What Makes the Left Tick

The “deep ideology” of the left, rooted in the triple assumption that the ideal of earthly perfection is realizable, that human nature is a social construct which can be remade or transformed, and that radical change is preferable to gradual amelioration in the evolution of human societies, is the bane of the modern era. This verdict has been proven many times over, from the reverberating failure of the malignant Soviet experiment to the faltering economies of socialist and welfare states across the world. Even Communist China has moved toward a capitalist-oriented market system. Yet the infirmity persists, each new generation containing its insurrectionary or “progressive” cohort convinced that the reason for dereliction resides only in the misguided application of fundamental principles. So they try again and meet inexorably with the same miserable consequences.

The program that envisages the flattening out of differences between people, the sharing equally in the total wealth of a nation regardless of individual input to the whole, and state control of the “means of production” ostensibly for the benefit of the masses never seems to work and only creates entrenched systems of mediocrity, stagnation, apathy, and enervation. The question is: what accounts for the dogged and pernicious investment in so obviously defective a formula for human improvement, despite the harsh lessons of that most severe of pedagogues, Reality? Apart from state inculcation and the ruthless exercise of power to impose blanket assent, some factors accounting for the leftist and liberal-left worldview would seem to be the following:

The formative: upbringing and education. As William Wordsworth wrote, “The Child is father of the Man.” We are familiar with the concept of the “red diaper baby” — Naomi Klein is a good example — and with the practice of socialist indoctrination in the humanities departments, including the social sciences syllabi, of our universities.

The aleatory: chance (generally negative) experiences on the road of life. Some people turn toward communist ideology and the dictatorship of the proletariat as a result of economic suffering and humiliation, and invariably find ways to spackle the holes in their gospel. After his father had endured a crushing bankruptcy and descended into poverty, a colleague of mine in his youth arrived at the conviction that capitalism was an unmitigated evil and that East Germany was a model state whose example should be followed by all thinking people. The wall presented no problem. It was obviously erected to keep out the West Germans who would otherwise have inundated the GDR with asylum seekers and immigrants hungry for the good life.

The theoretical: a reading of the philosophical and political literature — Hegel, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Fourier, Althusser, Gramsci — sparking interest and assent in minds hospitable to dialectical subtleties. Many of us experience a passion for the beauty of the philosophical instrument, the way people like complicated tools and equipment and children are seduced by the gleam of a new toy. (Full disclosure: I, too, experienced this infatuation when I first read Marx’s The German Ideology, Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man and Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks.)

The fiscal: the shrewd manipulation and exploitation of markets, associated with leftist attitudes and preoccupations such as the drive toward renewable energy projects, many of which are, for practical purposes, a generation or more away from standard efficiency levels. Al Gore and the chair of the UN’s IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, come immediately to mind. The rationale is social betterment; the truth is personal enrichment.

The psychological: the unconscious or semi-conscious attempt to justify one’s reprobate or otherwise problematic, ambiguous, or disgraceful behavior, which is really a form of pandering to a pestering conscience with sanctimonious deceptions. This is one reason, no doubt, that so many impenitent plutocrats who draw their wealth from family fortune, lucrative businesses, or currency speculation steer to the port side of the ship of state — one thinks of the Clintons, of Nancy Pelosi, of Ségolène Royal in France, of George Soros, and of innumerable others.

One or another, or several, of these explanatory factors may be necessary to  account for the ideological shift toward a leftist worldview, but none of them is sufficient in itself. With the obvious exception of the schemers and defalcators who cash in on the political fads of the day and who are “socialists” in nothing but name, the predisposition to the left derives from a tropism of the mind rooted in what we might call the “utopian temperament” — which is to say, in a condition of prolonged infantilism. The belief that human nature can be either transformed or superseded by social and political legerdemain is a function of arrested development, of the child’s conviction that make-believe can somehow alter the structure of the world he or she inhabits. Adults who feel and act the same way would appear to be differentially retarded, despite their ability to spin ideas, practice oratory and compose intricate texts and ringing manifestos. Leftists, writes Bernard Paul Chapin, author of Escape from Gangsta Island, “are addicted to emotion. ... In the old days we used to call such persons … children”

A related element that seems to be at work is the leftist penchant for submission to authority, the callow need for assurance, for the embrace of the family or the presence of the “strongman” acting in loco parentis. The despot represents the power of the father which the child or adolescent secretly craves, surrendering his will to the commanding figure of the leader and becoming part of the intimacy of the sanctuary group. In those cases where he is not pre-trained, as it were, he is coddled in the select and festive community that operates as the family-in-waiting for the feral child who has repudiated the nest — yet cannot do without it. Whether the revered figure is Stalin or Mao or Ho Chi Minh or Castro or Che or Nasrallah or Chavez, the moral pubescent and emotional nursling cannot flourish without the consoling and explanatory self-confidence of the ostensibly enlightened tyrant. The same applies to a nonviolent and lower caliber messiah like Obama in whose personal charisma million of Americans (and Europeans) willingly submerged their identities.

Hollywood actors and directors are especially given to such professional naivety and furnish an exemplary illustration of almost complete mental vacancy and thwarted affective development — Oliver Stone, Sean Penn, James Cameron, Jane Fonda, etc. They are like children who have been absorbed into the world of illusion and can no longer discriminate between play-acting and reality, between celluloid and brass tacks. But Hollywood is only a petri dish signifying a far more pervasive phenomenon. Broadly speaking, the aspiring leftist lapses into a species of idolatry and reifies what is nothing less than a political apparition, namely, the apotheosis of the “suffering masses” with which, for the most part, he or she has nothing in common, and the global community as the “end” — i.e., both the purpose and the consummation — of history.

Fortunately, those of a conservative temperament tend to grow out of the longing for anointment and the hunger for group vetting. But the left is rhizomed in the pathos of abandonment. It is actuated by the fear of independence and by an almost feudal yearning for emotional refuge and moral security in the assembly of the elect or, as all too often happens, in the incendiary kinship. But at bottom, its hypothetically noble vision of human redemption is founded in the child’s need for reinforcement and protection, propelling the fledgling spirit into the orbit of the magistral savage or mentoring autocrat and their faux-therapeutic nightmares.