The left-right dichotomy originated in the French Revolutionary Assemblée Constituante in 1789, with the defenders of the monarchy on the right, and those opposed to (resentful of?) the royal veto on the left. The Left being the “sinister” or gauche side, in contrast with the “right” or droit, the later designation of the Jacobin government as the “reign of virtue” is not without irony.
This dichotomy holds within it the paradox of liberal democracy, which took some time to emerge in France, although its model was already in place in America, and to a large extent in England. The balance between the two sides is not, could not possibly be, “symmetrical”; its very existence is in principle a victory for the Right. For the Right is the party of the political status quo, which it wishes to change as little and as painlessly as possible, claiming this is the way most productive of social and economic progress. Edmund Burke, as we recall, was not a Tory but a Whig, but a cautious one. The principle of the Burkean Right is to avoid unnecessary disorder, to take as one’s rule of thumb that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. What shocked Burke about the French Revolution—and it is easy to forget that his Reflections on the Revolution in France was published in 1790, well before the excesses of the Terror, which he so presciently anticipated—was its desire to rebuild society from the bottom up, as though all the accumulated experience of the past should simply be swept away.
The Right, in this perspective, is happy to sit in a legislative body working out the changes needed to maintain and improve the social order. The Left, on the other hand, as was so well demonstrated by the Revolution’s later history, has no inherent desire to engage in debate. In its heart of hearts, even in the USA, the Left is the party of revolution, the party to end all parties, as has indeed occurred wherever a revolutionary government has taken power, creating the cynical anomaly of the one-party state where “debate” takes place only in the context of democratic centralism.
Thus the simplest measure of effective liberal democracy is its ability to hold the Left within its limits. Although the American Democratic Party, founded by Madison and Jefferson, has functioned throughout its history within a parliamentary context, its current generation wants to make very clear that this is not something to be taken for granted.
In contrast to the Burkean Right is the “extreme Right” of Fascism, which shares the Left’s hostility to the give and take of debate. Fascism is, so to speak, a Counter-Reformation to the Left’s communist challenge. This counterrevolutionary revolution seeks a return to a premodern order, but not the feudal society abolished by the French Revolution. Fascism’s core is the Nietzschean claim that the moral decadence of modern bourgeois-parliamentary culture must be reversed through the revival of a mythical, pre-Christian, militaristic past, untouched by the ressentiment of modernity, the embodiment of an unapologetic affirmation of firstness.
Where fascism attributes to its national group a “racial” superiority that justifies its colonization/enslavement/expulsion/extermination of other groups, socialism denies any such ascriptive distinctions and maintains in theory an ideal of universal equality. Thus in the extermination of the kulaks, or of one quarter of the population of Cambodia, the applicable categories were not ascriptive but social; speaking French or possessing a pair of glasses, for example, are not biologically determined “racial” attributes. But this distinction between affirmation and denial of universal moral equality should make us all the more suspicious of the two totalitarianisms’ similarity in practice. Need we argue over whether it is more evil to exterminate Jews or those who wear glasses? Amateurs of twinning imagery should appreciate the partition of Poland in 1939 under the terms of the Hitler-Stalin pact.
To the extent that it can be defined as a system of government, fascism is a “national socialism” in which the state directs the economy in the interest of national aggrandizement, but does not run it directly. This is less a dictate of “fascist philosophy” than an artifact of fascism’s status as a reaction to communism. Hitler’s triumph would have been impossible had a key element of the Germany bourgeoisie not thrown its support behind Nazism as insurance against expropriation on the Soviet example.
The fascists were at least honest enough to celebrate the necessity of the Führerprizip that they shared in re with communism. Indeed, fascism as an economic system demonstrated considerable economic efficiency, while, with equivalent tyranny, socialism proved unsustainable. In World War II, Hitler gave the bourgeois democracies no choice but to ally themselves with communism as the lesser evil. The Soviets won WWII on the ground, at the cost of millions of lives, but the economic engine of the Allies was in the “bourgeois” West—and pound for pound, the Allies were no match for Germany and Japan. If only Heisenberg had come up with The Bomb…
If fascism was a reaction to communism, the postwar victimary Left is in turn best understood as a reaction to fascism. This was not clear immediately after the war, when communism retained its intention to “bury” capitalism and its liberal-democratic political system, but as the USSR increasingly became an source of disillusion, postwar socialism increasingly mutated into a neo-Marxism that abandoned Marx’s vision of Hegelian transcendence in favor of an endless critique of capitalism, conceived no longer as the final stage of class society, but as a less violent and more hypocritical form of fascism.
Marx and Engels’ notion of “primitive communism” as the originary state of human society is fully compatible with GA. Hierarchical society could emerge only when human foresight had evolved to the point of cultivating the land (as opposed to merely gathering its fruits), domesticating livestock, etc., and thereby creating a “surplus” beyond hunter-gatherer consumption. At this point, differential abilities, as exemplified by Marshall Sahlins’ description in Stone-Age Economics (Aldine-Atherton, 1972) of the big-man as working harder than his beneficiaries, reveal their value no longer as mere contingencies but as elements of social structure.
For Marx and the communist movement in general, the inequalities of class society were neither man’s original state nor his permanent destiny. It was the fascists who insisted on the ontological inequality of the races, to the point that “other” human groups could be considered as degenerate forms unworthy of existence. In response, the postwar neo-Marxists, while maintaining Marx’s belief in intrinsic human equality, conceive it as a moral ideal not manifested at any stage of human history. The division of society into economic classes gives way to its segmentation by the ascriptive qualities of race and gender. And although the denunciation of racial discrimination plays the most conspicuous role in what I have been calling victimary thinking, the clearest model of ascriptive inequality is supplied by the difference between the sexes. For in all societies up to the present, women—defined by their capacity to bear children—have been in one way or another subject to the power of men.
The postwar Left sees the entire edifice of human culture, beginning with language itself, as always already corrupted by the ascriptive écriture that the “ruling classes” had imposed on the population. In this perspective, the Stalinist langue de bois that Roland Barthes critiqued in his 1953 Le degré zero de l’écriture, and which he traced back to the French Revolution, was but a blip in the long history of Right-wing écriture, which, unlike Stalinist prose, we fail to resist because we have always already been taken in by it. At the high point of postwar victimary thought, Jacques Derrida proposed as our task, in the place of Marx’s revolutionary Aufhebung of class society, deconstruction, the undermining of ascriptive inequality, an undertaking that, in contrast to the overturning of class privilege, has no final payoff and is effectively interminable.
GA’s minimalist conception of human origin avoids this post-Revolutionary parti pris, as it similarly refuses to interpret religious doctrines and rites as instruments of the “ruling class.” We should understand the origin of the human as a liberation from the “natural” rule of the strongest in proto-human society. But this understanding is possible only for those who are willing to accept that human culture—language and religion, the sacred and the significant—adds a new realm of being to the previous natural ontology.
It is simply a category error to believe that representational culture can be treated as just one more collection of biological traits. Whatever new light future discoveries about early humans may shed on our understanding of our origins, it is absurd to allow the absence of material confirmation to prevent us from constructing a hypothetical scene of origin. In this state of anthropological limbo, the “missing link” between the pre-human and the human must remain either a mystery or a triviality; it is no surprise that some, in exasperation at the blank wall of secular theory, turn back to the prescientific anthropological wisdom of the Bible.
It is no doubt too early to evaluate the American Left’s current trend, which has had no opportunity to realize itself in action, toward an unapologetic invocation of “socialism,” in which victimary criticism takes second place to grandiose, not to say quixotic, social programs, as exemplified by the “Green New Deal.” What appears of greatest interest in this new direction—whose concurrence with the return of traditional antisemitism is not exactly fortuitous—is its affirmative rather than deconstructive thrust.
Yet this raises a question. The new “socialist” program asks the society to work, to interact with nature rather than expending its energy on victimary surveiller et punir. Yet the victimocracy that emerged in the Obama era was in its way a creative means of maintaining the social order in the face of the perturbations consequential to digitalization. The premium given to symbol-manipulation over physical labor (see in particular Chronicles 487, 541, and 549), has led to working-class depression and drug abuse, and noticeably increased the penalty for what Shelby Steele calls the “underdevelopment” of men in minority communities.
In a world where symbols provide the major source of wealth, monopoly power and vast riches are available to the person who writes the most profitable code. On the path to billions, not just physical activity but even the interpersonal deal-making energies of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie have given way to hours at the keyboard cum high-level financing operations, as the film Social Media so neatly illustrates. Under such circumstances, one can wonder whether the seemingly healthy move to action as opposed to denunciation is not, in its real implications, less responsive to current conditions. Not only is the “socialism” it would implement remarkably reminiscent of Chavez’ policy for Venezuela, but even could it somehow be reconciled with the real economy, it is far from clear that all this expense of energy and finance would discharge as effectively as victimocracy the resentments of those left behind by the symbolic economy.
For the moment, these questions cannot be answered; they suggest points to observe in evaluating the future of the right-left balance that has been the key to the stability of liberal democracy. But one thing I feel confident in saying is that the victimocracy’s unedifying spectacle of moral preening does not justify striving for the Left’s elimination any more than the rise of populist nationalism in the West and the election of Trump signals the Right’s turn to fascism.
The American system has functioned generally well over the decades largely because it has been able to move political alternatives off the streets into electoral and legislative debate. The “Green New Deal,” with all its excesses, hints at a return to the more constructive leftism of the past. Even the recent spate of antisemitism, focusing the resentment of firstness on the “scapegoat” Jews, can be interpreted as a sign of fatigue with the vastly more extensive virtue-signaling denunciation of “white privilege.”
Let us hope that these signs are harbingers, however indirect, of a gradual return to more effective and responsive government. It is urgent that liberal democracy get its house in order if it is would successfully meet the challenge posed by China’s model of state capitalism.
Coda – A Violence-based Theory of Human Origins
We do well to be cautioned by Keynes’ famous remark that men who think of themselves as practical are in fact in bondage to some long-dead philosopher. It applies mutatis mutandis to scientists who think they can avoid theoretical controversy by limiting themselves to “positive,” that is, physically demonstrable results.
The recent efforts of the human sciences, in reaction to the previous generation’s deconstructive invasion by French Theory, to do away with any form of theorizing other than strict biological Darwinism, have led to a state in which the theorist has no alternative mode of explanation other than a premodern fideism, but without the divinities and scriptures to justify it.
A useful example of this is provided by primatologist Richard Wrangham’s The Goodness Paradox (Pantheon, 2019), a recent analysis of the origins of human morality. Wrangham is a serious scientist. He cites if anything an excess of ethological and genetic data in defense of his thesis, which has the virtue of taking seriously the problematic of human violence that Hobbes, Freud, Girard, and GA have all faced in their models of an originary scene, but that paleontologists, let alone linguists and cognitive scientists, who unlike primatologists never see violence in the raw, inevitably neglect as a crucial factor.
Wrangham’s basic idea is that humans are “self-domesticated,” in the sense that, like domesticated animals, but also a few wild ones, notably the chimpanzee-like bonobos, they exhibit a low level of reactive violence, rarely striking back in fury when provoked. Reactive violence is apparently regulated by different genes than the complementary variety, proactive or premeditated violence, the presence of which Wrangham considers the key distinction between Sapiens and the rest of the animal kingdom, including other versions of Homo. In particular, in what could almost be called a scenario of the origin of humanity, although no specific event or crisis is postulated, this type of violence, as a conspiracy of subalterns, would have functioned at some point to terminate the dominance of the Alpha male over the rest of the social group. Thus, questions of originary language and transcendence aside, we can read Wrangham’s thesis, formulated wholly in biological terms, as a confirmation of our originary hypothesis, in a version that would be particularly attractive to Girardians because, although resembling more Freud’s father-murder than Girard’s arbitrary lynching, it nonetheless operates not through scenic deferral but through murder.
But in fact, language is not set aside at all. In several places, rather than describing the origin of proactive violence wholly in the biological categories he uses throughout, Wrangham specifically mentions that the difference between Sapiens and apes, and perhaps other species of Homo (although in the absence of evidence he avoids pronouncing on this question), is that men can come together to plan to end the tyranny of the Alpha because they have language. Yet this causal hypothesis is never linked to a hypothesis of the origin of language itself. On the contrary, the concluding chapter contains this striking passage:
Regardless of when coalitionary proactive aggression began against strangers, the impact of such killing within groups was limited until humans’ development of language . . . With the arrival of planned and communally approved executions [i.e., such as language alone permits], the bullying of an alpha male was exchanged for the subtler tyranny of the previous underdogs. . . . It took the mysterious dawning of a language facility, sometime between 500,000 and 300,000 years ago, to shake us into a new world. (277)
This passage simply, modestly, declines to offer an explanation for the emergence of language, which (coincidentally?) resolved the problem of the “bullying alpha,” while creating a “subtler tyranny”—for the outcome is after all a form of patriarchy, and Wrangham has absorbed enough of the contemporary ethos to know that male domination is a Bad Thing.
And yet, to read this paragraph without parti pris, it relies as much on naturally inexplicable forces to resolve a problem of causality as the baldest claim of Creationism. Is there any substantive difference between claiming that God gave us language and attributing it to the “mysterious dawning of a language facility”? Where the term “mysterious” simply means without explanation, a reference to God would at least indicate a link, however ill explained, to a human cultural foundation. But if Wrangham refers to language only in the context of planned aggression, he never discusses religion at all; the word is used in passing once or twice and does not even appear in the index. We are far indeed from The Golden Bough and Les formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse.
The originary hypothesis does not postulate a preexisting God as the source of human language; it remains neutral in the debate between man creates God and God creates man. GA finds it necessary only to remark that the origin of human language, the first moment of what we have the right to call history, necessarily coincides with the emergence of the shared notion of the sacred.
Wrangham’s honest refusal to explain away language, to tell us how “easy” it is that it evolved, is a mark of true scientific modesty—and one that confirms, by way of the via negativa, the indispensability of the originary hypothesis.