Progress and Reaction in a Liberal Age

I have some thoughts rumbling around in my head. Let me try to lay them out and put order to them. What I’m pondering is liberalism and conservatism, progressive reform and the reactionary mind, oppression and backlash.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that, ever since the Enlightenment, we live in a liberal age dominated by a liberal paradigm. So, in a sense, we are all liberals. Even reactionaries are defined by the liberalism they are reacting to. This relates to Corey Robin’s observation of how reactionaries are constantly co-opting ideas, rhetoric, and tactics from the political left. Reaction, in and of itself, has no substance other than what it takes from elsewhere. This is why conservatives, the main variety of reactionaries, often get called classical liberals. A conservative is simply what a liberal used to be and conservatism as such merely rides along on the coattails of liberalism.

This isn’t necessarily a compliment to liberalism. The liberal paradigm ultimately gets not just all the credit but also all the blame. What we call liberals and conservatives are simply the progressive and regressive manifestations of this paradigm. The progressive-oriented have tended to be called ‘liberals’ for the very reason these are the people identified with the social order, the post-Enlightenment progress that has built the entire world we know. But this easily turns those on the political left toward another variety of reaction. Liberals, as they age, find themselves relatively further and further to the right as the population over the generations keeps moving left. This is how liberals, as they age, can sometimes start thinking of themselves as conservatives. It’s not that the liberal changed but the world around them.

As reactionaries have no ideological loyalty, liberals can lack a certain kind of discernment. Liberals have a tendency toward psychological openness and curiosity along with a tolerance for cognitive dissonance (simultaneously holding two different thoughts or seeing two different perspectives). This can lead liberals to be accepting of or even sympathetic toward reactionaries, even when it is contradictory and harmful to liberalism. Furthermore, when experiencing cognitive overload, liberals easily take on reactionary traits and, if stress and anxiety continue long enough, the liberal can be permanently transformed into a reactionary (as a beautiful elf is tortured until becoming an orc).

We are living under conditions that are the opposite of being optimal for and conducive toward healthy liberal-mindedness. That isn’t to say the liberal paradigm is going to disappear any time soon. What it does mean is that the political left will get wonky for quite a while. American society, in particular, has become so oppressive and dysfunctional that there is no hope for a genuinely progressive liberalism. Right now, the progressive worldview is on the defense and that causes liberals to attack the political left as or more harshly than they do the political right. As they increasingly take on reactionary traits, mainstream liberals trying to hold onto power will defend what is left of the status quo by any means necessary.

Yet there is still that urge for progress, even as it gets demented through frustration and outrage. It was inevitable that the #MeToo movement would go too far. The same pattern is always seen following a period of oppression that leads to a populist lashing out or at least that is how some will perceive it. It is what is seen in any revolutionary era, such as how many at the time saw the American and French revolutions going too far, and indeed both led to large numbers of deaths and refugees, but that is what happens under oppressive regimes when the struggle and suffering of the masses becomes intolerable. The judgment of going too far was also made against the labor movement and the civil rights movement. Those stuck in the reactionary mind will see any challenge to their agenda of rigid hierarchy as being too much and so deserving of being crushed. And as reactionary worldview takes hold of society, almost everyone starts taking on the traits of the reactionary mind, hence reaction leading to ever more reaction until hopefully a new stability is achieved.

All of this has more to do with psychological tendencies than political ideologies. We all carry the potential for reaction as we carry the potential for progressivism. That struggle within human nature is what it means to live in a liberal age.

6 thoughts on “Progress and Reaction in a Liberal Age

  1. Good post, it points out things that have bothered me for a long time that I’m not skilled at putting into concepts ( this would be Croce’s “vision” and “conceptual knowledge” distinction, with “aesthetic” being the origin of both ). While I find his posts either way over my head or philosophically repulsive ( although I don’t know much about Buddhism so I’m in the dark on most of it ), David Chapman’s analysis of the American situation at his Vividness/meaningness blog does a service by looking at politics as the science of solving practical issues on a large scale, instead of an ideological contest, which seems more sane than anyone’s view right now. Sometimes I wonder if America is best understood ( if that’s possible ) by people outside the country, like De Toqueville.

    • I’d have to look up your references. I’m not familiar with any of that, but maybe I should read up on it. As for outsiders, one of my influences was Domenico Losurdo. I initially disagreed with him, but I eventually was persuaded to see liberalism in a broader view. I may have ended up with a notion of liberalism broader than even that of Losurdo’s analysis.

      Losurdo would prefer to entirely distinguish liberals from radicals, but that might be as impossible as clearly demarcating liberals and reactionaries. That is because, as I argue, liberalism isn’t and never has been a single thing. It is the frame rather than what is being framed. This is my way of challenging liberalism while accepting it. Liberalism just is what it is. It matters not how any given individual chooses to define and portray it. Liberalism will remain until the present order is replaced or collapses.

      • “Frame” is a broad metaphor but a good one. Do you know of any fiction authors ( not necessarily historical or fantasy) that don’t assume liberalism as a given “frame” ? Off the top of my head, I can only think of Ken Macleod, who writes sci-fi with a heavy emphasis on constructing different worlds, like a capitalist techno-cowboy paradise or socialistic groups that trade science with aliens. I’d like to write closer to that myself. I’m too self-centered and individualist to attempt to represent any group of people or involve myself in politics (although I can’t help having opinions sometimes). I think it’s better to talk about these things no matter our different perspectives.

        • I’ve never read Ken Macleod. I am a fan of world-building when well. Though I didn’t think Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash was great literature, the future world he imagined has become lodged in my own imagination. That is what the effective fiction does.

          Of course, there are authors like William S. Burroughs that sought to force the mind out of its well-worn grooves. But other examples could include Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Jonathan Lethem, or Stanislaw Lem (a somewhat random selection). I’m thinking of fiction writers who question experience of identity and reality, specifically in terms of society and relationships. In this regard, some of the philosophical horror and weird writers might resonate in how the best of them can cut to the core by disturbing expectations.

          The heart of liberalism is individualism and so, in order to imagine another possibility or knock loose present realism, that is what would need to be shifted. It might not begin with imagining an entire different world but rather imagining something other that invades or emerges from within. But in imagining something different, I appreciated We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, although I assume it was intended as a cautionary tale and not an inspiring alternative.

          I’d add that imagining the past differently can be as or more powerful than imagining a different future. That is what attracts me to the subtle radicalism of Julian Jaynes, as his ideas can get under your skin and create a sense of unease about what we take for granted in our present experience. I wish HBO’s Westworld would push even further the boundaries of individualism. On an interesting note, I came across references of Jaynes in relation to two of the Powys brothers (I’ve only read some of John Cowper Powys):

          Whether or not one ascribes to that theory, it does seem a fundamental change happened and out of the detritus was built the Axial Age, what one could perceive as the seed of the liberal paradigm. So, it can be useful to think about what was that human world before liberalism even existed as potential. I find working my way into other mindsets, by way of the ancient worlds or anthropological studies, keeps my own mind fresh and so allows me to see the world differently, maybe even to briefly intuit what non-liberalism could mean.

          If I thought I was capable of it, I’d write fiction. But depression has had a way of draining away the energy of creative imagination. I used to write fiction and enjoyed it. There just never is enough time in life while holding down a job.

  2. I began reading Le Guin, got sidetracked, I remember it was good, though historical fiction is more interesting to me now. Jaqueline Carey’s erotic historical fiction is actually a strong example of popular fiction that takes some aspects of liberalism like sexual and religious freedom and transposes them into a convincing pre-modern society, while exploring things like class friction without becoming a polemic. It occurred to me that even those examples of Macleod’s that I mentioned are extrapolations of liberalism ( anarcho-capitalist and tech-socialist worlds). That can be interesting but I’m looking for something more elemental , and most of my reading outside classes has been historical fiction or primary sources, but cyber-punk made a lasting impact on me.

    Depression can be a bestial bastard; I hope you can find some relief in writing. I know you haven’t read him recently, but your short pieces with literary figures having Tolkien-esque wizard fights have a Borges potential in their concept. I’m currently deciding which of my short fiction pieces to self-publish; I haven’t had natural REM sleep for a while but I find “dreaming while awake” through prose fic is actually therapeutic , and I may as well make the more readable pieces available to people. If I ever attempt to win popularity I’ll write academic defenses of anime as a modern dramatic form.

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