The Many Stolen Labels of the Reactionary Mind

Ideological labels are used in an odd way on the political right. They are used more as weapons of rhetoric than as accurate descriptions. This relates to Corey Robin’s analysis of the reactionary mind. One of the most interesting things that distinguishes the reactionary from the traditionalist is how easily the reactionary co-opts from the political left.

This is particularly central to American society. The reactionary mind, like fundamentalism, is the product of modernity. And the American experience was born out of modernity, beginning with post-feudal colonial imperialism. The social order and social identity fell into disarray and so political ideology became ever more primary. The reactionary mind is dynamically adaptive, for it shifts according toward which it is reacting. It thrives in instability and will promote instability, even as it scapegoats its enemies for this very same instability that it requires.

Reactionaries are tough opponents. They feel no moral obligation to fight fairly. Nor will they ever state their true intentions. The mindset and worldview precludes it, at the level of consciousness. The reactionary mind is not just a set of tactics but a way of being in the world, a permanent survival mode of mistrust and deception. Labels in themselves mean nothing to the reactionary. They are like crabs, in camouflaging themselves, that attach things to their shells — pieces of coral, anemones, etc. There is a hodge-podge quality to their stated views, a little bit of this and a little bit of that with no need for principled consistency. 

The earliest example of this is the fight over Federalism. The war of rhetoric was won by those fighting for centralized power. They didn’t actually want Federalism. What they were attempting to create, as Corey Robin explains so well, was a new form of hierarchy and ruling elite involving the same old pattern of concentrated wealth and power. They were as much attacking the traditional ancien régime (old order) as they were attacking the revolutionary movement. They co-opted from both of their enemies, but over time as traditionalism declined they increasingly focused on co-opting from the political left.

The first great victory of American reactionaries was in falsely claiming to be Federalists. They did this by co-opting the revolution itself and, by way of the Constitutional Convention, redirecting it toward counter-revolution. This forced their opponents into the position of being called Anti-Federalists, even though their opponents were the strongest defenders of Federalism. The winners not only get to write the history books but also get to do the labeling.

This is how a society like ours, founded on liberalism, quickly had its radical liberalism defanged. Thomas Paine, in a short period of time, went from revolutionary hero to social pariah and political outcast. He didn’t fit into the reactionary scheme of the new centralized establishment. Even to this day, the political right goes on trying to co-opt the label of liberalism, despite the absurdity in calling themselves classical liberals. Now a radical progressive and social democrat like Paine was a classical liberal, but he was largely written out of the history books for almost two centuries.

This pattern has repeated throughout Anglo-American history (and I’m sure elsewhere as well). The capitalists originally were strong liberals with a clear progressive bent. Paine, for example, was for free markets. And like Paine, Adam Smith saw high economic inequality as a direct threat to a free society. Yet the reactionaries took over free market rhetoric to promote the inevitable authoritarianism and paternalism of a high inequality society. Because of this, it has become harder and harder to take seriously the rhetoric of free markets — in its being falsely used to defend crony capitalism, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, neoliberal globalization, market fetishism, and crude (pseudo-)libertarianism. There is nothing free, much less classically liberal, about this capitalist realism.

There are more examples. Consider right-wing libertarians and right-wing anarchists (e.g., anarcho-capitalists). Both varieties of right-wingers typically defend the legacy of inequality and injustice. Their labeling themselves as libertarian and anarchist would have been absurd a century ago. Both libertarians and anarchists arose out of the left-wing workers movement in Europe. Yet here we are with the political right having successfully co-opted the label of libertarianism and are in the process of co-opting the label of anarchism.

There is nothing they can’t co-opt, once they set their mind to it. This is true even for labels that involve race issues. The theory and label of human biodiversity has become popular among the political right, specifically among alt-righters, the Dark Enlightenment, and other similar types. They use it to promote the cynical worldview of genetic determinism and race realism. The sad part is that the originator of human biodiversity, Jonathan Marks, created the theory specifically to disprove these right-wing claims.

Once again, here we are with the political right having so thoroughly co-opted a label that its very origins is forgotten. It’s a theft not just of a label but the destruction of meaning. It makes genuine debate impossible, and that is the entire point. Reactionaries are constantly seeking to muddy the water. They do everything in their power to control the terms of debate. Their opponents are left in a state of disorientation and constantly on the defense. This is easy for reactionaries to do because they have nothing specific to defend or rather that they keep well hidden what they are defending by way of obfuscation.

This wouldn’t necessarily mean much if not for the consistent pattern that can be seen across the centuries. It’s clearly significant in what it says about the modern political right and the consequences it has for the political left. The lesson is this. Never take them at their word. And never fight on their terms. Labels do matter.

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Alt-Right Martyrdom for the Cause

The misogynistic gender ‘realist’ of recent fame, James Damore, has responded to the backlash. He wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal: Why I Was Fired by Google. I’m willing to listen to contrarian views, even when ill-informed, if only to hear the other side. After spending much time in human biodiversity and race realist blogosphere, I’m already familiar with the standard arguments that get rolled out. That said, I actually think he makes at least one good point, albeit unintentionally. Such issues are complicated and in ways that few would like to acknowledge, specifically in terms of the historical context.

Damore complains that his free speech is being trampled upon. A problem with corporations, specifically big biz, is that they aren’t democratic institutions. By design, they don’t uphold democratic values and processes. This is an old argument from the political left and now this critical rhetoric is being co-opted by the alt-right. For example, most of the prejudice and oppression during the Cold War came from corporations, not government — such private sector blackballing and other tactics led to social ostracism, effective silencing, destroyed careers, and even suicide; while redbaiting and witchhunts were used to attack civil rights activists and labor organizers.

Yet the alt-right wants us to now believe that white men, especially the privileged professionals and the aspiring technocracy in the comfortable class, are the real victims. They suddenly feel betrayed by the powerful business interests they assumed were on their side. Well, business comes down to profit and recent research shows that diversity is good for business. The capitalist class for the most part aren’t going to put ideology before profit, at least not any ideology other than capitalist realism.

Capitalism is as much a political system as an economic system. Corporate charters are political constructs and so corporations are political entities, but their politics have rarely been anything close to democracy (although anarchosyncialists have aspired to a different business model, not that they have had much influence in the US and global economic system). Capitalism and democracy have historically been two separate things, occasionally overlapping but more often not. China and Russia presently have capitalism, as did Nazi Germany along with numerous fascist countries.

In any country, capitalism by itself has never stopped the silencing, persecution, imprisonment, and assassination of political dissidents. Many authoritarian governments were promoted and supported by US business interests and the US government (e.g., the American plutocracy’s ties to the Nazi regime, which is how the Bush family made its original wealth). Is the political right now suggesting that capitalism needs to be made to conform to democracy, rather than sacrificing democracy to business interests? Or are they just complaining that American capitalism isn’t authoritarian enough in privileging the appropriate identity politics and not fascist enough in maintaining gender and racial hierarchy?

In American society, corporations have no legal requirement nor social expectation to be democratic, much less respect the free speech of employees. That has been true for a long time. It’s true that many of the American revolutionaries and founders did expect that corporations should serve the public good, but that was a much earlier and more idealistic time. The capitalist economy and corporatist government have long left behind that original intent of the country’s founding. The US has essentially returned to the British imperial collusion between big gov and big biz that the American revolutionaries fought against.

If we want to return to the revolutionary ideal of corporations serving public good or at least not undermining personal freedom, we might need a new revolution. This is an old conflict that has been fought over by generations of Americans. It is why originally libertarianism was aligned with the workers movement and not with the capitalist ownership class. No worker, not even a professional in the tech industry, should assume their interests are aligned with corporate interests nor that their rights will be protected by corporate management. That class conflict is as old as capitalism itself.

It must be remembered that incipient capitalism in the Anglo-American world preceded modern democracy by centuries. The hope that some of the more revolutionary founders had was that capitalism could be made to conform to or at least be kept in check by a democratic system, a government by the people rather than a government by monarchs, aristocrats, and plutocrats. But they had plenty of experience with crony capitalism and oppressive corporatism so as to give them good reason to fear corporations, which is why they sought to severely constrain them in being legally obligated to serve the public good or else have their government-sanctioned corporate charters annulled and eliminated. They were careful to not conflate a for-profit business with a public-serving corporate charter, based on an important lesson we have forgotten.

If actual freedom for all citizens is our shared intention as a society, then we have a long way to go. That would require a complete overhaul of our present political and economic system. The tech bros and pseudo-libertarians complaining about Google probably don’t understand the implications of their own claims (e.g., James Damore quoting Noam Chomsky). That is what makes these times both dangerous and promising. Before any revolution or other societal transformation, most people don’t understand the implications of much of anything, until it is too late. There is a coming storm and no one knows what it portends.

For certain, the fracturing of our society goes far beyond the challenge of feminists in demanding fair treatment and a tech industry giant upholding those demands. Yet another men’s rights manifesto is not going to bring back old school patriarchal capitalism where flagrant misogyny is acceptable and where gender bias will rule over the social order. Like it or not, the ideal of equality is becoming normalized, just as a minority majority is forming and the Confederate statues are coming down. It’s a new world we are entering, even as the old forms of power still hold much sway. So what is the alt-right hoping to accomplish, other than concern trolling and general fuckery?

Is there a balance point in a society of extremes?

“That decadence is a cumulative thing. Certainly, it is nurtured both by dogma and nihilism. Only a sceptical meaningfulness can push forward in a creative way.”
~ Paul Adkin, Decadence & Stagnation

Many liberals in the United States have become or always were rather conservative in personality and/or ideology. This is an old complaint made by many further to the left, myself included.

Quite a few liberals maybe would have identified as conservatives at a different time or in a different society. The US political spectrum is shifted so far right that moderate conservatives appear as liberals and typically portray themselves as liberals, but even these moderate conservatives long to push society further right into neoliberal corporatism and neocon authoritarianism. That is how so much of the political left gets excluded from mainstream respectability and legitimacy for, in big biz media and plutocratic politics, even a moderate liberal gets portrayed as a radical.

But the other thing about our society is how reactionary it is, not merely right-wing in the way seen a century ago. This forces the entire political left into an oppositional position that gets defined by what it isn’t and so leftists are forced into a narrow corner of the dominant paradigm. This causes many left-wingers to be constantly on the defensive or to be overly preoccupied with the other side.

And it is so easy to become more like what is opposed. There is a surprising number of left-wingers who become right-wingers or otherwise fall into reactionary thinking, who become obsessed with fringe ideologies and movements that feed into authoritarianism or get lost in dark fantasies of dystopia and apocalypse. Many others on the political left simply lose hope, becoming cynical and apathetic.

In a society like this, it’s very difficult to remain solidly on the political left while maintaining balance. One hopes there is a sweet spot between what goes for liberalism and the far left, these two in themselves forming extremes on a spectrum.

The danger on the political right is far different. Conservative, right-wing, and reactionary have all become conflated into an ideological confusion that is held together by an authoritarian streak. This is a vague set of overlapping visons involving dominance and oppression, fear and anxiety, righteousness and resentment, nostalgia and pseudo-realism, theocracy and nationalism, crude libertarianism and fascist-like futurism.

This scattered political left and mixed-up political right is what goes for American politics.

How does an individual as a member of the public gain enough distance from the very social order that dominates the public mind and frames public debate, manages public perception and manipulates public behavior? And where does one find solid ground to make a stand?

* * *

Let me add some thoughts.

We Americans live in an authoritarian society. There is a long history of authoritarianism: genocide, slavery, land theft, population displacement, reservations, internment camps, re-enslavement through chain gangs, Jim Crow, sundown towns, race wars, redlining, eugenics, human medical testing, tough-on-crime laws, war on drugs, war on the poor, racial profiling, mass incarceration, police brutality, military-industrial complex, near continuous war-mongering, anti-democratic covert operations (foreign and domestic), intelligence-security state, plutocratic corporatism, inverted totalitarianism, etc.

In America, there were openly stated racist laws on the books for several centuries. Of course, we inherited this authoritarian tradition from Britain and Europe. They have their own long histories of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, pogroms, Holocaust, eugenics, ghettoization, exploitation, oppression, prejudice, violence, state terrorism, wars of aggression, world war, and on and on. We can’t rationalize this as being just human nature, as not all humans have acted this way. There are societies like the Piraha that wouldn’t even understand authoritarianism, much less be prone to it. But even among modern nation-states, not all of them have an extensive past of conquering and dominating other people.

Anyway, what other societies do is a moot issue, as far as dealing with one’s own society and one’s own culpability and complicity. So you say that you’re an anti-authoritarian. Well, good for you. What does that mean?

Our lives are ruled over by authoritarianism. But it’s not just something that comes from above for it is built into every aspect of our society and economy. On a daily basis, we act out scripts of authoritarianism and play by its rules. Our lives are dependent on the internalized benefits of externalized costs, the latter being mostly paid by the worst victims of authoritarianism, typically poor dark-skinned people in distant countries. The cheap gas and cheap products you consume were paid for by the blood and suffering of untold others who remain unseen and unheard.

Even to embrace anti-authoritarianism is to remain captured within the gravity of authoritarianism’s pull. The challenge is that maybe authoritarianism can’t ever be directly opposed because opposition is part of the language of authoritarianism. Opposition can always be co-opted, subverted, or redirected. There is either authoritarianism or there is not. For it to end, something entirely new would have to take its place.

This is where radical imagination comes in. We need entirely different thinking made possible through a paradigm shift, a revolution of the mind. We aren’t going to debate or analyze, petition or vote our way out of authoritarianism. That puts us in a tricky spot, for those of us dissatisfied with the options being forced upon us.

The Less Fortunate And More Frustrated

Someone commented that, “there’s just something about alt-right that is extremely draining. I’m not even sure if it’s my own personal reactions. It’s just such a negative, cynical, and above all hopeless lens to view things from. Friends say it’s not healthy to get immersed in it, but I wonder if it’s also unhealthy for the alt righters themselves, not just for outsiders.” I agree, but I’d put it in context.

It’s draining because it isn’t natural, far from the normal state of humanity. It’s not tribal hate. If alt-righters ever met actual tribal people, the two groups would not recognize or understand each other’s worldviews. Alt-right isn’t really about tribalism, any more than it really is about race or any other overt issue. What it is about is frustration, anger, and outrage.

That isn’t to deny the racism. It’s just to point out that we have a severely messed up society where racism is inseparable from other forms of oppression and social control that harm most Americans. Very few people are privileged enough to entirely escape the shit storm. Heck, even the wealthy are worse off in a society like ours, as has been shown in the research on economic inequality. This is not a healthy and happy society.

Part of me has a lot of sympathy for these lost souls. I understand what turns the mind in such dark directions. We live in a society that chews people up and spits them out. Nothing in our society is as advertised. Many people actually want to believe in the American Dream of upward mobility, of a growing middle class, of the good life, of each generation doing better than the last. People can only take all of the bullshit for so long. Alt-right gives them a voice, in a society that seeks to silence them.

Such things as alt-right are an indication of societal failure, not just individual failure. If we had increasing upward mobility instead of worsening downward mobility, if we had a growing instead of shrinking middle class, if we had no severe poverty and extreme inequality, if basic needs were taken care of and people had a sense of their own value in society, if people were supported in their aspirations and could live up to their potential, no one would ever turn to ideologies like the alt-right.

The average alt-righter isn’t a poor rural hick, hillbilly, or redneck. The alt-right tends to draw from the middle class, which mostly means the precarious lower middle class. Many people in the alt-right are those who want to be part of the liberal class, to live the liberal class dream, but something failed along the way.

There is a white guy I know. He is in academia and, though liberal in many ways, he became drawn to the alt-right. He wasn’t making much money and he felt stuck. He didn’t want to be living here and yet couldn’t find good job opportunities elsewhere. Even as he technically was in the liberal class, he was economically struggling and his life was not going according to plan. Worse still, there is little hope that the economy is going to improve any time soon for people like him.

That is type of person in the failed liberal class that the rest of the liberal class would prefer to ignore. What the liberal class doesn’t get is that their dream is desirable for many people even outside of the liberal class. But when it becomes unattainable for most of the population that leads to frustration. There are many poor whites who would love to go to college or send their kids to college, to have professional careers, to work toward a better life for themselves and their families, and to have all the good things that are available in liberal class communities such as nice parks, well-funded schools, etc.

If the liberal class is serious, they shouldn’t be supporting policies that make it harder for people to join the liberal class. New Democrats like Clinton support tough-on-crime policies, mass incarceration, privatized prisons, endless wars, growing military-industrial complex, corrupt corporatism, international trade deals that harm the lower classes, and all the other ways that screw over average and below average people. Why is it that the liberal class can’t understand that supporting neocon and neoliberal candidates is actually self-destructive to the liberal vision of society?

Liberals often like to pride themselves on not being racist or whatever. I call bullshit. If many of these liberals ever faced the threat of serious economic problems, downward mobility, and constant frustration of their dreams and aspirations, the majority of them easily could be swayed toward racism and other similar forms of bigotry. Research shows that such biases lurk just beneath the surface. What the liberal class lifestyle allows is for such people to not just be oblivious of what is going on in the world but also oblivious to what is hidden within their own minds.

After a period of societal stress and economic uncertainty, if an authoritarian came along promising progressive economics along with law-and-order rhetoric, most in the liberal class would support him. That is what the liberal class did in Germany when they supported Hitler. You are ignorant of history and human nature if you think it can’t happen here. As I put it in an earlier post:

“By the way, if your concern about Trump voters relates to right-wing authoritarianism, there is a key point to keep in mind. Groups like the Klan and the Nazis drew their strongest support from the middle class. That shouldn’t be surprising, as it is the middle class that is the most politically engaged. One would predict almost any political movement will attract many from the middle class. Also, it’s not so easy to pin this down ideologically. What you should really fear is when the liberal middle class (AKA liberal class) submits to the authoritarian trends in society, as happened in the past. Never forget that the Klan and the Nazis were rather progressive in many ways. Hitler rebuilt infrastructure and promoted policies that helped many ordinary Germans. The Klan supported child labor laws, public education, etc.”

I could add much to that, as I did in some comments to that post. Consider the Progressive Era. Many progressives supported eugenics, immigration control, and similar policies. The New Deal institutionalized racial biases that impacted the generations following.

Overt racist bigots and white supremacists would be a lot less powerful without the tolerant complicity and sometimes direct support of the liberal class. This can be broadened to the oppression that liberals so often allow and promote, such as their participation in anti-communist red-baiting and witch-hunts. Minorities (racial, ethnic, and religious) along with poor people and the political left have always been favorite targets of the liberal class, at least when they feel their privileged lifestyle is being challenged or there is a threat of social disruption. The liberal class, first and foremost, will always defend the status quo that makes possible their liberal good life… even when their defense betrays their stated liberal values.

The liberal class in a society like the US are among the fortunate few. Most of them don’t know what it is like to deal with tough times. They don’t know what is in their own hearts, what could emerge under much worse conditions. None of us ever knows what we are capable of until our back is against the wall, but many people are privileged enough to never find out. That is no reason for feeling self-righteous toward the less fortunate and more frustrated.