Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Regressive Left Pt. 5: Radical Ruckus

The feminist and critical race theories that swept higher education in the 1980s did not spring suddenly from nowhere. Radical feminism emerged as an outgrowth of the so called new left of the 1960s, and these were in turn influenced by the German Institute for Social Research, more commonly known as the Frankfurt School. It is to these that we now turn our attention.

It is important that we divest ourselves of the notion of "good second wave, bad third wave" when it comes to feminist radicalism. Alongside reforms necessary to achieve the worthy goal of gender equality was a deeply regressive streak has marked the shadow side of feminism from its inception. As we will discover in future installments of this series, ideas surrounding the abolition of the family and marriage as core kinship arrangements and replacing this with communal child care and free love go back to the utopian communalists of the early 19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic. While for some this might not sound so bad, consistent throughout the movement's history is an ideological purism that was disdainful of notions such as privacy and individual rights. Thus, what came to be called radical feminism in the late 1960s, early 1970s was itself less of a break from the feminist tradition than it first appeared, just as the third or fourth or whatever wave we're on now is less novel than is commonly believed once delved into a little.

While some on the new left of that time tried to argue that feminism merely distracted from the more "important" issues of class, race and war, the feminists had claimed the ideological and moral high ground by establishing themselves as oppressed and men, even male leftists, as oppressors, as well as by extending its radical critique further, into even people's most private and intimate relationships and innermost thoughts. The new left, intentionally rooting itself in a critical theory much more comprehensive than the mere economic relations emphasized by Marxism, had set the precedent whereby more totalistic and sweeping forms of critique took precedent over lesser, mere "institutional" forms, was without any kind legitimate defense against the feminist criticisms.

Early second wave feminist organizations and activists, such as the October 17th movement, later renamed The Feminists, founded in the late 1960s by radical activist Ti-Grace Atkinson, well exemplified the strange sort of co-dependency that so often exists between radical egalitarianism on the one hand, and the totalitarian impulse on the other. While an even then sympathetic media showed the public a movement of idealists committed to uplifting women's status in a patriarchal world - a laudable goal - the reality underlying the image was much more - to borrow one of their own terms - problematic.

The group did away even with the concept of elected offices, since these created hierarchy, and lots were drawn to delegate tasks once done by officers to the membership on a rotating basis. While idealistic, this also diminished group efficacy as the talents of the membership were misappropriated and project continuity continually disrupted. The group became almost cult-like in its level of demands placed on the membership, and the zealous degree of in-group policing. Members who were late for meetings or put private and personal priorities ahead of the movement's were reprimanded.  It was determined, for example, that no more than 1/3 of the membership could consist of married women (and later barring married women all together), since marriage was determined to be an oppressive institution and married women risked having their loyalties divided between the group and their families.

Early feminism was known for the practice of "consciousness raising" wherein members would hold group "struggle sessions" to borrow a term from the Maoist lexicon, wherein they'd discuss their experiences of life in a patriarchal society. The concept of disadvantaged people joining together to discuss their problems and strategize about ways of dealing with them is not inherently regressive, and is indeed a potentially liberating and democratic exercise. As is often the case with regressive leftism, however, the devil is, as he so often is, in the details.'

Activist Kathie Sarachild, who coined the term consciousness raising, produced an article entitled "A Program for Feminist Consciousness Raising" which makes these diabolical details immediately apparent to anyone with any penchant of how ideological indoctrination works.  Sarachild outlines "classic forms of resisting consciousness" some of which include:
  • Excusing the oppressor (and feeling sorry for him)
  • False identification with the oppressor and other socially privileged groups
  • Shunning identification with one's own oppressed group and other oppressed groups
  • Thinking one has power in the traditional role
  • Belief that one has found an adequate personal solution or will be able to find one without large social changes
  • Self cultivation, rugged individualism, seclusion and other forms of go-it-alonism
In short, dependency on the group was intentionally fostered by demonizing persons outside the group or those women who had succumbed to "false consciousness" and strayed from the narrow path of the one true faith. As Eric Hoffer puts it in his seminal work on ideological fanaticism: "To be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity. There are no surprises and no unknowns." 

You may be asking: why should I be concerned about this? What impact could a small handful of marginalized radicals half a century ago possibly have in today's world? While bizarre and eccentric, surely the excesses of the early radical feminists could be forgiven in light of the vastly greater evils they struggled against?  

The answer is that the early radical feminists, though not wholly innovative as mentioned previously, did lay the foundations for how their more enduring and successful sisters in academia a generation later would operate, and what their core ideology would be. And that, in turn, is what gave rise to the current cultural hegemony of the SJWs. The emphasis placed by consciousness raising on activism and group solidarity around the idea of an infallible doctrine was carried over into the women's studies classroom.  The second wave notion that "the personal is the political" began the process of legitimizing the politicization of individual's private choices, which when coupled with critical theory (which we'll soon examine) laid the groundwork for the legitimization of feminist criticism and now colonization of popular culture. Even sex was not spared the critical gaze, and it was here that doubt was cast on women's capacity to legitimately consent to heterosexual relationships, so comprehensive was the grip of patriarchy theorized to be on not only the material conditions, but the very thoughts of the downtrodden and marginalized.

The radical feminists were an outgrowth of the new left of the 1960s, and here the apple did not fall far from the tree. This period in the history of western radicalism, perhaps the most legendary and romanticized in western history, is deep and complex, with a lot of ins and a lot of outs, as the old saying goes. It cannot be dealt with in any real measure of detail here. What was seen repeatedly, however, were the problems inherent to a politics committed to dramatic and sweeping changes to the very structure of society and human relationships, and how difficult this is to effect without resorting to regressive means.

Perhaps the definitive new-left organization was the Students for a Democratic Society, or the SDS for short. Here again, as with the feminists, we see the wide gap that separates the idealistic origins of radical egalitarian activism, and the frequently regressive and violent acts that follow. 

In his brilliant work, The Dark Side of the Left, author Richard J. Ellis traces the movement, beginning with its origins in the idealism expressed in the Port Huron Statement, authored primarily by SDS front-man Tom Hayden. The SDS criticized not only the pervasive racism and inequality of American society at the time, but also the failure of the old-left, with its ossified trade unions and bureaucratized socialist parties, to adequately address the problems. The SDS would move beyond its origins as the student wing of old left League for Industrial Democracy.  Bureaucratic capitalism and socialism alike were denounced in favor of a more comprehensive and inclusive participatory democracy. 

The old left's dogmatic Marxism and idealization of the Soviet Union were held to criticism, though the new left would come to repeat the same mistakes with its own idealization of third world revolutionaries such as Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro and the Vietcong.  Today's regressive left, condemned by Maajid Nawaz for its idealization (or at least refusal to condemn) Islamist societies is indeed following a very well trodden path. 

The SDS committed itself to many laudable goals, including civil rights, southern voter registration, opposition to the Vietnam war, anti poverty activism and a more thorough democratization of American society. But, as Ellis observes, its utopian ideals were liabilities to group efficacy. Like the feminists would a short time later and that its spiritual successors in the anti-globalization movement and Occupy Wall Street would decades later, the SDS undertook experiments in radical democracy that caused more problems than they solved. A commitment to direct democracy consensus decision making that might have been workable on a very small scale caused organizational paralysis that only worsened as the decade of the 1960s progressed. Meetings became notoriously long and drawn out. The group squandered its credibility on the romanticization of both the marginalized poor at home and oppressive regimes abroad, such as Castro's Cuba and Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam.

In group loyalty grew harder to maintain as the movement became increasingly disconnected from mainstream political life. The time honored methods of maintaining group cohesion became increasingly paramount. Namely the demonization and devaluation of society outside the group. For leftist groups whose nature was to champion the people against the oppressive system, this became (and remains) a difficult circle to square. The outcome, by the late 1960s, were the reasons that the rational reaction among long time observers to the antifa riots surrounding Trump's 2017 inauguration and at college campuses around the nation that same year would have been a strong sense of deja-vu. The 1968 democratic party convention and the final SDS convention in 1969, followed by the "days of rage" - led and instigated by antifa's spiritual predecessors, the Weather Underground-in Chicago that fall, saw what would have made the rioting we've seen in recent years look tame.   

As with the feminist radicalism of the time, the new left of the 1960s remains relevant today because in many crucial respects, it never really ended. The weathermen would go underground and eventually fade away during the 1970s, but the romance of the 1960s revolutionaries at home and abroad remained and influenced the culture of the west. Looking back, one wonders why it took until 2016 to return with the vengeance that it finally did. 

It is worth looking, then, at the intellectual and ideological origins of the new left, as these origins explain events in 1968 as well as they do events in 2017. The often maligned German Institute for Social Research, more commonly known as the Frankfurt School, had its origins in post world war one Germany. Max Horkheimer differentiated critical theory from traditional theory in that "it seeks to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them."

A noble endeavor.  Critical theory, both in the Frankfurt School and outside of it, has become a vast body of work, with perhaps the only consistency being its complexity. Like the French postmodernists whom we discussed previously, who owe much intellectual lineage to Frankfurt despite their frequent disagreements, Frankfurt critical theory is notoriously vague, abstract and dense material to study. Key works of critical theory include The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality coauthored by Adorno and several other Frankfurt Intellectuals, and The One Dimensional Man by Herbert Marcuse.  There are many, many others.

Early critical theory draws on the ideas of Sigmund Freud as much as on the ideas of Karl Marx, to leave the strict economic determinism attributed to Marx behind and to suggest that repression was psychologically internalized, like a form of neurosis. Their critique went beyond the capitalist mode of production and began deconstructing western civilization itself, largely in an attempt to explain why fascism and not socialism ended up benefiting politically from the great depression, the greatest crisis in the history of capitalism, as well as the reasons why authoritarian norms were reproduced inside the ostensibly socialist Soviet Union. 

In some cases, modernity and the enlightenment themselves were held to criticism. It was not merely that reason, rationality and the scientific method resulted in technology that extended the power and reach of any would-be tyrant. It was that domination and oppression were literally encoded into these ways of thinking. Knowledge itself was seen as a thing to be mastered and controlled. Later identitarian variations on this idea framed the enlightenment as the "colonization" of knowledge in the case of race theorists or the "penetration" of knowledge in the case of feminist theorists. The reason for the metaphors should be obvious. 

Here we see some of the origins of the reemergence of romanticismthe original counter-enlightenment, that swept the world in the 1960s, exemplified by the flower-child era.  Emphasis is placed on subjectivity and experience over rationalism and empiricism, and people and cultures who were more expressive and were supposed to have lived in harmony with nature are extolled in preference to the regimentation thought inherent to a strictly enlightenment world view.

This romanticist turn on the left was in response to the failures of Marxism: its failure to triumph in the west, as well as its failure to realize a liberated society in the USSR and its satellites. Socialist economic ideals were not abandoned, mind you, not yet at least. But they would increasingly take a back seat to cultural issues and a critique of mass society. As exemplified by the SDS we looked at earlier, the radical left would focus less and less on the unions and socialist parties, who had become ossified, bureaucratic and conservative. More emphasis was placed on media and academia, as this was where ideas were produced and disseminated.

This leads us to the idea of a long march through the institutions” - this idea that a vanguard of leftist intelligentsia were going to gradually ascend to prominent positions in cultural institutions and use those positions of influence to shape the population according to their liking. Here we see precedent and origins for the "transformative" educational initiatives that feminist theorists would undertake decades later. This is the dreaded "cultural Marxism" so often touted by the right wing as the cause of the erosion of western cultural vitality. And not without some warrant, though we've seen that the critical theorists were distrustful of orthodox Marxism as well.  Contrary to popular belief, it was not Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who coined the concept of the long march (though his ideas of “cultural hegemony” as an explanation for a lack of revolutionary consciousness among western working classes warrant comparison to critical theory) but rather a German student leftist by the name of Rudi Dutschke

Like many elements we look at in our study of the regressive left, critical theory is not inherently regressive. Collective self reflection of this nature can be a good thing. But the right wing is not as without cause for concern as the orthodox progressives in places like rationalwiki (ha ha!) would have us believe. The inversion of the modernist ideas of western exceptionalism, white man's burden and manifest destiny that we see among SJWs today - the view that white European culture is uniquely and exceptionally evil no doubt finds a good part of its origins in Frankfurt School inspired ideas. Western civilization's loss of robustness and confidence in its own history and traditions is fast revealing itself to be causing as many, if not more problems than it's solving. 

In addition, Frankfurt School intellectuals were not themselves immune to their own brand of authoritarianism, even as they sought to themselves understand the Authoritarian Personality more deeply. As a more historical example, observe Herbert Marcuse’s infamous concept of “repressive tolerance”, appearing in the 1965 publication A Critique of Pure Toleranceasserting that censorship and repression of conservative and right wing ideas was justified in a way that repression and censorship of liberal and progressive ideas were not was, perhaps the most glaring example.  This idea, itself derived from Leninist thinking that we'll look at in future installments, also underlies and precedes the power-plus-prejudice formulation we looked at in the last installment, and the kinds of hypocrisies this enables. 

The Radical Ruckus that was kicked up in the 1960s and 70s obviously failed to transform society in the ways they'd hoped. This was due to the contradictions inherent to radical egalitarian thought and activism, as expressed by Ellis in Dark Side of the Left.  But neither was it completely defeated either, despite an ostensibly conservative turn in the political climate come the 1980s. The radicals retreated into counter cultural enclaves and, of course, the humanities and social sciences in academia, with results we saw in the previous installment, Postmodern Pandemonium. The feminist transformation of the academy was the success of the long march through the institutions, with regressive results we're now seeing both on and off campus.

It would be tempting to ask: where was the right wing in all of this? For all the panic you've no doubt recently heard from the right about cultural Marxism, conservatism had, by and large, been poorly equipped to handle this regressive left coup in the academy, and from there in the broader popular culture.  

To be continued in Part 6: Conservative Complacency

View "The Regressive Left: History, Theory, Methodology Part 5: Radical Ruckus" on Samizdat Broadcasts!

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