In Tuesday’s local and state elections, freedom took a hit. Socialists, more socialists, anti-culture warriors, and Big Brother enthusiasts supported by the Democratic Socialists won elections. These victories aren’t just the result of dissatisfaction with Donald Trump or the ineptitude of the Republican Party — though these were certainly factors — they’re a commentary on the psychological state of many people in America.
We would be remiss if we looked at these elections only through political lenses. The fact is there is a sickness in the hearts and minds of Americans that is at the core of these victories, and we must name it, understand it, and try to address it if we’re to bring our country back from the brink of tyranny.
I don’t use that word lightly, but the fact is socialism is a political philosophy that stands opposed to the principles of freedom America once valued. These have changed over time due to the influence of Marxism and materialistic, nihilistic German philosophies, which have subverted our education system for decades. It’s also due to the rejection of Judeo-Christian ethics and the Enlightenment philosophies of John Locke, Adam Smith, and Montesquieu that work together to ensure liberty.
To be sure, with the election of Trump, some have hoped this trend was beginning to reverse, but it would be a mistake to think that a reactionary election was a principled one. Additionally, the undercurrents of anti-American thought are still alive and well in culture, poked and prodded into a backlash of anger by a Trump win. Now, with culture roiling, politics — ever downstream from culture — is following those movements.
But why have these currents of anti-freedom gained strength in America? The causes I stated above are only means of change. What made these anti-American philosophies so appealing when they were once consciously shunned? How do they remain appealing despite being so bankrupt? And most of all, what can we do about it?
Alexis de Tocqueville answered this in part when he wrote that it is natural for people to prefer equality of outcomes even to their own liberty; it’s the result of “me, me, me” hyper-individualistic thinking. “Social justice” — making everyone the same in the name of fairness — is more important to people than freedom. Like children, they’d rather no one have candy as a reward for performance if some children are going to have less — this is the essence of the socialist mindset.
But why do grown-ups who should know better think this way? Why haven’t they matured beyond this juvenile, selfish, and self-destructive (as well as socially destructive) thinking? Why do they want equality before liberty? I believe economist Ludwig von Mises answers this best in his great work on classical liberalism, simply called “Liberalism.” Mises uses this term to mean what it should mean — the philosophy of liberty, not the liberalism of today, which embraces the opposite.
Mises says we make a grave mistake if we try to reason with people who embrace anti-liberty views. This is because opposition to one’s own freedom doesn’t stem from reason. It’s actually a “pathological mental attitude,” born of resentment, “envious malevolence,” and “a neurasthenic condition” Mises called this the “Fourier complex” — named after the French socialist Charles Fourier.
According to Mises,
Resentment is at work when one so hates somebody for his more favorable circumstances that one is prepared to bear heavy losses if only the hated one might also come to harm. Many of those who attack capitalism know very well that their situation under any other economic system will be less favorable. Nevertheless, with full knowledge of this fact, they advocate a reform, e.g., socialism, because they hope that the rich, whom they envy, will also suffer under it. Time and again one hears socialists say that even material want will be easier to bear in a socialist society because people will realize that no one is better off than his neighbor.
The good news is that resentment alone can actually be addressed with rational arguments. It’s not too hard to show a person who is obviously filled with envy and bitterness that he’d be happier if he improved his own lot in life instead of making everyone else’s worse. It might take some time, but with persistence and a few hard life lessons, he’ll usually see reason and start focusing on his own life instead of tearing down the lives of others.
The Fourier complex, however, is an entirely different problem because it’s rooted in psychological disruption. No amount of reason or life lessons will bring light to the darkened mind. “What is involved in this case is a serious disease of the nervous system, a neurosis, which is more properly the concern of the psychologist than of the legislator,” Mises writes.
This is how Mises describes the development of this “mental illness:”
Scarcely one person in a million succeeds in fulfilling his life’s ambition. The upshot of one’s labors, even if one is favored by fortune, remains far inferior to what the wistful daydreams of youth allowed one to hope for. Plans and desires are shattered on a thousand obstacles, and one’s powers prove too weak to achieve the goals on which one has set one’s heart. The failure of his hopes, the frustration of his schemes, his own inadequacy in the face of the tasks that he has set himself—these constitute every man’s most deeply painful experience, They are, indeed, the common lot of man.
There are two ways in which man can react to this experience. One way is indicated by the practical wisdom of Goethe:
Dost thou fancy that I should hate life,
Should flee to the wilderness,
Because not all my budding dreams have blossomed? his Prometheus cries.
And Faust recognizes at the “highest moment” that “the last word of wisdom” is:
No man deserves his freedom or his life
Who does not daily win them anew.
Such a will and such a spirit cannot be vanquished by an earthly misfortune. He who accepts life for what it is and never allows himself to be overwhelmed by it does not need to seek refuge for his crushed self-confidence in the solace of a “saving lie.” If the longed-for success is not forthcoming, if the vicissitudes of fate destroy in the twinkling of an eye what had to be painstakingly built up by years of hard work, then he simply multiplies his exertions. He can look disaster in the eye without despairing.
The neurotic cannot endure life in its real form. It is too raw for him, too coarse, too common. To render it bearable he does not, like the healthy man, have the heart to “carry on in spite of everything.” That would not be in keeping with his weakness. Instead, he takes refuge in a delusion. A delusion is, according to Freud, “itself something desired, a kind of consolation”; it is characterized by its “resistance to attack by logic and reality.”
For such a person, we can’t fix the “delusion” with reason. We can’t show them proofs, we can’t give them arguments to the contrary, and we can’t even mock them with their absurdity. The only way a person can overcome this state of mind is to learn it for himself, to experience life enough to change, or to have a supernatural change of mind that turns him back to reason.
But we still have to ask — how is it that this deranged mental condition, this “Fourierism,” this love of socialism, is now so prevalent? Why are people prone to fantasy instead of reality? Don’t doubt the fact that socialism and Marxism (despite its highfaluting rhetoric) are based in fantasy.
Neither of these ideologies can construct the utopia they promise. Even to formulate the hope, they have to suspend reason by making two assumptions: First, they assume that all the material of production in the world is there for our disposal and in such abundance that it doesn’t need to be economized. “Hence the faith of Marxism in a ‘practically limitless increase in production,’” Mises says. Pure fantasy.
Second, they assume that suddenly and magically, work will change from “a burden into a pleasure,” and people will be overjoyed with working at meaningless tasks for others and not their own private use. They’ll be perfectly content, just like Winston Smith and his comrades in 1984. In this world of ever-flowing goods and a love for work and equal shares despite unequal abilities and contributions, they will find utopia.
This is the “saving lie” of socialism; the one neurotics believe to be true. And because of this, those who are frustrated by their own disappointments in life and who want to tear down everyone else in the name of egalitarian fantasies can console themselves of their despair in this world.
Their faith in socialism comforts them for failures in the past, and it compels them to hold out for success and happiness in the future. It might not come immediately, but they hope it will — with the fervent faith of religious zealots.
In the case of social failure, which alone concerns us here, the consolation consists in the belief that one’s inability to attain the lofty goals to which one has aspired is not to be ascribed to one’s own inadequacy, but to the defectiveness of the social order. The malcontent expects from the overthrow of the latter the success that the existing system has withheld from him. Consequently, it is entirely futile to try to make clear to him that the utopia he dreams of is not feasible and that the only foundation possible for a society organized on the principle of the division of labor is private ownership of the means of production. The neurotic clings to his “saving lie,” and when he must make the choice of renouncing either it or logic, he prefers to sacrifice logic. For life would be unbearable for him without the consolation that he finds in the idea of socialism. It tells him that not he himself, but the world, is at fault for having caused his failure; and this conviction raises his depressed self-confidence and liberates him from a tormenting feeling of inferiority.
This is where socialism is like a religion, but because it is not a religion it can only truly be categorized as a mental illness, a decadence of the mind that clings to a lie to justify its envy and to eradicate its despair. This is the soteriology of socialism.
“Socialist authors promise not only wealth for all, but also happiness in love for everybody, the full physical and spiritual development of each individual, the unfolding of great artistic and scientific talents in all men,” Mises writes. “The socialist paradise will be the kingdom of perfection, populated by completely happy supermen. All socialist literature is full of such nonsense. But it is just this nonsense that wins it the most supporters.”
Mises says there is no remedy for this delusion except the socialist changing his own mind. “Through self-knowledge he must learn to endure his lot in life without looking for a scapegoat on which he can lay all the blame, and he must endeavor to grasp the fundamental laws of social cooperation.”
Only through self-discovery and realization will the deluded overcome the despair that leads them to put their faith in the lie of socialism (or modern-day liberalism).
I believe Mises is still missing one element, something that can be filled in by existentialist and Christian Soren Kierkegaard concerning despair. I believe his insight into the human condition brings even greater depth to the problem and some measure of hope for a solution.
Kierkegaard wrote that we experience despair in this life when we do not live as God created us to live — with full self-knowledge as defined by our creator, not by our own mental decadence or by the subjective formulations of others. Essential to that divinely informed self-knowledge is the understanding that as human beings we are made both for this world and another, the here and now and eternity. We don’t have to despair of the inequalities and injustices of this life, because we will one day live in another where these things won’t matter. We should work to overcome true injustices, but we don’t lose hope because this world is not all there is.
Additionally, we are made to work and live according to the mundane necessities of life, but we are also made to hope for something better, to dream of possibilities. We might be disappointed that we haven’t achieved what we want in life, but we can hope and dream. We don’t need to be burdened by the struggle because there’s more to life than the struggle of everyday responsibilities. We don’t give up those responsibilities, but we integrate our dreams into our daily lives, enriching them.
Finally, we are not only material beings; we are also spiritual. We find meaning and purpose in this material existence and in spiritual realities. We can enjoy wealth (and the disparity of it) because this life isn’t all there is. There’s love, devotion, faith, kindness, etc. — these are part of our existence, existing alongside our physical world, elevating us.
How each individual lives out these realities will vary from person to person. But the essence of humanity is the same. This dialectic of existence is a constant for us all.
When we begin to see life not as a balance between our present life and eternity, necessity and possibility, and the material and spiritual, we fall into despair. Believing life is only the here and now, the drudgery of work for survival, and the accumulation of transient material things for meager comfort leads to unhappiness.
Likewise, living for another world, for utopia, giving no thought to present realities; never tending to the real necessities of life but living in a fantasy world that creates dependency on others; and focusing only on otherworldly beliefs, instead of tending to material responsibilities and realities, also leads us into despair.
Each is a trap immature, wayward, and undeveloped people fall into. They lose balance in life, or they cease to believe in one aspect of reality or another, thus losing balance. The materialist rejects spirituality, eternity, and possibility of change of bad conditions without force. The fantasy-minded man or the spiritualist rejects the here and now, the material, and real-life necessities and practicalities — including reason. He’s so “heavenly minded” that he’s no earthly good.
This despair, particularly the materialistic form, is what drives people to “saving lies” like socialism. They despair that things will never change, that this is all there is in life, and, as a result, they become bitter, envious, and resentful. Socialism offers them hope, and they put their faith in its promises of utopia. But because it’s a lie, they don’t find balance; they’re only led into another form of despair — one rooted in a kind of otherworldly fantasy, a delusion.
Under socialism’s religious teaching, they now reject the practical truths of the here and now and live by faith only. Evidence, fact, and history mean nothing. All that matters is the promises of another worldly existence that simply hasn’t been realized yet because the opposition keeps getting in the way of utopia.
The real necessities of life that create inequalities are rejected for a fantasy of happiness, social justice, and uniformity of wealth and existence. The material realities of life are ignored. Laws, consequences, value of property, reasonable outcomes, one’s own needs, even science — these are rejected for a dream: the socialist dream that is never realized.
This is the hell into which many of our fellow Americans are plunging. The only way to save them is with the “saving truth.” They need to live as God created them to live, in balance as taught by true religion, not by the false religion of Marx. Only when they understand that they live in the here and now but can also hope for eternity; that they are to work responsibly according to the necessities of life and dream of a better life one day; and that they derive value, not only from material goods, but also from spiritual realities — that there’s more to life than the accumulation of things, and yet accumulation of things is still part of life — will they be happy. And most of all they will be free.