It would be a tedious exercise to attempt to count the number of times in history, or even in the past century, that a “crisis of civilization” has been declared. The human has never been stable; once mimetic tension reaches the collective as opposed to the one-on-one (or several-on-several) level and must be mediated by the emission of voluntary, symbolic signs on a scene of representation, conflict cannot be securely prevented, only deferred. The anomalous configuration of the 2016 US presidential election has nonetheless led to more soul-searching than at any time since the Vietnam era, when the draft posed a direct threat to a new generation of college students who never expected to go to war.
The question of whether to see the current crisis as fundamentally internal to Western Civilization or as posed by external powers, whether Russia, China, Iran, the Islamic State, or any combination of these, is a mere matter of emphasis, for clearly the rise of these other powers, some of which are pitifully weak by traditional military measures, reflects the retreat of the West, and in particular of the United States, from world leadership. The recent murders of police officers by black Americans mimicking the massacres of the jihadists, at least two of whom had in fact converted to some form of Islam, only demonstrates the increasing solidarity of the “enemies of Western Civilization.”
The originary event, as Adam Katz has always emphasized, never leads to the symmetry of “perpetual peace.” All that can be achieved by the unanimity of the gesture of representation is that all suspend their efforts at appropriation, not that all become equally convinced of the sacrality of the central object of desire. And anthropologists point out that these egalitarian societies of “noble savages” are the most violent of all. The prohibition on consuming more than another stimulates each to be constantly on the lookout for anything that may seem to give an unfair advantage to his neighbor; in the absence of a formal judicial system, the threat of murder, followed by the threat of revenge, is constant. That the big-man later becomes able to impose his authority as a result of producing and distributing a surplus suggests that by concentrating the group’s resentment in the center, this authority, rather than violating a Rousseauean utopia, brings about a considerable reduction of violence. The progress of civilization here as at every level takes place through a fuite en avant that by creating more effective means of deferral, lowers the general level of violence only by deferring an ever greater potential for it. And each time, we hope that what Girard calls after Clausewitz the montée aux extrêmes will be the last. In the years before 1914, there indeed seemed to be some hope of this—as there is yet today, seventy years after Hiroshima.
The Left is obedience to the imperative to expose the products of discipline as stolen centrality.
Adam Katz, GABlog, July 17, 2016
Adam’s idea of the Left merits special consideration in this context. It is not a universal definition such as I have attempted by opposing the moral model of reciprocal equality to an ethic that rewards firstness in various guises for its contribution to the social order. Adam defines the Left by its delegitimation of differential rewards for what he calls “discipline,” by which he means the deferral of immediate satisfaction in the service of some socially useful goal—including the acquisition of skill in the arts, or even at games or sports, which allow others a vicarious experience of discipline. The point of this narrower definition is, I think, to define the Left in truly contemporary terms that stand in opposition to its earlier incarnations.
At the historical origin of the Left, in the seating of the Assemblée Nationale in 1789, where the Right supported the king’s veto authority over the new constitution whereas the “patriots” of the Left opposed it, the point of contention was not discipline but institutionalized firstness in the traditional sense inherited from the big-men, kings, and emperors of old. No doubt the essential innovation of the big-man, as we learned from Marshall Sahlins, was precisely his exercise of discipline, both in producing more than the others and in restraining his consumption in order to accumulate a surplus. But the anger that precipitated the Revolution was aroused by the perception that rather than discipline, the Old Regime rewarded naked status without merit. The “bourgeois” and even the “proletarian” revolutions demanded that rewards be reserved for labor rather than the mere ownership of capital. As I pointed out in Chronicle 484, Marx’s “labor theory of value,” which strikes us as archaic today, made factory labor the lowest common denominator of human economic effort. In such work, “discipline” is essentially regimentation rather than learning an advanced skill, and therefore open to virtually any normal person—including women and children, as 19th-century factory owners were all too well aware.
Thus Adam’s definition is not that of the Left throughout its “classical” history. The heart of the Old Left in the West, from the French Revolution to the Second World War, whether in its extreme (“communist”) or more moderate (“socialist”) forms, was the working class, however much these movements tended to be run by an upper-middle-class intellectual “vanguard.” The Left’s attitude toward discipline was a positive one, even if those who actually achieved power and wealth in the more rigid of these systems were very unlikely to have more than briefly begun, if that, their careers on the assembly line.
I have always considered the Holocaust, with its Asian echo in the Japanese “racial” arrogance exemplified by the Nanking massacre, to be the catalyst of postwar victimary thinking, for which the SS-Jew world of the concentration camp provided the model for all asymmetrical relationships. But now that Trump’s candidacy and the Right in general is being assimilated, with very partial truth, to the racial essentialism of the Axis, we might do well to reflect on the reason for this specific focus during the economic crisis of the Depression. No doubt the West has always harbored a lingering envy of Jewish firstness; but why did the absolute denial of human solidarity, in both Germany and Japan, become so politically powerful at precisely this time?
The anxiety behind bourgeois antisemitism was already present in Marx’s Reflections on the Jewish Question back in 1843; if in the bourgeois economy the Christians have “become Jews,” then the real Jews must have a considerable advantage. And by any measure of achievement or competence, the Jews when given half a chance have always done very well; Weimar Germany was no exception. Hence we can understand why the Nazis had to develop a racial mythology that assimilated the Jews not merely to “inferior” human beings but vermin. That the “Jewish privilege” that the Nazis could only attribute to the Jews’ “subhuman” status is analogous to the “white privilege” beloved of today’s victimary activists has been made clear by the ease with which Israel’s military and economic success has been translated into a far closer equivalent in the Middle East, not without bringing along a more vulgar form of the “racial” inferiority proclaimed by the Nazi Rassenpolitisches Amt—the Jews as descended from “apes and pigs.”
Most significantly, both Germany and Japan had become by WWII, and after recovering from the war’s devastation remain to this day, world leaders in technologically sophisticated production; both prize efficiency and discipline. (I was struck by the degree to which our Nagoya conference schedule was observed nearly to the minute, when in the US, sessions running over by fifteen minutes or more are common.) The war was an revolt by two nations who saw themselves as the most disciplined and therefore the most deserving of domination in a world where one had suffered a humiliating defeat that could be explained away only by the “international Jewish conspiracy” described in the Protocols, and the other, the only industrialized country in Asia at the time, felt justified in imposing its “co-prosperity sphere” on its backward neighbors. It is generally accepted that, pound for pound, these nations fielded the best armies; their problem was that, fortunately for us, their opponents had many times their resources.
Reaction to the Axis counter-example brought about the end of de jure ethnic-racial privilege within about 20 years of the war; Truman had already desegregated the US Army in 1948. With the victories of the civil rights movement and the movement of colonial liberation, each individual’s status would henceforth be determined, in principle at least, exclusively by his or her qualifications. The victimary “disparate impact” mentality that came into existence after these victories, and which Adam uses to define the (contemporary) Left, is one that refuses the criterion of discipline precisely because some people are better at discipline than others.
Thus along with the “racist” bathwater of the “White man’s burden,” the victimary era has thrown out, with scarcely anyone even noticing it, the baby of firstness. For example, in all the critical assessments of Israel’s role in the “Palestinian-Israeli conflict,” the vast disparity in social productivity of the two sides goes entirely unmentioned; that the Palestinian Authority is riven by corruption and Gaza a brutal dictatorship oriented entirely toward the destruction of Israel, both of which survive only by extorting funds from Western and Middle-Eastern governments, whereas Israel, which with the world’s highest level of innovation per capita (despite the many Haredim who study Torah all day) has made countless contributions to human betterment, is never alleged as a point in its favor. The disciplines of modernity are on the contrary condemned as marks of Western “colonialism.”
The failure of the Soviet Union was the final blow to those who believed that socialism was, as it falsely pretended to be, itself a triumph of discipline. With the demise of its utopian goal, the Western Left could see itself henceforth only in opposition to the world of the market. Instead of the disciplined efforts of each being evaluated by the benefits they bring to others, the victimary formula of “disparate impact” transforms every difference in individual outcomes into a collective injustice. The concrete goals demanded by activists are never more than temporary. The goal of the Left is less to win economic benefits than to denounce injustice, and thereby to deny legitimacy to objective criteria of success by demonstrating that they exemplify the ascriptive oppression whose archetypes are slavery and the concentration camp.
One had only to listen to Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, mimicked less convincingly by Hillary Clinton, to hear expressed an absolute resentment of the market. Sanders explicitly claimed that not merely insider trading and other dishonest manipulations but the basic mode of operation of Wall Street is fraud. We should take this hyperbole seriously; it is the central kernel of the ideology of the postmodern victimary Left. It denounces the disciplines that function in the market as immoral: no one on Wall Street—and “Wall Street” is a synecdoche for the entire market economy—comes by his gains honestly. If for the old “Protestant Ethic” market success was a sign of God’s favor, it is now a mark of damnation.
This combination of blanket condemnation of “capitalism” with a more specific attack on meritocratic testing allows the Left to fight for incremental “affirmative action” goals—I need only mention the proliferation of “diversity” deans/officers/trainers at all levels of university and corporate hierarchies—while maintaining in the background a critique of the market system as a whole that can never even conceivably be satisfied. Resentment must never be relaxed; its successes feed it as much as its failures. In this, the Western Left makes common cause with militant Islam, dismissing as irrelevant its supremacist final goal of world Islamization.
Yet from a systems perspective independent of the will of the participants, it might be more useful to understand the real function of the victimary Left as permitting market society to perpetuate itself with a minimum of disturbance. By promoting an ideology wholly detached from discipline and that knows only what it is against, the Left need never renounce its activism. But by the same token, lacking a vision of structural change, it will never exact from the social order more than relatively minor symbolic concessions such as affirmative action hires, which can presumably be offset by improvements in technological productivity (as robotization can compensate for increases in the minimum wage) without threatening the fundamental mechanism of the market. In the administrative state, these “solutions” blend in seamlessly with environmental restrictions, endangered species considerations, consumer safety issues…, sufficiently satisfying its various victimary constituencies to permit the system to continue functioning.
The fact that, left behind by the disciplinary meritocracy, both minority and white working-class neighborhoods, the latter facing a sharp increase in drug addiction, have become more dangerous and less economically viable despite these symbolic gains is the opposite of a problem, since the first group is thereby all the more attached to the Democratic welfare system, and the second, at least until Donald Trump came along, was increasingly isolated from the political process. Thus “capitalism” can survive indefinitely by disguising itself as a system of ascriptive oppression paying symbolic blackmail to its “victims.”
To take this logic to its conclusion, we should be happy to put Hillary Clinton’s relatively unideological version of the Left in the place of Obama’s more consistently critical view of the Western enterprise; one may even imagine that had she been elected in 2008, the world might have become a somewhat less dangerous place. But in either case, the Achilles’ heel of the Left’s politics is its lack of resolve in the international arena. Its fundamental critique of the Western market system is not compatible with the steadfast defense, and particularly the military defense, of American and Western interests in the international arena, for which more than symbolic sacrifices are required. Nonetheless, if this analysis is correct, the victimary may well be the only mode in which our increasingly meritocratic system can survive, now that, as I have been claiming, it has come to divide humans by symbolic ability rather than by external status.
I hate to think of this quasi-conclusion as a defense of the Left, given that I fully agree with Adam that it is dependent on a social analysis that increasingly demands the limitation of freedom of speech and the criminalization of the expression of inconvenient truths. (At least so far, I don’t believe I risk prosecution by stating the situation in these terms.)
For example, for inviting to their convention the parents of victims of Benghazi and of crimes committed by illegal aliens, the New Republic called the GOP the party of death. Have they ever called Black Lives Matter a cult of death? Yet these were truly innocent victims, unlike Michael Brown who continues to be described as a martyr even after his police killer was acquitted on the strength of testimony by black eye-witnesses. It is one thing for a street demonstration to yell slogans, but that a formerly distinguished publication can commit such enormities reflects the increasingly Orwellian perspective of today’s Left.
But was BS of one kind or another not equally dominant in the distant past, when ritual was the primary mode of social cohesion? As Girard liked to say, in a world “without God,” we worship idols. Today as at the first human scene, the primary purpose of symbols is not to tell the truth, but to permit human survival. If the conditions I have described are indeed necessary to the survival of modern society, with its vast proliferation of truth-seeking symbolic processes that permit the constant evolution of science and technology, we can only hope that a space will always remain for humanistic truth-telling in the shadow of victimary “correctness.”
But let us not give up too soon. There may yet be a constituency for restoring a relatively peaceful equilibrium between moral equality and firstness. In its absence, I doubt that the West will find the strength to defend its very existence from the “violent extremism” that menaces it a little more each day.