The Left’s Gordian Knot
The Left is to human welfare as prostitution is to love.
April 8, 2012 - 12:03 am
The various forms the Leftist ideology has adopted — Marxism, Socialism, Neo-liberalism — are rarely the result of initially spontaneous mass movements. Rather, such eruptions are usually triggered by one or all of three classes of people: theory-ridden intellectuals for whom exalted but impractical ideas substitute for the real world of refractory human beings, ruthless opportunists intent on seizing power, and wealthy socialites and media types who like to play with forces they do not understand, expressing, in the words of Victor Davis Hanson, “a pathetic projection of their own elite tastes and guilty desires.” The damage they do is immeasurable but the detritus they leave in their wake has never deterred them from wreaking further havoc. For the political Left assumes that it represents the next step in human evolution. In reality, it embodies the next stage in civilizational decline.
This “new” state of affairs will often manifest as a condition of reversion, whether to an idealized vision of the past, as in Rousseau’s natural state of man, or to a more primitive, tribal-like mode of communal association predicated on an ostensible harmony among its members. It’s a compelling and destructive dream world. This is not to disparage those men and women whose sacrifice and commitment are genuine. But the suspicion remains that the majority are unaware of their true motives, which may have more to do with a sense of inadequacy, self-reproach, and inner lack, however overlaid by a varnish of self-satisfaction, than with a presumed nobility of purpose.
With its manufactured emphasis on peace, brotherhood, and dialogue, its generic sympathy for the poor, the oppressed, the fugitive, and the marginalized, and its mainstreaming of social and sexual deviance as a species of cultural sophistication, the Left as we know it today manages chiefly to assuage its own bad conscience. For the most potent advocates of the contemporary Left, especially the Liberal Left, are generally privileged people — politicians, academics, newspaper editors, Hollywood actors and TV personalities, intellectual mandarins, the parvenu rich, social patricians — who feel they have a debt to pay for enjoying their own prosperity, exemptions, and perquisites. They are like an extant version of that fossilized aberration known as Siphusauctum gregarium, aka the stomach-on-a-stick, which resembles a tulip on the outside but conceals a bulbous gut within. They rightfully belong in the Cambrian, but are regrettably with us still.
Uneasy or embarrassed by favored status and determined to present themselves as lofty egalitarians, they will do everything they can to mobilize those whom they regard as the disenfranchised — the young, the working classes, the destitute, the “undocumented,” the “different” — while refusing to surrender their own prerogatives. They will treat enemies as friends so as not to have to deal with obstacles to their need for absolution. Inwardly crippled, they will feign magnanimity. They will labor to change the world, not from the ground up but from the top down. And in so doing, they will bleed other people’s blood.
Clearly, then, the empathy they profess for the socially disadvantaged and the strangers in their midst is almost entirely fraudulent. There is a deep lesion between the rhetoric and the reality. They will embrace Rousseau’s argument in A Discourse on Inequality that “the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody”; in actual fact, they generally evince a distinct hankering for the fruits of the earth, which they guard jealously, and dispose of the earth as they see fit. Such is the operative “dialectic” of the socialist elite. Meanwhile, the dream must be protected in defiance of both concrete practice and ensuing results.
Thus, the poor are kept at a distance in order not to depress property values. Peace is bought at the expense of appeasement, social tensions, and future conflict. The Humanities curriculum in the universities is devoted to the ephemeral, the fashionable, the deviant, the radical, and a host of social clichés, while the rigors of classical scholarship as well as the archive of the larger and sustaining culture are cast aside as colonial excrescences. Traditional wisdom is anathema. The pursuit of “social justice” on which the Left prides itself is just another cold platitude that the conduct and lifestyles of its adherents demonstrably invalidate. They promote the global warming and anti-oil hysteria under the pretence of mending the planet, a program that facilitates the progressive transfer of power to the hypertrophic State while profiting the petrocracies of the Middle East. The plenary human rights agenda that offers asylum to jihadists and terrorists who plot our destruction is entrenched as a pillar of moral supremacy — which, as UK rights barrister Paul Diamond points out, amounts to nothing less than a national suicide pact. And all this in the name of improving the human lot by creating man and the world anew, as if by fiat or a secular “Let there be.” The Left is consumed by the fervor of coercive genesis.
Gradual social progress is both possible and desirable — what Karl Popper in The Open Society and Its Enemies called “piecemeal social engineering” — but a revolution of the human sensibility is an idea whose time will always be deferred. Society is susceptible of adjustments and modifications and the human condition can be little by little ameliorated through the agencies of prudent public legislation and technological and scientific development. Change by judicious increments over time may lead to progress in human well-being. But radical upheavals and massive structural transformations in the political, economic, and social life of peoples are usually doomed to failure.
The reason is, or should be, obvious. Man himself does not change in his essential being: envy, sloth, selfishness, cupidity, resentment, and deception are as much a part of the human genome as charity, love and imagination. The “vices,” however, invariably trump or impede the “virtues,” as is evident both from the course of history and the maculate and dishevelled lives of many of humanity’s supposed benefactors. As J.B. Bury mordantly wrote in The Idea of Progress, a hymn to the march of human reason, “the belief that our race is travelling towards earthly happiness was propagated by some eminent thinkers,” yet many of these “high-priests and incense-burners” were “some not very fortunate persons who had a good deal of time on their hands.”
Bury felt that “a satisfactory social order [may emerge] by the impersonal work of successive generations.” Still, this does not alter the fact that the deepest gradients of the human psyche are distressingly permanent. Nicoló Machiavelli was probably right when, in his seminal treatise The Prince, he posited the immutability of human nature, arguing that men “have and always had the same passions, and therefore of necessity the effects must be the same.” Words of provable wisdom, which our socialist reformers, with their belief in the infinite malleability of human substance and their conviction that natural givens are merely social “constructs,” have neglected to everyone else’s cost. University of Ottawa scholar Janice Fiamengo put it well in an article for the American Review of Canadian Studies: “social hierarchies can be changed by human institutions, but hierarchy itself, stemming from human nature, is probably ineradicable, whatever the triumphalist prophets of progress might declare.”
In short, what the Left has never been able to come to terms with is the Gordian knot of human nature. It will not be unravelled, resisting every effort to separate its strands. As David Horowitz said in a recent speech at the University of North Carolina:
The obstacle to the realization of all progressive utopias is human nature. You can read all of the Marxist and leftist texts ever written and never encounter a consideration of…why it is so difficult to produce a society of human beings that is fundamentally different from the way human beings have lived since the beginning of recorded time.
Therefore, confronted with an intractable dilemma, leftist thinkers and political activists must have recourse to what is known as the “Alexandrian solution,” that is, rather than acknowledge an insoluble complexity, they take a sword to the knot and, like Alexander the Great in Phrygia, slice it in half. This is not a solution but an act of violence and a kind of cheating which does not resolve the problem but merely exacerbates it, creating in the long run more suffering than it purports to redeem.
The Gordian knot of human nature will not be untangled. The Left does not possess the magic touch of Shakespeare’s Henry V, who “Turn him to any cause of policy,/The Gordian knot of it he will unloose.” Nor, as those of a conservative bent understand, does anyone. The desire to cut through the recalcitrant coil of man’s character leads only to eventual harm and mutilation, to which the demise of every socialist experiment on record abundantly attests. There is no such creature as the “New Man.” No matter. Our socialist utopians are convinced they will ultimately succeed and so continue to interpret every disaster they have inflicted upon their victims as a sign of inevitable future success.
To adapt an aphorism from Nassim Taleb’s The Bed of Procrustes, the Left is to human welfare as prostitution is to love. An episodic satisfaction is inexorably followed by human degradation masking as social enlightenment. This is, of course, as good as it gets for the ideological Left. This is as bad as it gets for the rest of us.