There is a clear difference between the modernist Left and the postmodern progressivism. The modernist Left was an Enlightenment project, and proud to be so. This is the stream of political analysis and commentary represented in our time by such figures as the late Christopher Hitchens and Norman Geras, by Terry Eagleton’s jeremiads against post-modernism and by the Euston Manifesto. They are the anti-fascist Left; as they will not have a bar of the Counter-Enlightenment in any form. (And can get their heads around the complicated idea that there could be brown-skinned fascists and non-Western movements which are analogues of fascism.)
Conversely, postmodern progressivism is Post-Enlightenment and proud to be so. The trouble is, the Post-Enlightenment just turns out to be the Counter-Enlightenment rebooted–whether engaging in the romanticisation of nature, emphasising emotion (particularly “compassion”), deprecating reason (especially reasoned debate) or using hierarchical identity politics (heterosexual white male has become an accusation as much as a description). All of which reboots of classic features of Counter-Enlightenment thought and movements.
Thus, what economist Thomas Sowell calls moral mascots and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt labels sacred victims are all about developing a moral caste system of status-ranked identities. While the habit of coining ever more “boo words” (racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, etc) as conversation-and-thought stoppers is classic elevation of emotion and deprecation of reason.
Dipping from a poisonous well
A friend, in conversation, called Hitler “the first postmodern dictator”: on the grounds that he was all about Will (and so Intent) trumping everything. I then came across this piece by one Aeman Ansari about minorities needing “safe” (i.e. no-whites-allowed) spaces, which is all about racial/ethnic identity being morally trumping, and I was once again struck by how much current culture wars involved postmodern progressivism dipping into the Counter-Enlightenment well. Especially when thinkers such as Heidegger, Paul de Man and even Carl Schmitt, fed ideas into the postwar Left.
For losing a Big War, even a Very Big War, does not mean that your conceptions vanish–does contemporary China, for example, conform more to Mao‘s vision or Chiang Kai-shek‘s? Clearly the latter. (And the history of Nazism does tell us about the consequences of ideas, so using Godwin’s Law to block discussion actually makes it easier for noxious ideas to spring back in new forms.)
The context is sadly clear enough. The Dictator’s War (aka WWII) can be understood as a three-way Western civil war, where the liberal democracies, led by Anglo-America, represented the Sceptical Enlightenment (which applies reason to history, based on the notion that human nature is largely fixed, so lessons translate across history and societies); the Soviet Union represented the Radical Enlightenment (which apples reason to society and history but holds human nature to be transformable) and Nazi Germany represented the Counter Enlightenment (which rejects reason in favour of intent, will, emotion, passion and authenticity).
A classic Sceptical Enlightenment moment is James Madison running a failure analysis on republics throughout history before drafting the US Constitution. A classic Radical Enlightenment moment is Lenin holding that over two millennia of struggling with how to restrain political power could be completely ignored, for the Bolshevik Party had the transformative Key to History. A classic Counter Enlightenment invocation of emotion is Triumph of the Will.
The Dictator’s War started with the Radical Enlightenment Soviets allied with the Counter Enlightenment Nazis dividing Eastern Europe between them (the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact) against the Sceptical Enlightenment Anglo-French and ended with the destruction of the Counter Enlightenment Nazi empire, and the Sceptical Enlightenment and Radical Enlightenment Powers dividing Europe between them (the Yalta/Potsdam Agreements). Leading to the Cold War, a global struggle between the the Sceptical Enlightenment (the Western alliance) and the Radical Enlightenment (the Soviet bloc).
Which famously ended in the victory of the Sceptical Enlightenment West, with the 1989-91 collapse of the Soviet empire. Long before that, however, it had become obvious that Leninism and the Soviet Union (or, for that matter, Leninist offshoots such as Maoist China) were not the transformative social vehicles they had claimed to be. Hence the rise of post-modernism; a way of achieving triumphs of the mind as a substitute and consolation for the failures of social transformation–a rise so incisively analysed by philosopher Stephen Hicks.
Triumphs which are only in the mind. A strong contemporary pattern is: the contemporary Western “Left” (i.e. postmodern progressives) functionally allies with the Muslim “Right” (political Islam): notably by accepting strong religious identity claims for all folk of Muslim heritage while seeking to disallow any serious critique of Islam. The other side of the pattern is that the Western “Right” (conservatives and libertarians) prefers the Muslim Left (humanists, secularists, feminists, etc of Muslim heritage: folk who are still modernist, Enlightenment folk in their thinking and so can still be treated as Left) while postmodern progressives ignore or belittle them. The cross-over pattern occurs because Western conservatives and libertarians like those who want what the West has while Western postmodern progressives prefer those who reject the West, because that is more “subversive” and morally “authentic”.
But it is also the consequence of postmodern progressivism rejecting Enlightenment values–such that, for example, feminism and queer rights are not for export; universalism being rejected in favour of “authenticity”. (Which includes criticism and ideological abuse of folk from non-Western backgrounds who speak for Enlightenment universalism.) Moreover, postmodern progressives can hardly seriously call out political Islam for its Othering on the basis of belief, given that is precisely what contemporary progressivism does so avidly. Even more so, given that postmodern progressivism and political Islam have overlapping targets for their respective Otherings.
Group identity sets moral rating
For the first and most obvious way that rejecting Enlightenment values leads to rebooting the Counter Enlightenment via the culture wars is the notion that group identity is morally trumping. Yes, it is true that progressivist ratings reverse those the former Counter-Enlightenment endorsed (or, for that matter, early C20th Progressivism)–whites on bottom instead of on top. But to merely reverse the framing is to continue the framing.
The Aeman Ansar piece cited above is dreadfully bad history; she claims that:
Segregation was imposed on people of colour by people of privilege …
I.e. all whites got together and imposed segregation on all blacks. At this point, one wants a little more Marxism–i.e. a little more sense of varied interests in social causation. Yes, lower income whites were most certainly an audience for segregation–they were sold higher status. But Jim Crow was more complicated than that. Yes, excluding black voters increased the value of white votes: it was about creating privilege. But it was also about depressing black economic competition, including restricting their choices, to make them easer to exploit. It was not simply something “whites” collectively did to blacks–there were always whites who opposed it.
Races simply are not causal units. One becomes somewhat nostalgic for the Marxist Left–for, however crude class analysis can be, it is way better than race analysis as a causal explanation.
At all times in the Emancipation Sequence (Jewish, Catholic, Female, Black, Queer), crucial to the series of breakthroughs in political participation and social standing were that increasing numbers of people saw common humanity rather than dividing categories. Reverting back to such categories as morally trumping is not a moral advance. Thomas Sowell’s comment of some years back:
If you have always believed that everyone should play by the same rules and be judged by the same standards, that would have gotten you labeled a radical 60 years ago, a liberal 30 years ago and a racist today.
Has, sadly, acquired even more force. A product of Virtue signalling, and its spiralling upward dynamics of exclusion, it may be. But it is also a win for the Counter Enlightenment in the culture wars.
As is a certain form of multiculturalism, which SF writer Sarah Hoyt goes to town on here (and notices the win-for-Hitler–i.e. the Counter-Enlightenment–aspect of it):
I saw it in my kids homework, when they were requested to write about “your culture” but got the essay sent back when they wrote about SF/F geekdom because they wanted “your ancestral culture.”
In my kids particular case the situation quickly became tragic or funny depending on how you look at it, because I descended on them like the wrath of Sarah, demanding they explain themselves.
The explanation went something like this “Language and costumes are tied to your race. Trying to get an immigrant to learn a new language/integrate in the culture he immigrated to is aggression, since you’re supposed to keep your culture, because it’s part of your race. To want you to change is racist.”
(Note to those in SF/F this is much, much worse than the position staked out by VD, the banished one, which if I understand him correctly is that SOME characteristics are inherited and make you more/less competent for industrial civilization. Note also that I don’t even agree with his position, much less the more extreme one. Note also that for his position he is condemned as racist, but the other position makes you enlightened and possibly beautiful and full of the meanings.)
This is the point at which I broke out my broom and flew in circles around their office, pointing out their position was something Hitler would have been proud to embrace. What they are claiming in fact is that there is some ur-mythical-quality to races (and races in this case are defined in the European sense, like my dad blathering on about the “Portuguese race”) which imbues them with their own language and culture. If wanting to change that is racist, and if some of these “races” are better at life than others (understood in the whole system of Marxist reward and punishment) then what will prevent them from in the future deciding to eugenically improve the breed by eliminating the less competent? Or just, as they’re doing now, handicapping them by never teaching them the lingua franca of the age and the technological culture needed to survive?
As she points out, the entire history of human betterment is a standing case for contamination, to use the felicitous phrase of Anglo-Ghanian philosopher Kwane Anthony Appiah. To see us as being our cultural/ethnic/racial category (and even more, to see that as fixed) is not only morally retrograde, it is dreadfully bad history–and in exactly the same sense that Hitler’s sense of history was appallingly flawed: making simply false causal claims about racial groups.
The reality is that cultural identity in particular can be startlingly fluid. As James C. Scott points out in his splendid The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland South East Asia, cultural identities can be chosen to fit in with ways of life (specifically: river valley farming, slash-and-burn horticulture, foraging) that can also be chosen (in the cases he considers, including to get away from rule by the river-valley agrarian states). There is no ur-identity here. Chosen identities are not an invention of modern Western sub-cultures.
For instance, in living memory, the Palestinian identity has been created. There is a line of Zionist argument which holds that Palestinian claims are illegitimate as there was no Palestinian identity before the waves of Jewish settlement. The historical claim is correct, but has no moral implications, because there certainly is a Palestinian identity now: created, as such identities so often are, in opposition (in this case, to the Zionist project).
Though there are some similarities to the dynamics of the Jim Crow American South, in that the no-compromise strain in Palestinian identity was originally an unholy alliance between clerics acting as gatekeepers of righteousness and those landlords who resented the undermining of existing structures of social control and exploitation based particularly in debt-bondage. An undermining they–perfectly correctly–blamed on the Jews, as the rise in wages was a result of the influx of Jews, and especially their accompanying capital (which raised wages), while the influx of those attracted from elsewhere in the Middle East by the increased economic activity also undermined existing social hierarchies and patterns of control.
A further similarity with the Jim Crow South is that it seems that the only consensus position among Palestinians is that, unless they get to be the equivalent of Jim Crow Southern whites, no peace agreement with Israel is acceptable.
Nor was there historically some sort of ur-racism. Not only are racial, ethnic and cultural categories more fluid than is commonly realised, but the normative weight put on them is also remarkably fluid over time. Asians have become functionally “white” in the contemporary US while medieval Christendom had little or no skin-colour racism to speak of (though it had plenty of other negative categorisations); as was also true of the Greek and Roman Classical Mediterranean.
Putting negative moral weight on (black) skin colour first arose under the Christian Roman Empire but then, rather more fully, in Muslim North Africa. In both cases, it was about justifying slavery within a universalising moral perspective (Christianity or Islam respectively). In the Muslim case, to justify the mass enslaving, rather than conversion (which would block said enslaving) of Sub-Saharan Africans. The use of mass slavery in the Christian-ruled Americas led to similar derogatory rationalisations, which got another oomph with the adoption of Enlightenment universalism. (Of course, so did opposition to slavery.)
Racism was far more of a post hoc rationalisation of oppression and exploitation than an originating cause thereof. Though, like all moral exclusions, it retains the appeal of effortless virtue, an effortless sense of superiority. (The rise of “biological” conceptions of ethnicity and race from the C18th onwards was an attempt to locate a sense of identity, for a culture of increasingly mass literacy, that wasn’t religious or dynastic yet seemed scientific.)
Even more confusingly, by far the worst manifestation of racism in world history was Europeans systematically massacring other Europeans. Given that there is non-white racism, and that the victims of the worse manifestation of racism were also white, the race-as-(inevitably hierarchical)-moral-category approach really does not work–except as a new way of selling effortless virtue. Which is precisely what the framing does, in both Hitler’s form and its “progressive” reversal. In either form, it is an ideology in Vaclav Havel‘s sense:
Ideology is a specious way of relating to the world. It offers human beings the illusion of an identity, of dignity, and of morality while making it easier for them to part with them. As the repository of something suprapersonal and objective, it enables people to deceive their conscience and conceal their true position and their inglorious modus vivendi, both from the world and from themselves.
An ideology that is simply rebutted through grasping, indeed celebrating, our common humanity.
Islam is better
In his private conversation, Hitler was not very keen on Christianity. As he says in his Table Talk,
The heaviest blow ever struck humanity was the coming of Christianity. Bolshevism is Christianity’s illtegitimate child. Both are inventions of the Jew. The deliberate lie in the matter of religion was introduced into the world by Christianity. Bolshevism practises a lie of the same nature, when it claims to bring liberty to men, whereas in reality it seeks only to enslave them. In the ancient world, the relations between men and gods were founded on instinctive respect. It was a world enlightened by the idea of tolerance. Christianity was the first creed in the world to exterminate its adversaries in the name of love. Its key-note was intolerance.
Without Christianity, we should not have had Islam. The Roman Empire, under Germanic influence, would have developed in the direction of world-domination, and humanity would not have extinguished fifteen centuries of civilisation in a single stroke.
Let it not be said that Christianity brought man the life of the soul, for that evolution was in the nature of things. (11/12th July 1941).
Nor was this a one-off comment, the Table Talk is littered with derogatory comments about Christianity and the Church. By contrast, Islam was distinctively preferable:
Had Charles Martel not been victorious at Poitiers–already, you see, the world had already fallen into the hands of the Jews, so gutless a thing Christianity!–then we should in all probability have been converted to Mohammedanism [Islam], that cult which glorifies heroism and which opens up the seventh Heaven to the bold warrior alone. Then the Germanic races would have conquered the world. Christianity alone prevented them from doing so. (28 August 1942).
When Hitler mentions Islam, it is typically to note ways in which it was preferable to Christianity. After the Nazi defeat, there was something of a trail of ex-Nazis to the Middle East–after all, they got to help fight Jews. And the elevation of Israel to the status of the state that Western progressivists and political Islam can bond over by hating has been an excellent conduit for moving from the Radical Enlightenment modernist Left to Counter-Enlightenment postmodern progressivism. Just as it has been an excellent conduit for the, now endemic, habit in so much of the mainstream media of preferring Virtue over veracity.
Maximum virtue, minimum effort
As a friend noted in conversation (and Stephen Hicks develops with clarity and intellectual depth), the explicit ideologies arising out of the Radical Enlightenment fail; so moving to a set of “compassion authentic” positions with accompanying justifying rhetoric (the latter created as necessary) works much better. Hence the rebooting of the Counter-Enlightenment–as that elevates intent, passion, sentiment, authenticity.
All of which are excellent bases for effortless, or very low cost, Virtue. Which is the other advantage of the Counter Enlightenment rebooted; it provides endless ways of signalling membership of the tribe of the Truly Virtuous. (A claim and process that postmodern progressivism and political Islam also have in common.)
Particularly if you adopt what econblogger Noah Smith calls Haan history; a vision of history very different from the hopes and aspirations of both the Sceptical and Radical Enlightenments:
… what’s clear is the anti-Whig perspective. Progress does not fix things. The fact that Jim Crow was less horrible than slavery, and that redlining was less horrible than Jim Crow, and that today’s housing policy is less horrible than redlining, does not mean that things are getting better. What matters is not just the flow of current injustice, but the stock of past injustices.
Haan presents a vision of stasis that is different from the Malthusian version. By focusing on the accumulated weight of history instead of the current situation, and by focusing on the injustices and atrocities and negative aspects of history, it asserts that the modern age, for all its comforts and liberties and sensitivity, is inherently wrong.
Western civilisation becomes defined by the weight of past sins (and ludicrous over-weighting of current ones). Other civilisations are not so defined (particularly not Islam). In internal Western status games, Haan history gives the Virtuous instant moral superiority over any of their fellow citizens who express any attachment to the society in which they were born; the society whose success and stability is the crucible for the hopes and aspirations for them and their families. Such instant moral superiority is, of course, the point of the exercise.
For the moral posturing involved is precisely that–moral posturing. The purpose is to buttress the collective normative narcissism of Tribe Virtue. Hence the patent inconsistencies in moral concern, including the endless excuse-making why Western sins (and especially Western “white” sins) get so much weight, and anyone else’s so little. It produces remarkably closed minds and, even better, easily transmittable techniques for closing minds.
Kiwi political scientist Xavier Marquez’s analysis of personalities cults, and his criticism of the use of the notion of legitimacy as an empirical criteria, are both useful analytical tools for understanding what has been going on.
Regarding the former: in a situation where moralism is compulsory, how do you signal your membership of the Truly Virtuous? By embracing any required level of inconsistency–which facts count, which don’t; what sins count, which don’t; what critiques are acceptable, which aren’t. The Counter-Enlightenment’s trumping of identity and emotion are made for that; while its deprecation of reason (and especially reasoned debate) are necessary for the specific Virtue signalling strategy’s success.
To take a current salient example of embracing inconsistency to signal Virtue; any critique of Western society as “rape culture”, and Western men (such as college students) as willing, even eager, participants in said “rape culture”, is Virtuous. Conversely, any critique of Islamic societies as “rape culture”, or cases of Muslim men as active rapists (from Rotherham to Cologne to …), is to be denied, belittled, emptied of significance. Even if such critique is done by people of Muslim heritage (with formulations such as “native informant“, essentialist or orientalist being used to discount what they say). So, that the sources of Islam canonically endorsed the right of believing men to have sex with (i.e. rape) their non-believer captives, including their married captives, is a reference to be ignored, belittled, denied significance; while Western history and culture can be happily ransacked for evidence of violent misogyny.
Muslims make excellent moral mascots or sacred victims not despite the queer-hatred, Jew-hatred, misogyny, and abusive Othering which is so pervasive in Islamic cultures (flowing directly from the doctrines and long term effects of Islam on moral sensibility) but because of all that. One has to embrace so much inconsistency in embracing Muslims as moral mascots of sacred victims, that doing so becomes a perfect mechanism for signalling Virtue.
To take an extreme, but revealing, example of highly selective concern for facts, and the dominance of rhetorical convenience and Virtue signalling over logical consistency, a “white trash” young guy kills 9 African-Americans in a church in Charleston and the progressivist concern is all about the shooter, and anyone who might look in any way like the shooter, or might think in any way like the shooter, or might be attached to a flag that the shooter might or might also be attached to.
A jihadi couple gun down 14 people in San Bernardino, seriously injuring another 23, and amongst progressives, it is all about not talking about the shooters, absolutely not about anyone who might look or think in any way like the shooters, or might be attached to any doctrines espoused by the shooters. In fact, any number of folk can kill any number of people while shouting “Allah akbar!” and it is never about the shooters. Except, possibly, in a “root causes” way, but the “root causes” of white racism are never considered in any way similar to the alleged “root causes” of jihadism.
Similarly, the chances of an American being killed by a terrorist are, as progressives love reminding folk, pretty remote. Probably about as remote as of an African-American being killed by a white racist. But the first observation is Virtuous, the second very much not.
Then there is the recurring attempts to create moral panics over anti-Muslim sentiment which, on the statistics of actual attacks, is a relatively minor problem. Conversely, the statistically rather more significant problem of attacks by Muslims on Jews is largely ignored. The more factual selectivity and logical inconsistency you are prepared to embrace, the more clearly you signal your Virtue, your membership of Tribe Virtue.
Marquez’s critique of legitimacy argues that signalling, and how free or blocked are information flows, are the key issues in analysing social dynamics (not cognitive commitment, which is often largely invisible). For Tribe Virtue, signalling provides coordination: and modern information technology (and particularly social media) provide excellent coordination mechanisms. Markers of Virtue can then operate to coordinate large group of people. Again, elevating “authenticity”, emotions, identity all simplify and magnify signalling effects.
Turkish-American economist Timur Kuran’s analysis of preference falsification is also useful to understand what is going on–especially the mechanisms for the creation of public acquiescence. The Virtue Game weaponises morality–it imposes genuine costs on those who fail to publicly acquiescence; especially repetitional costs (pdf). Particularly given that, since adherence to the various claims signals Virtue, contradicting or criticising them signals Viciousness. The dialectically false, but rhetorically extremely powerful, syllogism of:
X is done/advocated to stop Y
You are against/criticising X
You are for/insufficiently against Y
Is accepted and applied to denigrate and shout down dissent and to enforce conformity. As priests and clerics have found down the ages, the ability to define Virtue is a powerful mechanism for enforcing social compliance: one always defined and applied as “true” morality. A nice contemporary example of how it works is economist Robert Frank’s experience of the resulting social pressure from using University granting athletic scholarships, and the (false) reputation of athletes as less intelligent than average, to provoke more comprehensive discussion of affirmative action.
As people’s sense of moral identity (and moral superiority) is at stake, a significant proportion of those seeking the status of being members of Tribe Virtue in good standing are willing to impose social costs on those who dissent. Especially given their reasonable confidence that they will be backed up.
Codes of conduct (notably “speech codes) become an excellent way of entrenching and institutionalising both markers of Virtue and punishment of dissent. Violation of elementary principles of natural justice and due process (such as hidden accusers) demonstrate how much of a power play it all ultimately is.
Self-righteousness, status seeking and power plays are combined together in a noxious package. Hence the (ironic) title of Social Justice Warriors for those for whom trashing civility, freedoms and rights is paraded as some sort of moral advance, rather than the deeply self-serving, narcissistic power grab, wielding weaponised morality, it is.
There is a perennial tendency for organisations to be taken over by those who are able to mobilise and wield reputational effects, to impose reputational costs, most thoroughly. For decades, that has been the modernist Left, who have been even more successfully followed by postmodernist progressivism. Hence historian Robert Conquest‘s observation that:
Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
The modernist Left and postmodern progressivism are both deeply controlling when they get any serious amount of power precisely because they are so normatively driven–hence profoundly inclined to adopt the deeply totalitarian principle that error has no rights. They more or less automatically commit the just-add-morality error.
They also tend to be remarkably poor at actually running organisations and institutions (as distinct from taking control of them) because they are so inclined to block information (and to heretic-hunt) while substituting normative display for practical effectiveness. Creating, for example, education systems not terribly good at imparting knowledge and skills (particularly given the resources consumed) but truly excellent at stripping people of their deeper cultural heritage.
The massive sense of moral entitlement involved–displayed currently by claiming the right to determine what people can say, how they can say it, what they can wear, what they can enjoy, what concerns are legitimate–fuels this march-through-the-institutions power grab.
The collective narcissism tango
The package parades (above all, to themselves) as being the epitome of morality. Which is precisely what it is not: neither in the overturning of elementary civility and any reasonable sense of moral proportion; nor in the weaponising of morality against both masses of fellow citizens and one’s own society; nor in the pervasive contempt for human achievement which underpins the entire outlook.
The achievements of Western civilisation are far more distinctive than its sins, and far greater. We in the West live in prosperous and profoundly decent societies, where an ordinary citizen of today lives better than a billionaire did a century ago: only a pathological moral outlook would treat confidence in, and respect for, those achievements as something contemptible. A moral outlook all the more pathological for being so ultimately self-serving: which, of course, is where it gets so much of its emotional power–the combination of sneering superiority and self-righteous moralism is very powerful. But that makes it no less contemptible.
The collapse of the Soviet Union brought to an end the Left-Right divide that had operated since the French Revolution. As philosopher Stephen Hicks has laid out, post modernism was a way to rescue a sense of moral purpose and superiority from the serial failures of the entire post-capitalism project. Let loose from any commitment to actual social achievement, the substitution of attitude rooted in nothing more than a profoundly tribal sense of the collective moral narcissism provides a profound sense of emotional self-worth, and moral superiority, without the tedious business of actually building anything worthwhile.
Rebooting the Counter-Enlightenment is not a sign of moral sense and perception, but of a commitment to nothing more than towering edifices of presumption and contempt. For nothing actually existing is, or could ever be, worthy of Tribe Virtue’s soaring sense of moral superiority. Collective narcissism parading as moral commitment–this is what the progressivist movement has become out of the ashes of socialism.
[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]