On the Arrested Development of the Left

Rieff’s thesis can be readily appropriated by the left since it will happily adopt his foregrounding of guilt as an operational concept, not realizing that for Rieff guilt is a source of cultural restraint rather than a harbinger of cultural surrender. As a result of this misunderstanding, in the current jihadist assault on the West, we are guilty, apparently, of radicalizing the Islamic world by our national behavior and foreign policy, and are thus constrained to make amends. The carnage of 9/11, and the more than 20,000 Islamic acts of terror that followed, are due, not to the tenets of the Koran and the violence inherent in the Islamic belief system, but to our own ostensibly aggressive and imperial tendencies. The real victim becomes the attacker, not those who suffer at his hands. But Rieff’s central point is not guilt per se and certainly not guilt as catalyzing the lunge toward clemency and compassion for our enemies at whatever cost to our security, but the collapse of privacy and the rise of collective group think. “A new kind of community,” Rieff writes in Freud: The Mind of a Moralist, “could be constructed, one that did not generate conscience and internal control but desire and the safe play of impulse.” Such, of course, is the psychology of the child at work -- or, rather, at play -- who lives in a culture that stands for everything and therefore, as Rieff says in Triumph, “for nothing.”

In effect, we are now witnessing what Norman Cohn in The Pursuit of the Millennium -- another essential book for our time -- described as the eschatological drama of the left, which features the millenarian role of the redeeming child, the birth of a world-historical innocence that will transform and raise human life from the realm of ferocity into the domain of irenic harmony -- though in order to do so, an initial stage of violence is prerequisite. As Cohn puts it, this was supposed to usher in “the Egalitarian State of Nature…the long-lost Golden Age or ‘Reign of Saturn,' in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which would influence communistic speculation in the Middle Ages,” as well as in the present. Social injustice, class disparities, gender distinctions, and economic asymmetries would all magically disappear. Revolutionary millenarianism, says Cohn, was “a social struggle…not…for specific, limited objectives, but as an event of unique importance…a cataclysm from which the world would emerge totally transformed and redeemed.” In an ironic inversion of Christian lore and doctrine, we might say that a child is born who will change the world, but this child is a squalling infant in the body of a grown man or woman.

Today the movement goes under other names --social justice, neo-Marxism, environmentalism -- but in particular Agenda 21, the UN’s so-called sustainable development program which, in its own words, is a “comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations system, governments and major groups, in every area in which humans impact on the environment.” As Tiffany Gabbay explains in The Blaze, commenting on Glenn Beck’s novel of the same name, “the United Nations seeks to co-opt, via individual governments, and eventually, a ‘one-world government,’ privately held land under the auspices of ensuring its ‘sustainability.’” The naked land grab represented by Agenda 21, conducted under the auspices of a presumably benign but unabashedly despotic authority, will lead us, we are given to believe, from the abattoir of history into a new Golden Age.

It sounds like something out of Sonka da Monka -- the fictive poet of egregious verses (“New things take a stride/And ideas leap outside”) -- or the obsessive fantasies of a pampered and deranged child, which is precisely what makes the revolutionary project so sinister and destructive. Cohn concludes, correctly: “revolutionary millenarianism and mystical anarchism are with us still.” The child has gone rampant, romantically innocent of moral obligation and duty, divorced from any notion of the past and ignorant of the gradients of human nature. Let us make no mistake about this. The feral sentimentality of our juvenile elders and incontinent prodigies, if not rudely countered, will see to our demise.

(Thumbnail on PJM homepage based on a modified Shutterstock.com image.)