Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries

“Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

“A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions.”

That is another great insight from Corey Robin, as written in his New Yorker piece, Eric Hobsbawm, the Communist Who Explained History. Boredom does seem key. It is one of the things that stood out to me in Robin’s writings about the reactionary mind. Reactionaries dislike, even fear, boredom more than almost anything else. The rhetoric of reactionaries is often to create the passionate excitement of melodrama, such as how Burke describes the treatment of the French queen.

The political left too often forgets the power of storytelling, especially simplistic and unoriginal storytelling, as seen with Trump. Instead, too many on the left fear the populist riling up of the masses. I remember Ralph Nader warning about this in a speech he gave in his 2000 presidential campaign. There is a leftist mistrust of passion and maybe there is good reason for this mistrust, considering it forms the heartbeat of the reactionary mind. Still, without passion, there is no power of persuasion and so all attempts are doomed from the start. The left will have to learn to fight on this turf or simply embrace full resignation and so fall into cynicism.

The thing is that those on the political left seem to have a higher tolerance for boredom, maybe related to their higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance shown in social science research. It requires greater uncertainty and stress to shut down the liberal-minded person (liberal in the psychological sense). I noticed this in myself. I’m not prone to the reactionary maybe because I don’t get bored easily and so don’t need something coming from outside to motivate me.

But it might go beyond mere tolerance in demonstrating an active preference for boredom. There is something about the liberal mind that is prone to complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that can only be grown amidst boredom — that is to say the open-mindedness of curiosity, doubt, and questioning are only possible when one acknowledges ignorance. It’s much more exciting to proclaim truth, instead, and proclaim it with an entertaining story. This is problematic in seeking political victories, if one is afraid of the melodrama of hard fights. Right-wingers might burn themselves out on endless existential crises, whereas left-wingers typically never build up enough fire to lightly toast a marshmallow.

The political left doesn’t require or thrive with a dualistic vision of opposition and battle, in the way does the political right. This is a central strength and weakness for the left. On the side of weakness, this is why it is so hard for the left to offer a genuinely threatening challenge to the right. Most often what happens is the reactionaries simply co-opt the left and the left too easily falls in line. See how many liberals will repeat reactionary rhetoric. Or notice how many on the political left turned full reactionary during times of conflict (e.g., world war era).

Boredom being the comfort zone of liberals is all the more reason they should resist settling down within its confines. There is no where to hide from the quite real drama that is going on in the world. The liberal elite can’t forever maintain their delusion of being a disinterested aristocracy. As Eric Hobsbawm understood and Karl Marx before him, only a leftist vision can offer a narrative that can compete against the reactionary mind

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“Capitalism is boring. Devoting your life to it, as conservatives do, is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”
~William F. Buckley Jr., in an interview with Corey Robin

Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals

The last thing in the world a reactionary wants is to be bored, as happened with the ending of the ideological battles of the Cold War. They need a worthy enemy or else to invent one. Otherwise, there is nothing to react to and so nothing to get excited about, followed by a total loss of meaning and purpose, resulting in dreaded apathy and ennui. This leads reactionaries to become provocative, in the hope of provoking an opponent into a fight. Another strategy is simply to portray the whole world as a battleground, such that everything is interpreted as a potential attack, working oneself or one’s followers into a froth.

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.