Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Regressive Left Pt. 8: The Regressive Soul

Alongside Marxism, the Victorian era social purity movements, could be described as a parallel developments.  These were “do-gooder” causes generally spearheaded by women activists in the mid to late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Their intention was to reassert traditional Christian morality, and so sought to curtail sex, alcohol use and gambling. 

At first glance this does not seem at all leftist; more comparable to the religious right of the 1980s.  But as with feminist and traditionalist alliances to combat pornography in the 80s, the social purity movement triangulated with social justice and traditionalist movements.  Many of its adherents were suffragettes – so much for the myth that regressivism in feminism is a new phenomenon.  It's also noteworthy that certain concepts on the alt-right, such as "race realism" - then called "racial hygiene" found support with social purists.

The social purity movement owed its doctrine in part to the puritanical character of the protestant Christianity of its day (itself a revival of classic 17th century puritan morality occurring in response to a spike in out of wedlock births among the lower classes in the late 18th century stemming from the libertinism of that era - the pendulum goes back and forth ...), and in part  to the influence of early to mid 19th century utopian socialism and the abolitionist movement which, despite having as its primary intent and purpose the noblest objective of outlawing slavery, was also prone to high standards of lifestyle purity and boundary policing between itself and a broader society often seen as corrupt and wicked. 

One of these Utopian influences was French Utopian Socialist Charles Fourier, who could perhaps be considered the great grandfather of radical feminism, and along with Henri de Saint-Simon and Robert Owen were the earliest articulates of socialist ideas.  Almost Two hundred Years before the launching of Tumblr, in addition to actually coining the term feminism, Fourier attacked marriage and gender roles and stressed the potentially fluid nature of gender and sexuality in a pamphlet entitled Le Nouveau Monde Amoureux. The similarities of these and many other of Fourier’s ideas to present day postmodernism, critical theory and feminist theory have not gone unnoticed, and he is cited as a crucial embryonic influence on the thought of the present day left, especially when it began its post WW2 departure from Marxist orthodoxy.

Fourier was born in France in 1772 and so lived through the tumultuous birth of the whole left-right system of categorizing political thought, though he fought on the counter-revolutionary side and is said to have narrowly escaped execution at the hands of the Jacobins. 

Not long after the French National Assembly divided itself between the right – favoring the Church and the monarchy, and the left – favoring revolution, all the way back in 1789, did it become apparent that if liberty, equality and fraternity were to be realized, heads would have to roll.  Quite literally.

“To punish the oppressors of humanity is clemency; to forgive them is barbarity." – Maximillian Robespierre, 1794.

“lf the attribute of popular government in peace is virtue, the attribute of popular government in revolution is at one and the same time virtue and terror, virtue without which terror is fatal, terror without which virtue is impotent. The terror is nothing but justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is thus an emanation of virtue.” – Maximillian Robespierre, 1794

Our boy Robespierre – a primary influence on the governing philosophies of Lenin and Stalin, together at first with the militant working class Sans-culottes and later the more bourgeois but still very radical Jacobins, perhaps constitute the ur-example of regressive leftism.  They didn’t waste time and they didn’t mess around: While the revolution was at its height in ’93 – 94, they attempted to do away with the Catholic church and reset the calendar to year zero, a feat not duplicated until the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia nearly two centuries later.  In all, the reign of terror claimed between 18,000 and 40,000 lives and things didn’t really straighten out until Napoleon began his rise to power.

Kinda makes the SJWs vs. the Trump administration look like a shadow play, doesn’t it?

Prior to the French Revolution, the concepts of left and right as they apply to political thought break down, since they had their origins in that time.  But in the course of my research into this matter, a work I found referred to time and again was The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages by Norman Cohn, first published in 1957 and again in 1970. 

The book describes apocalyptic religious sects that arose in the mid to late medieval times, and the dynamics of these groups sounds quite intentionally familiar:  they thought of themselves as
“The elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted and yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary; the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral … systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque … ruthlessness directed towards an end which by its nature cannot be realized – towards a total and final solution.” 
Repeatedly in discussions of this book it is suggested that these apocalyptic medieval sects were the distant spiritual forerunners to the 20th century ideologies of communism and fascism. 

This can describe not merely dissident religious cults that groaned under the medieval Catholic church, but also that very same church when it was itself persecuted by the pagan emperors of Rome.  The most distant antecedent of today’s leftism – both progressive and regressive,  can perhaps be traced back Christ’s famous sermon on the mount, where the founder of the western world’s most entrenched moral and religious system urges his followers to forswear greed, lust and sin in favor of simple lives of charity and virtue, for he assures his flock that one day, the meek shall inherit the earth.

Having seen how integral to the western experience what we've come to call regressive leftism actually is, let us now abstract its most basic and common characteristics.  Those features that crop up most or all of the time, be it with the Jacobins in revolutionary France, Marxist-Leninists both in and out of the Kremlin, politically correct college professors or Antifa rioting in protest against Donald Trump’s presidency.  While time, place, circumstance and ideological particulars vary considerably, certain core characteristics recur. 

If any singular characteristic can be shown time and again to define the regressive left, it is the ubiquitous recurrence of a manichean worldview.  This term derives from an ancient Persian religion that stressed a fundamental conflict between a spiritual, pure good principle of light and a materialistic, pure evil principle of darkness.  This is an apt metaphor for the regressive left, or indeed any regressive way of looking at the world.  The image that regressive left ideologies conjure up is that of a vast system of oppression, designed to relegate certain portions of the population to a marginalized way of life or even to destroy them all together, and the activist communities as the last line of resistance against it.

Again, Norman Cohn sums it up perfectly in The Pursuit of the Millennium: 
“The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness – a power moreover which is imagined not simply as human but as demonic.  The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it.  Then the saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, shall in their turn inherit the earth.  This will be the culmination of history; the kingdom of the saints will not only surpass in glory all previous kingdoms, it will have no successors.”
Be it the revolutionaries vs. the ancient regime, the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie, the “movement” vs the “system” or queer women of color vs. the “Kyriarchy”, regressive leftism presents a secular version of this principle.  Again, this is not unique to regressive leftism.  It is deeply embedded in what would seem to be humanity’s innate way of seeing the world. 

There is, perhaps, an evolutionary basis to this.  Moral relativism was not an option throughout most of man’s evolutionary history when he was not the apex predator he’s been for the last several millennia.  Tales of monsters, the sacrifices required of man to appease them and the heroes who finally triumphed over them are almost ubiquitous in the mythologies of ancient people, and were used to bind human tribes together and give them a common identity.  We have not evolved beyond our love of such stories, as the popularity of heroic franchises such as Star Wars or Harry Potter attest to.  In the words of the American playwright David Mamet, it is in our nature to dramatize.

It can be rightly insisted that there’s no fantasy in man’s history of oppressing one another, and that there is nothing wrong with opposing this.  From war to slavery to sweat labor to racial discrimination to domestic violence and rape, our propensity to abuse power over one another can and should provoke resistance and movement towards a better world.  This is all true, but not where the problem with regressive leftism lies.

The distinguishing thing about the regressive left, however, lies in a peculiar tendency to regard specific instances of oppression and exploitation not as dependent on context and circumstance, but as universal constants.  At all times and in all places, “the history of all man hitherto has been the history of class struggle” – or of the struggle of sisterhood against patriarchy, or of consumerism vs. harmony with nature, of white colonialism vs people of color, and so on.

What Richard Hofstadter said of the “paranoid style” in regressive rightism in the early 1960s is likewise true of the regressive left’s perception of whatever “system of oppression” they are motivated to oppose:
“The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but that they regard a "vast" or "gigantic" conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat them is not the usual methods of political give and-take, but an all-out crusade.”
This drives the almost apocalyptic nature of regressive leftism, wherein the means justify any ends taken to defeat “systems of oppression” that are so broad and all pervasive as to completely define all aspects of human existence.  Anybody who’s ever tried to debate a regressive leftist knows full well that it usually ends up being a frustrating exercise in navigating bewildering labyrinths of truths, half truths and flat out lies, not to mention every logical fallacy and rhetorical dirty trick, from kafkatrapping to Greenwalding to outright gaslighting that you can think of. 

This is seldom because regressive leftists are inherently bad people, although some are or have been, and often because their whole moral and intellectual compass is attuned differently than that of most other people.  This is crucial to bear in mind when dealing with a regressive leftist.  To them, the goal of defeating whatever system of oppression they oppose and bringing about whatever utopia they are eager to replace it with overrides all other considerations.  And in pursuit of this, the ends always justify the means.

Truth and falsehood, right and wrong are defined in terms of whether the “movement” or the “revolution” is advanced or set back.  This may require that certain actions that would otherwise be considered wrong, or even repressive, be undertaken.  But the short term, temporal evil that censorship or repression of enemies entails is more than made up for by the long term defeat of ultimate, eternal evil that is the intent behind such actions.  From Lenin’s doctrine of “Kto Kovo” to Marcuse’s doctrine of “repressive tolerance” to Patricia Bidol-Padva’s doctrine of “power plus prejudice”, this kind of thinking runs like a common thread through most regressive left praxis.

... Continued in Part 9: The Militant Mind

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