Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Regressive Left Pt. 7: The Militant Mind

As was discussed previously, the central characteristic of regressive leftism is a manichean worldview that posits a neat division of society into oppressed and oppressor factions, with little room for ambiguity or shades of grey.  This naturally lends itself to eschewal of the negotiated give and take of regular politics.  All out crusade is the only viable option, with total defeat of the oppressor faction the only desirable goal.  This inevitably causes increased frustration and anger, as such comprehensive and sweeping goals are inevitably unattainable.  Partial success, far from leading to satisfaction, merely whets the appetite, as it leads to the illusion that total, unqualified victory may, in fact, be possible.

But only if vigilance and zeal are redoubled, for partial victory also serves as a reminder of just how vast and powerful the oppressor and their myriad systems of control really are.  As a result, the ends always justify the means, and anything done by the "oppressed" or "revolutionary" faction is good because they are the ones choosing to do it.

The license that this kind of thinking can give for abuse can, I suspect, draw truly sociopathic people into regressive leftism and I’ve heard and read numerous accounts and even had a few personal experiences of what can only be described as cluster B personality disorder behaviors from regressive left activists.  But it would be incorrect and dangerous to assume that this is true of all regressive leftists or even the rule rather than the exception.  Remember what Nietzsche said about he who fights with monsters.

In light of this, do not make the mistake of thinking regressive leftists are fundamentally irrational.  World views such as Marxism and Intersectional Feminism are highly rationalistic and, within their own conceptual framework, logically consistent. In fact, that is a big part of their appeal.  Like religion, they provide tools to make sense of an otherwise often senseless world, without appealing to the mumbo jumbo of religion, racism or conspiracy theory.  They simplify otherwise complex issues and make clear who the good guys and bad guys are.

They are successful doctrines that have drawn large numbers of adherents because they begin with sensible and defensible positions: that capitalism naturally reproduces economically unequal results, that human societies are almost always patriarchal or that the historical development of western civilization has privileged white people disproportionately.  Libraries could be filled with the works of Marxist or feminist scholarship, and much of it is meticulously researched and documented, and sometimes subject to scholarly rigor and peer review, albeit within fairly ideologically homogenous fields of study.

It is precisely their value in explaining the workings of the world that make leftist doctrines vulnerable to regressivism.  Sometimes suddenly but more often subtly, the scope of the sensible, rational and documented ideology expands until it becomes a one size fits all formula for explaining away anything.  At some point, the formula provided by the leftist ideology to explain the workings of the world goes too far, and a shift from the plausible to the outlandish has taken place.

For example, it is ultimately extrapolated from feminist theory – with meticulously detailed appeals to economic and social inequality past and present that male sexual attraction to women is an act of oppression, whereby men objectify women and reduce their status in a way that hampers their ability to compete with men on equal footing.  From this it is concluded that even polite, civil compliments from men to women are a form of harassment.  Pointing out that there are hormonal and biological factors in sexual attraction that operate independently of social context, or suggesting that the repression required to stop all male expressions of attraction towards women would be excessive to the point of being totalitarian virtually never produces a re-evaluation of the doctrine of sexual objectification, in part because the initial premise of male dominance remains sensible.

As a corollary to this, regressive ideologies evolve in this manner to contain within themselves closed systems of logic that can be used to ward off any and all criticism of the ideology.  The flaws of Marxism or feminism, however obvious or glaring when viewed from the outside are not acknowledged, but rather hand waved away as apologetics for capitalism or patriarchy.  The system of oppression, evil as it is, will corrupt the movement whenever and however possible, and to grant those who dissent from the regressive left ideology in question a fair hearing is to traffic with the forces of oppression.

White males are told that they cannot criticize intersectional feminism.  In the former USSR, this kind of thinking went as far as to deem those who disagreed with Marxist-Leninism to be mentally ill, and interring them in mental hospitals!  This epistemic closure is a key feature in many forms of authoritarian belief systems, and that present day media and academia has enabled it in the case of feminism should concern anyone who believes in an open society.

As we've seem, the style of thought associated with regressive leftism is recurring throughout history, and suggests a universal human vulnerability to it, at least for a certain personality type.  Beware the tendency to use pop-psychology concepts to rationalize away regressive left behavior or dismiss their arguments.  But likewise, don’t rule out underlying psychological impulses that can push people into regressive leftism, or any other kind of extremism.  To look at the whole picture requires a look at both internal psychological as well as external social causes for regressive behavior.

The Manichean world view that typifies regressive leftism requires that the negative characteristics of the movement or the party or the revolution and its leaders and theorists be denied.  One way in which this can be done is by projection: this is when the leftists in question attribute to outsiders – especially ones closely associated with oppressive characteristics such as capitalists or white males – attributes that they themselves possess but wish to deny.  By attributing negative characteristics to other people, we infer that we ourselves do not have these characteristics. 

Projection is an imperfect process.  As such, people who engage in it seek the company of others who employ this defense mechanism in a similar way.  The fact that the projected attribute is also both deeply despised and present but denied in ourselves causes it to trigger deep feelings of anger whenever it is encountered in others.  The “other” group onto which the negative attribute is projected becomes an acceptable receptacle for the pent up rage of the regressive leftist, which is often considerable given the demanding nature that life in a regressive movement often has. 

Dyed-in-the-wool radicals can also have a hard time getting along with people outside the movement, and distrust the simple creature comforts that many of us take for granted given that they are procured in a manner that is somehow oppressive, discriminatory or exploitative.  Enjoyment of consumer goods is tainted by guilt over environmental degradation or the exploitation of labor that results from their production.  Everywhere in popular culture, from TV and movies to video games, systems of dominance and marginalization are reflected in statements and gestures other people take for granted as innocuous and insignificant, in a manner not altogether different from how religious fundamentalists hear backwardly masked praises to Satan in rock music albums, or conspiracy theorists see evidence of encroaching illuminati power here, there and everywhere.

As suggested above, even something as fundamental as sex drive and romantic partnership is suspect due to the complex minefield of power differentials that ostensibly characterize heterosexual relationships.  Noteworthy also is that regressive leftists are not alone in their anxieties surrounding sexual relationships: religious fundamentalists and other forms of social purists have shown similar attitudes throughout history, if couched in different terms.

This tendency was wonderfully satirized by the "anti-sex league" of George Orwell's 1984.  Could it be, as suggested in 1984, that regressive movements seek to repress the sex urge and channel this repressed energy into fanaticism on behalf of the faith or the revolution?  Could it also be, again as Orwell suggests in 1984, that intimate relationships create a private realm outside the regulatory reach of political or ecclesiastical control, and as such are opposed by people with authoritarian tendencies?   Would it be reasonable to assume that the depth of intimacy entailed by sexual intercourse would naturally cause great anxiety in people inclined to identify with a church, a nationality or a revolutionary movement as opposed to pursuits and relationships of a more personal nature?  Anxiety that they would naturally project onto the nature of the sexual relationship itself, and denounce it as a form of sin, degeneracy or objectification?

Because the nature of projection attributes to others the traits often found in oneself that are denied, this often results in a funny tendency for regressives to end up imitating their opponents.  Socialist societies end up being highly stratified, while feminists have few qualms about telling other women what their place is, and multiculturalist movements revel in their own forms of ethnic stereotyping.  This is always okay when they do it, naturally.  Power plus prejudice, after all.

Related to this is the regressive left’s tendency towards authoritarian vanguardism – which is the appropriation of popular movements or struggles waged by marginalized people for their own political ends, which they are, of course, justified in doing due to their being on the right side of a manichean struggle.  Regressives feel quite entitled to speak on behalf of whole demographic cohorts, and when disagreed with by members of those cohorts, fall back on the dangerous notions of internalized oppression or false consciousness.  Worst of all are members of "marginalized" groups that consciously betray the movement.  Hell itself can't compete with the sheer hatred that regressive leftists reserve for right wing women or people of color.

Given that regressive leftists regard the societies they live in as hopelessly oppressive, they have a corresponding tendency to lionize groups that are marginalized, oppressed or excluded, to the point of willful blindness and denial of the flaws of these groups.  This ties in with the romanticist tendencies of the late 18th and early 19th century crucible wherein western leftism was born.

The results run a gamut of irrational attitudes on part of regressive leftists towards idealized groups, ranging from a quaint infatuation towards “noble savages” or women as being “closer to the earth” to the dangerous beliefs that preferred groups can literally do no wrong and are completely justified in violent acts towards “privileged” groups, to an outright and open sympathy and admiration for repressive and dictatorial societies abroad, such as the loyalty of western communist parties to Soviet Russia, the New Left’s idealization of third world revolutionary dictators, and the 21st century regressive left’s defense of Jihadist Islam against its “racist” critics.

Apologetics and excuses for violent and oppressive behavior when done by the “right” people against “deserving” oppressors is a sure fire sign of regressivism.  This signifies that genuine faith in the utopian ideal has been lost, and resentment, anger and blaming has now come to define the movement.  From here, it is not a far jump to infighting, fragmentation and eventual implosion.  This is a common historical cycle among regressive movements.

Be careful when attributing psychological motives to regressive leftists.  Do not project your own less desirable attributes onto the regressive left.  Again, remember what Nietzsche said about gazing long into the abyss.  While psychopathology can contribute to a propensity towards regressivism, do not use it as an excuse to handwave claims made by left wing people.  The line demarcating a flaky radical and a strenuous but serious social critic worth listening to is not always so cut and dried.  It is self satisfying to point at regressives and assure yourself that you’re so much smarter and better adjusted than they are.  Once you expose the regressive’s fraudulent attempt at feeling superior, you can then claim that feeling for its obvious rightful owner: yourself!   Who the hell do these regressives think they are, anyway?

It is crucial to keep in mind that these characteristics are not unique to the regressive left, and can also be found on the far right, in religious cults or ethnic separatist groups.  Numerous explorations of political extremism, for example, find certain similarities among extremists of all kinds.  One of the best examples of this is the seminal work by Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements.  

For Hoffer, mass movements appeal to a desire for change on part of people who have an external as opposed to an internal locus of control.  Meaning that they are more likely to blame the world around them or blame society as opposed to themselves for their own failings and shortcomings, even in instances where the latter is obviously to blame.  Also a certain kind of person experiences a restlessness and discontent with their own existence as a kind of frustration, from which a substitute or an escape is desired, and found in a utopian cause of one kind or another.  Hoffer stresses that the commonality of mind that exists among true believers of all stripes results in mass movements being interchangeable.  Meaning that the frustrated can as easily find escape in regressive rightism as in regressive leftism.  This may explain why regressive right and left so often resemble one another behind their differing ideological veneers.

Excellent studies of political extremism have been done by US academics John George and Laird Wilcox in their 1996 opus, American Extremists.  Richard Hofstadter takes on regressive rightists more specifically in his excellent 1963 essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, though many of its principles could as well apply to the regressive left.  An excellent work on authoritarian leftism more specifically (and a valuable resource in the preparing of this blog series) is Richard J. Ellis's 1998 The Dark Side of the Left: Illiberal Egalitarianism in America.  All of these works explore the activism of people whose minds are marked by an inability to "bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole."

Also worth a look is psychiatrist Arthur Deikman's 1990 study of cults and cult behavior, The Wrong Way Home.  It has since been republished as Them and Us: Cult Thinking and the Terrorist Threat.  Deikman describes the allure of "totalist" institutions lying in their appeal to two deep seated human drives: to be on the side of good, and a concept he labels the dependency dream:
The regressive(!) wish for security that uses the family as a model, creating an authoritarian leadership structure (the parent) and a close knit exclusive group (the children.)
The cult member - or member of any other closed social system or maybe even an extremist believer in a political ideology, seeks to regress back to a child-like state wherein an omnipotent parental figure is in complete control.  Maintenance of this illusion requires epistemic closure: an insulation of the belief system and its adherents from external influences that threaten to undermine it.  Thus, outsiders and dissidents are demonized and ideological conformity and groupthink is made paramount.

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