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.

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