The Insanity of Progressivism Comes Right Out of Gulliver's Travels
Our intellectual classes today are utterly disconnected from reality. As Milo Yiannopoulos writes in a review of the film Joker, “We are reeling from a disaster still unfolding, the unmaking of reality at the hands of millennial progressivism.” Indeed, when it comes to unmaking reality, our cognitive elite may as well inhabit the parody world of Gulliver’s Travels. Proposing blueprints for radical social change and meddling in the complexities of domestic and economic policy, they have come to resemble Jonathan Swift’s pixilated “projectors” in the Academy of Lagado (Book 3, Chapter 5), a conclave of intellectuals and academics “full of volatile spirits acquired in that airy region” of vacuous irrationality.
In its effort to save the nation, Swift’s Academy put forward various endeavors to advance the economy, improve education, and become energy-self-sufficient. For example, it proposed “extracting sunbeams out of cucumbers, which were to be put in phials hermetically sealed, and let out to warm the air in raw inclement summers.” This new technology “should be able to supply the governor’s gardens with sunshine, at a reasonable rate.” There was an astronomical plan “to place a sun-dial upon the great weathercock on the town-house, by adjusting the annual and diurnal motions of the earth and sun, so as to answer and coincide with all accidental turnings of the wind.” Another project to improve land cultivation led to a Lysenko-like result, namely not a single ear of corn or blade of grass was to be seen. An ingenious “artist” set about employing spiders as weavers of silk, requiring an exhaustive effort grooming colored flies to feed the spiders, all to no purpose.
Nor should we forget the New Math of Swift’s imagining, in which “[t]he proposition, and demonstration, were fairly written on a thin wafer, with ink composed of a cephalic tincture. This, the student was to swallow upon a fasting stomach, and for three days following, eat nothing but bread and water.” The project was a failure since students regularly upchucked their educational diet. Another professor was “employed in a project for improving speculative knowledge,” so that “the most ignorant person,” by arbitrarily operating an “engine” made of bits of wood inscribed with letters, “might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics, and theology, without the least assistance from genius or study.” A prominent landowner was tasked with using “wind and air” to run a mill, a work which miscarried miserably. As for architecture, the Academicians set about building houses by “beginning at the roof and working downward to the foundations.” These new theories and practices had the predictable effect, leaving the country in a state of ruin.
As Gulliver’s host explains to his bemused visitor: “In these colleges the professors contrive new rules and methods of agriculture and building, and new instruments, and tools for all trades and manufactures; whereby, as they undertake, one man shall do the work of ten; a palace may be built in a week, of materials so durable as to last for ever without repairing. All the fruits of the earth shall come to maturity at whatever season we think fit to choose, and increase a hundred fold more than they do at present; with innumerable other happy proposals. The only inconvenience is, that none of these projects are yet brought to perfection; and in the mean time, the whole country lies miserably waste, the houses in ruins, and the people without food or clothes.”
Literary critics believe that the Academy of Lagado was conceived as a satire of the Royal Society, whose motto is Nullius in verba, often translated as “take nobody's word for it.” Of course, Swift is not to be read literally since the object of his satire was not genuine science but the political and pseudo-scientific fashions of his day. The Society parses the tenor of its motto, adapted from the Roman poet Horace’s Epistles, as “an expression of the determination of Fellows to withstand the domination of authority and to verify all statements by an appeal to facts determined by experiment.” Swift would have concurred.
But in pursuing his satirical intent, which reads almost like a proleptic critique of postmodernism, Swift inadvertently foretold our “social democratic” and progressivist future as typified by the Democrat Party’s “Green New Deal.” This project is designed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions; to convert 100 percent of power sources to renewable energy installations, thus replacing cheap, reliable energy with expensive, unreliable energy; to retrofit every building in the country in the interests of efficiency, at a cost destined to bankrupt the nation; to supplant air-travel with high-speed rail; to eliminate cows as methane infidels; and, among other vacant notions, to provide, in the words of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, “economic security for all those who are unable or unwilling to work”—with regard to the latter, a lifelong paid holiday exploiting a shrinking working class. The scheme is reminiscent of Nancy Pelosi’s 2012 selling of Obamacare, which would allow Americans to quit their jobs and devote themselves to writing, music, photography, or “whatever.”
Rather, what is needed, as Don Watkins and Yaron Brook argue in their provocatively titled Equality Is Unfair: America’s Misguided Fight Against Income Inequality, is to “liberate human ability,” reanimate the fading concept of self-reliance, foster an ethos of industrious labor, and “liberate innovators from regulatory shackles” in order to “create a culture of achievement” and prevent the American dream from devolving into the American nightmare.
The Green New Deal is a crackpot enterprise that has enormous support from progressive economists and a staggeringly ignorant, partisan media. As economist Alan Carlin wryly points out, “The program has been costed at a mere $93 trillion over ten years… This number may not mean much to most people, but it is roughly five times US gross national product” in that decade. Intellectual and economic bankruptcy, it would seem, are intimately allied.
Obviously, our New Lagadians are devoted members of the cultural left, having made the long march through the institutions to radically reshape society in their utopian image. Rewriting the Royal Society motto, we might say that our “projectors” expect to be taken at their word, to have their authority submitted to, and to freely promote their theories and policy recommendations in the complete absence of “facts determined by experiment.” Norman Rogers, author of Dumb Energy: A Critique of Wind and Solar Energy, has rigorously demonstrated the folly of the plan, “The Green New Deal is propped up by fake science and fake statistics,” its research papers “masquerading as scientific studies.” No matter. We are to take a conjuring trick as gospel truth.
Indeed, on the major issues of the historical moment—climate change, the war on terror, national borders, “social justice,” gender politics, race conflict, post-colonial theory, immigration—the tribe of progressivist mountebanks wherever we find them get everything wrong, opting for measures that only magnify the problems they affect to settle. We should not be surprised to find Lagadian absurdities in abundance, as for example: journalists who advocate exorbitant spending to neutralize debt (Paul Krugman); politicians who endorse socialized medicine, at a cost of trillions (Barack Obama); senators who propose tax rates over 100 percent (Elizabeth Warren); teachers who believe that history is a narrative to be manipulated for ideological ends (Howard Zinn); leaders who champion near-unlimited Muslim refugee migration, generating communal strife, outright violence, and unsustainable welfare expenditure (Angela Merkel); philosophers who affirm that truth is a relative concept—except for the truth of their own claims (Michel Foucault); revisionists who deplore the “mindless authority in European writing” (Edward Said); writers who promote violence as the road to millennial harmony (Slavoj Zizek); feminists who advocate the homicidal culling of men to create a better world (Mona Eltahawy); sciolists who argue that Islam is a “straight path” (John Esposito, Karen Armstrong); charlatans who claim a cooling world gradually entering a new Little Ice Age is actually warming (Al Gore, James Hanson, Michael Mann); medical practitioners who promote transgenderism and sex re-assignment surgery since the biological bodies we are born with are merely physical accessories (Ray Blanchard et al.); post-colonial theorists who claim that successful free-market societies are profiteering relics (Homi Bhabha); geo-engineers who recommend shooting particles into the atmosphere to block the sun’s harmful rays (John Holden); Luddites who want to selectively eliminate the fruits of technology and kill jobs (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez); and so on.
Such quacks—Swift called them “speculators” and “virtuosi”—rely upon a mystical grimoire, a “book of shadows” filled with spells, incantations, and rituals that will remake the world as if by magic. It’s not science, it’s enchantment. As Joshua Muravchik writes in Heaven on Earth: The Rise, Fall, and Afterlife of Socialism, the eclipse of historical memory of “the countless failures and abuses of socialism” ensures that the “old dream…retains the capacity to enchant.” Orwell’s observation in Notes on Nationalism that “One has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe things like that: no ordinary man could be such a fool” continues to apply. We are witnessing the Academy of Lagado on steroids.
Of course, the original Lagadians were not, technically speaking, socialists; they were fantasists pursing a collective delusion. But then, socialism is a fantasy no less destructive of social order and productive life than the Lagadian array of political and pseudo-scientific hallucinations, with which socialism bears a close affinity. To avoid descent into madness, reason must accommodate itself to reality. Sundered from the world as it is and divorced from nature, it generates only caricatures and deformities rather than solutions and pragmatic proposals for improvement. Having studied in the cloisters of our “woke” universities and relishing their epistemology of deceit, the New Lagadians turn the world upside-down and pretend that it is right-side-up. Having had the added benefit of reading Marx and Gramsci, and believing, as Justin Haskins writes in Socialism Is Evil,* that “people will choose to behave in ways that seem contradictory to all human history and nature,” they will not rest until they have succeeded in the “unmaking of reality,” transforming a functioning economy and a great nation into an utter wasteland. They have, in effect, become proponents of what we may call transrealism.
As for Gulliver, he may as well have been traveling in Venezuela, one of the great socialist miracles of our time. As he reports of his tour of Lagado, “The people in the streets walked fast, looked wild, their eyes fixed, and were generally in rags.” The remainder of his journey “into several remote nations of the world” served only to deepen his misgivings and incredulity. The world about him suffers from a plague of moral disarray, mental stupefaction, technological madness and social disintegration, a kind of Gothan City writ large. He concludes his travels as a kind of Joker, unreconciled with his family, embittered by the prospect of a flawed and immoral society, and sinking into a state of misanthropy. Unlike Joker, however, he does not resort to mayhem, but gives himself over to dour solitude in rejection of a world that has betrayed common sense, reason and proper order.
Muravchik’s vision of socialism is: “If you build it, they will leave.” It seems more likely, given the millennial tenacity of Lagadian perversity as part of the socialist playbook, that one of two reactions will occur, either Joker’s or Gulliver’s, chaos or resignation. This is arguably where we may shortly find ourselves.
*For Haskins, socialism is not only economically but morally flawed since it ultimately entails collective coercion, that is, the imposition of stringent limits on diversity, individual liberty, and freedom of worship.