Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Let me clear up the issue of ideology as it relates to my own thinking. I’ve discussed this before, but it can never be emphasized too much.

Conservatism isn’t necessarily the same thing as conservative-mindedness and liberalism isn’t necessarily the same thing as liberal-mindedness. (You must forgive my sometimes using, in other posts, conservatism and liberalism as a shorthand for conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness.) A conservative can be relatively liberal-minded and a liberal can be relatively conservative-minded. Conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness are on a spectrum with most people in the middle with varying development and ability in both directions.

The confusion comes from extremists having more influence over politics than does the average person. Also, with mainstream American politics in recent history, conservatism and liberalism no longer clearly or simply correspond with their respective psychological predispositions. It’s a mess with labels meaning almost anything, depending on who you ask.

Conservatism has come to mean extreme conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Liberalism has come to mean moderate conservative-mindedness combined with or aligned with moderate liberal-mindedness, but with a constant pull toward the right for the last several decades or so. So, this has caused Democrats to take up the moderate conservative position that used to be the standard position of Republicans (e.g., Nixon and Eisenhower), leaving even moderate liberals without much of a home, not to mention stronger liberals and more radical leftists.

We have a party of extreme right-wingers and a party of moderate conservatives, a party of the extremely conservative-minded and a party of the moderately conservative-minded, a party of authoritarians and a party of lesser authoritarianism. However, neither of the main parties is left-wing nor even overly liberal-minded. Liberalism has come to mean mild-mannered centrism at best. There is no need to fear communist revolution or anarchistic terrorism coming from the Democratic Party, not even from the liberal movement for that matter. Heck, there is no need to fear from Democrats even the popular reforms that used to be promoted by the past Republican Party that was far to the left of Obama.

This problem can’t be solved by conservatives or liberals as such, at least not defined according to present mainstream politics. Left-wingers are correct in their analysis when they point this out. However, liberalism isn’t inherently weak and conciliatory, as some left-wingers assume. Liberalism can manifest in radical ways and indeed it has at other periods of history. Genuinely and strongly liberal-minded liberalism both seeks to liberalize and liberate.

But such liberal-mindedness necessitates a meeting and maybe a merging of liberalism and leftism. Liberal-mindedness is the key part, not any particular ideology. Liberalism without liberal-mindedness is pathetic. Leftism without liberal-mindedness is dangerous.

More importantly, conservative-minded conservatism without liberal-mindedness to balance it will fall off the cliff into authoritarianism. If conservatives genuinely fear authoritarianism, then they should do everything in their power to make room at the table for the liberal-minded (and make room within their own souls for a bit of liberal-minded hope and vision). I’m not asking conservative-mindedness to be sacrificed or even necessarily constrained. I’m arguing that liberal-mindedness is at the heart of democracy and of a free society, for liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative-mindedness can serve the purposes of democracy and freedom or, without liberal-mindedness to offer balance, it can serve the purposes of authoritarianism and oppression.

I speak of the necessity of balance, of interdependence, and of psychological wholeness.

The problem is conservative-minded conservatives (along with the conservative-minded of other persuasions) don’t understand the need of balance when they are in a state of fear. This is why the onus of responsibility ultimately falls on the shoulders of the liberal-minded (including liberal-minded conservatives). Only the liberal-minded are capable of envisioning an alternative narrative to that of fear and doom, paranoia and xenophobia. Only the liberal-minded are capable of offering both/and, win/win solutions. The conservative-minded aren’t capable of pulling themselves out of a death spiral of fear once it has begun.

Fortunately, most people have a combination of varying degrees of conservative-mindedness and liberal-mindedness. Unfortunately, it’s easy even for these people to have fear shut down their own sense of liberal-mindedness. This is how moderate conservatives and also moderate liberals sadly end up supporting immoral actions such as the Iraq War and Gitmo. The two-party system, without any strong elements of liberal-mindedness, will inevitably lead to bipartisan corruption and complicity.

This complicity comes from a lack of imagination. That is the talent of liberal-mindedness: imagination (see the psychological correlates: Openness to Experience of traits theory, Intuition and Perception of Myers-Briggs, and Thin Boundary Type of Ernest Hartmann). I sometimes speak of conservatives lacking empathy, but that actually isn’t quite true or rather I’m not communicating the truth well in stating it that way. What is true is that conservative-mindedness (as a theoretical construct distinct from and separate from liberal-mindedness) lacks empathetic imagination and open-minded imagination in general.

This lack of imagination is exemplified by the cultural myth of capitalist realism — as described by Mark Fisher:

“Capitalist realism as I understand it cannot be confined to art or to the quasi-propagandistic way in which advertising functions. It is more like a pervasive atmosphere, conditioning not only the production of culture but also the regulation of work and education, and acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

This invisible barrier is the boundary within which mainstream American politics operates. This is why liberal-mindedness is key, specifically as it relates to Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Only the thin boundary type has the ease and capacity to see past barriers and transcend constraints. That is imagination, not as mere fantasy but as a potent force of social action, even to the point of revolution when all else fails.

The trick, though, is that liberal-mindedness at its best is capable of operating without any inevitable opposition for it undermines the oppositional attitude typical of conservative-mindedness. Conservative-mindedness has no way of defending against this other than to promote fear that undermines liberal-mindedness at a gut-level. In a direct fight, conservative-mindedness will always win. Liberal-mindedness can only win by shifting the narrative of the debate, by refusing to play by the rules of conflict and antagonism.

Liberal-mindedness isn’t opposed to conservative-mindedness nor, I would argue, is conservative-mindedness by itself opposed to liberal-mindedness. Rather, it is conservative-mindedness combined with or in alliance with authoritarianism (and social dominance orientation) that is opposed to liberal-mindedness. Without authoritarianism pulling conservative-mindedness into extremism, conservative-mindedness is simply the yang to the yin of liberal-mindedness. The liberal-minded can understand this because it is at the core of their worldview. The challenge is to help the conservative-minded to realize that they too contain liberal-mindedness within themselves, even if only as a potential.

An example of unnecessary and unuseful polarized opposition is that of public versus private. In reality, both are required for a well functioning society. I see this in the debate of welfare. Conservatives construct a narrative of charity in opposition to welfare, as if private charity could solve all of the world’s problems. This is usually promoted by religious conservatives and so it is an argument for giving churches more power over society, deciding who gets helped and who doesn’t.

The problems with this are many, but one basic problem is that private charity has never proven itself to be effective. The very communities and regions that are the most religious and have the least taxation also have the worst social problems. If they can’t solve their own problems at home, what makes them think that their strategy will work for the entire nation?

Liberals aren’t against charity. As a liberal, I praise conservatives who do their best to help others through volunteering their time and donating money. But in the end such charity only deals with symptoms. By saying this, I don’t mean to disparage or devalue charity. Anyone who has dealt with a serious illness or had a loved one deal with a serious illness knows that symptom management can be one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, especially when it comes to pain management. As nice as it is, no rational person would argue that symptom management should replace procedures that may cure the illness that is causing the symptoms.

It’s both/and. This is what liberal-mindedness can offer. Conservative emphasis on charity and liberal emphasis on social safety nets are both necessary for a civil society. So, it is left to the liberal-minded to make this case and to provide the vision, the empathetic imagination that will make this case compelling.

8 thoughts on “Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

    • I just now went over and read your most recent piece of writing. It is more bleak, but bleak is always in the background of my thoughts even when I don’t express it in words.

      My own bleakness usually causes me to fall into silence when I directly contemplate it. Besides, trying to communicate it feels without a point, nothing to be gained other than hearing one’s own voice but few others with any interest to listen in.

      The overtly bleak and not, it all goes together in my mind and experience. There is usually behind all of my writings an emotional exhaustion, an existential tiredness, sometimes annoyance and frustration, often verging on cynicism or wallowing in a well-developed sense of apathetic despair. It’s just there. It drives my thinking on every matter, including my seemingly more hopeful speculations.

      I like that you quoted Ligotti’s Conspiracy, a superb presenation of the pessimistic quandry to which I have no rational response, just a weary nodding of the head. Ligotti has followed the liberated imagination into the shadows of consciousness. Not much I can add to his insights and explanations.

  1. And, yes, liberalism has been radical in the best, even “conservative-minded” and bloodily so: the Jacobins were the births of radical liberalism and leftism both.

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