Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Fascism of Big Ideas

Nothing thrills intellectuals like big ideas. Being an intellectual means having renounced the market and the battlefield, the better to gain status and stature in the marketplace of ideas. There, intellectuals reign supreme. But, they are never contented to remain in their ivy towers. They want to  apply their superior wisdom to practical matters in the real world. After all, they believe that what happens in the real world is merely an expression of what is happening in the world of ideas. Thus, if only they can persuade enough people to change reality, they will bring a brave new world into being. They will even change human nature, for the better, of course.

One recalls that the Vietnam War was the brainchild of a group of sophisticated intellectuals, dubbed the best and the brightest. When it failed, its leaders should have learned a lesson. They did not. The intellectual elites deftly shifted the blame for Vietnam on the troops that fought, thereby living to create more calamities.

I offer this preamble to introduce George Friedman’s  brilliant essay about what happens when great ideas are put into practice... by people who worship ideas. The ideas sound great at first. They are so complicated that we need a group of philosopher kings to explain them to us. Only they can see the ideas clearly. But, when these guardians direct policy, when they try impose their ideality on the real world and on real people, very bad things happen.

How bad? Bad like the Soviet Union. Friedman takes it as his test case. He shows how a bastardized version of Enlightenment ideals, directed toward the betterment of human beings, leading to an unexampled level of brutality and human suffering. Other nations might have provided similar examples, but Friedman chooses the Soviet Union because we are fast approaching the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Since no one has ever seen, heard, tasted, touched or smelled an idea… we need to understand how they present themselves. Sometimes we grasp ideas as scientific hypotheses. Sometimes we grasp them as fictional narratives. 

When your idea is a hypothesis, you are willing to test it against reality. You are even willing to modify it, the better to negotiate with reality. If your idea is a fictional narrative, you will not need to test it against anything. You will tell yourself that reality must fulfill the terms of the narrative. If it does not, we have to change reality, even if that reality is human nature.

With that in mind, turn to Friedman:

The Enlightenment was the age of ideas. Ideas left to themselves, without being wrapped in a sense of decency, know no bounds. That was the history of much of the 20th century, shaped as it was by Hitler, Himmler, Lenin and Stalin. Logic is like a game of chess. You don’t worry about the fate of a pawn. So too the ideologies of the 20th century. The death of a pawn meant nothing compared to dreams. And the greater the dreams for the people, the less important people were. Thinkers embody logic, and logic that is unleashed is devoid of pity.

Friedman explains the dangers that arise when ideas are taken to be absolute truths, only judged by their inner logic. It’s like saying that a narrative fiction works or does not work by its own inner logic. Its value cannot be determined by real world outcomes.

He continues:

The lesson of this is the danger of ideas when unleased as absolute truths demanding utter logic, thus precluding the softening of kindness or decency. If ideas must be pursued at all costs, then anything standing in their way must be crushed. The problem is that in that world, the man who crushes best wins. Thus Marx, the hapless intellectual who set this all in motion, was superseded by Lenin, half intellectual and half thug, who was in turn superseded by Stalin, entirely a thug.

Friedman’s ostensible topic is the Russian Revolution:

The 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution is approaching. It was a revolution based not merely on hope but on the certainty that the human condition could be filled with equality, plenty and freedom. It created a regime that was willing and felt compelled to go to any lengths to create that perfection, but that regime ended in 1991, exhausted by the squalor it had created.

The Russian Revolution was inspired by the work of Karl Marx, and that work was the reductio ad absurdum of the French Enlightenment. The Enlightenment had argued that humanity was engaged in progress – knowledge was constantly accumulating and, with that, the human condition was constantly improving. At the center of this process was reason, which would drive progress. And its main thrust was that the most perfect government was one that promoted the principle of human equality.

The agent of all of this was the intellectual, who placed reason at the center of all things, and therefore was the one who would deliver progress. The intellectual would understand the necessity of improving the human condition and therefore understand that anyone who impeded this was the enemy. The intellectual became a politician seeking power, and then driving the masses toward a transformation of human life.

Intellectuals promise human progress. They present themselves as part prophet and part facilitator... of a wonderful new future. But they tell us that this can only happen if we allow them to govern us:

But the Enlightenment presented a paradox. If human progress was certain, then why should the intellectual have to undertake the effort and risk of driving it forward? But there was another paradox. The intellectual was also hungry for a significance beyond those with whom he shared his life. He hungered for power and recognition, and therefore the vision of progress being his to deliver to humanity was tremendously seductive. The paradox needed examination by the contemplative. But the contemplative bypassed the paradox and presided over the French Revolution. And those who thwarted progress had to be eliminated. The intellectuals displayed the ruthlessness of pure logic, a logic that saw the people as tools to be shaped.

Marx took the Enlightenment’s impulse to its logical conclusion. He believed not only in progress but in progress that would result in the perfection of humanity. That perfection would lead to the end of scarcity and the emergence of true human equality. This was inevitable because capitalism’s internal contradictions would ultimately destroy it, freeing the proletariat to impose a dictatorship that would forge this reality.

So, it was all for your good. If human behavior did not affirm the validity of the ideas, then we would have to change human behavior. I have discussed this topic at some length in my book The Last Psychoanalyst.

How would Communism change human nature? Simple, by elevating a class of superior minds, philosopher kings, and allowing them to make all decisions. If the verdict of the marketplace produces unequal outcomes, we need to find a band of intellectuals who will correct the malfunction. Note that said intellectuals base their authority on the fact that they are morally superior because they are not driven by the profit motive:

Marx tried to solve the problem by arguing that a revolutionary party would emerge from the proletariat and impose a dictatorship that would be the agent to both organize the workers and forge a new humanity.

But, is it democratic? Of course, Communists always pretended to be democratic. By that they meant, if their side did not win, if the people did not accept their rule, the people were suffering from “false consciousness.” By this principle the intellectual elites in the party could decide for them. The party knew what was best because it represented what Rousseau called “the general will.”

Vladimir Lenin focused on building a communist party. The problem, he argued, was that the working class suffered from “false consciousness.” It did not know what its own interests were because of its condition and therefore couldn’t free itself. The Communist Party had to be built from those who had pierced the veil of false consciousness and saw clearly what needed to be done. It wouldn’t simply lead the working class; it would compel the workers toward progress. And the people who could see through false consciousness were the intellectuals, who came to be the leaders of the Bolsheviks.

The party did not try to persuade people. It preferred to terrorize them:

Lenin apparently uttered the timeless phrase, “The purpose of terror is to terrify.” The revolution could succeed only if it could terrify the masses into doing its bidding, and to that end terror was applied. It was a terror that would last a long time but whose purpose it was to build a new, humane society. The vision of a decent society merged with a pride in ruthless logic, and ruthless politics. It created a culture in which mercy was a counter-revolutionary weakness.

The truth was that the intellectuals knew terror only as an abstraction. They applied it, but not with the thorough ruthlessness of the complete thug. They thought too much and that stayed their hand.

The more it failed, the more brutal the oppression became. It led inevitably to the advent of a strong man, a thug like Josef Stalin:

What emerged from this was Josef Stalin, who acted as a thug to perfection – the only thing that had in fact been made perfect. Men like Trotsky and the other leaders of the Bolsheviks wrote of the merciless prosecution of revolution, but Stalin was ruthlessness personified. He was not like the intellectuals; he had no interest in their theories and delusions. He displaced the intellectuals who had led the revolution, and ultimately murdered them and millions of others. When the Soviet Union needed to modernize its industry in the expectation of war, it raised the money by selling grain – almost all the grain the Ukrainians produced – creating mass starvation and leading to the death of millions.

Thus, the rule of philosopher kings led to the rule of fascist thugs:

This was the kind of problem that thinkers should think on. But being men of action rather than men of contemplation, Stalin and Hitler pursued their dreams with a scientific precision that focused only on considerations of necessity and not of humanity. The distance between thinkers and common sense was never greater than in the 20th century. Rather than sorting through the tensions in their thoughts, they put them aside in order to act. And to put them aside, they turned the means – ruthlessness – into an end.


David Foster said...

"If human progress was certain, then why should the intellectual have to undertake the effort and risk of driving it forward?"

Koestler's protagonist Rubashov, in Darkness at Noon:

"The individual stood under the sign of economic fatality, a wheel in a clockwork which had been wound up for all eternity and could not be stopped or influenced - and the Party demanded that the wheel should revolt against the clockwork and change its course. There was somewhere an error in the calculation; the equation did not work out."

David Foster said...

I agree with Friedman's comment that Marxism is a 'bastardized version of Enlightenment ideals', and have used similar phrasing myself in several posts. I do not think this is true of Fascism/Naziism...while there were certainly many intellectuals complicit in these ideologies...Heidegger, for example...intellectuals were not a driving force in the Fascist/Nazi movements to the same level they were in Marxism...indeed, these movements were explicitly counter-Enlightenment.

One Nazi, asked for his views on some economic issue, responded, "We don't want higher bread prices...we don't want lower bread prices...what we want are National Socialist bread prices."

Jack Fisher said...

"They are so complicated that we need a group of philosopher kings to explain them to us."

1. Are you suggesting that Plato was wrong in general about this idea. See, The Republic, Bk VI.

2. Marx critiqued the political economy of the mid-19th century. and where he argues that capitalism was inherently exploitive by undervaluing the contribution of labor to creation of wealth, he had a point. The mass revolutions of 1848 were partly fueled by a form of capitalism that would simply not be tolerated today, at least not in any First World country. Marx was wrong in his prediction of the future, the excesses of capitalism and being reined in by economic and political reformers and the revolution -- which he expected to start in industrialized nations like England -- short circuited.

Lenin's revolution took place in a Russia not fully emerged from feudal times, not what Marx would have predicted. Lenin was more of a master political thug who knew how to grasp the brass ring. The Party was ruthless and effective at seizing and maintaining power, the ideology was just window dressing.

Sam L. said...

We are too dumb to know what we want, and much to dumb to know what we should want, which is why the philosopher-kings have to (must) force us to do what they KNOW we should want.

Jack Fisher said...

You're not using the idea of PK in the way Plato wrote about it.

trigger warning said...

No, Sam's correctly using PK the way our current overlords and regulators think about it. Postmodern PKship.

trigger warning said...

Addendum: Plato is a dead white guy, one of those old "Greek homos", as "Reverend" Al Sharpton so picturesquely put it.

Jack Fisher said...

Tthank you for illustrating a straw man argument.

Anonymous said...

The STRAW MAN is back!!!!! Ares Olympus lives on, with his familiar rebuke! All AO talks about is the STRAW MAN. Welcome to the Olympian world, Jack! Ares Olympus forever!

Sam L. said...

The left loves to think of themselves as philosopher-kings. And actually, I don't know how Plato wrote about them, having not read much Plato (not much = damn little = close to none).

Jack Fisher said...

Ares Olympus said...

I see psychologist Jordan Peterson finally got together with the hyperactive Camille Paglia with a near 2 hour discussion this week, where both have declared their opposition to the "big idea" of Postmodernism that has corrupted the humanities, an analysis outside of ordinary discussion since most of us don't know what its about! Modern Times: Camille Paglia & Jordan B Peterson

It is dizzying, and easy to find her conclusion seems to be that all the professors should be fired, and university humanities departments disbanded, and now we learn in this blog that their failed leadership will be replaced by rule of fascist thugs who are more willing to express more overt power over others, until an older order of moral order can be remembers again.

I always like to go back to Iain McGilchrist's presentation when I wonder why reality is confusing, and why our attempts to replace reality with our models is highly successful, until its not. RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain

And I go back to E.F. Schumacher's philosophical maps, including the old "big idea" of the "chain of being" where there are levels of reality, and each level has different answers for different sorts of predicaments of living. This to me helps disempower "totalitarian ideas" which don't do well in seeing the different levels.

I also think of physicist Geoffrey West's analysis of Cities as "superlinear" creations that increase their "metabolism" exponentionally with scale, and this always risks unsustainable growth into new problems that threaten collapse, and always forces some new last ditch effort to restructure society in a more complex way, to not fully collapse. Probably "big ideas" like the singularity come out this crazy truth.

That takes me back to Peterson and Paglia's discussion, that it seems so improbable that we can depend on our systems of big ideas as well as we do. There's no guarantee things will continue, but since we've had a century of technical success, it is inconceivable to imagine having our king-like power taken away someday, but we can fall as Puerto Rico shows. And the "big idea" of abstract money is a game none of us know how it'll end. We only know debt has to keep growing to keep everything going, and when growth stops, debt can't be repaid, and things will break.

James said...

I think that I think
I think that I am