GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

July 17, 2016

Originary Leftism, revisited

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:44 pm

A while back, in a post entitled “A Unified Field Theory of the Left” I concluded with the following definition of the Left:

The Left is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality.

I have been relying on this definition, but generally in less rigorous forms, referring to the Left as essentially an anti-civilization movement. But this more precise definition calls for further exploration. In that post, I saw the Left as drawing upon an almost universally shared resentment towards civilization but being based more precisely upon a revelation of the “fraudulence” of civilization and the barbarism it (barely) veils. So far, so good. But what I didn’t consider at the time was that this explanation of leftism grounds leftism in an important truth—which also raises the question of why leftists lie so systematically.

First of all, the truth of leftism: the civilizing process makes the implicit claim that increased capacities of deferral (discipline) will increase benefits (wealth, power and enhanced and exemplary flourishing in general). From this claim comes the imperative to buckle down and learn the arts of civilization. Now, the claim, in macro terms, is true: those social orders that have committed to the civilizing process have achieved and flourished compared to those that haven’t. On the individual level, the claim must be assessed much more cautiously: not only is it often false, insofar as individuals who have played by all the civilizing rules often fail and those who succeed often cut a lot of corners but, in principle, it can never really be proven true—how could anyone’s accomplishments be completely or even mostly attributed to their own hard work and discipline, leaving out of consideration things like native ability, luck, “connections,” and so on? For that matter, how could they ever be determined to be “accomplishments,” except circularly? From a negative standpoint, failing altogether to comply with civilized norms will almost invariably have disastrous consequences (even here there are some illustrious exceptions), but presenting things that way makes civilization more or a threat than a promise.

Now I, as a proponent of civilization and sworn enemy of the left, can calmly assess the ambivalence of the civilized person and the resentments he inevitably experiences—so, what further revelation is required for one to hear the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality—to discredit all claims that wealth, power and flourishing can be attributed to higher levels of discipline? (Keep in mind that the leftist does not feel compelled to deny such a claim categorically—just each and every particular one. You might find a leftist who feels he pays no price to agree that hard work makes success more likely; you will find them much stingier when it comes to admitting that that explains the success of anyone they can’t claim overcame some unjust obstacle.) Here are some reasons, which comprise a preliminary categorization of leftist types:

  • the promise of civilization has failed in your particular case: you, in your mind, played by the rules, worked hard, and you still failed according to some relevant measure (this can equally apply to the experience of someone you know or are familiar and sympathize with)
  • the promise of civilization has, to all appearances, succeeded in your particular case, but you really can’t be sure: you started off with some of the benefits of civilization in your pocket, so to speak, and you progressed a bit from there, or held steady, but there’s no way of knowing whether you’re living parasitically off of other’s capital; and, if there’s no way of knowing that, there’s no way of knowing whether those others were in fact living off of others’ labor and suffering, perhaps unrewarded and unrecognized labor and suffering—in other words, you have the nagging anxiety that while others might take you to represent the truth of civilization’s promises, on a “deeper” level you represent its ultimate fraudulence and disguised barbarity
  • you can see how others are blinded by their faith in the civilizing process—all those people out there doing what they’re told, getting by, believing in their right to their enjoyment of civilization’s fruits but without ever feeling a need to “do the math” and consider how much of their (really, contemptible, if you look at it too closely) “success” is, in the end, attributable to their own efforts; and some others who you can see really just exploited some mechanisms already in place to “get ahead”—you see something all these others don’t, that the closer you look the less connection you see between effort and accomplishment, and between celebrated accomplishments and worthy ones—you might say that this revelation, which in less political orders (or for less reactive characters) might lead one to philosophical reflection and a higher form of self-discipline, resolves the anxiety of the previously described uncertainty by making it a generally applicable dogmatic claim with which you can prosecute others (an enormous amount of youth culture goes into cultivating this sentiment, that everyone who gets ahead either cheats or is secretly miserable, and the only honorable position is the alienated one outside of it all—an extension of Gnosticism and romanticism, of course)

Now, I think it is from this last group that the real leftist leadership is drawn from: all those people who don’t see how fraudulent the whole “system” is must be made to see—none of their illusions can be left undisturbed. This is the source of the fanaticism and systematic lying of the left—nothing is forbidden, morality must be subordinated to the higher imperative of making them see—it is precisely that evidence that seems to justify the system that must be debunked. To feel you’ve glimpsed a crucial truth that everyone else (aside from a privileged few, whom you start seeking out and with whom you cement this sense of superiority to “everyone else”) is blind to, and blind to because too self-satisfied and cowardly to see the underpinnings of their comfortable life—this is an extremely powerful form of motivation because you, the recipient and guardian of this revelation, should be at the center, but all these petty, small minded people think they’re at the center—and “society” seems to agree with them. This last group comes from those in the second group who get radicalized (the remainder in the second group are sympathizers and donors), for whatever reason, while those in the first group provide the shock troops of the left. These three groups could, in principle, include everyone in a civilized order, so it’s not surprising that the Left runs up the numbers it does. To resist the Leftist imperative, you would have to understand the rewards of civilization as intrinsic to the discipline itself—that understanding is ultimately truer than the Left’s, but also the most easily forgotten—part of that intrinsic reward is the very power of discernment that enables you to start noticing its intangibility and therefore start questioning it.

I remember reading, many years ago, an interview with Noam Chomsky in which the interviewer asked him how he came by his political convictions. Chomsky traced it back to high school, where he couldn’t understand why everyone in his school cared so much about whether their school teams defeated the other schools’ teams. Why should the mere fact that you happen to go to West Central High rather than East Central High (perhaps because your parents happened to buy a house a couple of blocks away from where they could have just as easily bought one) mean that you should be elated when West Central’s basketball team defeats East Central’s (especially since you’re not even on the team)? Are West Central’s players more worthy—is there any objective reason to prefer them to East Central’s? Just step back and look at all that idiotic cheering in the stands. Etc. OK—all this is fine—every halfway intelligent high schooler gets this feeling of the absurdity of the loyalties, the groupings, the forced enthusiasms, the cliques, etc., in the name of some vague sense that “we’re really all the same” and “there are much more important things out there.” But most high schoolers have other feelings as well—you’re friends with someone on a team, or you’re friends with someone who is friends with someone on the team, and so you know a bit about what’s going on and maybe it’s interesting; you realize that all this cheering might just be a pretext for getting out of the house Friday night, or having a couple of big parties, but you don’t mind having the pretext; rooting for the team makes the game a lot more exciting; it’s a way to meet members of the opposite sex, and the popular girls and guys don’t like people who just think everything is stupid; and, in general, it’s more interesting and fun to have all this stuff going on. So, the Chomskyian intuition is there, but it ends up informing an occasional ironic stance—it consumes you, and you become a Chomskyian, when you feel compelled to preserve that intuition, to elevate it above all other intuitions, and therefore to wage war against all those other feelings suggesting that maybe all the “mindless” rooting isn’t so bad after all. That you have that intuition more sharply or clearly than others, that you have an obligation to increase its sharpness and clarity, to make others see it, turns it into the lynchpin of your identity. You declare eternal war on the kids who are popular through no merit of their own, on the adults who cater to that unearned privilege, and on all the other kids who would like to be like, or be close to, the popular ones—but when you achieve a sufficient degree of political discipline and sophistication, you realize how valuable to the cause it is to “turn” as many of the enemy as you can, and with the exception of those who have remembered the intrinsic value of discipline, they are all potentially vulnerable, so you start to look for weak links—where is the presumed causal relation between effort and reward especially tenuous? Something that seems earned (even something so simple as the right of police not to be killed) can surely be made an example of privilege. And once you’re not doing anything other than looking for those weak links, you are a full-fledged leftist.

So, it’s not quite accurate to say that leftism is anti-civilization—leftism is opposed to any imaginable civilization in the name of an imaginary civilization cleansed of its discontents. And, in practice, opposing any imaginable civilization means sanctioning and encouraging the most uninhibited rage against existing civilization. There are fewer and fewer leftists willing to compromise the imaginary for the sake of the imaginable, probably because of an end of history sense of invulnerability. Both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have spoken this way on occasion: we can still nuke them back to hell if we want, can’t we? In that case, nothing can really ever be that serious—we’ve got our ace in the hole. But it’s virtually axiomatic that a sense of invulnerability significantly increases vulnerabilities. There’s no easier target than the guy who thinks no one would ever take a shot at him.

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