Reactionaries Seeking Reaction

The reactionary mind, to a large degree, is simply another way of speaking of conservatism; at least in Anglo-American society. That is separate from speaking of this being a reactionary age. Anyone can be pulled into reaction, but not everyone gets stuck in reaction. It’s the latter that is what it means to be a reactionary as an identity, rather than a passing state.

Yet we can narrow it down further. The most reactionary of reactionaries help us to understand what exactly is the modus operandi of the reactionary mind. As the name suggests, a reactionary is one who easily reacts and so is constantly in a reactive pose. This coincides, of course, with regressive politics; but it’s important to remember that reactionaries aren’t ideologically consistent.

It all depends on what they are reacting to. They don’t define themselves but are defined by their reaction. They are the shadow of liberalism, progressivism, and leftism; not to mention the denial and suppression of all that is traditional. There is no ultimate substance to the reactionary mind, much less a principled position. Like chameleons, they change with conditions.

Even that doesn’t fully get at what is going on. It’s not only that they react to anything and everything. That reaction is both their mindset and their entire worldview. They only understand reaction and so they also want to elicit reaction in others. They try to instigate reaction in general, to create a total shit-fest of reaction, because that pulls others into reaction where the reactionaries have the advantage.

Conservatives, on average, are more likely to be misinformed and spread misinformation; as compared to liberals. Yet it is not found evenly across all conservatives. There is a specific sub-type of conservative with a need for chaos. This is the reactionary extreme that is the most likely, in particular, to share fake news; along with a motivation to spread hostile political rumors and support negative behaviors toward politicians. They know it’s fake. That is the whole point. It is intentional disinformation, but not necessarily as propaganda.

The causal distinction appears to be conscientiousness. Those sharing fake news tend to be low in conscientiousness, a direct correlate to the need for chaos. But high conscientious conservatives are no more prone to this behavior than liberals. Interestingly, liberals in general are lower in conscientiousness and yet their liberal-mindedness seems to offer a protection against this reactionary behavior. Liberals, whether low or high conscientiousness, were not more likely to share fake news.

So, the defining feature of the reactionary mind is both their own reaction and the seeking of reaction in others. This goes to the old saying about wrestling with a pig. Both of you will get muddy, but only the pig will be happy. In the end, reactionaries are like the disobedient little boy who has come to believe that any attention is good attention. Maybe they didn’t get enough love as children.

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All that said, these chaos-loving conservatives are a bit perplexing, in making sense what is the reactionary mind. Conservatives, on average, have higher measures of conscientiousness. So, what does it mean for a conservative to be low conscientiousness? Conscientiousness is what makes conservatives love social order, what makes them good, submissive, and obedient workers, religious adherents, Nazis, etc. This relates to the conservative-minded need for closure, which in turn makes one “prone to embrace competitive conflict schemas” (Margarita Krochik & John T. Jost, Ideological Conflict and Polarization: A Social Psychological Perspective).

High conscientiousness not only predicts conservatism but also authoritarianism (Eric W. Dolan, Personality traits predict authoritarian tendencies, study finds). Both are also linked to extraversion and agreeableness, with the one trait they diverge on is neuroticism. In some ways, an authoritarianism is just the extreme expression of a social conservatism under stress; and one might expect that neuroticism rates increase with conservatives when under stress. For an example of stress, pathogen exposure and parasite load are correlated to both authoritarianism and social conservatism, probably mediated by the disgust response.

If it’s true that stress might increase neuroticism, it might also suppress conscientiousness and so unleash a need for chaos; or what from a liberal perspective seems like chaos. Social conservatives are people who are vulnerable to stress and so easily overwhelmed by it. But under less stressful conditions, they are able to manage stress and actually have a great talent for doing so. Their need for order, control, and predictability serves this purpose; up to the point it stops working. Potential authoritarianism as personality can quickly become manifest authoritarianism as behavior, as political action, power, and oppression.

Under chronic stress, everyone can have greater psychological reaction, social dysfunction, aggression, divisiveness, fantasy-proneness, magical thinking, odd beliefs, paranoia, xenophobia, stereotypical-mindedness, and mentally illness. The strongest form of this that can really mess up a society is high inequality that induces collective madness (Keith Payne, The Broken Ladder). But simpler factors can have an affect, even if only temporarily. Get liberals somewhat inebriated and, with their neurocognitive functioning compromised, they’ll fall back on speaking in the kinds of stereotypical thinking that is more common among conservatives.

The need for chaos is linked to social dominance orientation (SDO) and dark personality (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism, sadism). And all of these certainly increase with severe and chronic stress, particularly high inequality. That is what we’ve been seeing in recent years, although the conditions have been worsening for decades. It’s been gasoline and a match throw on dry grass during a drought.

There also would be a strong resonance between the need for chaos and conspiracy-mindedness. This isn’t only a general mistrust and suspiciousness (Beth Ellwood, People with a higher conspiracy mentality have a general tendency to judge others as untrustworthy; Marius Frenken & Roland Imhoff, Don’t trust anybody: Conspiracy mentality and the detection of facial trustworthiness cues) but also a tendency to act conspiratorially (Karen M. Douglas & Robbie M. Sutton, Does it take one to know one? Endorsement of conspiracy theories is influenced by personal willingness to conspire). Those who are untrustworthy project onto others, in assuming everyone is like themselves.

And all of that has everything to do with dark personality and SDO (Evita March & Jordan Springer, Belief in conspiracy theories: The predictive role of schizotypy, Machiavellianism, and primary psychopathy; Beth Ellwood, Machiavellian and psychopathic personality traits linked to belief in conspiracy theories). It is all mixed up. These are all the various derangements of the mind that crop up in a deranged society.

Like those spreading fake news having lower conscientiousness, those spreading conspiracy theories tend to be lower in agreeableness (Tim Christie, Study: Disagreeable people more prone to conspiracy theories). It’s the socially conservative mind switching to its reactionary dark mode, as defensive posture against perceived extreme uncertainty and potential threat. The willingness to share fake news might be caused by a total breakdown of reality discernment, specifically trust in authorities to discern reality. That makes perceived reality a free-for-all where every claim is equally plausible and it simply becomes a matter of confirmation bias.

What is fascinating is that the need for chaos is a corollary to the need for order. To the conservative mind, the only two options are order or chaos. It’s a black-and-white mentality. What conservatives fear more than anything is the breakdown of social order as, to their mind, it’s a breakdown of moral order. It’s an existential crisis of their very sense of reality, their sense of meaning. When desperate enough, they will do anything to reaffirm meaning, even if it’s invoking chaos. It’s related to the conservative proneness to fantasizing about violence, particularly redemptive violence; from overthrowing the government to hoping for the End Times (Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals).

Some have theorized that totalitarianism, what generally means authoritarianism, is caused by social isolation, loneliness, and anomie. These are common features of modern society with mass urbanization and industrialization, as exacerbated by high inequality and as results in social breakdown. Loneliness, by the way, is a predictor of the need for chaos (Camara Burleson, Need for Chaos and Predicting Radical Behavior in a Political Setting). Such conditions increase social conservatism in the population, even on the ‘left’, and this pushes social conservatism to extremes. Liberal-mindedness simply can’t function well when the conditions of health disappear.

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Don’t Cry for QAnon
by Daniel Cubias

Chaos Theory
by Amanada Darrach

The “Need for Chaos” and Motivations to Share Hostile Political Rumors
by Michael Bang Petersen, Mathias Osmundsen, & Kevin Arceneaux

Personality Type, as well as Politics, Predicts Who Shares Fake News
by Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Study finds conservatives with a need for chaos are more likely to share fake news
by Eric W. Dolan

Of Pandemics, Politics, and Personality: The Role of Conscientiousness and Political Ideology in Sharing of Fake News
by M. Asher Lawson & Hemant Kakkar

Low Conscientiousness Conservatives and the Desire for Chaos We further contend that behavior of low conscientiousness conservatives is motivated not only by vehemently promoting the interests of their group, but also by denigrating other rival groups. Such a staunch inclination to elevate one’s group at the expense of other political outgroups is an act of negative partisanship — a reality that has become increasingly common due to the exponential rise of intense political polarization since the start of the 21st Century (Abramowitz & Webster, 2016; Van den Bos et al., 2007; Westwood et al., 2018). As
conservatives generally score higher on social dominance orientation – a set of beliefs that acknowledges and supports hierarchical differences in society (Kugler et al., 2014) – they may be more likely to criticize other groups to defend their own (Jost et al., 2003). Conservatives in comparison to liberals are also more vigilant in perceiving social threats to their group (van Leeuwen & Park, 2009), which can further increase their tendency to actively denounce other groups and outgroup members. This desire to promote the status of one’s group at the expense of other groups and outgroup members can lead to a generally hostile mindset, labelled a “need for chaos” (Arceneaux et al., 2021). The need for chaos is described as a drive to disrupt and destroy the existing order or established institutions in an attempt to secure the superiority of one’s own group over others. Such a mindset is especially salient when dominance-oriented individuals feel they are being marginalized and rejected by the broader cultural environment (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Krizan & Johar, 2015; Twenge & Campbell, 2003).

Given the lack of orderliness, diligence, and self-control associated with low conscientiousness individuals, coupled with the high social dominance orientation and group loyalty among conservatives, we contend that low conscientiousness conservatives will be more likely to entertain beliefs and engage in behaviors that seek to cause chaos, as a means to defend their group. Indeed, existing research has shown that people are more willing to believe and share outlandish conspiracy theories when it helps them to achieve a positive image of their group, its dominance, and its existence (Douglas et al., 2019; Roberts et al., 2009). Likewise, the desire to cause chaos also leads to less support for outgroups such as immigrants, and a greater desire to increase one’s social status and alter the current power structure, especially when political polarization is rampant (Arceneaux et al., 2021; Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). Consequently, we predict that the interaction effect of conservative political ideology and conscientiousness on sharing of fake news will be mediated by this desire for chaos.

Furthermore, recent research has highlighted that the dissemination of fake news is largely driven by people’s inattention to accuracy. Once accuracy beliefs are primed either implicitly or explicitly, individuals are relatively more judicious when it comes to the sharing of fake news (Pennycook, McPhetres, Zhang, & Rand, 2020; Pennycook et al., 2021). However, our proposed effect, where low conscientiousness conservatives share fake news due to an elevated desire for chaos, is indicative of a motivated process. Specifically, when low conscientiousness conservatives perceive fake news as a means of furthering their social goals (Douglas et al., 2017) and sowing seeds of destruction (Arceneaux et al., 2021), the accuracy of news stories should play a smaller role in determining their intentions to share such stories. In other words, people who pursue general destruction to defend their ingroup should indicate higher subjective assessments of the accuracy of fake news, as long as it serves the agenda of their group, which in turn will predict the sharing of such news. Thus, when motivated to believe false information as accurate, priming individuals with accuracy beliefs might not be enough to deter the spread of misinformation. Rather, such motivated individuals will perceive false news as subjectively more accurate and hence share falsehoods at a higher rate regardless of accuracy
primes.

What the Right Fears, the Left Desires

Let us throw out a simple observation with limited detail and analysis. This is a phenomenon that seems to define the reactionary mind. And so it is more often found on the American right-wing. But it can be observed in anyone who is pulled into reaction, including those reacting to reactionaries or otherwise immersed in the reactionary dynamic; a dynamic, by the way, that is inevitably authoritarian. Within the reactionary culture of American society, that can include much of the population to varying degrees. While this complicates matters, we will mostly ignore it for the time being, since we’ve already discussed it elsewhere.

We’ll briefly note the complication in the following and then move on. To put this in concrete terms, most Democratic elite and partisans tend towards the reactionary, if less strongly and blatantly than GOP elite and partisans. It’s nearly impossible to be involved in the polarization and propaganda of partisan politics without being at least somewhat reactionary — it’s almost a prerequisite. Still, there are vast differences of degree and it’s mainly those at the extreme end that we’re talking about. It is a specific category of person that falls into the full glory of the reactionary mind and embraces it as an identity (for details, see our writings on Corey Robin and the reactionary mind).

Here is the observation. Reactionaries only perceive the other side’s beliefs and views, values and principles as ideological, that only those other people’s ideologies are radical and extremist; that other’s politics are a religious faith, other’s political actions are nihilism and anarchism, other’s religions are cults and myths, other’s rhetoric is propaganda, other’s fears are moral panic, other’s behavior is mass formation, other’s governance is authoritarianism, on and on and on. Basically, those other people are bad or evil, whereas reactionaries are confident that they are on the side of Light and Righteousness. There is a lack of humility and introspection, mixed with projection and caricature.

This relates also to various ways that reactionaries can be dismissive of others. Another person’s information and evidence, experience and suffering is not fully real to them. The reactionary mind works by closing down and excluding. So, another group’s oppression and victimization is not only less real but less legitimate and important. This is why, among Americans, many white conservatives, white fundamentalists, and white males believe they are the most victimized people in the United States, maybe in the world; a view starkly disconnected from reality.

This is an old pattern. And, in Anglo-American culture, it really does usually divide according to Left and Right. It was the emergent conservatives, as reactionary counter-revolutionaries, who accused the political left of being nihilists following the American and French revolutions. Then shortly after that, it was the Southern aristocracy, in reacting to modernization, that accused Northerners of ideological ‘-isms’. And these reactionaries would repeat this rhetoric endlessly, as if it was the most damning of judgments. But the point is that kind of dismissive criticism has rarely been heard on the Anglo-American left.

Why is that? We originally didn’t plan to offer any analysis, but let’s point to some old themes of ours and share a cursory explanation. The fundamental reason for this difference involves moral imagination, symbolic conflation, social constructionism, and ideological realism (we have numerous posts on all of these). We could surely add to that list, if we gave it much more thought. Basically, the reactionary right requires their worldview to be conflated with reality, confused in the mind, buried in the unconscious, obscured from public gaze, and so placed above interrogation. There are many tools to achieve this end such as faux nostalgia, historical revisionism, and invented traditions; and so erasing the evidence of its origins in order to make something appear as if it was always that way.

On the other hand, the action of the political left has typically been the opposite, to explore origins and analyze the development, to place things in context; and hence the reason the political left has long been closely associated with intellectuality, science, academia, and education. Between the conservative and liberal minds, this is the push and pull between two forces, what Lewis Hyde called Hermes of the Dark and Hermes of the Light, one that enchants and the other that disenchants. The liberal mind wants to bring things out into the open so that they can be analyzed, questioned, and doubted; or understood and appreciated. And this is precisely what conservatives fear, the grubby scrutiny of consciousness that Edmund Burke portrayed as a lecherous mob penetrating the palace and tearing away the queen’s clothing to reveal what should not be seen by prying eyes.

The ruling power of the reactionary mind and the conservative order can only operate by being hidden and protected. This is why the reactionary right fears the left as radical and extremist, nihilist and anarchist. There is a grain of truth to this. Consider that ‘radical’ means to get to the root of things and that is what the liberal-minded like to do, pull things up out of the dirt and into the sunlight. The conservative-minded rightly points out that this might kill the plant, but if it is a weed or invasive species we do want to kill it. And, if it turns out to be a desirable plant, we can always transplant it into the safety of a garden where it will be tended and watered. Contrary to reactionary obfuscation, the liberal mind seeks open-eyed clarity and discernment.

Even the accusation of nihilism hints at something genuine. It originally was a dismissive label and a slur used against revolutionaries, reformers, and radicals. But some far leftists in late 19th century Russia took it as a proud and honorable title; in the way some blacks use the ‘N’ word to take ownership of it and neuter it as a weapon. The Russian Nihilists were not a highly organized movement, similar to the present ‘antifa’ in the US (supposedly everywhere and yet can never be found), but they shared a common philosophy or attitude. To their understanding, nihilism meant that, although future solutions are unknown in the present, they could seek to eliminate the problems that obstructed the ability to seek and enact those potential solutions — like tearing a structure down to its foundation in order to rebuild or plowing a field to plant crops; that is to say creative destruction.

Unlike the false claims of nihilism as mere anarchistic terrorism, these Nihilists didn’t lack beliefs and values. Rather, what they wanted was an open public debate about beliefs and values, that nothing should be off limits. Their actions were pro-active. They embodied Hermes the Light who disenchants, but always with the purpose of re-enchanting (i.e., inspiring and enthralling) the mind with a different and better ideological frame of narrative and understanding. This is nothing unusual, as every major change necessitates this process of undoing, prior to re-creating. It depends on one’s perspective. To British reactionaries like Edmund Burke, the American Revolution ended up seeming like the chaotic nihilism of violent mobs. But, ironically, the American reactionaries, once they co-opted the revolutionary nation-building, saw it as the most wonderful thing.

There is a real distinction to be made between right and left, reactionary and non-reactionary. The political right is correct to an extent. The two mentalities really do diverge, even if a mutual dynamic lashes them together in their movements. This is what many soft-hearted and well-intentioned liberals fail to understand, in their desire for equality and their vulnerability to false equivalency. The two mindsets are not only different in degree but in substance and motivation — they are two worldviews foreign to each other. As rightism attempts to enclose the whole world within its ideological grip, leftism at its best points beyond itself to what is presently unknown. This is fundamentally nihilistic, whichever definition of that term one prefers, but essentially a broad and curious-minded openness toward undiscovered and unproven possibility.

Here is an even more important distinction. The reactionary right is drawn into essentialism and determinism, as related to ideological realism. This is the naturalistic fallacy. Like races and gender, social mindsets and political identities can be taken as reality itself; and so abstractions as labels can become reified. These are among the many things the political left seeks to undo and dispel, to disenchant. Think of the difference between Ayn Rand and Karl Marx. The former asserted an absolutist dogma, whereas the latter was more akin to the Russian nihilists in never having outlined any specific ideological system that would inevitably replace capitalist realism, as he also thought solutions couldn’t be determined beforehand. Leftism and liberalism, as such, are more markers of undetermined significance, pointing in a direction as yet unknown.

Those on the political left don’t need to dismiss the other side because leftism wants to weaken such boundaries of the mind and boundaries of social order, particularly boundaries of pseudo-tribalism, so as to imagine something else. In reality, none of us is actually left-wing or right-wing, conservative or liberal. These are social constructions, not reality; whether or not we deem them useful fictions. We are free to create something else and the suggestion that seeking not yet known possibilities is nihilistic is meaningless and irrelevant, an empty fear lashing out in the darkness. The leftist has less difficulty in admitting that their own politics are also an ideological worldview because it is only in admitting this that we can bring our biases and failures out into the open to be aired. What the right fears, the left desires.

The political left has less to defend, both in a practical sense and as an ideological project. This is why, in our own writings, we regularly take shots at all sides. In fact, we are often most critical of those who are most similar and most in agreement with us, and we regularly piss off people who might be perceived as being on ‘our side’. An example of this is our complaint against the corporate takeover of environmentalist arguments, in co-opting veganism as a political tool (e.g., EAT-Lancet). It’s precisely because we have been strident environmentalists for as long as we can remember that we take such offense at this movement being misused as propagandistic social control. The value of environmentalism, in our own liberal mind, is not as a social identifier of group identity. This is how we’ve ended up such a disloyal liberal in refusing to bow down to the DNC elite, AFSCME union leadership, or anyone else.

Group loyalty is not a defining trait of the liberal mind. It’s because of this resistant attitude toward group-mindedness that some describe trying to organize the political left as herding cats. It’s the strength and weakness of liberal-mindedness. Left-liberalism, rather than falling into strongly and strictly contained boundaries of us versus them, tends to expand and sometimes, sadly, splinter apart. But there is something impressive and worthy about the liberal mind. We’ve previously noted that white liberals are the first ‘group’ seen in American research to express a pro-outgroup bias, as opposed to identifying with those supposedly like themselves (i.e., other white liberals).

The reason is that most of those white liberals don’t take white liberalism as their group identity, in the way that do white conservatives, for they’ve opened and expanded the circle of concern. There is less sense of an other to project upon because the liberal potentially invites everyone, even those on the reactionary right, into belonging as members of a liberal society. Terms such as reactionary and progressive, left and right are relative, not absolute, labels and context-dependent, not essentialist identities; and so one day those terms will disappear while the human race will remain. Liberalism aspires to unity through diversity. The political right sees this pro-outgroup bias as leftist self-hatred that seeks to destroy all that is good about the white race, the Christian religion, and Western civilization. But, in the liberal mind, there is enough kindness and compassion to go around, along with enough resources if shared equally and fairly.

It’s a split between an attitude of scarcity and an attitude of abundance, between fear and love. To the left-liberal persuasion, we are all humans on a shared earth, we are all citizens of the world — the ancient dream of the Axial Age prophets. Those on the reactionary right, obviously, disagree in that they define themselves by what they oppose and exclude. As conservative Ronald Reagan pointed out, we might only be unified as a common human species when earth is attacked by a common enemy of space aliens; although simply the existence of space aliens, even if entirely peaceful, would be enough to elicit a reaction of fear from reactionaries. If and when that happens, the reactionary right will accuse those space aliens of everything that, in the past, they accused liberals and leftists (or Native Americans, blacks, Mexicans, Asians, Eastern Europeans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, etc). Meanwhile, the political left will seriously consider and openly debate about whether space aliens should have the same freedom and rights, should be welcomed as fellow beings as part of a single shared galaxy or universe.

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Notes on terminology:

We don’t make an absolute differentiation in how we use the labels of left-wing, leftism, liberalism, and left-liberalism. Even ‘progressivism’, at this point, has mostly been subsumed within this political left matrix, although earlier last century there were conservative and right-wing progressives of the old school Whiggish strain (many of them imperialists, nativists, antisemites, eugenicists, xenophobes, racists, white supremacists, and fundies). But there is separate historical development of the ‘left’ and the ‘liberal. We’ve covered this information before, but we’ll rehash it here.

Since the French Revolution, the political left has been primarily associated with egalitarianism and similar concepts of fraternity, solidarity, camaraderie, and such. This is about what mutually unites and holds together an economic class or group of people (typically a large group), either formally organized (e.g., labor union), informally associated (e.g., a poor community), or otherwise allied through common vision, interests, and benefit. The desired goal is to escape false consciousness by developing class consciousness or group consciousness, the knowledge and awareness of the conditions that create the social world one was born into. For this reason, the idea of a leftist way of thinking has also become implicated in theories or understandings about what is interdependent, systemic, environmental, ecological, holistic, integral, intersectional, complex, etc.

The metaphorical ‘left’ has an ancient pedigree, such as the left-hand path; as opposed to a right-hand man, being in the right, and having rights. Liberty and hence libertarianism is about the individual rights that can be given or taken away by official and legal power; specifically and originally in terms of the right to not be enslaved, whether or not others are enslaved. Freedom, on the other hand, is more cultural and communal, such as belonging of a free people and being among friends. See: Cultural Freedom, Legal Liberty. The word ‘right’ might be etymologically related to Greek ‘arete’ as virtue, righteousness, pride, power, ability, etc; and maybe also related to words like regent, royalty, and rajah. One can sense why the right-wing became naturally identified with authoritarianism, social dominance, and rigid hierarchy. Whereas the connection to conservatism is more of a sociopolitical observation, since every authoritarian regime that has ever existed has been socially conservative, including Stalinism and Maoism.

Liberalism stands out as unique among these terms. Unlike conservatism, it’s earliest definition had nothing to do with governance, politics, political parties, social order, power structure, legal systems, social movements, and such. To this day, it maintains more of its basic meaning as a psychological predisposition, a behavioral mentality or attitude, a way of relating to or treating others, and how one inhabits or acts in the world; particularly, as measured in FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type. Most simply, liberalism always has carried the meaning of generosity of spirit, although conservatives argue that liberals are being generous with other people’s money. This spiritual generosity, of course, never was inherently and primarily about money; as it mainly suggests an attitude of loving-kindness, sympathetic understanding, compassionate action, moral concern, helpfulness, and forgiveness which may or may not be expressed through material resources, private or public.

This relates to how liberalism became described according to the religious notion of a bleeding heart, which means a good Christian who sacrifices for others; but as an accusation it implies one who cares too much or who wants to be (or wants to be perceived as being) a martyr. And that brings us to the crime of sympathizing with the enemy, foreigners, and other unwanted or dangerous outsiders; along with sympathizing with undesirables in general (e.g., the conservative perception of the dirty, lazy, criminal, poor, and all around inferior permanent underclass who are supposedly undeserving of sympathy) — anyone who is deemed ‘other’. This is why, during the Cold War, liberals were sometimes called fellow travelers, to judge them as guilty by perceived association with communists. There are endless associations along these lines, as the word ‘liberal’ has been around so along to accumulate a mixed history of meanings.

There is one other thing that is a new thought. In studying Julian Jaynes and Lewis Hyde, the use of language comes up. Everyone uses metaphors and metonymies and they have immense power over the mind (see the literature on linguistic relativity). But the left-liberal tends to use such language openly and consciously; while the right-conservative does so obscurely or unconsciously. It’s partly a difference of whether our use of language is held lightly or tightly. That even applies to the language of left and right, a metonymical metaphor of the body politic. That is the point we made above about the left pointing beyond itself. Left-liberalism wants to disenchant the mind and there is no greater power of enchantment than word magic, particularly as memetic mind virus.

That is why those who complain the most about the left-right metaphor are typically those on the left, not those on the right. It’s amusing because in complaining they are demonstrating their leftist style of thinking, in not perceiving these words as representing essentialist and deterministic qualities that literally divide up humanity. Metaphors are either useful or not, but when useful they help clarify patterns that are otherwise difficult to perceive and talk about. At present, there is not yet an equally potent and effective metaphor to replace this one. And no such metaphor disappears without being replaced. That is why, despite our own criticisms of all of these terms, we go on using them. There apparently are no other good alternatives, not so far as we can tell. We could simply speak of egalitarianism in place of leftism and liberalism, but that word doesn’t have the readymade sense of meaning that most people easily grasp.

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2/5/22 – Note on left vs right, liberal vs conservative:

As often repeated in this blog, reactionaries can co-opt anything. That is a complicating factor. Take the Nazis, as right-wing authoritarian (RWA) as they come, and combined with social dominance orientation (SDO) — they used any and all rhetoric as it was convenient, in typical realpolitik fashion. This included also using the rhetoric of leftism and progressivism, but they also used the rhetoric of conservatism, religion, and much else. One observer who visited Nazi Germany stated that Nazi rhetoric was incoherent, as they simply would say anything. But there is actually a coherent motivation within the reactionary mind, if one scrutinizes it closely enough and digs down into its underlying psychological structure. The reactionary mind is essentially a Dark Personality, defined by the Dark Triad (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) or Dark Tetrad (plus sadism).

Rhetoric is largely irrelevant, at least at this level. You have to first determine someone is honest in their use of rhetoric before you can take their rhetoric at face value. One of the pillars of the Dark Personality is Machiavellianism, having to do with a lack of humility and a willingness to do anything to get ahead. This is closely associated with SDO, which is distinct from but often overlapping with RWA. How they are differentiated is, for example, their motivation for prejudice. RWAs will fear and hate those who are unable or unwilling to assimilate to the group identity and subordinate themselves to conventional authority, which is why RWAs are actually more flexible in simply wanting to be good followers, even in a liberal social democracy or a leftist state. SDOs, instead, fear and hate those who will attempt to assimilate because, in doing so, they threaten to undo the social order of hierarchy and inequality.

That said, later research does differentiate between two elements of SDO that must be measured separately (The Nature of Social Dominance Orientation, Arnold K. Ho et al). There are the full-on dominators who express old school bigotry like racism. That is SDO-Dominance (SDO-D). But that aspect is on the decline in the West since it is no longer politically correct in mainstream society and no longer allowed to be enforced in law. That is where SDO-Egalitarianism (SDO-E) comes in. Many SDOs are prejudiced in more subtle ways and with more subtle means. They simply want to enforce anti-egalitarianism itself. That kind of SDO might be find if a few black people become rich, just as long as most black people remain poor, and just as long as the plutocrats remain in power. The same would apply to other groups as well, such as a harsh attitude toward poor whites (e.g., DNC elites and DNC-aligned corporate media scapegoating poor whites for Donald Trump’s rise to power, despite the fact that his main supporters were middle class whites). The fear is that the repressed will rise up, but SDO-Es are less concerned about the exact demographics of the repressed.

Obviously, one can sense how the reactionary can be complicated and why it comes in degrees. But the full reactionary mind will be high in both SDO-D and SDO-E, will be high in both SDO and RWA, what are referred to as Double Highs — these are the worse of the worst, the most prejudiced and the most likely to become leaders of far right groups. But what about left-wing authoritarianism and dominance? That is one of the further complications, as indeed reactionaries can and will use any rhetoric. Josef Stalin is the greatest example of how a Double High will use Machiavellianism to gain power and rule. He didn’t actually care about communism, other than how it helped him rebuild the Russian Empire with a neo-feudal peasantry as forced labor. What stands out is that Stalinism was socially conservative, not socially liberal. That is the main point. Reactionaries can co-opt any rhetoric, but this is superficial. What they can’t ever fully co-opt is social liberalism itself as behavior and policy because that would undermine RWA and SDO.

This is shown in research where “dark personalities seem to have a particularly important impact on political extremism and election of politicians and political parties who are considered right- or left-wing” and yet simultaneously “narcissism and psychopathy were associated with political conservatism, whereas Machiavellianism was associated with low rates of liberalism (Jonason, 2014). The Dark Triad traits also correlate with conservative judgments such as capital punishment, gay marriage, and gun control (Arvan, 2013). […] Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to conservatism. For example, Međedović and Petrović (2016) showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty” (Boris Duspara and Tobias Greitemeyer, The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism).

So, even when some left-wingers or rather some using left-wing rhetoric measure high in dark personality traits related to RWA and SDO, they also measure high in conservative traits. You will never find a dark personality with liberal traits because, by definition and by essence, liberal traits are the complete opposite of the Dark Triad/Tetrad, RWA, and SDO. This is why, in seeking to clarify, we speak of left-liberals as a distinct category because one could also argue that left-conservatives exist along with right-conservatives, but what one will never meaningfully find are right-liberals as the right-wing is defined to the degree it is not liberal, whereas the left is a bit less clear in its relationship to liberalism (there is a long conflict between leftists and liberals that has formed a legacy of confusion, although it is as much or more a conflict between old liberalism and new liberalism).

When we use the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ in this blog, we are always referring to motivations and not rhetoric. The strange phenomenon of left-conservatives doesn’t make sense beyond superficial rhetoric because conservatism inherently opposes the very substance and meaning of left-wing ideology. So, to refer to left-conservatives is simply another way of saying reactionaries co-opting left-wing rhetoric for right-wing purposes of RWA and SDO. This is useful knowledge, though, for intellectual discernment and intellectual self-defense. We are always using the past as a touchstone because, despite all of the confusion, there is a consistency of ideological distinction that goes back centuries. That is why it is helpful to put this in the earliest historical context. Right and left originally referred to the seating arrangement in the French Assembly. Supporters for the king sat on the right side of the king; whereas detractors, critics, reformers, and malcontents sat on his left. This basic kind of distinction remains true, no matter what is the power in question.

The French king was a Double High figure and so to support him meant to support a system that was based on high RWA and high SDO. There is only one way to be loyal to a strongman ruler who demands total obedience, only one position to be in when on the right. To be a right-winger means submission to some institutional system of authority and domination, be it political, social, economic, or religious. To be the king’s right-hand man is to do as one is told, to be a yes-man, to be a good follower and a good enforcer of submission. But there is potentially an infinite number of ways to be on the king’s left. That basic distinction remains true to this day, at least in a Western context (as left and right categorization may or may not apply to other cultures). In the United States, there is no established left-wing system, institution, or organization of respected authority that wields any significant power and influence. Even academia in universities is structured according to authoritarian bureaucracy and dependent on authoritarian corporate funding, which is the reason why egalitarian far leftists like anarchists are rarely employed as college professors and researchers. American leftists inevitably are forced outside of power because that is the nature of being a Double Low and Light Personality within any society dominated by Double Highs and Dark Personalities.

But even in the most liberal society and most well-functioning social democracy, there will always be left-wing critics who are forever pushing toward new and greater possibilities, just as conservatives and authoritarians will come to defend the established order, even defending a liberal and egalitarian order — another way in which leftism is partly distinct from a broad sense of liberalism. To be a leftist is to be forever dissatisfied with what is in imagining what might be. This is why the political left is an endless spur toward progress as there is no ultimate end to possibility, such that enacting one possibility simply opens up to further possibilities. That goes to the point that left-wing ideology is never limited to any single political system but, rather, opens up to diverse possibilities that includes what has not yet been fully understood, articulated, and envisioned. Leftism simply stands for possibility itself, which ironically is how leftists get identified as nihilists with a bad attitude because leftism first requires pointing out what is wrong, what is hobbling, crippling, and stunting potential. Possibility, to be sought and made manifest, must be freed from what seeks to limit and eliminate possibility. More than anything else, this is possibility-mindedness as openness, curiosity, exploration, wonder, hope, and optimism.

This possibility-mindedness, though, is not a blank slate for it is inherently motivated by a love of ever increasing egalitarian freedom — it represents the possibility and the potential that is seen as equally residing within everyone; the opposite of and opposing to ideological realism that constrains possibility by shutting down the radical imagination. Leftism shakes loose the calcified mind and identity. Liberalism is just one component of this, but an important component. It is the victory of leftism that liberalism has become the dominant paradigm that frames and defines everything, even the reactionary right; where each and every generation of conservatives is more liberal than the last, such that the average conservative today is to the left of the average liberal from a century ago. This has created a strange situation where the majority of Americans are left-liberals, even as the reactionary right continues to not only rule the government, economy, and media but also rule the public mind, public identity, and public imagination — rule by oppression.

Liberalism has been so normalized that classical conservatism is almost entirely buried and forgotten. One is hard put to find many contemporary American conservatives who openly and blatantly, fully and proudly defend the misogynistic, racist, eugenicist, genocidal, plutocratic, and imperialist conservatism from past centuries (e.g., a rigid caste system of aristocrats and peasants, of slaveholders and slaves, of colonizers and colonized, of the civilized and the primitive, of WASPs and ethnics, of native-borns and immigrants). Classical conservatism is now politically incorrect, even on the mainstream political right, so politically correct that it can’t even be acknowledged. This is why, among the educated and respectable classes, conservatives will often claim to be classical liberals (i.e., early modern liberalism). But, of course, the reactionary right’s understanding of past liberalism is extremely narrow and nostalgic, i.e., mostly false and misleading — they certainly don’t mean radical Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thinkers: Baruch Spinoza, Denis Diderot, Marquis de Condorcet, Pierre Bayle, Giambattista Vico, Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Ethan Allen, Thomas Young, Abraham Clark, etc. Mostly, reactionary right classical liberals are looking to John Locke and Adam Smith; but Lockean land rights were earlier, not to mention more strongly and radically, defended by Roger Williams; and modern conservatives overlook the fact that Adam Smith, the leading light of capitalist thought, stated a free society wasn’t possible with high inequality, i.e., a Double High society.

So, amusingly, the reactionary right in selectively co-opting yesteryear’s liberalism and filtering it through nostalgic historical revisionism ends up having no inherent substance of its own, while the egalitarian left in abandoning or transforming old liberal positions is the creative force that again and again establishes the very substance that can be later co-opted. The right uses moral imagination to appear to have substance in hiding its lack of substance, in that the reactionary is forever defined not by what it is for but by what it is reacting against. And the left constantly leaves behind its own substance once it has been established, which can leave the impression of the left lacking substance, of being merely critical and antagonistic, destructive and nihilistic. Like the French left, the Anglo-American left came into being in opposition to a king and the entire authoritarian system of monarchy and aristocracy. The French were following the example of Anglo-American revolt, not only the American Revolution but also the earlier regicidal English Civil War that itself was influenced by the earlier radical class war of the Peasants’ Revolts, along with the Renaissance, Protestant Reformation, and Anabaptist hereticism. All of this formed into a larger Western tradition of leftist politics that continues to oppose whatever powers that be, but not knee-jerk opposition for it is seeking to reform and re-create. What the left is seeking freedom from and hence freedom toward is always a moving target.

Leftism Points Beyond the Right and Beyond Itself

Table of Contents

  • Introduction and Summary
  • Political Spectrum, Liberal Framework
  • Origins: Tribalism and Pseudo-Tribalism
  • From Axial Age to Modernity: Universalism, Egalitarianism, etc
  • Traditional Values Are Not Culture Wars
  • Freedom to Belong, Responsibility to Others
  • Reactionary Right, Leftover Liberalism, and Leftist Supermajority
  • Conclusion: Egalitarianism and Abundance

Introduction and Summary

Despite having conservative parents, we spent most of our lives in liberal communities and we were raised in liberal churches. By our twenties, we were drawn toward social liberalism and increasingly leftism, although we were already becoming familiar with the reactionary before we knew what it was (from discovering Art Bell, Alex Jones, etc in the late 1990s).

But we’ve never been strongly attached to particular labels, except to the extent they are useful means. If anything, we’ve constantly questioned issues of social and political identities. So, with that in mind, we’d be more than happy if the conflict between right and left simply disappeared or became moot. That is the aim of leftism, as we see it. Leftism aspires to a world where explicit leftism is no longer necessary, that is to say a world no longer afflicted by the reactionary mind.

Summary – In a particular take of left-wing ideology, it is affirmed that:

  • Reality and society consists of systems, processes, and environments that shape us.
  • Social experience of identity, roles, and relationships are socially constructed and intersectional.
  • Situated cognition is embodied, embedded, extended, and enacted (4E).
  • The body, mind, and world are multitudinous and bundled, fluid and open.
  • People are inseparable from each other, from society, and from the larger world.
  • Humans need health, safety, security, trust, relationship, belonging, and connection.
  • The human species is inherently social; freedom is communal and collective.
  • A good society is achieved through culture of trust, cohesive solidarity, group consciousness, mutual support, and collective action.

And it is affirmed that:

  • Egalitarianism and fairness is central to human nature, is the center of any worthy politics and good society.
  • High inequality is unhealthy, stressful, traumatizing, dangerous, and unsustainable.
  • Artificial scarcity, authoritarian hierarchy, and social division should be challenged.
  • Ideological realism and false consciousness are social control through perception management.
  • The reactionary mind is abnormal and unnatural, insubstantial and deceptive.
  • The right-wing is a reaction to liberalism; it denies, obscures, and co-opts what it is reacting to.
  • Liberalism is the framework of modern Western civilization by which left and right are defined.
  • Leftism is a placeholder for something else, the finger pointing at the moon.

* * *

Political Spectrum, Liberal Framework

What does ‘left-wing’ ideology refer to? What was the original and basic meaning? The main element and motivating force of leftism has been to perceive the world and society, people and groups more as interdependent systems or processes than as reified things, unchanging categories, and isolated units; much less in terms of fixed and immutable laws, known certainties, absolutist dogma, and authoritarian institutions (or, if you prefer, unquestioned and unchallenged institutional authority as received truth, conventional wisdom, and ideological realism; that is to say, enforced norms as normative enforcement, as social control through what Louis Althusser called ideological interpellation or hailing; i.e., the enclosure of the mind).

By ideology, this implies not only ‘ideas’ in the narrow sense as principles, values, and belief structure but also ‘ideos’ as worldview, mindset, and imaginary (i.e., a leftist conception of ideology; rooted more in an ancient conception of the power of ideas as a psychic force). This is based on thinner boundaries of mind that promote experience and identity that is more fluid in allowing things to overlap, shift, and merge (i.e., liberal-mindedness as expressed in social liberalism; or: FFM openness, MBTI intuition and perceiving, and Ernest Hartmann’s thin boundary type). In creating and promoting the conditions for greater empathy and compassion, it is what derogatively gets called ‘Bleeding Heart Liberalism‘ (a slur originally used to describe, disparage, and dismiss radically egalitarian social justice warriors seeking to illegalize lynching, vigilante justice, and mob violence; in contrast to the right-wing pseudo-libertarians who thought government shouldn’t intervene), similar to being a ‘tree-hugging hippy’ and ‘sympathizing with the enemy’.

This distinguishes it from the political right where everything is defined by what evaluatively and hierarchically separates one clearly demarcated category from another (us vs them, ingroup vs outgroup, worthy vs unworthy, pure vs impure, good vs evil), within the rigidified boundaries of the egoic mind (FFM conscientiousness, MBTI judging, and Ernest Hartmann’s thick boundary type) — even left vs right, treated as a black/white division and ruling paradigm, falls prey to the reactionary right-wing; something we will try to carefully avoid. This is why conservatives more strongly obsess over narrow and/or exclusionary group identities (race, religion, ethno-nationalism, etc) and atomistic conceptions of identities (lone individuals, consumer-citizens, capitalist actors, social Darwinian competitors, nuclear families, etc); and why those on the left can become more conservative and reactionary when they become pulled into similar identities. One can begin to sense how, in being framed within post-Enlightenment liberalism, the modern political right is inherently and inevitably opposed to the actual traditionalism of the past, from earliest communal Christianity to Medieval communal feudalism.

This modern right-wing dogmatism and groupthink lends itself to conventional thought that gives an appearance of certainty and orderliness, a sense of predictability and familiarity, a demand of hierarchy and control. A place for everything; and everything in its place — which means anything out of place better be put back into place and kept in place, by any means necessary and at any cost. On the global stage, this plays out in Manichaean narratives like the Catholic Crusades, Manifest Destiny, White Man’s Burden, Cold War, and Clash of Civilizations; not to mention the overuse of the war metaphor that always means a war on the public and particularly a war on the poor and powerless; such as War on Poverty, War on Drugs, and War on Terror (how does one have war on an emotion like ‘terror’?). This is where there must be a winner and loser; the winner, of course, is presumably the good guys and they take all in a final victory against the forces of evil, or else the bad guys win and all that good is destroyed. There is little, if any, room for moderation, tolerance, and cooperation toward shared vision and common good or simply a middle ground of mutual respect (other than convenient and often fleeting alliances), much less equality, fairness, justice, and freedom.

Lockstep solidarity is intentionally constrained to an insular group identity, what could be called pseudo-tribalism because of how it mimics tribalism but without the intimacy of actual tribes. To be a Westerner or American, White or Christian (or Evangelical) is to be part of an exclusive and exclusionary group that includes vast numbers of strangers who otherwise have nothing in common since most of the members have never met or shared any experience beyond mass media, nationalistic propaganda, religious apologetics, and such. This is what makes pseudo-tribalism reactionary, neither leftist nor traditional; and so this gives the modern and increasingly postmodern right-wing a distinct flavor. The actual past is erased and replaced with faux nostalgia and historical revisionism, but where the face of the past is worn like a bloody mask skinned from the corpse of tradition.

Let us make a further distinction or rather non-distinction. Liberalism, as we’ve argued, is not really so much left or right. Instead, it is the frame of both, of the whole ‘spectrum’. That is why conservatives and other right-wingers should, at least sometimes, be taken at face value when they claim to be classical liberals, even when their nostalgic rhetoric is historical revisionism, opportunistic realpolitik, and manipulative spin. When reactionaries co-opt from the left, as they do in using old liberal ideas and language, they essentially become what they are pretending to be and so, to some degree, make it real (i.e., hyperstition); the con man who first must con himself. But the radicals on the left also operate within the liberal sphere of our shared society, even when they contest this claim. Calling someone a liberal or not doesn’t really tell us much, since it can as easily and as validly be embraced by reactionaries and regressives as by radicals and progressives.

As such, many leftists prefer to deny any association with liberalism or else maintain a wariness of distance, whether or not such a stance is realistic within the ruling liberal paradigm that also rules inside our minds. If they’re not careful, in reacting to liberalism, leftists can end up just another variety of reactionary and so begin to display the right-wing traits of a reactionary (e.g., the Leninist revolutionary vanguard that, in fighting bourgeois liberals, became a Stalinist ruling elite that enforced yet another socially conservative hierarchy within the Soviet Union, and so basically re-created the Russian Empire with Joseph Stalin as the new czar and the working class as a new peasantry). [Then again, the bourgeois liberals in reacting against leftists can likewise fall to the dark side (e.g., in post-WWI Germany, many of the middle class ‘liberals’ sided with the capitalist class to join the Nazis in having had fought against radical artists, freethinking intellectuals, free speech advocates, labor activists, social democrats, communists, and Marxists; or, if one prefers an example closer to home, think of the American Cold War liberals who were among the greatest enemies of the political left and ended up promoting illiberalism).]

Simply put, when reacting to reactionaries, the reactionary mind always wins because both sides offer no alternative; just two claims of lesser evil that inevitably leads to greater evil (closely related to the problematic dynamic between authoritarianism and anti-authoritarianism, where authoritarianism ends up defining even those who oppose it; e.g., the sad and strange phenomenon of authoritarian right-libertarians using anti-authoritarian rhetoric). This is ideological realism as epistemic closure, a totalizing narrative, a hermetically-sealed reality tunnel; forever mired in mind games of symbolic conflation and indoctrination. The reactionary is the shadow of liberalism and so everyone is vulnerable to infection from the reactionary mind virus; perfectly symbolized by Two-Face in the Batman mythos (this represents the whole reactionary worldview in how both Two-Face and Batman are not only enemies but two competing varieties of reactionary, since the entire dynamic between them is reactionary as is the entire Gotham story-world, specifically as fleshed out in the Dark Knight movies). Nonetheless, it could and maybe should be maintained that leftism, by definition and practice, is not reactionary and neither is it opposite of nor in opposition to the reactionary. Rather, leftism, if it is to be meaningful at all, is offering an entirely different understanding, a genuine alternative that is at the heart of the liberal project. Leftists, along with anyone else who disidentifies with the right-wing and/or disagrees with right-wing views, would do well to remember this.

Considering the complications and confusions, it is fair that some complain about the problems and limitations of these broad ideological labels; in particular the broadly amorphous and typically non-identifying left-liberal supermajority that has been suppressed and silenced into a state of public ignorance, as public identity can only form with public knowledge — the ruling elite in politics and media portray and attack left-liberals as a minority; causing mass psychosis in how people’s private selves become splintered from public experience and mediated reality through the perception management of indoctrination and propaganda campaigns, a form of gaslighting — so, what is the ‘Left’ when it can’t be seen or heard? That is all the more reason for us to pinpoint the distinctions that do matter, the distinctions that have remained relevant and potent across the centuries. The leftist difference that makes a difference keeps reappearing, no matter how often it is attacked and dismissed or mimicked and appropriated by the reactionary right, including by those using respectability politics to pose as ‘centrists’ and ‘moderates’. But it is often easiest to see something by looking back to a time when it was still young and fresh, not yet grimy and scarred from historical accretions.

There is a thinking style — fundamentally communal and collective, broadly systemic and holistic, potentially integrative and integral — that consistently shows up as one of the defining features of the left-wing that influenced, informed, and inspired the earliest and most radical of Enlightenment thought (e.g., Baruch Spinoza‘s panentheism) and post-Enlightenment thought (e.g., Karl Marx’s historical materialism). It’s what underlies Germanic communal and cultural ‘freedom’, as opposed to Latin individualistic and legalistic ‘liberty’; along with capturing the essence of egalitarianism and fraternity, particularly in terms of the Axial Age ideal of a universal humanity and the Enlightenment Age ideal of a global citizenry, but resonating with an aspect of tribal belonging as well. As for the latter, one might suggest all leftist politics begins not in abstract ideas but in the concrete lived reality of small local communities that give meaning to ideas (e.g., the labor organizing and strikes of factory workers in a factory town, as part of a community where people live in the same neighborhoods, shop at the same stores, belong to the same churches, and whose kids go to the same schools); the communities and associations that William Godwin, a reactionary-minded progressive reformer (i.e., bourgeois classical liberal), feared as the “common mass” and “organized society”. That certainly was the early history of the left, a populist movement that initially formed from the bottom up.

* * *

Origins: Tribalism and Pseudo-Tribalism

This basic distinction between left and right is ancient, although not archaic — it does have a beginning point. There doesn’t appear to be any clear evidence of this divide in thinking styles during the Bronze Age or in the following dark age, although it might have been carried as a seed of possibility within the early city-states as they began to merge into the first multicultural empires. But it was only with the Axial Age that there was a sudden and undeniable flourishing of radically new thought, specifically egalitarianism and universalism, along with emergent understandings of democracy, freedom, liberty, rights, justice, tolerance, compassion, etc; as recorded in the words of real or fictitious prophets, teachers, wise men, and salvific figures. Proto-leftism was born, if only as a promise of what was to come, along with the proto-reactionary quickly following (e.g., Plato’s authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy).

Let us consider a historical example. In presaging Classical Greece, the Presocratics were the first to speak of a universal and singular kosmos that acknowledged a larger sense of a shared world inhabited by diverse people across a continuous landscape and contained within the same immense universe (literally, one verse; i.e., one story of the world and of humanity; what today would be called a meta-narrative, to which postmodernism responds and metamodernism reframes). That is to say we all look up at the same stars, something that may seem obvious to the point of being banal but wasn’t commonly understood until long-distance travel became common. At the same time, it’s the ability to think about the world abstractly in this manner that makes possible map-making where the known world can be divided up by abstract boundaries that defined larger socially constructed identities (a Greek or a Jew, a Roman or a Barbarian), and thus make possible one variety of reactionary pseudo-tribalism — tellingly, in the ancient world of mostly oral cultures, abstract categories had less influence over identities of group belonging (Racism, Proto-Racism, and Social Constructs; Ancient Complexity; Ancient Social Identity: The Case of Jews; & Who were the Phoenicians?).

Such pseudo-tribalism took many millennia until it finally formed as modern racialized nation-states now so favored by the reactionary right-wing. Prior to World War era, most people instead identified with a non-reactionary or less reactionary and more organic sense of local community that included ethnicity, language, religion, and regionalism. Consider that, as feudalism came clashing into modernity with the French Revolution, the French population was still so fragmented with distinct dialects that they weren’t always able to understand those in neighboring regions, much less able to have comprehended the respectable speech in the French Assembly. The modern French nationality had to be invented and socially constructed. That was even more true of the Italians when the majority at the time of the nation’s founding didn’t speak Italian at all. The once feudal serfs had to be forced into modern ethno-nationalism, having resulted in the reactionary disease of nostalgia, a sometimes literally paralyzing and deadly disease.

This is pseudo-tribalism not only because it’s different than tribalism but, more importantly, because it erases the reality and memory of tribalism, overwriting it with invented traditions and false consciousness. One can see the path of the reactionary mind having passed by in the traces left behind of romantic nostalgia and historical revisionism. This so often leads not to national unity but endless division, as anything that is invented and enforced with artificial social constructions will ever be challenged and changed by new inventions (e.g., the Nazis deciding who was German and not, no matter how many generations or centuries one’s family may have resided there; i.e., conservatism opposing traditionalism). Pseudo-tribalism annihilates, co-opts, and replaces traditional cultures with their much more complex and shifting identities, as was seen in the ancient world. The earliest Jews, for example, would not have recognized the social identity projected upon them by most modern Jews — the two worlds are alien to each other, to such an extent that one scholar noted that it would’ve been near impossible to determine who was and was not a Jew in the ancient world. That traditionalism, having survived in large parts of the world fairly late in history, has mostly disappeared from living memory (e.g., isolated cultures of European tribal paganism survived into the Middle Ages).

Modern ethno-nationalism is a result of the reactionary mind and, once established, it is a further contributing factor in establishing and entrenching the conditions for the reactionary mind to spread; even as liberal mind might use this as a jumping off point for a greater sense of identity (e.g., humanity as a single species and people with a common human nature and universal human rights). In being a component of liberalism, it was the radical potential of modern nationalism that made possible the multicultural American that extended into the yet more radicalized potential of a global citizenry, as envisioned by the progressive Thomas Paine, that transcended the insular bigotry of the mere rights of Englishmen and so was effectively wielded as a weapon against British authoritarian claims of rule. As he wrote in ‘Common Sense’, it was undeniably “absurd, in supposing a continent to be perpetually governed by an island,” especially when “Not one third of the inhabitants, even of this province, [Pennsylvania], are of English descent” (other British colonies were likewise majority non-English). Paine took his being a citizen of the world even further in aspiring to a revolution that would spread — Benjamin Franklin supposedly told him that, “Where liberty is, there is my country,” and Paine’s response was that, “Where liberty is not, there is my country.”

Prior to all of these modern changes, progressive and reactionary, people in traditional tribes and villages took their own immediate communal experience and territory as an autonomous self-contained world largely separate from that of others, each community with its own local ruling deities and spiritus loci. Consider, for example, the Semitic henotheism that can be discerned behind later Yahwist interpolations of the Tanakh; or the traces surviving into the Middle Ages when local spirits were still worshipped and appeased, such as the wintertime wassailing of the presiding spirit of the orchard. Hence, going back far enough into the past, everyone was able to have claimed their own population as the first people and their own place as the center of the world without having had asserted any hegemonic intentions upon others. It was a pluriverse, not a universe — a world of worlds.

That was the original conception of something akin to social and moral relativism, if more indifference and ignorance than tolerance, acceptance, or celebration of diversity. Consider the Amazonian Piraha’s friendly but aloof attitude towards strangers. As a Piraha explained, Piraha culture is good for Piraha, foreign cultures are good for foreigners; and hence there is no need for cultural hegemony as ideological realism to be proclaimed as absolutist dogma, much less enforced through authoritarian and violent conquering and genocide, social control and assimilation. To be Piraha simply means to be Piraha with no greater claims on all of reality, quite opposite of monotheistic fundamentalism (the latter being incomprehensible to the Piraha, as generations of failed missionaries have discovered). That once was a more common experience of the world. At the level of individual persons, one thing was not separate from another for the shared ground of cohesion was the larger network of kinship and community. In the case of animistic and bicameral societies, this included the bundled mind with a shared voice-hearing tradition as opposed to the privatized egoic voice trapped in each person’s skull (a few surviving animistic tribes still maintain such a cultural mentality). This relativism lingered in areas of Axial Age thought.

Keep in mind that what some think of as ancient proto-racism really wasn’t racism at all. It was a common belief that a people’s culture and collective personality was determined by their environment: weather patterns, food, etc (e.g., dark skin was caused by living in sunnier climes); an almost Larmarckian or epigenetic understanding of real or perceived population-wide phenotypic plasticity. The experience of world and the experience of self were inseparable, such as how the animistic personal space of hunter-gatherers extends into the surrounding sensory space and perceptual field far beyond the physical body. This is the embodied and extended mind, closely related to the bundled mind. This still dwells within the modern mind and it regularly reasserts itself, however much most modern people pretend they are isolated and self-contained individuals — hence, the reactionary impulse of the splintered modern psyche.

* * *

From Axial Age to Modernity: Universalism, Egalitarianism, etc

This archaic sense of reality probably influenced the basis of Greco-Roman humoral theory and later on elements of Christian thought, the belief that we are shaped by external factors and hence, with a post-animistic/bicameral twist, that systems (e.g., written laws) could be used as social control that determined behavior. This was seen in medieval food laws that banned red meat before and during Carnival to prevent the excess heating of ‘blood’ that it was feared would cause people to be rowdy and rebellious; an ideology, later formulated as veganism, that was adapted by Seventh Day Adventists to supposedly prevent sinfulness, moral depravity, and physical dissolution (as part of a public health moral panic and anti-masturbation crusade). Archaic and ancient traditional thought has never really disappeared for it constantly gets reinterpreted and redirected, if the forms it takes increasingly diverge from traditional experience and understanding, in how it’s expressed in both the progressive mind and the reactionary mind.

As filtered through the stronger universalizing impulse of modern thought, this particularly came to shape 20th century leftism. It was very much informed by anthropology and social science (e.g., the study of traditional cultures by anthropologist Franz Boas and his students), in articulating a shared human nature that consisted more of flexible potentials than of deterministic laws (e.g., Carl Jung’s personality types that influenced the theories of cultural relativity espoused by some of Boas’ students, such as Ruth Benedict who in turn influenced those like Julian Jaynes). This general development in Western thought shaped new understandings like social constructivism and intersectionality, not to mention even more interesting theories about linguistic relativity and consciousness. As divergent as some might take them, there has always been a creative dynamic on the left between universalism and relativism. But, as always, this has been just as easily co-opted by the reactionary right, if in more constrained forms that were used to prevent collective consciousness instead of promoting it (Peter Augustine Lawler: “conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism”; for example: “Russel Kirk’s unconscious postmodernismKarl Rove’s social constructivismDonald Trump’s post-truth, and Jordan Peterson’s self-loathing pluralism“).

About universalism specifically, such thinking had become more common as alphabetic languages, written texts, literary traditions, and abstract thought became widespread in the Axial Age and post-Axial Age empires (the precursors of modern WEIRD culture that took hold with mass literacy; see Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World). This was seen also in natural law and liberty of the soul, as formulated by Stoics and later adopted by early Christians. These were initially radical ideas and one can still sense what, at various points in history, made them such a threat. The first generation of Christians, similar to the Stoics before them, flouted the laws and social customs of both Jews and Romans, and they did so according to the belief in a higher truth of natural law that stood above human law, the basis upon which psychic and spiritual reality could be experienced as unconstrained (e.g., the Kingdom of Heaven all around us). This was an early expression of universalism as radical egalitarianism, specifically grounded in communitarianism and often literal communes with shared work and resources, not to mention positions determined by egalitarian lots (i.e., egalitarian authority). This was in direct conflict with the rigid authoritarian hierarchies if worldly power (dividing rulers from ruled, free from slave, upper caste from lower caste, civilized from barbarian) in the Roman Empire, hierarchies of status that determined privilege and oppression in having made clear that all were not equal before God or man.

Among those early Christians, the egalitarian way of living and relating was specifically demonstrated in what some consider the original baptismal creed proclaiming that there was no Jew or Gentile, no slave or free, no male and female; for, it was believed, we are all children of God, all one in Spirit; to the extent that, as Jesus put it, “you are all gods” (Stephen J. Patterson, The Forgotten Creed). Universal divine law trumped even the social constructs of identity and so denied them any reified legitimacy as ideological realism. The earliest Christians, in their charismatic practice, took this literally in how everyone, even the most lowly enslaved women, had equal access to leadership and authority within the church community. This was concretely expressed in how all congregants, in communal ecstasy, danced with their long hair allowed to flow freely, in direct contradiction to gender norms where Roman men kept their hair cut short and Roman women kept their hair bound up. This was one of the many things that worried Paul because he wanted to make Christianity more respectable, in conformance with normative social expectations; but he didn’t understand that this is precisely what made such charismatic faith so inspiring to the oppressed and downtrodden.

Many radicals since that time, from the English Peasants’ Revolt to the American Revolution, often drew upon natural law rhetoric to challenge human legal institutions (although some, like the deist Thomas Jefferson, had a less certain relationship to such beliefs). That was also part of the power of the Protestant Reformation in taking on the Catholic Church. Yet, despite its ever present potential of radicalism, it has been increasingly held up as a favorite principle of conservative-minded fundamentalists and other right-wingers, one of the many cases where once radical thought is increasingly used and monopolized by the reactionary mind. There is a mixed history to natural law, as the conservative-minded sometimes understood that it was a two-edged sword. The Catholic Edmund Burke opposed natural law specifically because of the radical threat it posed. But, for other reasons, the egalitarian and often radical Quakers have long favored an alternative to natural law since, as heretics, they sought higher authority through a personal relationship with a living God, rather than an impersonal and unreachable God of laws that required intercession by a priestly class — a different route to the same end of challenging unjust worldly power. As a historical note, Quaker constitutionalism appears to be the earliest major predecessor of liberal living constitutionalism, that a constitution is a living document agreed to by a living generation as a covenant with a living deity, truth, or principle; and such radicalism of the Quakers came out of the radical English Civil War that ended with the regicide, the overthrow and beheading of the king. This is one of the many ways the English Civil War set the pattern for the American Revolution.

There have been many kinds of radicalism over time and, importantly, most of them originated within religion. It’s historically complicated, but over time the specific radicalism of natural law seems to have faded almost entirely. As so often happens, the radicalism that takes hold as a revolution of the mind quickly becomes normalized and so becomes the new social norm as status quo to be defended by the reactionary right. That is how natural law has become neutered in being largely identified with the reactionary and regressive at this point. Fundamentalist apologists have come to treat their beliefs about social order, gender, family, abortion, etc as an ideological realism of natural law and so seek to enforce it through human law (i.e., theocracy); in spite of the fact that Jesus offered very little light on the subject or, if anything, a rather anti-fundamentalist view in his having heretically challenged the Jewish fundamentalism of his own era. Jesus went so far as to deny his own mother on multiple occasions; not to mention having told one man about his father’s corpse to let the dead bury the dead; having declared that he came not to bring peace but to turn son against father, daughter against mother; and we can’t forget his repeated challenge to wealth and power, including a direct attack on the established elite in overturning the moneylenders tables in the temple. As for abortion and homosexuality, he was silent, as was the Old Testament. Are these Christian moral values and family values?

Traditional Values Are Not Culture Wars

This is another area where traditionalism stands in stark contrast to the reactionary right and, at times, finds resonance with a progressive left. Think about how, prior to the 1960s, abortion was a non-issue among Christians with a long history of theological arguments actually justifying it, not to mention Christian communities condoning the practice that was common in the past. The Bible does speak against infanticide, but that is referring to the killing (exposure or abandoning) of babies that were already born, not the terminating of pregnancies which was a standard practice at the time. Abortifacients have existed in nearly every traditional society, for being able to control when to have children was even more important in the past when unneeded children to feed could be a threat to the survival of family and community. There is even an abortifacient recipe in the Old Testament. Odd as it may sound in this era of reactionary culture war, most early-to-mid 20th century American Christians, specifically Protestants and including Evangelicals, saw no conflict between family values and abortion; and instead they often saw these as closely related because family planning was seen as central to family responsibility.

About another topic, when we look at historical texts and anthropological records, it’s amazing how many past societies had much more nuanced understandings of gender and sexuality, to the point of including multiple gender identities/roles. That is far from saying that traditionalism has typically been socially liberal, as three or more genders could be as strict and oppressive as only two, although not necessarily. But what it does demonstrate, contrary to conservative claims, is that a binary gender belief system is not an ideological realism of natural law that was created by God and emblazoned upon human nature and biology. That is to say gender realism is as much bullshit as ethno-nationalist realism, capitalist realism, domestic realism, etc. This has always been the line of critique by the left, the dismantling of false assumptions, the puncturing of the obfuscatory hot air that bloats the reactionary moral imagination.

We must take the past on its own terms, not ours. If we go back to the traditional societies, the fluidity of social identities sometimes included, besides temporary or permanent shifts in name and personality (at least among people who were animistic and possibly bicameral), gender fluidity and sexual variation as well. People could hold amorphous or divergent identities in ways that are hard for us to imagine and sometimes that meant people changing gender or identifying with two genders (e.g., Two Spirits). This is because, in many older cultures, gender was not always equated to sexual anatomy or sexual activity. At the time of European first contact with Native American tribes, there were over a hundred recorded instances of non-binary gender expression, including in Mexico that has since become identified with Christianized macho culture. This was seen all over the world: Polynesia, Hawaii, ancient Iran, ancient Egypt, and on and on. It might be safe to say gender fluidity and/or diversity was closer to the norm than an exception.

In the ancient world, many deities had mixed anatomy, such as goddesses with erect penises. Also seen were androgynous deities. Even older portrayals of Jesus sometimes showed him as androgynous, occasionally including breasts. In the ancient world, many salvific godmen took on the feminine traits (physical, psychological, and spiritual) associated with the archaic agricultural goddesses who still were or had previously been the virgin mothers of such godmen, as the goddesses became demoted (e.g., the Egyptian Isis had been worshipped in her own right throughout the Roman Empire, only to have her statues co-opted as the Black Madonna and so she was replaced with worship of a merely human Mother Mary who played a secondary role). Unsurprisingly, many of those individuals traditionally perceived as a third gender or two-gendered could become shamans, healers, priests, or otherwise played important roles in society and rituals; as someone who transcended gender might be believed to also be able to cross other boundaries such as into the worlds of spirits, the dead, and non-human beings.

There was even open homosexuality in the pre-modern world, such as in Africa (e.g., an apparently ancient Egyptian gay couple buried together in a lover’s embrace). All of this was far from limited to only gender identity or sexuality. In the Americas, research on burials indicate that 30-50% of big game hunters might’ve been anatomically female, demonstrating gender specialization of work did not necessarily always exist. Similarly, some hieroglyphs in the Americas can be interpreted as showing both men and women holding hands of children; according to the number of fingers shown on hands, a way of symbolizing gender; possibly indicating that childrearing was not limited to one gender (info from a display at the Florence Indian Mound and Museum in Alabama). Such a finding should be unsurprising, as many hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate something similar with all kinds of work being done by both anatomical women and men, even ignoring the complexity of gender issues. This wasn’t limited to the non-Western world. There were Viking and Germanic shield-maidens and they were apparently treated with respect and honor, indicating gender identities were not absolute in entirely limiting social role, position, and opportunities.

Gender fluidity or else complexity, along with multiple forms of sexual relationships, seems to have persisted quite late into history; maybe having indicated acceptance, tolerance, or indifference. In England, there was no official position on homosexuality until the 1533 Buggery Act, what one might interpret as the first sign of a modern reactionary culture war. That was about right when the Protestant Reformation (i.e., fundamentalist nuclear family values and heteronormativity) and colonization (i.e., the militarization of the heroic hyper-masculine figure) began, while the traditional order of feudal Church and villages was in the process of being dismantled (i.e., the decline of Carnival practice of role-reversals and gender-bending). Prior to European colonization in Africa, there was no known cases of anti-LGBT laws or persecution. So, conservative gender and sexual bigotry is only a few centuries old, as compared to entirely different notions of gender that were widespread for millennia before that.

As far as all of that goes, marriage and monogamy are likewise a lot more complicated than it typically gets portrayed, as based on modern Western biases. Yes, monogamy does appear to be quite common among many cultures, but such monogamy doesn’t seem to preclude promiscuity; and, for the sake of simplicity, we’ll ignore the large number of openly polygamous and polyandrous societies that have existed. To return to one concrete example, the Piraha are informally monogamous, if in practice this means serial monogamy. Basically, whenever two Piraha are having sex, they are considered married; and when one Piraha goes off to have repeated sex with another then the original couple are then de facto divorced. There are no laws or authorities to enforce monogamy and no punishment, other than hurt feelings, to dissuade individuals from having multiple sexual partners. Also, they are far from prudish. Young Piraha children learn about sex early from direct observation and sexual play, including between adults and children. And serial monogamy is so rampant, in how most people in a tribe have had sex with so many others in the tribe, that the tribes are closely bonded together by overlapping carnal knowledge, even including homosexual play among among adults.

Is this what conservative Christians mean by traditional monogamy and family values being the social norm of the human species? We’re reminded of an incident in early America where a white man visited a Native American tribe. He noticed how common was promiscuity and so asked how did a man know who his children were. The answer was that no one knew and no one cared, as all children were considered to belong to the whole tribe. Yet many of these tribes might have been recorded as ‘monogamous’ and so falsely used as evidence to strengthen the reactionary claims that conflate traditionalism with modern conservatism, as voiced in modern WEIRD culture.

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Freedom to Belong, Responsibility to Others

This supports the leftist counter-claim that gender, sexuality, and marriage are socially constructed to a fair degree and obviously so in diverse ways; despite overgeneralizations made about superficial observations. But it also verifies the leftist view of how powerfully we are shaped by environment, particularly socio-cultural and material conditions. This goes back to the main point being made here. The political left perceives humans as embedded in dynamic systems, both communal and collective or otherwise interdependent. We are in and of the world. The world is us. We the People are a plural, not a collection of individuals; and that is why we are greater than the sum of our parts, but it is also what offers an escape from the prison of the reactionary mind, the key to the lock.

We aren’t victims or passengers, much less lone actors. Our identities and roles in society aren’t imprinted into our genetics as essentialism and determinism. And, since the world we know was created by past generations, we are forever in the position to create our world again, as the Anti-Federalist Thomas Paine so wonderfully put it. This was a central concept to the American founding, that the dead hand of past generations could not and should not compel authoritarian submission of the living generation. Prior to written texts that trapped the past like an insect in amber, traditional societies as oral cultures always treated traditions as organic practices brought to life by voice and invocation, not immutable laws and unchanging doctrines. This remains fundamentally true, as human nature is still the same, even if the media and culture alters its expression.

That is to say we are and always have been free as a people, but this freedom is not individualistic and legalistic liberty, not the mere civil rights written on a piece of paper or upheld in a court of law. We are free according to our own human nature, something that can’t be denied or destroyed, can’t be taken away from us. We verify and prove this freedom in our own experience. And, importantly, we are not lost souls wandering in an alien land, not lost souls waiting for the afterlife in order to return somewhere else. Our shared humanity is part of larger systems of a living world in which we are enmeshed and immersed in, a world to which we belong as our home. We are social creatures by nature, not disconnected as lone individuals or nuclear families, as worker-citizens or capitalist owners. We are not separate and isolated, and so we are not powerless. The world we were born into is not inevitable. Near infinite possibility is before us, the extent of which we can only discover through experimentation and exploration. We are free through acting freely, in knowing the strength of our shared freedom.

We could end on that inspiring note. But our purpose here is not to preach to the choir or rally the forces of good. More fundamentally, we are curious about what this all means and so we seek compassionate understanding, for others as much as for ourselves. Why do such divides of the mind get formed and persist? In some ways, the whole left vs right framing could be part of the problem, as inherently dualistic and oppositional, and hence reactionary. Although this is not a new insight, the political spectrum remains a powerful way of understanding our present conflict because it isn’t just an idea. The left/right dichotomy has become built into every aspect of our society and mind. We carry it and so dismissing it is not an option. Some more powerful metaphor will have to organically emerge as a more compelling meme. That is the reason to emphasize the leftist view, since it points beyond to another possibility, a third way. In the end, the ‘leftist’ ideals of egalitarianism and solidarity (or fellowship) are not about one ideology fighting against another ideology. Rather, these words speak to the truth within us that can’t be negated. It’s simply who we are.

This is demonstrated by the so-called political issues. There is a reason the most heated debates involve such things as environmentalism, systemic racism, and class consciousness. These touch upon the leftist understanding of systems that the political right, in order to sustain their illusion of separation and division, must deny. The thing is this is not one belief system against another but rather a choice between embracing reality or an illusion, to accept our shared humanity or deny it. This is a truth known in our direct experience and also known in science. Systems are not ideas for they are how the world actually operates. Nothing is really separate, in ways that are quite profound, as quantum physics has shown us but also demonstrated in every other field of science. This is both a human truth and a scientific fact.

Whether one believes in and supports environmentalism or not, for example, the environment remains a stark reality explaining what is happening to the natural world we are inseparable from. Climate change continues to get worse with measurable shifting weather patterns and increases in extreme weather events, as part of a single world with a single atmosphere. Ecosystems continue to be destroyed, rainforests cut down, species gone extinct, toxins having polluted the water and air, and on and on. This isn’t a leftist claim. It’s an objective and verifiable fact that also is a knowable in human experience. Anyone who has lived long enough will have noticed how monarch butterfly populations have declined, as one recollects a childhood where such creatures once were seen everywhere. Or take the opposite where invasive species spread further north where they never were before found because of global warming. No left-wing ideologue or scientific elite needs to tell us this is true. We can confirm it for ourselves and thousands of other similar observable changes in the world around us. It is part of our lived experience — personal, direct, and concrete.

Similarly, whether or not one acknowledges racism and class war, it remains the social reality enforced upon so many. The victims of it know it in their bones and can see it in the world all around them, even if they don’t always have the terminology to articulate it. So, it may come out as distorted conspiracy theories and get co-opted by other reactionary fear-mongering. Think about the QANON conspiracy theory that, through dark fantasies, expresses the very real sense of a world divided by vast inequalities of wealth and power that are determined by ruling systems. But what the reactionary mind does not grasp is the first victims of propaganda campaigns are those in the ruling class. That is how ideological realism dominates, in being internalized, such as how even the victims of systemic oppression act according to the incentives and disincentives built into the systems of oppression. And, ultimately, in a victimization culture everyone is a victim of the same unfreedom (e.g., the wealthy, in high inequality societies, having higher rates of social problems and health issues; compared to those in low inequality societies).

The reactionary right is a funhouse mirror that both shows and obscures the truth given voice by the political left. That is what we get when we’ve lost our ability to see clearly because we feel alone in a fractured society. We look for enemies in those other people, rather than realizing the trap we are all caught in. So, we follow the maze looking for our cheese, instead of looking for a way out. Leftist ideology emphasizes and prioritizes the relative; and so it is not to be taken as a final truth but as a dynamic learning process, as a finger pointing toward something else. From a leftist perspective, the only value in thinking about a linear political spectrum of two polar positions is to help us create a new society where a left vs right framing would no longer makes sense. While the political right typically proclaims itself as an answer and conclusion, the political left at its best offers a beginning point that opens up to an unknown future that simultaneously gives us new insight into the past, brings light into our shared humanity. Accordingly, we are more than we’ve been told we are.

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Reactionary Right, Leftover Liberalism, and Leftist Supermajority

This has been a somewhat hard post to write. And it’s not clear how successful it has so far turned out. The actual writing was more involved than the simplicity of the original impetus. We’ll go for broke with further explanation and, hopefully, we won’t add more confusion in the process (if nothing else, maybe this post will serve as an intriguing thought experiment about experienced reality, according to metaphors and memes, social construction and perception management). The central observation in mind was that of leftist thought about systems and similar things. This occurred to us in thinking about the symbolic value of issues like environmentalism and systemic racism, as discussed above.

It has long stood out how those on the political right take systems thinking as one of their primary targets. What is feared about something like Marxism is that it brings to light systems of oppression so that they can be seen and challenged, analyzed and debated. Even if all leftist alternatives so far proffered are wrong and impossible, the leftist critique might remain true or at least compelling and hence dangerous. Similarly, it is understandable that systemic racism gets dismissed so easily because social conservatism has always been mired in racist systems, at least so far. Racism, after all, is simply one particular expression of social conservatism; and central to American society from the beginning. But maybe we can dream of a day when American conservatives become anti-racist in both words and deeds. Admittedly, it has been a small achievement to get the political right to declare that “All Lives Matter” since, in finally pretending to believe what they previously denied, they might continue going further left. Do all lives really matter in how they are treated? Really? What if that actually was how everyone was treated?

The political right, indeed, has become more egalitarian or else less rabidly and openly inegalitarian over time. If this continues, would there come a point where the reactionary right that we presently know essentially stops existing? As for now, the reactionary right is alive and well; and all right-wing hierarchy involves various forms of rigid authority and privilege, which inevitably lead to unfairness and injustice and oppression (i.e., inegalitarianism). This right-wing hierarchy is a socially constructed system, demonstrating and proving that reactionaries understand systems just fine. So, the general attitude in outwardly dismissing all that which is systemic seems strange because how can conservatives be so unconcerned about conserving the environment, the basis of all life and civilization. But then one realizes that, with historical revisionism, the political right has never been all that concerned about conserving. All of that is besides the point because reaction always plays out in the immediate moment. The past is a mere convenience, a stage upon which to project nostalgic visions.

The real point is not only about if this or that system gets acknowledged as real but whether this entire leftist way of thinking about systems is even included in allowable thought and collective consciousness. The political right wants to shut down the public imagination before it gets to that point, to prevent public debate before it happens — strangle dangerous ideas in their crib. The moment there is actual inquiry about systems the political right has already lost the battle, and they know this. In symbolic conflation, systems must remain obscured by the fantasizing of the moral imagination. That is the basic argument Edmund Burke made about the moral imagination. So, it’s not that systems don’t also operate in the reactionary mind, but by nature they never can operate openly, honestly, and forthrightly. They must be presented as an unquestioned or unseen reality (i.e., ideological realism), often being claimed as something else (i.e., symbolic conflation).

The political right, as portrayed on the political right, in a sense doesn’t really or fully exist. It is a mirage of the moral imagination for the reason it has been promoted by perception management, the most powerful method of social control. Even though most Americans are far left-leaning in their views, the majority when given a forced choice continue to self-identify as ‘conservative’. This belies the social reality of a leftist supermajority. That is why one can, in all fairness, question the existence of the political right. Most Americans on the political right are, in many ways, further left than was the case among most American leftists a century ago and definitely as compared to the centuries prior. This is shown by how such a significant number of Republicans have come to agree with the general majority in recognizing racism in the police and in supporting stronger environmental regulations; other examples have been given elsewhere. It wasn’t that long ago that such ideas were radical not only to liberals but leftists as well, back when the political left was mainly focused on economic issues. As such, the disagreement, at present, is not about the reality of the situation but our response to it or else reaction.

That said, there might be a small genuine right-wing, what elsewhere in this blog has been called the ‘Ferengi‘ (based on the acronym FER that refers to the overlapping demographics of Fox News viewers, white Evangelicals, and Republicans). But even there, it’s not clear to what degree most of this hardcore minority holds the beliefs they claim, as appears in polls. The reactionary mind is defined by what it reacts to, not by what it affirms. When reactionaries aren’t co-opting from the left, they are sometimes simply declaring the complete opposite for rhetorical effect and strategic positioning. So, other than being reactionary, what exactly can we know about the political right? Not much, one might argue. The vast majority of conservatives and Republicans often privately admit to holding many views that, according to the political and media elites, would be considered rather liberal and leftist. The main body of the political right mostly evaporates upon close scrutiny, leaving little behind besides the emotional reflex of nostalgia and resentment; of anxiety, fear, and paranoia. But is psychological reaction, no matter how rhetorically narratized, enough to be called an ideology?

That has been the key question others have asked, such as the political scientist Corey Robin. Basically, he comes down with the view that the reactionary is simply a modern defense of entrenched hierarchy, but where the reactionaries as an aspiring elite seek to replace the prior hierarchies in order to seize power and privilege, wealth and resources. According to the analysis here in this post, the reactionary is nothing more than inegalitarianism (SDO-E on the SDO7 scale), the void of an egalitarianism gone missing; or what Robin describes as the denied agency of the subordinate class. This still doesn’t tell us much, other than reactionaries are not egalitarians, further defining them by negation, by what they lack. Then we are left with figuring out what might be the project of entrenched hierarchy, other than opportunistic realpolitik. That leads us back to what exactly do we mean by ideology. Is it just a vague psychological stance or does it require a specific political project that seeks a clear vision and agenda about an ideal society?

Pretty much all of the political right has embraced the leftover liberalism of past generations, but done so in the typical mix-and-match style (i.e., bricolage) of the reactionary mind. There doesn’t appear to be any consistent principle behind all of it, no reason for why this aspect of liberalism is co-opted and another attacked and still another distorted in unrecognizable form. It can seem like ideology as a fortress where what is hidden and protected behind the defensive wall remains unknown, assuming anything at all is to be found. Yet, going by the argument of this post, we would stand by the view that the reactionary is fundamentally liberal in being inseparable from the liberal paradigm, as it is defined in its reacting to and co-opting of liberalism. Among the most reactionary of reactionaries, the right-wing elite and the staunch alt-righters, one senses that many and maybe most have come to agree with broad liberalism, as well as much of leftism. They’re not really arguing for something entirely different, as in articulating a distinct vision, for their main purpose is to defend the prevailing ideological realism itself toward a specific agenda and in serving particular interests.

One would be naive to celebrate this victory of liberalism as an End of History. The reactionaries may have gained the upper hand, given that reaction is an easier task with nothing really to achieve other than constantly causing difficulty by obstructing what others are trying to achieve (e.g., anti-democratic tactics, from voter suppression to voter purges). There is a suspicion that many of the seemingly active debates have already ended and, at this point, have become mere political spectacle. The most reactionary extremists — the social dominators, Machiavellian demagogues, opportunistic psychopaths, and narcissistic poseurs — maybe already know, to some degree, that the left has been right in its analysis and judgment. That is sort of the conclusion Corey Robin comes to, in that reactionaries agree the past has been a failure for otherwise they wouldn’t constantly seek to replace it with historical revisionism (e.g., falsely denying that the political right once was openly defined by racism). But it goes further than that, as seen with how the political right accepts large swaths of social liberalism (e.g., the political right stopped talking much about same sex marriage once it became undeniable that the vast supermajority of Americans took this basic gay right as a non-issue).

Yet here we are. The right-wing systems, structures, and institutions remain in place. It really doesn’t matter what someone like Donald Trump or Steven Bannon personally believes in actuality, since it’s almost guaranteed that they wouldn’t care about one of their own family members getting an abortion or getting gay married. They aren’t anti-liberal ideologues, but they realize pretending to be so is convenient rhetoric for manipulating a segment of the public. The strange thing is most of those being manipulated probably also are fine with these issues on a personal level. This is all about symbolic politics and symbolic identities — it’s a story being told. What views and opinions, values and ideals are held by individuals is irrelevant and moot. That is the power of systems over the mind, which is understood across the political spectrum but it’s only leftists that speak this truth. Right-wingers understand that right-wing systems work precisely by being taken as a given, by being left in the background where they cloak themselves in the shadows of moral imagination; otherwise, the emperor will be seen as having no clothes, the great Wizard of Oz just a feeble man behind a curtain.

The political left may appear to have lost the war of political power and social control, even as it won the battle over the public mind, although change always begins in the public mind where it might not see effects until generations or centuries later, as the somewhat reactionary John Adams admitted about the revolution of mind preceding the revolution of politics, although a revolution of mind that began much earlier than he realized. This is demonstrated by the immense amount of time that passed across the relevant history; starting with the egalitarian rhetoric of the 14th century peasants’ revolts, continuing with the emergent radicalism of the 17th century English civil War, and finally coming to fruition with the egalitarian action of the 18th century political revolutions (although the deeper history of egalitarianism originates much earlier in the Axial Age). Systems change slowly because systems have a way of taking on lives of their own. They are hyperobjects that begin acting like hypersubjects — they are the demiurgic forces that rule over us, more than does any ruling elite; but also the utopian ideals that inspire us with promises of freedom. The memetic power of ideas only gradually percolates throughout a system.

What the left dreams of is a time when the demos (the public, the people) once again regains its position as the leading hypersubject, the public mind within the body politic. The left wants to bring this all into collective consciousness, to manifest the victory that, one hopes, has already been achieved within the human heart. With a firm foothold in the public imagination, how might we lift ourselves by our own bootstraps? Then maybe we can stop talking about a left and a right.

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Conclusion: Egalitarianism and Abundance

After writing all of the above, we thought of a post we’d written before and another post we’re still working on. The previous post came to the bold conclusion that we are all egalitarians, similar to an earlier more humorous assertion about all of us being white liberals now. The point is that such things have come to define our whole society, either in embracing or reacting to them. Ultimately, there is no inegalitarianism, in the way there is no illiberalism. Rather, a modern Westerner can choose between being a progressive egalitarian-liberal or a regressive egalitarian-liberal. But reaction can’t escape what it’s reacting to. As we put it in the post about egalitarianism:

“Egalitarianism isn’t and never was simply about modern left-wing ideology as formed out of the revolutionary philosophies of post-Enlightenment thinkers, dreamers, and activists. Egalitarianism isn’t an abstract ideal for it is rooted within us. To attempt to remove it would be to destroy our collective soul, an act akin to ripping out our heart. We don’t hold egalitarianism as a value and principle, as a vision and worldview. Egalitarianism, rather, is who we are. There is no ‘left’ and ‘right’, no division between a set of egalitarian political ideologies and what supposedly opposes them. To oppose egalitarianism would be insanity because it would be to oppose ourselves. Egalitarianism can’t be denied. Rather than a ‘left’ and ‘right’, there is simply and fundamentally the egalitarian center of our being. To embrace this revolutionary radicalism (i.e., to return to the root) would mean to become fully human. That is the only centrism, moderate or otherwise, that has any meaning.”

That argument is biased by our spiritual inclinations and religious upbringings. In high school, we read A Course In Miracles. The theology of the text isn’t relevant, per se, but there is one statement that has stuck in our mind all these decades later: “The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.” That is basically how we’ve come to think of the left and right, as respectively motivated by love and fear. This extends into our understanding of the social sciences, such as not seeing egalitarianism and authority as opposites for not all authority is authoritarianism, the latter being a distortion of the former. For most of human existence, egalitarianism has been the norm where most hierarchies were moderate, flexible, and temporary. This is why egalitarianism is so deeply embedded in human nature, as both inclination and aspiration. It requires tremendous amounts of fear and anxiety to go against this inborn tendency and default mode.

This leads us to the post we’ve been working on for a while and still plan to finish. It brings in the health angle. We are a sickly society and so, combined with high inequality and artificial scarcity, it makes perfect sense that we are drowning in anxiety and fear. There has never been such overwhelmingly stressful societies as seen in modern industrialized states, and it’s an entirely new kind of set of stressors; chronic stress as unresolved tension and unhealed trauma. This is shown in the growing rates of psychosis among urbanized youth and growing rates of disease in general at ever younger ages. Our entire social order, lifestyle, and food system is out of sync with our evolved nature. An example of this is our being literally ungrounded from the earth. It wasn’t until the post-war period that humans started using synthetic material for shoes that disconnects the human body from the immense source of electrons and the site of electromagnetic cycles in the earth (as enmeshed with the atmosphere and the sun), possibly why we’ve become so obsessed with antioxidants that are able to loan electrons in preventing body-wide damage from free radical cascades.

In observing people, it is obvious how disconnected, sickly, stunted, malformed, and mentally disturbed is the average person — a genuine reason for moral panic and existential crisis. So many people feel crappy in both their minds and bodies, and so they act in ways that are personally and socially dysfunctional. This is not a normal state of humanity and it might explain why our society, in having a weakened social immune system, has become so vulnerable to the reactionary mind virus (what one might call the terrain theory of memetics, metaphorically likened to the terrain theory of immunity). It’s not only about powerful ideas but an alteration of how the human body-mind functions. Even low levels of stress from sickliness can trigger personal and social responses of authoritarianism, as shown in the research on communities with higher parasite load. What if most of the framing of right vs left is simply a confused attempt to grasp the distinction between a healthy society and an unhealthy society, pro-social behavior and anti-social behavior, societal progress and societal decline? It’s one thing for a society to temporarily fall into reactionary mode as a survival response to an immediate concrete threat. But to become stuck continuously in reaction is abnormal, unhealthy, and dangerous.

That is how we’ve come to see this whole issue. We all react at various points in our lives and that is perfectly normal. That is a healthy and necessary survival response. But remaining permanently in a state of fight or flight is unbearably stressful. Research has found that low levels of chronic stress are more traumatic than a single much worse traumatic event. That is what living in a high inequality society does to us. It potentially can be worse than a war or a famine, being violently attacked or raped. The reason is because it never ends and so never can be escaped. There is no respite and refuge, no moment to rest and de-stress, no place of protection and chance for healing. It often leads to learned helplessness or, worse still, various dysfunctional mental illnesses and personality traits: psychosis, mood disorders, personality disorders, the Dark Triad (Machiavellianism, authoritarianism, and narcissism; or Dark Tetrad if sadism is added), etc. The reactionary mind, one might argue, is simply the pattern of symptoms seen in severe unhealed trauma. And right-wing ideology is simply the political, economic, and social reaction of the most traumatized in a society of the severely traumatized.

We see this in decades of data that compares societies that are high and low in inequality. It matters less if this involves poverty or wealth. Many of the physically and mentally healthiest populations are traditional cultures like hunter-gatherer tribes where they have little outward wealth. But what they also lack is the authoritarian enforcement of artificial scarcity. We’ve noted how modern Americans act as if they live in a world of scarcity, despite stores full of stuff. This is because the basic human needs are not being met. Inequality creates an environment of stress, anxiety, and fear where there is a constant sense of vulnerability to danger and threat. We are disconnected from the world in a way that is not true in traditional societies. The Piraha, to return to a favorite example, live amidst great abundance of food and resources that are easily obtained from the surrounding jungle and nearby river. That is why they don’t worry about survival nor even store food. They eat when they want, but can go days without eating for no particular reason. As Daniel Everett observed, they seem to have no fear of the world around them, a world that objectively we modern Westerners would perceive as threateningly dangerous. Yet, to the Piraha, they feel relaxed and at home, with unswerving confidence that they belong.

Not only do the Piraha lack scarcity, real and imagined, but also they lack authoritarian hierarchy. They have no permanent positions of authority or even expertise; council of elders, no chiefs, war leaders, healers, shamans, etc. To occasionally achieve some practical end involving cooperation, a single individual might temporarily take leadership but it doesn’t continue beyond the activity itself. It’s not merely that their life is simple for they do possess immense knowledge that requires a level of memory few modern Westerners are capable of. What results from this? The Piraha are happy, friendly, gregarious, kind, generous, and welcoming; including toward strangers who visit them. There is no signs of long-term stress or unhealed trauma, no known cases of depression or suicide. They are one of the few remaining egalitarian tribes that shows us the conditions under which human nature evolved. They show us the potential that exists within us all.

This isn’t about some nostalgic past but about the present and, if we allow it, it could also be about our future. That is what is imagined in the world of Star Trek: The Next Generation. What might it be like to live in fully functioning democratic socialism that is not based on sickness, fear, and punishment? We don’t have to limit ourselves to science fiction utopias. We already know, to some extent, what is possible. The more successful social democracies have many elements of democratic socialism about them, including wide-scale public ownership and government operation of numerous areas of the society and economy — not only welfare, education, and infrastructure, but also childcare, job training, healthcare, utilities, natural resources, and much else. These socialist-leaning social democracies are, importantly, low-inequality with all that goes with that: better public health, lower rates of violent crimes and mental illness, high rates of public trust, and such.

All of the factors that feed into the reactionary mind are much more muted in these societies focused on the public good. That is what allows the egalitarianism within human nature to fully express. Healthy environments create healthy people and healthy cultures. This is a world where differences are allowed to a greater extent within a shared concern and motivated by a shared humanity. When people are no longer trapped in fear and scarcity, then even public disagreement and debate doesn’t have to result in reactionary polarization and pseudo-tribalism. This is the leftist vision of humanity that, instead of offering a final conclusion and totalizing answer of totalitarian ideology, offers new beginnings and opens up to new possibilities. What this specifically would mean for any given society at any given time would be determined through a culture of trust and democratic self-governance, an inspiring potential that can’t be guaranteed or proven in advance.

Abstract Symbols of the Reactionary Mind

The reactionary mind is obsessed with reified abstractions translated into symbolic visions and causes. This is seen with Edmund Burke’s moral imagining of the overthrow of the French monarchy (nearly a rape fantasy of the queen), to which Thomas Paine noted his lack of concern for the actual people harmed by that monarchy (more concern for the plumage than the dying bird). The reality was irrelevant. The whole point of the wardrobe of moral imagination is to dress ideology in fancy attire, to cover up the ugly truths of power that otherwise would not be palatable.

This reactonary affliction can be found among most modern people to varying degrees. One can see this among partisans in both parties and viewers of corporate media, as shown in how constructed narratives dominate nearly all public debate, in the process of silencing majority opinion and real concerns. But the greatest comorbidity is conservative-mindedness and so the strongest symptoms are found among the conservative persuasion.

Conservatism is inherently reactionary as it is entirely defined by its reaction to liberalism, in having been born out of counter-revolution. It’s never been able to shake its origins. Even when liberals turn reactionary, they tend to do so by becoming more conservative-minded — think of the Clinton Democrats with their police state law-and-order, neocon war-mongering, etc. Political correctness too, whether of the liberal or conservative variety, is reactionary. Still, it’s not equal levels of the reactionary.

In one sense, the primary meaning of conservatism is the state of being more or less permanently stuck in reaction. For liberals, it is more often a temporary or partial state, more often in reacting to something particular. But American conservatives find themselves reacting to the entire liberal order upon which the country was founded. They sometimes even call themselves classical liberals as a reactionary throwback to a prior era, whereas conservatism by itself has no specific meaning, other than a general sense of loss and nostalgia that can be applied variously as circumstances require.

Part of the reactionary mind is an anti-intellectual bent. After all, right from the start, it was a complaint against Enlightenment thought. Yet it’s been forced to jerry-rig it’s ideological agenda out of the scraps left over from the Enlightenment project. So, conservatives will typically praise modern economics, technology, etc while acting suspect of the very scientific thought and institutions of learning that made it all possible.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not found to the same degree on the American left, as the evidence shows (see: Chris Mooney, The Republican War on Science). There is no Democratic equivalent to the proudly anti-intellectual President Donald Trump, no left-wing equivalent to the anti-intellectual Evangelical movement. It simply does not exist. No one is immune from the reactionary contagion, but neither is everyone equally vulnerable to it.

That is the reason conservatives, not liberals, have most strongly taken up Burke’s moral imagination. It’s the reason for the incessant pounding of culture war issues going back centuries. Culture itself becomes an abstract ideology, contrary to the traditional view of culture, what distinguishes reactionary conservatism from non-reactionary traditionalism. The one thing that the reactionary right borrows from traditionalism is some of its symbolism, such as their love of religious pomp, military display, etc; although, in chameleon-like fashion, the reactionary will just as likely borrow from the left as needed.

This reactionary ideology of culture gave birth to ethnonationalism and the nation-state, a modern invention that helped destroy and replace the ancien regime, even as it made claims on being its heir. Up until the world war era, most Europeans and Americans still didn’t identify primarily with the nation-state but rather with local communities and regional populations. It was a much more grounded experience of culture, as opposed to the Platonic ideal of European culture, white culture, etc sold by reactionary conservatives — their own brand of identity politics.

For example, conservatives will argue that social democracy is possible in Scandinavia only because of some vague concept of culture, as if culture is an unrooted and unchanging reality that forces itself upon us like an archonic power. Yet they can’t explain why much of Scandinavia, in being so successful now, was economically impoverished and culturally backwards in the 18th and 19th centuries. Northwestern Europeans who are presently among the tallest people in the world once were among the shortest because of poverty and malnutrition.

Scandinavians, compared to many other areas of the West like France and Britain, were slow to end feudalism, urbanize, industrialize, and democratize. The 20th century social democracy we argue about appeared rather late and abruptly. It would’ve been completely unpredictable based on observations of Scandinavian culture in the centuries prior. Cultural fatalism, as some fossilized essence of national character, is an abstract ideology detached from historical and human realities.

This focus on abstract cultural ideology is specifically to distract from concrete actions of political organizing and economic restructuring, policy reforms and political interventions. Some of those Scandinavian countries came to social democracy through large-scale labor movements, nation-wide strikes, and workers parties. Some conservatives counter by pointing out that Scandinavian-Americans have also done well with lower rates of poverty and inequality. What they leave out is those Scandinavian-Americans, like their kinfolk back in the homeland, enforced their culture of fairness and trust through concrete actions: populist revolt, farmer-labor parties, farmer co-ops, Progressive reforms, sewer socialism, etc.

The US states with larger populations of Scandinavian ancestry, nonetheless, never had a majority Scandinavian culture, as the majority tended to be German-Americans. Even then, the individual US states could only accomplish so much because they didn’t have the full power and autonomy of actual nation-states. This made it harder for them to establish the kind of social demcracies that took hold in Scandinavian countries. It was more complex and challenging to implement a nationwide strike within dozens of states across the entire continent of the United States, as compared to a nationwide strike in a country smaller than many US states.

Still, it’s impressive how far these Scandinavian-Americans, with the help of German-Americans, were able to get with leftist organizing and democratic reforms. Declaring their moral and political authority in 1873, the Minnesota Grangers stated: “We, the farmers, mechanics and laborers of Minnesota, deem the triumph of the people in this contest with monopolies essential to the perpetuation of our free institutions and the promotion of our private and national prosperity.” Like their brethren across the Atlantic Ocean, these ethnic Scandinavians meant business. No wonder they made sure to create societies with low poverty and inequality whereever they went. It isn’t some mysterious cultural quality detached from politics.

As with cultural fetishism, this same pattern of reified abstractions turned into symbolic fantasizing is seen with many other right-wing reactionary views, particularly when the reactionary goes full conspiratorial. So much of the anti-leftist Cold War propaganda was dependent on conspiracy theory because it’s effective as both narrative and distraction. It maintains its hold for many Americans. Think of the paranoid obsession with postmodernism and leftism, such as with Cultural Marxism and QAnon, often combined with antisemitism (e.g., Jewish space lazers causing wildfires) as was the case with Nazi Cultural Bolshevism and Jewish Bolshevism.

A conservative we are familiar with is always ranting about this kind of thing, but we know that he has never talked to or read anything by someone who advocates postmodernism or Marxism. We pointed this out to him and his response was that he knows what he sees with his own eyes. That is an odd claim. Nearly all of his views come from secondhand information as gained from Fox News, Wall Street Journal, Imprimis, The Epoch Times, etc. Mediated reality has replaced his directly experienced reality, to such extent that the corporate media has come to feel like “his own eyes.”

A new favorite of this particular conservative is the reactionary Jordan Peterson who, as a member of the Intellectual Dark Web, is one of the popular ‘critics’ of (neo-)Marxism. Keep in mind that, at his debate with Slavoj Zizek from a year and a half ago, Peterson admitted to having never read anything by Karl Marx. So, his knowledge was also secondhand or maybe further distant. That means maybe millions of Americans who got their anti-Marxist views from him and his larger influence are several times removed from any knowledge of actual Marxism.

But to the reactionary mind, all of that is irrelevant. They already ‘know’ Marxism without actually having to know any facts about Marxism or to personally know anyone who is a Marxist. What matters is the symbolism and, to the reactionary mind, all of the culture wars is a battle of symbols. This is the power of what I call symbolic conflation. The real issues under debate are something else entirely. The point is to use the wardrobe of moral imagination to hide the real issues behind symbolic issues, to protect the moral order as a sociopolitical force.

It’s also why conservatives latch onto AIDS and abortion as symbolic issues, since a disease or pregnancy can be portrayed as carrying its own moral symbolism as punishment. This supports their ideological realism for the punishment is made to appear like a natural and inevitable consequence of the moral sin to be punished. For a liberal to support the cure of the disease and to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place, that would untangle the knot of symbolic conflation in showing that the ideological realism was merely yet another social construction of social conditions, not divine reality or natural law.

This is demonstrated most clearly by the abortion debate, the first nut cracked in revealing the tender pulp of symbolic conflation. It quicky became obvious that the debate was never about facts or about lives, much less the facts about lives. Conservatives, when confronted by the data showing abortion bans on average increase the abortion rate, will unsurprisingly dismiss the data. But if one keeps pushing the issue, some conservatives will reveal their more honest opinion in baldly stating that, rhetoric of baby-killing aside, the moral concern is not actually about the lives of babies. Rather, it’s about the principle.

Listen to that. It’s about the principle, a principle abstracted from not only lived experience but abstracted from actual lives. It’s similar to the abstract nature of cultural ideology and culture wars in general. What makes this possible is the lack of concrete experience. Most of what conservatives know about Scandinavian social democracy, Marxism, postmodernism, etc is from right-wing media, not lived experience and personal relationships. That is the key component, in how right-wing media repeatedly hammers the very issues that are the most disconnected from the experience of their audience.

Theoretically, conservatives could simply seek out liberals and leftists in order to hear their views firsthand or maybe pick up a book written by such people. For example, an anti-choice activist could visit a family planning center to learn how preventing unwanted pregnancies prevents abortions and improves lives; or they could look at the data that, rather than being black-and-white, most Americans support both women’s choice in most situations while also wanting strong regulations of certain areas of the abortion issue.

But then, in the issue becoming concretely and personally real, the symbolic conflation would lose all symbolic power. The conservative realizes this Achilles’ heel and so, in keeping issues as abstract symbols, protect against this threat. This is why undeniably concrete issues like climate change and police shootings cause particular fear and anxiety to the conservative mind. It’s much more challenging to counter these with symbolic conflations, and hence a greater tendency to simple denialism.

That is partly what makes the American left different. Leftists criticize American-style inequality and poverty, class war and plutocracy, corporatism and neo-fascism because they experience it in their everyday lives and see it in the world around them, as leftists criticize the corruption and oppression of this banana republic because it is forced upon their experience, or as leftist criticize Christianity from the perspective of having been raised in it and surrounded by it in this Christian society. Because of this, leftists know capitalism and Christianity better than rightists know communism and atheism. In fact, the average American atheist has more knowledge about the Bible and Christian history than do most Christians.

So, for the left-winger, these problems of the right-wing social order aren’t symbolic issues, abstract concepts, and distant realities. They can’t be avoided, as long as one remains in this country. Such concrete experience and factual knowledge is less prone to reactionary fantasizing and symbolic conflation. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of reaction on the left, more than is desirable, but not to the same extent, not even remotely close to being equivalent. Partly, this is because the American left-wing mostly overlaps with liberalism, specifically liberal-minded traits that are pretty much defined by not being reactionary. Left-wing ideologies are fundamentaly about egalitarianism and it’s difficult to be for egalitarianism while against liberal values of freedom, openess, compassion, tolerance, and fairness.

That said, the liberal-minded might find it harder and harder to hold out against the reactionary over time. Mediated reality might quickly become the norm and the rise of deep fakes might rock the world. It’s not clear that liberalism will survive this onslaught on reality. All of American society could become ever more reactionary. The symbolic style could become more of a force on the political left. Consider how the Black Lives Matter movement gained majority support of Americans, including white Americans, through social media where videos of police brutality was shared. That is an example of mediated experience changing perception and public opinion.

The resuts may be positive in this case if it eventually does lead to police reform. But once we come to rely on media in this fashion for collective action, and as media technology advances, we could become ripe for reactionary fear-mongering and manipulations. Unless we find a way to democratize media, particularly the internet, but also democratize the larger society and economy, it might be a rough time ahead. If we become more divided and isolated, unmediated reality could become a rarity.

At present, it’s hard to imagine our plutocratic society even further dominated by corporate media and tech companies that would not become full-on reactionary, with liberal-minded leftism disappearing or becoming so distorted as to be dysfunctional. The craziness of media-fomented QAnon movement, already having infiltrtated Congress (in more than one way, legally and illegally), might be a sign of the future to come for the entire political system and society. Cultural experience, abstracted from concrete experience, might come to look more like a media echo chamber. Never before seen group identities will be constructed and we might become ever more dissociated and dislocated.

Real Issues Behind Regressive Identity Politics

Here is a quickie. Jordan Peterson likes to oversimplify things with easy answers, as that is what his audience wants. He mixes genuine information with misinformation and misinterpretation. Then too often exaggerates something into a caricature of moral absolutism, such as about social roles in terms of his defense of patriarchy, class hierarchy, and race realism. It’s all about the lobsters or some such thing.

He does this with gender all the time, in treating it as a clear demarcation. The reality, as always, is much more complicated, even on the biological level: “It’s far from uncommon for people to carry genetics of both sexes, even multiple DNA” (Is the Tide Starting to Turn on Genetics and Culture?). Mixed genitalia is far from uncommon as well, although in the past doctors would have done gender assignment to babies to ensure they conformed to perceived biological norms. Here is a typical example of a strong view from Peterson:

“And the biggest sex differences that we know of that aren’t morphological are in interest. So women are more interested in people, by and large, and men are more interested in things, by and large. And the difference is actually large, it’s one standard deviation. And so that means if you’re a man, you would have to be more interested in people than 85% of men to be as interested as 50% of women. And if you’re a woman, you’d have to be more interested in things than 85% of women to be as interested as the 50th percentile male. So the difference is actually quite substantial, and it’s certainly large enough to drive occupational choice differences, which it does” (Jordan Peterson, Christina Hoff Sommers, and Danielle Crittenden (The Femsplainers)Full Transcript).

Peterson will use this as a rationalization for gender disparity in careers, such as low level of women in STEM fields. Yet many convincingly argue that some of this is cultural. Consider that in India and Latin America, women are the majority in the tech industry, the career that we think of as being the most male-centric in the United States. By the way, many other countries also see greater number of women in leadership positions, such as presidents and prime ministers.

He will sometimes vary his emphasis by saying that men prefer ideas while women people and relationships (Jordan Peterson, On the Differences Between Men and Women). Yet women are much higher achievers in education. Most college students are women and they outnumber men in grad school. Then they come out with 57% of the bachelor’s degrees, 60% of the master’s degrees, and 52% of the doctorates. Women dominate 7 out of 11 areas of study, including tough fields like biological science and medical science. That doesn’t indicate a gender difference crippling women’s interest in ideas and the ability to work with ideas.

Consider one of Peterson’s favorite topics, the thought of Carl Jung. He talks a lot about archetypes, if in such simplistic ways that Jung is rolling in his grave. One way he’ll talk about gender differences is in terms of personality. So, let’s go with Jungian typology, as seen in the data collected through the Myers-Briggs test.

There is only one area that shows a minor gender divide. Most dominant Thinking types are men and most dominant Feeling types are women. It’s a difference between how one makes decisions, whether through objective reasoning or by subjective values. It’s a bit complicated, though, since Jung held that for introverts the opposing function would be more apparent outwardly. So, the introverted Feeling type would tend to deal with the world through extraverted Thinking, the latter being what is sometimes referred to as the aspirational function.

Complexities aside, the data shows that this gender divide does not apply to 30-40% of the population, at least in this country. Yet Peterson is ready to build entire gender stereotypes that should be used to socially construct the moral order that upholds gender roles, based on an assumption of genetic determinism and essentialism. It’s amazingly naïve. It’s not to dismiss the importance of biology, but we have no idea how much of this difference is shaped by genetics vs environment and epigenetics. He is simply assuming that humans are mere puppets of their genetic fate, that culture and history have no great relevance in shaping our shared conditions. Even if that were true, what about the 30-40% who are by nature contrary to conventional expectations and norms of conservative ideology?

As a male Feeling type, according to the official Myers-Briggs, nothing Peterson says resonates with me about how men are supposed to be. I’m not even sure most male Thinking types would be all that persuaded either. His audience is a very narrow selection of males who identify with or aspire to his ideologically-driven masculine ideal. As a minority group even within the WEIRDest of WEIRD populations found primarily in North America, these Peterson true believers aren’t likely representative of most men in the world. That isn’t to say this group is insignificant in their sense of alienation, frustration and outrage, as I’d suggest they are canaries in the coal mine.

For certain, I don’t entirely disregard conservative concerns about gender, specifically problems with boys (The Boy Crisis). There is an argument to be made that some neurocognitive conditions, such as autism and ADHD, are extreme expressions of otherwise normal masculine attributes that no longer are deemed socially desirable in our society, specifically in schools. Others have noted boys are physically and cognitively maturing later than prior generations, as girls are maturing earlier. This stunting and growing gap might be caused by hormones and hormone mimics in the industrial diet and packaging. Whatever the cause, it sheds light on why women have suddenly come to dominate higher education.

It’s intriguing, actually, the changes that have happened. As a sign of something gone wrong, there has been a continuous decline of sperm counts, testosterone levels, and musculoskeletal strength over the generations, specifically in the United States and Western world. Some data indicates this goes back to the early 20th century when measurements were first taken, but the trend likely began in the prior century. This change is dramatic. And it’s being felt on a personal level. Young men admit to feeling conflicted with the social expectations of being masculine, as it simply doesn’t match their own experience. The average man is just not feeling all that manly these days. And those who feel (or rather are made to feel) like inferior ‘beta males’ can be drawn to self-help gurus like Peterson who promise to make real men out of them.

All of this is fair debate to be had, but let’s quit with the stereotypes already and allow for nuance. And it’s far from a new debate (The Crisis of Identity, Moral Panic and Physical Degeneration, Old Debates Forgotten, & Rate of Moral Panic). Going back to the late 1800s, there was a rising concern of boys becoming effeminate and men being emasculated. That was around the time the industrial diet began taking over American society. At first, it was an increase of starchy carbs and added sugar, but soon after seed oils replaced animal fats like butter and lard. And who knows what chemicals were being used in early canning and such. Actually, the concern about shifting gender roles goes further back to before the American Civil War. Besides diet, there were many other things going on. Industrialization, of course, went hand in hand with urbanization that in a short period of time became mass urbanization with most Americans urbanized by the dawn of the 20th century.

Reactionaries arose to try to re-enforce what they thought were divine-ordained gender roles based on nostalgia about rural life and they did so in ways that were clumsy and oppressive. But that isn’t to deny something odd was and still is going on. That is why reactionaries continue to hold sway. For all their foolishness, they are pointing to real issues and occasionally they do bring up genuine information to be taken seriously. Peterson wouldn’t be so popular if he was entirely full of shit. He is speaking to what many others are feeling, even as he distorts what it all means with regressive white male identity politics. If we ignore or dismiss the reactionaries now without responding to what made them turn reactionary in the first place, the persuasive pull of the reactionary mind will only become more powerful.

* * *

They select different degree programmes: Are women and men born with different interests?
by Rasmus Friis

A disappointing response

According to Christian Gerlach, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Southern Denmark, the answer is a bit disappointing. As it is actually impossible to say with certainty whether it is biological or social conditions that get men to apply for, say, IT and engineering subjects, and women to choose, say, subjects in the healthcare sector.

This is mostly due to the fact that it is hard to carry out experiments that clearly delineate cause and effect. You can’t just change the gender of your subjects, turn men into women and so on, and then find out what effect it has.

»We can’t control all the variables, which means that it is extremely difficult to find causality. It turns into guesswork when you have to say whether one factor or another is decisive. This is the fundamental problem.«

Gerlach is sceptical about the robust interpretations made by Jordan Peterson and the authors of the article.

He is particularly sceptical of the explanations that point to biology as a decisive factor behind the genders’ different interests.

»It has been incredibly difficult to associate complex patterns of thinking and acting to biological things like hormones,« says Christian Gerlach.

»I myself have a background in the biological part of psychology, so I should be open to the fact that you can explain a lot of these differences biologically. But I don’t personally think so. I think it has more to do with socialisation.«

Difference between Jude and Judith

He says that we affect each other in subtle ways and he mentions an experiment:

A baby sits on a carpet in a laboratory with several different toys in front of it. The researcher invites a test subject into the laboratory and asks the person to keep an eye on the baby while the researcher goes outside the door.

The researcher indicates each time whether it is a boy or a girl, and this is precisely what turns out to be decisive for the experiment.

If the experimental subjects think they are taking care of a girl, they tend to give the baby a doll or another toy that we consider feminine. If the subjects think that they are taking care of a boy, they will more often give the baby a toy car or something they consider masculine. A variation of the experiment can be seen in this BBC video.

Conclusion: There’s a difference between being named Jude and Judith.

»When you ask the subjects afterwards, it is clear that they have not done it consciously. It is an example of how this works slightly outside our field of attention,« says Christian Gerlach.

You can also find studies that support the opposite hypothesis, however. Researchers have, in a couple of experiments, showed that monkeys also prefer the toys that many humans would connect with their gender. Male apes, for example, choose to play with cars rather than dolls.

One of the researchers behind the first experiment, Gerianne Alexander, said to New Scientist that you should be careful about over-interpreting the results. But she added:

»It is probable that there is a biological tendency, that is then amplified by society.«

You’re Not The Man Your Father Was
by Neil Howe

Studies show that men’s testosterone levels have been declining for decades. The most prominent, a 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, revealed a “substantial” drop in U.S. men’s testosterone levels since the 1980s, with average levels declining by about 1% per year. This means, for example, that a 60-year-old man in 2004 had testosterone levels 17% lower than those of a 60-year-old in 1987. Another study of Danish men produced similar findings, with double-digit declines among men born in the 1960s compared to those born in the 1920s.

The challenges to men’s health don’t end there. Rates of certain reproductive disorders (like testicular cancer) have risen over time, while multiple European studies have found that sperm counts are sinking. These trends coincide with a decline in musculoskeletal strength among young men: In a 2016 study, the average 20- to 34-year-old man could apply 98 pounds of force with a right-handed grip, down from 117 pounds by a man of the same age in 1985. Though grip strength isn’t necessarily a proxy for overall fitness, it’s a strong predictor of future mortality. […]

What’s happening to men physically dovetails with a broader story of social transformation. The economy is shifting away from jobs that favor men, like manufacturing, and toward sectors dominated by women. Young men have fallen behind women in educational attainment. They’re increasingly dropping out of the workforce and expressing less work centrality. The anxiety over the state of men mirrors a bigger debate over America’s national identity. Americans have traditionally seen themselves as a “pro-testosterone” nation: restless, striving, and rowdy. Yet in his new book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen argues that America is losing the dynamism, mobility, and enterprise that made it special. This anxiety may have even led the old-fashioned, overtly macho President Trump to victory.

The confusion over what masculinity means today is reflected in the conflicted feelings of males now coming of age. Most American Millennial men report feeling pressured to project a traditional image of manhood characterized by traits like toughness, self-reliance, and hypersexuality—but when asked if they wish to emulate these characteristics themselves, the majority don’t. A separate survey asked men to rate themselves on a scale of “completely masculine” to “completely feminine.” Only 30% of 18- to 29-year-olds chose “completely masculine.” That’s compared to 65% of men over 65.

The Dark Mind of Robert David Steele

There is an area of social science research that speaks powerfully to the reactionary mind and why it is so hard to pin down. In a reactionary society such as ours during this reactionary age of modernity, it can be hard to tell who is and who is not a reactionary. I suspect that all of us have a bit of reactionary in us, as potential that can become manifest when we let down our guard. One of the tricky parts is reactionaries rarely identity as reactionaries nor would think of themselves that way. That is part of the nature of the reactionary mind, to appear as something else, even to the person possessed by it. To map out the terrain, it’s helpful to look to the Dark Triad — the potent mix of authoritarianism, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. The third facet, less often discussed, is my focus here (Silvio Manno, The dangerous falsehoods fabricated by Machiavellian leaders afflict the world today).

Machiavellianism relates to suspicious paranoia that can express as belief in conspiracy theories. We tend to think of this tendency in negative terms, but let’s keep in mind that, “On the positive side, belief in conspiracy theories has been associated with openness to experience… and support for democratic principles” (Sutton & Douglas, see below). As it has been said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Maintaining an attitude of mistrust toward the threat of authoritarianism is a reasonable and moral response to authoritarianism. Yet on the other hand, mistrust pushed to the extreme makes one vulnerable to the lures of the reactionary mind, fear turned in on itself and projected out onto others. A deficit of trustworthy sources of info, as happens under oppressive conditions, creates a vacuum that must be filled and people do their best to make sense of the patterns they perceive. This is not a healthy situation. When culture of trust is lacking, people perceive others as untrustworthy and they act accordingly. “Machiavellianism predicted participants’ agreement with conspiracy theories,” wrote Sutton and Douglas. “Also, participants’ personal willingness to conspire predicted the extent to which they endorsed the conspiracy theories. This mediated the relationship between Machiavellianism and endorsement of conspiracy theories.” This is how the dark triad comes to dominance, in the world and in the mind. It warps our sense of reality and creates warped individuals.

Just think of Trump and you have the idiot savant’s version of this phenomenon (heavy emphasis on the idiot part), although I’d advise careful awareness as it can express in a much more sophisticated manner (e.g., Karl Rove and his cynical manipulation of the “reality-based community”). Even so, let’s stick with this obvious example for the very reason that apparently it isn’t obvious to many. There are those who think of themselves as good people, shocking as it may seem, who genuinely believe and have faith in Trump (I’ve already analyzed the authoritarianism of Clinton Democrats and so I will ignore that for the time being). I know such people. Some of them are simply not all that thoughtful and so are easily manipulated by lies, melodrama, partisanship, and whatever other bullshit. I have a hard time being too harshly critical, as many of them really don’t understand anything about what is going on in the world. They are useful idiots to the social dominators aspiring to their authoritarian dreams, but they honestly don’t have a clue what they’re being used for. This makes them potentially dangerous, even if they are less of a direct threat. There is another class of Trump supporter, though, that is far more dangerous and concerning, not to mention bewildering.

Consider Robert David Steele, a military officer and supposedly a former (?) CIA spy who has since re-styled himself as a political reformer, open source advocate, and freedom fighter. Going by my initial take, he comes across as a right-wing nationalist and populist with a Cold War vibe about him, the weird mix of religious patriotism and pseudo-libertarianism, capitalist realism and regressive flirtations with progressive language… or something like that, although when he is criticizing corrupt power and advocating open source he can almost sound like a leftist at times. He was the 2012 Reform Party’s presidential nominee and he is more well known, across the political spectrum, for advocating electoral reform. Some of what he says sounds perfectly reasonable and respectable, but he also makes some truly bizarre statements. He has claimed that the world is ruled by Zionists, especially Hollywood, that Hillary Clinton wants to legalize bestiality and pedophilia, and that NASA is sending abducted children to be sex slaves on a Martian colony (Kyle Mantyla, Robert David Steele: Hillary Clinton Was ‘Going To Legalize Bestiality And Pedophilia’; Ben Collins, NASA Denies That It’s Running a Child Slave Colony on Mars; Wikispooks, Robert Steele: Mars child colony claims). In his Zionist fear-mongering, he has associated with the likes of Jeff Rense, David Icke, and David Duke — as dementedly and dangerously far right as you can get without falling off the edge of flat earth.

I’m familiar with right-wing paranoiacs and I’m not without sympathy. There is a soft place in my heart for conspiracy theories and my curiosity has led me into dark corners of humanity, but I must admit that Steele is an extreme example among extremes. More than a few people think that, if not outright incompetent, he is controlled opposition and a paid fake, a disinfo agent, a fraud, hustling a buck, or that something is not right about him, maybe even that Once CIA always CIA, while it’s also been said he sounds like Alex Jones — the latter is understandable since he has been interviewed by Jones (Richard Wooley, Donald Trump, Alex Jones and the illusion of knowledge). The same accusations are made against Alex Jones as well and they do ring true. Some wealthy interests are promoting Jones and probably Steele too, for whatever reason that might be — the alt-right is filled with shills, paid trolls, and a variety of mercenaries (Competing Media ManipulationsGrassroots or Astroturf?, Skepticism and Conspiracy, Hillsdale’s Imprimis: Neocon PropagandaVictor Davis Hanson: Right-Wing PropagandistBerkeley Scholar Doesn’t Admit He Is A Corporate Shill). I’m not sure it matters whether or not Steele, Jones, and similar types are true believers. Either way, they’re influential figures to keep your eyes on.

Steele has also done talks and interviews with The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed, RT’s Max Keiser, Coast to Coast AM’s Lisa Garr, and many others, including multiple appearances on BBC Radio. His writings can be found in a wide variety of publications, such as: Forbes, Huffington Post, Veterans Today, CounterPunch, openDemocracy, etc. Articles about him and his election reform campaign have appeared in the mainstream media as well. Bernie Sanders and Thom Hartmann wrote prefaces to one of his books, and Howard Bloom wrote a foreword to another one. The guy gets around and draws some significant figures into his orbit. He also has appeared alongside the leftist citizen-journalist Caitlin Johnstone. She has sought cross-ideological alliance with the ‘anti-establishment’ right which unfortunately, I’d argue, is inseparable from the alt-right despite her claims to the contrary. She received a lot of flack and now regrets allowing herself to get associated with him: “I made a very unwise appearance alongside the very shady Robert David Steele” (A Year Ago I Wrote About Cross-Ideological Collaboration. Here’s How It’s Been Going). She got played by Steele, as did former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, although the latter was already well on her way to discrediting herself with conspiracy theories and antisemitism (see her page on Rational Wiki and on Discover the Networks). McKinney is obviously drawn to Steele because of his own inclinations toward conspiracy theories and antisemitism; but what is Johnstone’s excuse? Her husband, Tim Foley, says “she adores” McKinney and that is precisely how she got mixed up with Steele in the first place (10 Facts About Caitlin Johnstone, From The Guy Who Knows Her Better Than Anyone). Such unwise decisions seem inevitable once entering the murky waters and miasmic fog where swamp creatures dwell.

Johnstone’s husband blames himself for letting that situation happen, as he encouraged her to go on the show: “Before we knew it there she was, with Steele talking about how “the alt-right and the alt-left” need to come together, a position Caitlin never held, but in too much of a mental fog to protest” (10 Facts About Caitlin Johnstone, From The Guy Who Knows Her Better Than Anyone). That doesn’t seem accurate. After the show, she had a positive appraisal of Steele: “Here’s Cynthia McKinney, PhD and Robert David Steele coming to my defense over the right-left collaboration against the deep state I keep talking about.” (Facebook, July 21, 2017). Those words express no desire to protest nor a delayed realization that there was a potential problem. “If you recall, this is around the same time,” writes Scott Creighton, “that swindler Robert David Steele was pushing for the same “unite” cause but at least he was honest when he said he was doing it in order to bring the alt-left into the Trump camp in order to ensure his victory in 2020. That fraud fell apart and eventually Caitlin realized what a cretin [Mike] Cernovich was and she too gave up on this effort” (How Caitlin Johnstone is Just Plain Wrong about “Conspiracy Theories”).

This is how right-wing reactionaries seek legitimacy, by co-opting the rhetoric of the political left (e.g., Glenn Beck writing a book about Thomas Paine) and, by disguising their true intentions, drawing in those who otherwise would be resistant and unpersuaded (e.g., Steve Bannon as the architect behind Donald Trump using New Deal Progressive rhetoric as campaign promises). This is a lesson I learned in dealing with the alt-right. I used to debate with race realists such as human biodiversity advocates, until I realized all that I was accomplishing was giving them legitimacy in treating their views as worthy of public debate. It was irrelevant that they presented themselves as rational and weren’t explicitly racist, even in their denying racist allegations with shows of sincerity, as their rhetoric was making racism more acceptable by spinning it in new ways. That is their talent, spreading bullshit. Reactionaries are brilliant in manipulating the left in this manner. This is what worries me about Steele, in how he is able to speak to the concerns of the political left and then use the support he gains to promote Trump’s truly sick agenda or rather to promote the agenda of the lords and masters of the swamp hidden behind Trump’s buffoonery.

There is good reason Johnstone came around to calling Steele ‘shady’. His response to free speech of others is to threaten their free speech. The economist Michael Hudson, among others, has written about Steele’s use of frivolous lawsuits to shut down opponents (Robert David Steele’s ‘Feral’ Lawsuit Movement). In writing about this anti-democratic behavior (Robert David Steele: The Pinocchio Effect), he drew the ire of Steele himself who, in a comment from just a couple of days ago, wrote: “Thank you for this. I have copied it to my attorney with the suggestion that we add you to the roster of those to be called to testify about the conspiracy to defame me. The facts are the facts. I have two witnesses, both employed by NATO, who will testify to the truth of my claim. You are now part of my lawsuit against Jason Goodman, Patricia Negron, and Susan Lutzke. Congratulations.” Instead of countering with a fair-minded response and fact-based counterargument, he immediately went on the attack to silence someone who dared oppose him, which ironically substantiates the mindset portrayed in the article itself. It’s even more amusing in the context that, a little less than a decade ago, Steele specifically told people they should “listen to” Michael Hudson (No Labels “Non-Party” Equals “Four More Years” for Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, Grand Theft USA). This demonstrates lizard-brain levels of moral depravity, and the hypocrisy of it is beyond depressing. He is the guy presenting himself as a defender of an open society. Obviously, he isn’t to be trusted.

Yet I can’t help but feeling sorry for the guy. In the way that Trump appears to be exhibiting early onset dementia, I wouldn’t be surprised if Steele is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia or some other mental illness. Then again, maybe that is a given in a society that is insane. People become Machiavellian because that is how a Machiavellian society shapes them, and most definitely Steele is so shaped at this point, after having spent his entire career in right-wing authoritarian institutions of power, the military and CIA. That is what first occurred to me when my progressive friend asked me to look into him. The kind of anti-Zionist language goes far beyond criticisms of Israel as an authoritarian state, in the way the United States is also authoritarian. In his Machiavellian-minded support of President Trump, Steele wants to believe that Trump’s outward show of support for Machiavellian ‘Zionists’ is a deceptive ploy of Machiavellian genius: “The announced move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem – what one erudite British citizen labels a “diplomatic bon-bon” [7] – may have been part of a deeper strategy to finish Benjamin Netanyahu off while uniting the Arab tribes” (Is Zionism Over?). Ah, the tangled webs the paranoid mind weaves. His obsession with conspiracy theories about Zionists and pedophilia rings is typical of a certain kind of right-wing mindset, but I’m not sure that he was always this way.

My friend was inspired by his book, The Open Source Revolution, written back in 2012. That book does not deal in conspiracy theory, as far as I can tell, nor does it once mention Zionism, pedophilia, etc. Here is a taste of it: “The goal is to reject money and concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favor of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth. When we relate and share knowledge authentically, this places us in a state of grace, a state of “win-win” harmony with all others, and establishes trust among all” (from excerpt). Sounds nice, inspiring even. He mentions how he had originally believed in Barack Obama before realizing he was more of the same. That is what led to his writing an earlier book, Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig. By the time 2012 rolled around, his identity as a patriotic, paternalistic, and progressive Democrat was clearly changing. In the book from that year, he wrote that,

“Understanding and accepting this sorry state of affairs has been part of my own personal and professional rejection of American exceptionalism and the rule by an elite. This shift in perspective recognizes the need for a new planet-wide consciousness based on an open information sharing and direct democracy. For many years I thought that our elected representatives had been corrupted by corporations and, more recently, by banks (or, I should say, the people who use these structures as veils for their own unethical accumulation of profit). I was in error. As we now know from numerous cases, the most blatant being that of former Congressman Randy Cunningham, it is more often elected representatives who have been shaking down banks and corporations in order to fund their own ambitions to remain in power and to profit at the expense of the people.”

Though not speaking in the overt language of the conspiratorial-minded, his words were beginning to express more of that worldview. Rather than it being a systemic problem of capitalism and corporatism, it is the fault of devious individuals who manipulate the system. The elite, rather than being an enlightened technocracy, are something darker — in this black-and-white dogmatism, those in positions of power are either good or evil with no gray area, no shade or tint, much less nuances of color. Before it was the banks that were the problem, but with his shift of focus it’s a small step to embracing the alleged child-molesting Zionists as the real source of power behind the banks. He used to talk about peaceful reform, but, in recent years, he has taken on more of the dark vision of Christian fundamentalism with hints of gnostic-like demonic archons and End Times longing. Nonetheless, I was curious and felt a desire to give Steele a fair hearing. So, I used a web search function to look for results prior to Trump’s presidential campaign, prior to Obama’s administration, and prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack. He didn’t sound all that crazy in the past and, the further I looked back, the more normal he spoke.

Even in 2012 when he started ranting about Zionists, it was relatively mild in tone while also giving voice to anti-authoritarianism and anti-colonialism, almost left-wing in ideology (The after effects of the Arab Spring, good or bad for Israel?). It’s true that Steele was on Alex Jones show as early as 2006, but keep in mind that Jones was far less crazy back then and far more coherent in his own criticisms of corrupt and abusive power (Kourosh Ziabari, Google following CIA’s path in confronting Iran). It can be easy to forget that, when you go back far enough, Jones had a significant following on the political left. It was a different world before both Trump lunacy syndrome and Obama derangement syndrome. It’s been a slow but steady decline for people like this. Decades ago, all that Steele was known for was his open source advocacy in arguing that secrecy was a bad way of doing anything, especially government. There was nothing controversial about this, other than being controversial to secretive authoritarians.

He went from that to his present belief that there are NASA martian colonies filled with child sex slaves. In both cases, he comes across as wholly earnest, for whatever that is worth. Still, earnest or not, there might be forces greater than him that are using and manipulating him for purposes he does not fathom. Seeing Machiavellianism in others opens one up to manipulation by Machiavellian social dominators. If there actually were demonic/Satanic forces as he believes, then one might suggest he is possessed by them. He has turned to the dark side or rather his mind has become lost in dark places, but it’s an all too common, if extreme, example of spiritual sickness and soul loss. His fear-mongering about pedophiles ruling the world is not only mental illness for there are real-world consequences, such as Alex Jones spreading conspiracy theories about pedophilia (Pizzagate) until one of his listeners took him seriously enough to go out and shoot up a restaurant.

I have no desire to discredit the lifework of Robert David Steele. His earlier message of freedom for all remains valid, but as a spokesperson he is damaged goods and his writings are tainted. I gave an accounting of this to my aforementioned friend who inquired about him. My friend became convinced that he should no longer recommend him to others. It’s sad to see someone’s mental breakdown play out on the public stage. And even sadder is that the message itself loses credibility in the process and so public debate about democracy becomes muddied. That furthers the agenda of anti-democratic forces. If nothing else, we can learn from such cases, learn about the importance of intellectual self-defense and psychological self-care. It’s too easy for any of us, in reacting to reactionaries, to become reactionaries ourselves. We should be aware of how hatred and fear can consume the mind. We can only be ruled by the darkness outside of us when it has first come to rule inside of us. Maintaining a positive vision is most important as a candle to light our way, to see the passage ahead and to see the precipice we walk along. It’s a long way down to tumble, if we lose our footing.

* * *

Power, Politics, and Paranoia
ed. by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Paul A. M. van Lange
“Examining the monological nature of conspiracy theories”
by Robbie M. Sutton and Karen M. Douglas

People generally want to explain socially significant events such as the deaths of celebrities and major international disasters (e.g., Leman and Cinnirella, 2007 ; Weiner, 1985 ), but lack direct access to definitive proof of the truth or otherwise of a conspiracy theory. Even the educated middle classes of functioning democracies need to rely on second, third, and n th hand reportage and interpretation in media channels, since they lack direct access to the facts (Sutton, 2010 ). Writing from a political science perspective, Sunstein and Vermeule ( 2009 ) speculate that communities who lack even this information tend to be more susceptible to conspiracy theorizing. These communities include disadvantaged and marginalized groups, and citizens of highly authoritarian states. Such communities experience “a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational sources,” which leads them to experience “crippled epistemologies” in which they are forced to rely on unreliable sources (p. 204). As psychologists, we would suggest that lack of knowledge, however severe, forces members of the public to rely not only on indirect and unreliable sources but also on cognitive heuristics that allow workable, even if unreliable, inferences in the face of incomplete information. One such heuristic is projection: using beliefs about the self as a basis to evaluate claims about other people.

Specifically, we contend that the social-cognitive tool of projection can help people in these uncertain situations (Ames, 2004 ; Krueger, 2000 ; McCloskey, 1958 ). When people are unsure about what someone may or may not have done, they can use their own thoughts, feelings, motivations, or action tendencies as a source of information. That is, they can judge others by judging what they themselves think they would do. For example, people may be more likely to adopt the hypothesis that Princess Diana was assassinated if they believe that they, personally, would be willing to take part in this act if they were in the same situation. So, a person’s perception that “I would do it” informs their perception that “others did it.” Beliefs in conspiracy theories – even about completely unrelated events – may therefore be held together by people’s judgments of their own moral tendencies.

We tested the role of projection in two studies (Douglas and Sutton, 2011 ). In the first study, we asked participants to complete the scale for Machiavellianism – an individual differences variable associated with personal morality (Christie and Geis, 1970 ). Measuring Machiavellianism allowed us to test the prediction that the relationship between personal moral qualities and beliefs in conspiracy theories would be mediated by projection of those moral qualities onto others. We asked participants to rate their agreement with a range of conspiracy theories and measured their tendency to project by asking them, for each individual conspiracy theory, how willing they would have been to participate in the conspiracy themselves (e.g., “If you had been in the position of the US government, would you have ordered the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11?”). As hypothesized, Machiavellianism predicted participants’ agreement with conspiracy theories. Also, participants’ personal willingness to conspire predicted the extent to which they endorsed the conspiracy theories. This mediated the relationship between Machiavellianism and endorsement of conspiracy theories.

In a second study, we experimentally manipulated participants’ feelings of personal morality. We reasoned that by recalling a time when they behaved in a moral and decent manner, people would perceive themselves as less likely to participate in conspiracies. As predicted, participants asked to remember a time when they helped someone in need were subsequently less willing to conspire than control participants. They also endorsed a range of conspiracy theories less strongly. This decline in conspiracy belief was mediated by a decrease in willingness to conspire. These two studies, taken together, suggest that conspiracy theories may be held together by projection. Beliefs may not support each other, but instead may be held together by believers’ perception of their own moral tendencies (Douglas and Sutton, 2011 ).

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

* * *

“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.

Reactionary Mind Is Not Normal

“To live a modern life anywhere in the world today, subject to perpetual social and technological transformations, is to experience the psychological equivalent of permanent revolution. Anxiety in the face of this process is now a universal experience, which is why reactionary ideas attract adherents around the world who share little except their sense of historical betrayal.

“Every major social transformation leaves behind a fresh Eden that can serve as the object of somebody’s nostalgia. And the reactionaries of our time have discovered that nostalgia can be a powerful political motivator, perhaps even more powerful than hope. Hopes can be disappointed. Nostalgia is irrefutable.”
~ Mark Lilla, Our Reactionary Age

What if we are all more reactionary than we’d like to admit? Related to that, what if we are all more splintered and dissociated as well?

We have this sense of knowing who we are, as though we are singular stable identities. And we defend those identities with ideology or rather with ideological rhetoric, a wall of language with metaphors as the sentries. It is easy to rationalize and narratize, to make coherent the divided self that plagues the modern mind. It makes me wonder that maybe none of us is as we seem. We look at people with serious personality issues and we might call them dissociated or something similar. But what if we are all disconnected on some basic level. If that is our default state, then it isn’t really dissociation for there is no other supposedly normal state to be dissociated from, no unified whole that only later becomes fractured.

I’ve observed those who can say something to another person, walk into the next room, and say the complete opposite to someone else. It’s an amazing thing to see for how naturally it comes. There is no sign of intentional deception or self-awareness. Of course, this is not so easy to observe in oneself. If one were doing the exact same thing, how would one know? Yet we are constantly splitting ourselves off in this manner, just to get by in this complex society. Who we are with family is different than when with friends. And who we are at church is different than when at work. Egoic consciousness (from a Buddhist, Humean, and Jaynesian view) is always a limited construct, not as grand and encompassing as it presents itself.

We are all raised in a society full of lies, half-truths, and just-so stories. When we are young and innocent, we might occasionally challenge authority figures in their dishonesty and deceptions, their self-serving explanations and commands. But the response of authority challenged is almost always negative, if not punishment then gaslighting. This creates each new generation of schizoid adults. Not every kid gets this kind of mind game to the same degree, but I suspect this is what happens to all of us in various ways. It’s the way our society is built.

The trickster quality of the reactionary demonstrates this. And it makes us feel better to accuse those others of being reactionaries. But maybe the reactionary frames everything, existing at the periphery of our vision at the dark, blurred edges of liberal idealism. We live in a society of instability and uncertainty, of stress, anxiety, and fear — the fertile black loam of the reactionary mind. That would explain why it seems so much easier for liberals and left-wingers to become reactionaries than the other way around.

In my gut-level hatred of this reactionary madness, I feel most judgmental of those who turn reactionary, especially those who should know better such as a well-read left-winger mindlessly repeating racist beliefs or a well-educated liberal obliviously being converted while following their curiosity into the “Dark Enlightenment”. It’s sad and frustrating. I can sympathize for the lost souls on the right who were simply born into a world of reaction. They don’t know better. But when those most aware of the dangers of the reactionary mind are lured into its temptations, it further chips away at what little hope I have remaining for humanity. It makes me worry for my own mind as well, as I sense how overpowering reaction can be when one is immersed in it.

Our intellectual defenses are weak. That is what makes the reactionary mind flourish under these unnatural conditions of capitalist modernity. It must be what it was like in the late Bronze Age when the first authoritarian leaders arose in the growing empires. There wasn’t yet the rhetorical capacity among the population to protect against it, as would later develop in the Axial Age. Millennia later, in this ever increasingly reactionary age, authoritarianism grows worse as its rhetorical skill manages to stay one step ahead. We are inoculated only to the reactionary mind as it expressed in the past, ever expecting it to repeat the same way with the Nazi brownshirts goosestepping in the streets.

Corrupt power is what it is. Filled not only with authoritarians but social dominators, psychopaths, narcissists, and Machiavellians. Those people, for all the problems they cause, are a miniscule proportion of the population. They could not rule, could not cause damage if there weren’t those who could be manipulated, riled up, and led to commit horrors upon others… and then the intellectuals and media hacks who come along to rationalize and normalize it all. This is why I fear the reactionary mind, the sway it holds even over those not explicitly reactionary. This is why we desperately need to come to greater self-understanding. Even simpleminded fools like Donald Trump are able to seize power and play us like fools, only because the reactionary mind has seized the entire political establishment and body politic with the grip of a heart attack. The kindly pseudo-liberal reactionaries of the Democratic Party are no better — if anything, far more dangerous for their masked face.

Still, maybe there is a hint of hope. When looking at some other societies, one doesn’t see this kind of full reactionary dominance. I’m particularly thinking of more isolated tribes maintaining their traditional cultures and lifestyles. The example I often turn to is that of the Piraha. Daniel Everett noted how they lacked any evidence of stress, anxiety, depression, and fear of death. And along with this, there was no expression of authoritarianism and social dominance. I’ve pointed out elsewhere that traditional communitarian societies, if they were to survive, could not tolerate psychopathy as we do in such careless fashion. We modern Westerners are far too tolerant of this threat, as if we believe we are above it all. That is a dangerously naive attitude.

Related to this, in understanding human nature, the diversity of identity indicates there is much more we don’t understand. Many hunter-gatherers don’t have rigid ego boundaries, don’t have permanent unitary selves, don’t have a sense of individualistic isolation from others and from the world around them. They aren’t divided, splintered, fractured, or dissociated. An open and loose embrace of a complex psyche is their natural way of being and maybe it is the default position for all humanity. Our carefully constructed egoic structures are rather flimsy, not a great foundation upon which to build a civilization. No wonder we are in a constant state of fear and anxiety, ever worried about the whole thing collapsing down around us. We are without the calm confidence found among many indigenous people who know their place in the world, know they belong without needing the authoritarian control of a clenched fist nor the rhetorical sleight-of-hand of a demagogue to keep everyone in line.

The reactionary mind may be the norm for our society. But it is not normal.

* * *

Let me leave some brief commentary on Mark Lilla and Corey Robin, the two main scholars on the reactionary mind. They are correct to place nostalgia as the taproot of this phenomenon. Lilla is also right to link it back to early thinkers like Plato who reacted, as I see it, to both Athenian democracy and the ancient poetic tradition. But he is wrong to separate the reactionary and the conservative, a mistake Robin avoids.

But I’d argue that Lilla and Robin are further missing out on how the reactionary is linked to the liberal, two sides of the same paradigm. All of these co-arise. The reactionary isn’t only a counter-revolutionary that is only found after the revolution for the leaders who co-opt revolutions typically are reactionaries, from the likes of George Washington to Maximilien Robespierre.

Some conservatives seek to distinguish themselves by identifying as ‘classical liberals’, in the hope of separating their identity from both progressives and reactionaries, but they fail in this endeavor. For one, many of the classical liberals were revolutionaries, as some were reactionaries, since liberalism as a paradigm has been a mix right from the beginning, even in terms of looking to its precursors in the Axial Age.

To demonstrate this confusion of ideological rhetoric, Mark Lilla himself in reacting to the failings of the liberalism he hopes to defend ends up turning to reactionary nostalgia. So, when even a scholar seeking to defuse the reactionary bomb falls prey to it, you know that it is potent stuff not to be handled lightly, even for those who think they know what they’re doing.

* * *

In conclusion, here is my alternative view as an independent. There is something I’ve never seen anyone acknowledge. This is my own insight.

Some see it all beginning with the French Revolution and Edmund Burke’s response. But it’s a bit complex, since Burke himself was a progressive reformer for his era and belonged to the ‘liberal’ party. His reactionary stance came late in life and yet this never led him to abandon his former left-leaning positions. He was a liberal and a conservative and a reactionary, but he was no revolutionary though he initially supported the American Revolution, only because he hoped for progressive reform. The standard story is that reaction was the counter-revolution following revolution. That doesn’t quite make sense of the facts, though. To clarify this, look to the French Revolution. The Jacobins, I’d argue, were reactionaries and counterrevolutionaries.

They were reacting to the old authoritarian regime of French monarchy but not to eliminate rigid hierarchy for they used the same tactics of oppressive violence to defend their preferred hierarchy, precisely as Corey Robin describes the reactionary agenda. It was a power grab and unsurprisingly it led to an even greater anti-democratic authoritarianism. And they were counterrevolutionaries fighting against what the American Revolution had unleashed. The radical and revolutionary social democrat Thomas Paine, we must remember, sat on the right side of the French National Assembly opposite of the Jacobins. The French Revolution didn’t begin with the Jacobins for they only managed to co-opt it long after it had started. They were counter-revolutionaries within the revolution.

I’ve come to a more complex view. I tend toward the theory of Robin. But I don’t entirely agree with him either. My present assessment is that conservatism is the reactionary and the reactionary is simply the other side of liberalism. It’s all of one cloth. They co-arose together (and continue to do so), going back to the precursors in the Axial Age. This puts the liberal in a less comfortably righteous position. There is no liberalism without the anxiety and hence nostalgia that leads to reaction, and conservatism has nowhere else to stand except right in the middle of the chaos.

This comes to a breaking point now that ‘liberalism’ has become the all-encompassing paradigm that rules as unquestionable ideological realism. Reactionary conservatism can offer no alternative but destruction. And liberalism can offer no response but defense of the status quo. So, liberalism becomes increasingly reactionary as well, until there is nothing left other than reaction in all directions, reactionaries reacting to reactionaries.

That is the final apocalypse of the ideological worldview we take for granted. But apocalypse, in its original meaning, referred to a revealing. Just as revolution once meant a cyclical turning that brings us back. Reaction, as such, is the return of the repressed. This is far from nostalgia, even as we have no choice than to carry the past forward as society is transformed. The reactionary age we find ourselves in is more radical than the revolutions that began it. And what, in our projections, is reflected back to us flatters neither the right nor the left.

It’s an ideological stalemate for it never was about competing political visions. All rhetoric has become empty or rather, to some extent, maybe it always was. It never meant what we thought it did. We find ourselves without any bearings or anchor. So we thrash about on a dark sea with a storm brewing. No sight beyond the next wave looming over us, casting its cold shadow, and ready to come crashing down.

* * *

The Reactionary Mind in a Reactionary Age

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

The Ex-Cons
by Corey Robin

Lilla v. Robin
by Henry

Wrong Reaction
by Alex Gourevitch

Why reactionary nostalgia is stronger than liberal hope
by Carlos Lozada

The Shipwrecked Book: Mark Lilla’ Nostalgic Prison
by Robert L. Kehoe III

The Revolutionary Nostalgia That Gave Rise to Trump – and ISIS
by Shlomo Avineri

Is a Conservative Crack-Up on the Horizon?
by Samuel Goldman

Reactionaries, Powell Memo and Judicial Activism

To explain why the Powell Memo is important, I’ll begin with a summary of the games played by reactionaries which explains the rhetorical power they wield. There are two main aspects of the reactionary mind (* see below). The most interesting is described by Corey Robin, the reason I’ve come to refer to reactionaries as the “Faceless Men”.

Reactionaries steal the thunder and mimic the tactics of the political left, and in doing so co-opt political movements and even revolutions, turning the latter into counterrevolutions. More interesting still is how reactionaries pose as what they are not by claiming labels that originated with their opponents — calling themselves classical liberals and whatever else catches their fancy. They pretend to be defenders of constitutional originalism while they radically transform the Constitution, such as pushing corporate personhood and citizenship, something that would have horrified the American revolutionaries and founders.

The other side of this is what reactionaries project onto others. They are the greatest purveyors of political correctness in attacking free speech, an area in which they show their brilliance in controlling narrative framing. They manage to portray their enemies as doing what they are most guilty of and through this tactic they silence and discredit others.

In this way, the reactionary element of the intellectual elite, Hollywood elite, and banking elite (as seen in the career of Steve Bannon) somehow manages to convince their followers that they are average Americans in a noble fight against the ruling elite. The target often ends up being students at state colleges who, according to the data and opposite of the reactionary portrayal, are mostly those working their way out of the working class — if meritocracy exists at all in the United States, this is the closest we get to it. But anyway, it’s highly doubtful that colleges are serving a genuinely democratic purpose at a time when corporate and other private funding is flooding into colleges, and so the accusation of their being bastions of the liberal faith is a sad joke. This state of confusion is intentionally created by reactionaries — up is down and those who are down are the enemy to be blamed for everything.

Or consider the accusation of a liberal media bias. It’s odd where I most often here this bizarre claim. It’s regularly repeated in the corporate media itself. Even the supposedly liberal media gives a platform to people to spout this bullshit. So, what kind of liberal bias is it that criticizes liberal bias by giving equal or greater time to right-wingers? That is no exaggeration, in that even NPR gives more airtime to corporatist and right-wing think tanks than to those on the anti-corporatist left. that is unsurprising since NPR gets most of its funding from private sources such as corporations, not from the government. Public radio?

This brings me to an example that has been on my mind for a while. I’ve been meaning to write about it. This seems as good of a time as ever. Let this be my first post of the new year, as clarifying where we stand as a society and how we got here.

The infamous Powell Memo (AKA Powell Manifesto) was only recently leaked, but it was written way back in 1971. Ever since that time, it has been the guiding vision of a cabal of right-wing oligarchs and plutocrats. It set out a strategy in how to take over the government and it was successful. Do you know how those on the political right are always alleging a left-wing conspiracy to pack the courts with activist judges? Well, that is an expression of a guilty conscience. It’s exactly what the right-wing ruling elite has been doing this past half century, culminating in the nomination of Judge Brett  Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. Predictably, this so-called constitutionalist just so happens to be a big supporter of executive power, an agenda that more fully began being pushed under the administration of George W. Bush. There is absolutely nothing constitutionalist about this, as it undermines the very core pillar of separation and balance of powers. Instead of being a countervailing force, right-wingers are seeking to create a corporatocratic Supreme Court that serves at the behest of a right-wing presidency and political system.

That isn’t to entirely blame them, as the Democratic Party has shifted so far right on these issues that they are now to the right of Republicans from earlier last century. The reactionary mind has a way of infecting nearly everything and everyone. Our entire government has become a reactionary institution, but it’s important that we keep in mind who planned and led this coup. Then again, Lewis Powell who wrote the Powell Memo did so not only as a corporate lobbyist but also as a Democrat. And to show the bipartisan nature of this corporatocracy, it was Richard Nixon as a Republican president who that same year nominated him to the Supreme Court and the next year he was appointed. Still, it was the right-wing ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) that was most directly inspired by the Powell Memo, the organization that then helped enact this neoliberal and neo-fascist coup.

It’s not only the respectable good liberals of the ‘mainstream’ left that was in the dark about these machinations. Before the Powell Memo was leaked, anyone who pointed to the corporate takeover would have been called a conspiracy theorist, and so no more welcome in the Democratic Party than in the Republican Party. Americans in general couldn’t see what was happening because the decisions and exchange of money happened mostly behind closed doors. Besides, the corporate media had no interest in reporting on it, quite the opposite of course. There was no transparency, as planned, and so there was no accountability. Democracy dies in the dark.

Only now that Clown-Fuhrer Trumpf is in power do we suddenly get some push back showing up in the mainstream. The struggle for power within the ruling elite goes into high gear. And our dear leader has put Judge Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court. I’ve heard stalwart Republicans who despise and fear Trump, nonetheless, supporting him to the extent that he is pushing for a ‘conservative’ judiciary which supposedly opposes all those activist judges on the left. Yet Kavanaugh is as activist as they come. The main reason Trump picked him probably was because, when the time comes, the Supreme Court can be swung in defense of the administration.

After the Barack Obama followed the example of George W. Bush in further advancing executive power, now Democrats are thinking that their support for authoritarianism may have been a bad die after all. They assumed they were going to maintain power since it was obvious to them that Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose the presidential election and so that the unrestrained executive could’ve then been used for their more paternalistic variety of friendly fascism. Trump and gang, of course, make a convenient scapegoat for Democratic sins. But that is a useless game at this point.

The joke is on all of them. And the entire political system is the punchline.

* * *

* What is the distinguishing feature of the reactionary mind? Maybe it has to do with the Dark Triad, the strong correlation between narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. In particular, the last one might be key. Research has shown that those who are most fearful of Machiavellianism in fantasizing about conspiracies existing behind every door and lurking under the bed are themselves more prone to acting in Machiavellian ways. That very much sounds like the reactionary mind.

In political terms, the reactionary mind gets expressed by the social dominance orientation (SDO), which essentially is another way of speaking of Machiavellianism. This is where authoritarianism comes in, as SDO types are attracted to and have talent in manipulating authoritarian followers. As such, maybe authoritarians will only be reactionary to the degree that a society becomes reactionary and SDO types gain power, since authoritarians will conform to almost any social norm, good or bad.

It’s only under these conditions that we can speak of a distinct reactionary mind. The arising to dominance of the reactionary mind indicates that something is being reacted to. From other research, what seems to elicit this is rising inequality and segregation that foments mistrust, fear, and anxiety. This is what we see before every period of instability and, in reaction, there are those who seek to enforce order.

What makes reactionaries unique is their innovativeness in how they go about this. They aren’t traditionalists, although they also will co-opt from traditionalists as they co-opt from the political left. One of the purest forms of the reactionary mind is nostalgia which, unsurprisingly, rarely has anything to do with the historical past. It is co-opting the rhetoric and emotion of tradition with little respect or concern about actual traditions.

A key example of this anti-traditional pseudo-traditionalism is constitutional originalism. What the reactionary right is pushing is a complete contradiction and betrayal of what the American Revolution was fought for and what the United States was founded upon, specifically founded on the Declaration of Independence and the first constitution of the Articles of Confederation. These reactionaries will claim that liberalism is an attack on American political tradition, even as any informed person knows that liberalism (including in its progressive and radical forms) was core to American society from the beginning. Consider the view that a constitution is a living document as a pact of a specific community of people, an American tradition that came out of Quaker constitutionalism and (by way of Quaker-raised John Dickinson) informed the democratic sensibility of the Articles of Confederation.

Such history is inconvenient and so irrelevant to the reactionary mind. But because reactionaries took control so early with the Constitutional Convention, their counterrevolution permanently obscured the true history and that has left the American population with collective amnesia. As demonstrated by the extremes of Donald Trump, reactionaries love to invent ‘facts’ and then to repeat them until they become accepted or else until all sense of truth is lost. This is what makes the reactionary mind Machiavellian and, as such, finds itself at home in the Dark Triad.

* * *

Powell Memorandum:

CONFIDENTIAL MEMORANDUM
Attack on American Free Enterprise System

DATE: August 23, 1971
TO: Mr. Eugene B. Sydnor, Jr., Chairman, Education Committee, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
FROM: Lewis F. Powell, Jr.

Neglected Opportunity in the Courts

American business and the enterprise system have been affected as much by the courts as by the executive and legislative branches of government. Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change.

Other organizations and groups, recognizing this, have been far more astute in exploiting judicial action than American business. Perhaps the most active exploiters of the judicial system have been groups ranging in political orientation from “liberal” to the far left.

The American Civil Liberties Union is one example. It initiates or intervenes in scores of cases each year, and it files briefs amicus curiae in the Supreme Court in a number of cases during each term of that court. Labor unions, civil rights groups and now the public interest law firms are extremely active in the judicial arena. Their success, often at business’ expense, has not been inconsequential.

This is a vast area of opportunity for the Chamber, if it is willing to undertake the role of spokesman for American business and if, in turn, business is willing to provide the funds.

As with respect to scholars and speakers, the Chamber would need a highly competent staff of lawyers. In special situations it should be authorized to engage, to appear as counsel amicus in the Supreme Court, lawyers of national standing and reputation. The greatest care should be exercised in selecting the cases in which to participate, or the suits to institute. But the opportunity merits the necessary effort.

* * *

Founding fathers worried about corporate clout
by Angela Carella

A Very American Coup
by David McLaren

The Shift From Democracy To Corporate Dictatorship And The Tragedy Of The Lack Of Push Back. Citizens United v. Federal
by Michael Monk

Powell Memo
by Jeremy Wilburn

How the Right Packed the Court
by William Yeomans

Extremists on the Bench: Five Years After Citizens United, Our Rogue Supreme Court
by Steve Justin

Citizens United, corporate personhood, and the way forward
by Mal Warwick

Is the Supreme Court Determined to Expand Corporate Power?
by Robert Monks and Peter Murray

The Powell Memo And The Birth Of The Washington Lobbying Empire
by Tina-Desiree Berg

Context of ‘August 23, 1971 and After: ’Powell Memo’ Leads to Massive Pro-Business Efforts to Influence Political, Social Discourse’
from History Commons

The Powell Memo
by .ren

* * *

If Confirmed, Brett Kavanaugh Fulfills the Powell Manifesto!
by Frank Puig

9 law experts on what Brett Kavanaugh means for the future of America
by Isolde Raftery and Sydney Brownstone

Kavanaugh would cement Supreme Court support for an oppressed minority — corporations
by Steven Strauss

With Kavanaugh, Trump Could Fashion The Most Business-Friendly Supreme Court Since The New Deal
by Michael Bobelian

How the Supreme Court Unleashed Business
by Justin Fox

Brett Kavanaugh’s Role in Schemes to Politicize the Judiciary Should Disqualify Him
by John Nichols

Brett Kavanaugh and the new judicial activism
by Matthew Yglesias

Judge Kavanaugh’s Activist Vision of Administrative Law
by Robert V. Percival

Brett Kavanaugh’s Dangerous Right-Wing Judicial Activism
by Elliot Mincberg

SCOTUS Nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s Record Depicts Dangerous Conservative Judicial Activism
by Devon Schmidt

Kavanaugh record hints at judicial activism in American election law
by Adav Noti and David Kolker

How Brett Kavanaugh Could Change the Supreme Court—and America
by Brian Bennett

His Entire Career Has Been In Service Of The Republican Agenda”: D.C. Lawyers Dish On Whether Brett Kavanaugh Will Give Trump A Pass On Russia
by Abigail Tracy

Brett Kavanaugh And The Fraud Of Originalism
by Rich Barlow

Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination is a victory for ‘originalists’
by Jill Abramson

Why the Supreme Court is now America’s most dangerous branch
by Mary Kay Linge

Brett Kavanaugh Was Involved in 3 Different Crises of Democracy
by Charles Pierce

The Senate Must Closely Examine These Documents From Kavanaugh’s Bush Years
by Peter M. Shane

How Brett Kavanaugh Worked to Weaponize the War on Terror
by Faiza Patel and Andrew Boyle

Could Brett Kavanaugh Protect Trump From Prosecution?
by Andy Kroll

Brett Kavanaugh and the Imperial Presidency (Supreme Court)
from Best of the Left

Brett Kavanaugh’s Radical View of Executive Power
by Corey Brettschneider

Judge Kavanaugh: An Originalist With a New—and Terrifying—Interpretation of Executive Power
by Patricia J. Williams

Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s radically expansive view of the power of the presidency: Analysis
by Terry Moran

For Brett Kavanaugh, the Separation of Powers Is a One-Way Street
by Dan Froomkin

7 legal experts on how Kavanaugh views executive power — and what it could mean for Mueller
by Jen Kirby

Courting Disaster: The Trouble with Brett Kavanaugh’s Views of Executive Power in the Age of Trump
by Michael Waldman

Where Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh Stands On Executive Power
from All Things Considered

Kavanaugh File: Executive Privilege
By Robert Farley

Brett Kavanaugh’s SCOTUS Nomination Is Bad News for Church/State Separation
by Hemant Mehta

Brett Kavanaugh and the Triumph of the Conservative Counterrevolution
by Bill Blum

Brett Kavanaugh Has Power To Strengthen Donald Trump, But Supreme Court Has Boosted Presidents For Decades
by Greg Price

If Brett Kavanaugh Wins, the Supreme Court Loses
by Jay Michaelson

Why Conservatives Could Regret Confirming Brett Kavanaugh
by Eric Levitz

Reactionary Revolutionaries, Faceless Men, and God in the Gutter

“Just as terror, even in its pre-total, merely tyrannical form ruins all relationships between men, so the self-compulsion of ideological thinking ruins all relationship with reality. The preparation has succeeded when people have contact with their fellow men as well as the reality around them; for together with these contacts, men lose the capacity of both experience and thought. The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e., the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (i.e., the standards of thought) no longer exist.”
~ Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

First there was revolution. And then there was counter-revolution. Therefore, reaction follows what it is reacting to. It is a negation, a lack. It is defined by what it is not, as a shadow is to the light.

This is a simple analysis and, I’d argue, overly simplistic, if not entirely false. It is the narrative reactionaries have been telling about themselves for a couple of centuries. It is also the narrative that Mark Lilla repeats in his recent work, The Shipwrecked Mind, which is a useful survey, summary, and synthesis of modern ideological history but not essentially original in framing.

The problem is the reactionary mind is not a modern invention. Many arguments could be made about when it first emerged. For example, I’d place it firmly in the Axial Age or, better  yet, in that earliest of dark ages when the Bronze Age civilizations collapsed and the Jaynesian bicameral mind was lost. Reactionaries, indeed, are reacting to revolution but what they are reacting to is a revolution of the mind that is millennia old.

By the time Plato came up with his authoritarian republicanism as a reaction to Athenian democracy, the reactionary mind had already been developing for some time. That was the era when, as Julian Jaynes points out, lament rang out across many populations of the silence, loss, or abandonment of the divine. Nostalgia in one of its most potent form was born.

As with Corey Robin, Mark Lilla is right to mark out nostalgia as an expression of the reactionary. But focusing too much on that can be a red herring. Robin is better than Lilla in pointing out that reactionaries can co-opt almost anything, even radical utopianism or revolution itself.

That is where my own thoughts come in. The modern reactionary mind initially took shape not after the early modern revolutionary period but during it — maybe before it, depending on when one defines the beginning of that period. The reactionary mind as a modern phenomenon was well on its way at least by the English Civil War, what some consider the first modern revolution, although some consider the Peasants’ Revolt an incipient form of this societal shift through conflict and class war.

The point is that the French Revolution was late to the game. That reactionaries finally found their voice following that is not entirely relevant to understanding the reactionary mind and its historical development. What the French Revolution does help us with is in showing another example of how reaction arose within the revolution itself, co-opting it as happened with the American Revolution (related to the rarely acknowledged fact that the American Revolution was a precedent for what followed, including large-scale destruction and violence).

Thomas Paine demonstrates the connections well, but his example also serves to show the complex relationship of reaction to revolution. He was a radical in the American Revolution and his radicalism was profound in its democratic vision. When he was welcomed into the French National Assembly during the French Revolution, he actually sat on the right side with the moderate reformers. It was actually his radicalism for democracy that made him moderate or aligned with more moderate forces.

What Paine specifically advocated was a democratic constitution and leniency to the king, rather than violent despotism and violent vengeance. The Jacobins are called radicals but in reality they were reactionaries or at least the leadership was. They were using the same means that the monarchy had used in enforcing power and silencing opponents. So, the Jacobins, as is typical with reactionaries, wanted to create a new and improved version of the old order by ensuring a rigid hierarchy remained. They weren’t interested in democracy, that is for sure.

That is what Mark Lilla misses. The French reactionaries, like the American reactionaries, took over the revolution through political coup — and this happened during the revolution itself, not afterwards. In France, it happened by the Jacobins seizing power. But in the United States, the Federalists did it through an ironically unconstitutional Constitutional Convention and then afterward they crushed the ongoing revolution.

The relationship between revolution and reaction is entangled. If this isn’t understood, it is likely that the reactionary mind itself can’t be understood. This creates a trap for the mind, in not understanding history we dangerously don’t understand ourselves.

Reactionaries aren’t limited to those other people, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables”. The potential for reaction exists within all of us. A surprising number of Marxists, socialists, communists, and anarchists fell under the sway of early 20th century fascism. The same pattern is seen today with left-wingers who almost unconsciously become fascinated with or drawn toward reactionary thought, often with the rationalization of studying the enemy but it is clear with some that it is more than mere curiosity. The reactionary mind is dangerous for the very reason we see it as something other.

The confusion in all of this is that the reactionary mind is chameleon-like. I’ve come to call them Faceless Men, based on Game of Thrones. Reactionaries rarely present themselves as reactionaries. That means that anyone, under the right conditions, can get pulled into the mindset without realizing it. Reaction is simply an expression of fear an anxiety, once it fully takes hold. The human mind gets weird under high levels of stress (Keith Payne examines one angle on this by way of inequality, in his book The Broken Ladder). It really is that simple.

We need to develop intellectual, ideological, and psychological defenses against the reactionary mind. None of us are born with an immunity. But before we can do that, we have to learn how to identify the pattern of thought and behavior, to discern its incipient forms and the development that follows, to recognize the conditions and causes that make it possible.

This leads to me to another thought. Philip K. Dick has the notion of God in the Gutter. Let me decontextualize it from the monotheistic tradition of deus absconditus. Any powerful ‘god’ that rules over us, over our minds our society, such a ‘god’ is always hidden. And its ability to remain hidden is what I call symbolic conflation, a method of deception, obfuscation, and most importantly misdirection. That is the source of its power. That is also what makes it hard to analyze. Someone like Mark Lilla is taking the reactionary mind at face value, how it presents itself. That is problematic for obvious reasons. Corey Robin is more effective in peeling away the mask to see what is behind.

That is what we all need to be doing in these reactionary times. Lets start rummaging around in the gutter, looking below our normal line of vision, looking through the garbage or what appears to be garbage. But let’s do so with great care. There are both treasures to be found and traps to fall into. So, we should move forward with curiosity and eyes wide open.