, insofar as civilizing discipline is the main source of the differences that must be destroyed to usher in the reign of the center of centers. It is in this double bind that we can see not just in the Left’s obsession with equality, but its choice of targets and means of attack. To be on the Left is to be perpetually outraged that actual empires obscure the real one to which we would spontaneously adhere if it were visible. It is pointless to focus on what the Left claims to support (science, the environment, a living wage, whatever)—the only thing worth examining is what it uses these shibboleths to attack. And what it always attacks is some form of deferral and discipline that must be adopted by all for civilization to be possible (what most infuriates today’s left is the suggestion that the victimary demographics be held to the same standards of discipline as the victimizers). Those who are disciplined and display self-restraint and thereby generate a center (or what Philip Rieff calls “charisma”) are attacked for having stolen that centrality; those marked as lacking deferral and discipline are defended so as to undermine claims to centrality based on discipline. Deferral and discipline are a sham, constructed only to generate a false charisma, so meticulous rules excluding spontaneity are to be imposed on the privileged (if whites behave in a non-racist manner towards people of color [something which only under great duress will be granted], it must be either because of the successful “resistance” of the latter, encoded in various rules regarding discrimination and harassment, or because the whites in question are ritually cleansed “allies”), while the victims are encourage to behave naturally, which of course includes therapeutic expressions of resentment. The civilized spontaneously seeks to model civilized behavior for the less civilized, so the Left incites the less civilized to chastise the relatively civilized (this often involves encouraging decivilizing tendencies among those who have come later to and are therefore closer to the borders of the civilizing process, and for whom civilization is more likely to be a gift to be cherished but also more likely to be hypocritical imposition to be rejected.) So, yes, “equality” is the weapon of choice in these raids and vendettas, but the constant attack on the actual source of inequality, the deferral and discipline of civilization, an attack, which, if successful, would destroy the Left as well, is the object.
Everyone has reasons to hold a grudge against civilization, so what leads one to pursue that grudge consistently, using civilization’s own means, and become a leftist? It must be a desire to see oneself as exempt from the never-ending, grueling, always uncertain civilizing process—this desire could involve simply abandoning civilized restraints and succumbing to some form of debilitating desire, such as drugs or sex. But that hardly puts you on the left (even if there is quite a bit of crossover). What draws you to the left is the desire to be presumptively civilized and thereby distinguish yourself from those who are just fumbling around—from the heights of the presumptively civilized position, the manual laborer who is uneasy around homosexuals can be just as barbaric as the Muslim terrorist. The presumptively civilized often come by their civilized behavior easily, which is why the demands placed on others to adopt it seems a scam—this is why so many leftists come from the wealthier classes, families with a couple of generations of professionals, and other forms of “privilege.” But, ultimately, it is a revelatory event that brings one to the Left: one sees the barbarism concealed behind the civilized forms (the boss or teacher as bully, the police as gangster, etc.), which is indeed always there to be seen and which guarantees both one’s presumptive civility and demonstrates the fraudulence of the established civilized forms. For such a revelation to take, though, there must be others with whom to share it, and a quasi-discipline to give it form. The unsolvable metaphysical complications of “equality” provide the basis of such a quasi-discipline.
The Left is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality. It’s not e=mc2, but maybe it will help.