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?