Friday, 9 December 2016

Where Does Leftism Lead?

This is an article I wrote grappling with the underlying foundation of leftism. My views have developed since.

Leftism holds enormous influence over Western society. Most of our central institutions, from academia to the media to the entertainment industry, are dominated by people who identify as leftist (or an equivalent label such as liberal or progressive). To take one example, a recent US study shows that left-leaning academic psychologists outnumber their right-leaning colleagues by a ratio of 12:1, and that an explosion has occurred over the past 25 years which shows no sign of slowing down.

Given their influence, and since activism seems to be an integral part of leftism, meaning that leftists are typically interested in changing society, this raises an important question: what do they want to change society into?


For those not on the left, this is a pressing matter, especially given recent developments that push society in a direction many find deeply concerning.

For a lot of these people, leftism ultimately leads to communism. Partly because it has done so in the past, and partly because communism seems like the logical conclusion of central leftist goals, for example ‘achieving equality’ and ‘fighting oppression’.

I would argue, though, that communism doesn’t fully capture all aspects of leftism, especially those related to cultural issues. It also doesn’t explain why leftism has such a hold on so many people, even after communism has failed so disastrously. Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that leftists were driven by resentment, and this idea is still popular, but I find it highly implausible. After all, many leftists are quite wealthy and in positions of significant power.

In this article, I propose a different answer, one that I believe better captures the full extent of leftism, while also explaining why it is so seductive.

***

Several years ago, I encountered the belief system known as spiritualism. As I read some of its literature, I was struck by how much it resembled leftism, beneath the superficial differences.

Leftism, unlike most belief systems, does not have a set of explicit core ideas. Rather, it’s a movement based on partially defined beliefs and appeals to emotion, so identifying its core beliefs is not easy. Yet I found in spiritualism a set of ideas that seemed to tease out some of the fundamental elements of leftism.

The core idea in spiritualism is that humans fundamentally consist of an eternal spirit, which is reincarnated again and again in different forms. Consequently, physical characteristics, including gender, ethnicity, class, and ability, conceal a person’s true nature. Therefore, rising above these physical characteristics is the main measure of achievement. Eventually, it is thought that a person can let go entirely of physical form and return to oneness with other spirits. In such a state, there is no judgement or competition or envy or hatred or even sex; only Platonic love. (A similar idea is held in some Eastern religions, most notably Buddhism, where the final state is known as nirvana.)

The main differences between spiritualism and leftism are obvious. Leftism rejects the idea of an afterlife, and it doesn’t use overtly religious terms like ‘spirit’ or ‘nirvana’. Aside from that though, there are striking similarities. Firstly, there’s the belief that humans have some kind of inherent equality, and that physical characteristics conceal it by wrongly differentiating people. Secondly, there’s the belief that stripping away those physical characteristics allows the inherent equality to shine through. Thirdly, there’s the belief that once that occurs, humans will live in a state of utopian undifferentiation (i.e., equality).

Essentially, leftism is the attempt to create nirvana on Earth. And instead of it being a personal journey, it is one that is enforced on society.

Assuming this is true, does it provide us with a framework for understanding why leftists act as they do? I think it does.

For example, it explains the left’s current preoccupation with transgenderism. Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson, who has been under attack by leftists for questioning recent initiatives related to transgenderism, including legally mandating the use of a large number of gender pronouns, has remarked that the push for gender pronouns is seemingly not being driven by transgender people, but by leftists. From a nirvana-on-Earth perspective, this makes sense. Gender differentiates people and is therefore wrong (i.e., it conceals people’s true nature), and by pushing for gender pronouns and generally promoting transsexuality as a key issue leftists blur gender lines, eventually working toward an elimination of gender altogether. It’s not about transgender people, it’s about undifferentiation.

It also explains why, for much the same reason, leftists have drifted again and again toward communism, despite its disastrous results. Some people having more wealth or power than others is wrong, because it differentiates people. Even if society as a whole is better off, in fact even if every single person is better off, it’s still wrong because ultimately wealth and power do not matter; undifferentiation (i.e., equality) is what matters.

Similarly, it explains why leftists seem so set on globalisation and breaking down national boundaries. The European Union being the prime example. Nations differentiate people and are therefore wrong.

Finally, it explains why leftist thinkers like Jacques Derrida believed that categorisation is wrong. This is a prominent theme in postmodernism, which has defined much of recent leftist thought, and extends to related issues like judgment and truth and reason. These ideas are also central to Buddhism: the belief that human thought imposes differentiation on an undifferentiated reality, and that rising above differentiation is the ultimate goal. (There are many parallels between postmodernism and spiritualism/Buddhism; the concept of alienation being another example, which suggests that humans have become separated from the source.)

Now, of course, there are different degrees of leftism, and people often have more than one motivation for their actions. And leftists would undoubtedly give other reasons for their actions in, for example, pushing for globalisation. They probably believe these reasons themselves. But what we’re trying to get at is the core element in leftism; the common denominator of all the different actions that leftists take. The answer seems clear to me: they are driven by a deeply held belief that differentiation is wrong, a belief that they themselves may not even be fully aware of.

But wait a minute. It seems crazy that millions of people, many with intellectual backgrounds, would hold something like that as their core belief, even if it is implicit.

Actually, when we look at the origins of leftism, it’s not that crazy.

***

Leftism emerged out of Christianity during the 18th and 19th Century, as a consequence of intellectual and social developments. Ostensibly, a central part of this was the transition from a supernatural view of the world to a natural one. When we look closer, though, this was only partly the case.

Christianity has two major supernatural elements: God and the human soul. Yet while the former was largely removed from our models of the world, replaced by scientific laws, the latter was not. We simply changed its name, instead referring to it in terms such as inherent equality. As leftism emerged out of Christianity as the dominant moral belief system, it shed the idea of God and an afterlife, while relabelling the notion of the soul in nontheistic terms. In fact, this relabelled notion of the soul is the central element in leftism, leading to a systematic attempt to remove differentiation (i.e., to create equality) among people.

This explains why leftism seems so much like spiritualism. Christianity without God very nearly is spiritualism (reincarnation aside). Instead of people shedding their physical bodies upon death to join God and each other in Heaven, they shed their physical bodies to join together in an undifferentiated union. And when you further remove the notion of an afterlife you get a nirvana-on-Earth utopia, which is what leftism seems to strive for.

It also explains why leftism is so seductive, especially in a post-Christian world. It really does seem like humans are inherently equal, that beneath our differences there is some kind of identical object that we all share. How else can one explain the remarkably similar and coordinated ways that humans act, across different cultures, ethnicities, and genders?

Add to that how leftism leverages a powerful human emotion, empathy, by framing the quest for undifferentiation as the elimination of suffering (which Buddhism also does, although on a personal level), and then further add the appeal of coming together around a common cause, and you have a very alluring proposition.

Leftism works much the same way as religions do, except it hides its religious elements below the surface, and thus appears to not be a religion. This makes leftists think they can have their cake and eat it too. They get to practice what is essentially religion while denouncing traditional religion, especially Christianity, as unscientific.

***

What does science actually say about leftism? The same thing it says about traditional religion. Just as science shows that despite the appearance of the world being created by God, scientific laws provide a better explanation, it shows that despite the appearance of humans being inherently equal, scientific laws provide a better explanation. Humans appear remarkably similar because they are made up of similar biological processes, and these processes have evolved to produce coordinated behaviour. But there is no inherent equality; it’s physical processes all the way down. Trying to strip away physical differences to get at the inherent equality inside gradually removes everything that makes humans and their society what it is, until ultimately there is nothing left.

Two humans are no more inherently equal than two apples are; they’re equal to the extent their components are, and different to the extent they aren’t. Thinking otherwise is anachronistic Platonism.

This explains why communism has repeatedly failed so disastrously, and why a nirvana-on-Earth that attempts to go even further by removing national, ethnic and gender differences would do even worse. These elements serve a purpose: they allow for a dynamic, competitive, and specialised society that can adapt effectively to environmental pressures.

There is good reason to always be a little sceptical of scientific theories. They are, after all, provisional. That said, the past 400 years of scientific discovery has systematically built a broad and coherent framework for describing and predicting the world, including human behaviour, one that has proven remarkably successful. Leftism conflicts with this framework. Because leftism is so widely held among scientists, especially social scientists, the conflict has been downplayed. Scientists have generally only challenged the more extreme leftists, those who view the world as being entirely a social construct concealing an underlying reality of inherent undifferentiation. But there is a reason these people believe what they do; they are taking leftism to its logical conclusion. Scientists need to challenge leftism in full, with the same vigour they challenge traditional religion.

This is not to say, of course, that there’s anything wrong with empathy and altruism. They are powerful mechanisms that have evolved for good reason. The problem is leftism, the belief that humans are inherently equal and that consequently physical attributes are superficial and concealing and should be corrected. This is what needs to be challenged, not through activism and angry rhetoric, but through science. And the purpose of doing so is to eventually replace leftism with a better model of societal function, one that is based on science.

This is a sensitive topic, and getting it wrong could have serious consequences. But there are two reasons, I think, for pursuing this. Firstly, treating truth as a goal in itself has been so beneficial for society historically, even when challenging established beliefs, that doing so here also is likely to be beneficial. And secondly, the disastrous effects of leftism in the past when it has been the dominant, unopposed belief system suggests that not challenging it could have terrible consequences for Western society, especially as traditional religion, which has typically been the main opposition to leftism, continues to lose influence.

2 comments:

  1. I really like this blog and am working my way through the posts. Just want to make one comment here about his one: I don't believe being rich or powerful stops anyone having resentment, in the Nietzschean sense. It is a worldview, based in the psychology (or even the physiology, Nietzsche claimed) of a person. I agree with most of what you say about the spiritual nature of leftism and think this an excellent analysis. But the spiritual nature of leftism can in fact be seen as a working out of the resentment, how it plays out.

    By the way, although I haven't yet read them in great enough depth, you may be interested in Eric Voegelin, who saw strong parallels between leftist thought and Gnosticism. Also Leo Strauss may interest you (Natural Right and History).

    I recently read a book called Inventing the Individual (Siedentop), which briefly covered the nature of early Christianity - and I was immediately struck by how incredibly similar it was to modern left-wing thought. Both seem to have the same drive: the urge to be judged as an individual before God (or, in the case of the Left, before an abstract concept of universal humanity) and not by agreed rules, conventions or laws, even if democratically agreed. (That doesn't of course mean that there are no laws enforcing left-wing values, only that the original and root motive was to reject what they saw as oppressive.)

    David
    UK

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  2. Thanks for your comment David, it's very useful to me.

    Your point on Nietzsche is well-taken.

    I'll try to find the works by Voegelin, Strauss, and Siedentop that you mention. (I see Siedentop is quite recent and avaliable electronically.) I'm actually finishing up a related article that I hope to get published. I might just quickly skim through Siedentop and see if there's something I can use.

    Thanks again!

    Uri

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