I’ve started re-reading Isaiah Berlin’s books, and they’re even better than my rose-tinted memory pictured them. By the way, for newer readers, it is a requirement that you, too, familiarize yourself with Sir Isaiah’s works, in order to be permitted to read here. An usher will be around shortly to check that you have your copies on hand, and there may even be a pop quiz to follow. Just so you know.
Anyway, that’s from Freedom and Its Betrayal, in the chapter on Claude Helvétius, a French philosopher from the mid-eighteenth century. Berlin describes him as the first utilitarian, a man to whom Bentham was deeply indebted, and one of the first to formulate the idea that politics could be turned into a science, with final answers to political questions existing a priori, waiting to be discovered by a sufficiently dedicated scientist with the proper tools and methods. For three hundred years, progressive minds have dreamed of the day when politics, with all its frustrations and compromises, could be brushed into the dustbin of history, and an elite ruling caste of enlightened technocrats could take power and give the people what they really want, as proven by the latest data and neuroimaging techniques, even if the poor, deluded cud-chewers don’t know it yet, and for those who still can’t adapt to the program, there’s always lobotomies, of either the pharmaceutical or old-fashioned kind.
This idea is still alive and well in our own age, as a glance through this morning’s news can tell you. I almost needed a lifejacket to surf the web today, what with all the crashing waves of progressive tears over the Brexit vote. Site after site featured the spleen-ventings of apoplectic proggies, furious that anything so outdated as a popular vote could have been allowed to interfere with their vision of a bureaucratic superstate. As you’d expect from uptight, moralistic prigs who spend every moment patrolling the police state of their minds, looking for any problematic words or ideas which could conceivably cause offense should they ever tunnel under the walls and wire and run amok among polite company, there has been a shuddering, gasping explosion of ecstatic release as they are finally allowed to vent their hatred of another group of people in the most positively un-enlightened language. Lower-class white Westerners? Racist white Westerners, you say? Oooooh, God, yes, okay, wait, wait, just let me slip my hand under here, and — ahhh, yes. Terminate with extreme prejudice! Scorch the earth and salt it so they can never grow back! Why did we ever let these subhumans vote in the first place?
I have no informed, meaningful opinion on Brexit, and my guiding assumption is that, as usual, the loudest, boldest predictions making the rounds right now are likely to be wrong, and the eventual results, once we’ve attained enough perspective to judge, will likely contain surprises no one anticipated, but which will seem obvious in hindsight. I realize that can’t compete with lurid prophecies of apocalypse and revolution, but I never said I was a pundit. No, what interests me is, one, as already mentioned, the way in which the ideas of a three hundred year-old philosopher are still entirely relevant today, and two, what this says about the political left in general.
Christopher Lasch, as I noted recently, wrote about how, a century ago, just before technocratic liberalism was about to reach its zenith, strangely enough, the mood among progressive thinkers was already shifting, becoming gloomier and self-pitying. As Lasch said, the Nation in 1922 was already developing the progressive aesthetic which loves to portray itself as a small, beleaguered outpost of impeccable taste and civilized values marooned in a wasteland of fundamentalists, rednecks and other savages. Even more recently, though, Peter Dornan, in the course of demolishing Naomi Klein’s latest screed, said it succinctly: the left has adapted to powerlessness. It has largely given up on seeing itself as the true vox populi, wanting nothing to do with those unwashed barbarians, and seems to be content with impotent fantasies about a society in which social scientists and academics have finally taken over the government. As he says, this is why a book like Klein’s, an incoherent grab-bag of sloganeering, wishful thinking and leftist bromides can find praise along the entire spectrum of left-wing media; it’s not like anything’s riding on it, after all. None of them expect it to be taken seriously or acted upon. It’s merely a way of signaling one’s membership among the elect, whether you wrote the book or whether you just wave it.
Jonathan Bronitsky said in a recent book review:
To this day, liberals and their other non-revolutionary siblings on the left might disagree with communists over the extent to which the state should engineer “fairness,” yet they still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people. For all ideologies of the left are tied to the Enlightenment, with its emphasis upon predetermined progress via reason and the accumulation of quantifiable knowledge.
“They still share with them a vision of what constitutes fairness and an image of a properly re-engineered people.” This, more than anything, is what strikes me about today’s left. They may have been forced to grudgingly admit that the state couldn’t remold society from the top down, but they have yet to admit that their ideal of what a just, equitable society would look like is incoherent. A chimera. A crackbrained fantasy. Like Wile E. Coyote, they’re running in place in midair, afraid to look down lest political gravity finally kick in. Thus the insular, self-congratulatory smugness. Thus the self-serving mythology about how only they can truly be opposed to all the insidious -isms which haunt the world like the imps and demons of a bygone age. Thus the need to make a virtue out of necessity — when confronted with their failure to persuade a majority of people to support their views, rather than adjust their tactics and redouble their efforts, they rationalize it as further proof that they’re just too pure for this fallen world.
Bear in mind, I’m not saying there aren’t perfectly valid-but-tediously-wonky arguments to be had over marginal tax rates and other specific policies. I’m talking about progressivism as an identity, as a surrogate religion, as the tiresome posturing that dominates social media. I’m talking about people who still, after three centuries, refuse to lose faith in a future Newton of politics who will finally reduce the maddening, complicated business of living and cooperating together in society into a few clear, inviolable rules that can be objectively applied by the credentialed experts. That vision appalls me, and furthermore, as Ben Cobley says, I don’t see any meaningful way to disentangle an essence of progressivism worth keeping from the insular, identity-obsessed cult it has become.