The Psychology of Liberalism
Modern liberalism is characterized by a set of beliefs that stand in such strong contradiction to what we know about human nature and society that some authors believe that a psychological assessment of this movement will give insights that cannot be gained by simply identifying its claims and demands. In this tradition, the Catholic reactionary Andy Nowicki has published a short book called The Psychology of Liberalism: Character Study of a Movement.
It should be noted from the outset that the author does not have in mind what today would be called “classical liberalism,” although one could argue that all forms of liberalism have some beliefs in common (a point that he addresses at the end of the book). On the other hand, the author’s analysis does not just refer to those who self-identify as liberals, but to all those who (unconsciously) state their beliefs in the framework of liberalism, which includes most contemporary conservatives.
Nowicki identifies the promotion of tolerance while excluding oneself from its requirements as the essence of the psychology of liberals. This is not a straightforward issue of hypocrisy because, in their own mind, they are the truly tolerant. This lack of recognition that they do not value diversity at all is what characterizes the liberal mind. “But should one point this out to liberals, one discovers to one’s perplexity that what is apparent to people of below-average intelligence is not necessarily so to a victim of “doublethink,” no matter how clever and well read the latter might be,” he writes.
Liberals often counter that tolerance does not require “tolerance of the intolerant,” but then re-define tolerance in such a manner that tolerance requires conforming to liberal ideas. Such selective and circular reasoning constitutes modern liberalism.
One thing that puzzles the writer is how liberals can persist in believing that they are an oppressed minority who speak “truth to power” when they are the status quo in the media, academia, public policy, etc. But as he correctly notes, progressives have to believe this or be faced with the uncomfortable fact that they are not fighting power but exercising it. And that their demands for tolerance are not demands for justice but commands to conform.
Nowicki observes that liberals reject the doctrine of “Original Sin,” but only to resuscitate the doctrine in a secular and highly selective manner, where it seeks to induce guilt in people who belong to a certain groups (males, individuals of European descent, etc.) and place other groups beyond all criticism.
Liberal guilt is concerned with abstractions; the “system” is to blame. Those who prosper under the system, the “privileged,” ought to feel guilty, even if they themselves have done nothing personally to oppress or tyrannize others. Liberal guilt, again, is corporate; it is no respecter of persons, but rather of groups. While original sin is applicable to everyone, liberal sin only taints those groups which it designates as “privileged.”
Of course, many liberals themselves are part of the privileged. As Nowicki notes, the more prestigious the school, the more likely that it promotes a liberal outlook. These “limousine liberals” can hardly claim to be among the oppressed but they do see themselves as a vanguard for the oppressed. The problem is that their translation of the concerns of the oppressed are highly contestable. Feminists may claim to speak for women but most women reject feminism, labor unionists speak on behalf of the workers but many workers are not supportive of unions. Black community leaders justify and excuse violence that is condemned by many ordinary black people. Undeterred, the vanguard considers such objections as evidence of the degree that the victims are brainwashed to condone their own oppression, which produces a perfect, circular, self-justification of liberalism.
As with tolerance, liberals also have a complicated relationship with anger. When liberals are angry it is because they are outraged about injustice and oppression but when their opponents are angry this indicates “hate.” As a consequence, anger from the right people reinforces the correctness of liberalism, while anger of the wrong people indicates an inability to reason and “insensitivity.” One might add that if we recognize that in many cases liberals are those who yield power, their anger takes on a different, darker, dimension. It is not the anger of the victims of oppression but the anger of rulers who are provoked by people not conforming to their views.
Closely tied with progressive thinking is the cult of self-esteem. “..where Marxism aimed at redistributing the wealth, self-esteemism wants to redistribute the praise. Marxism, self-esteemism, and all other humanistic philosophies pragmatically fail because they ignore the obvious reality – that we are all unequal.” Self-esteem is a necessary condition for “empowerment” and liberals show little restraint in exercising political power on behalf of the powerless, despite their obligatory “Question Authority” bumper stickers.
After offering such level-headed insights about modern liberalism, Nowicki seeks to make sense of the fact that progressives undoubtedly share certain features with Christianity (such as a belief in universalism, a “golden future when all shall be well,” and a missionary mindset) but also reject certain aspects of Christianity. I must admit that I find his discussion of the similarities more persuasive and decisive. I doubt it is a coincidence that political correctness has been perfected in the country that was settled by Puritans with a strong sense of guilt. His case against liberalism seems to depend quite strongly on designating it as an individualist, nihilist movement, but after spending a lot of pages documenting its ultra-moralism and collectivism that is not completely persuasive either.
It is correct that liberalism seeks to undermine much of traditional morality, but it also aims to strengthen and purify certain aspects of it to the point where it has to exclude other aspects, including the divine derivation of morality. At some point, progressives recognized that this requires a break with Christianity itself, but its moralist eschatological framework remained intact, albeit in a secular form. Of course, this sets the stage for a never-ending debate between Traditionalists and secular zealots about which values really matter because their is no meta-perspective agreed to by both parties that can mediate such disagreements.
There is a strain in social thought that attributes the existence of oppressive and murderous regimes to a lack of recognition of objective values. One problem that has plagued these kinds of theories is that the regimes in question were never composed of card-carrying nihilists. The outlook of their leaders may not always have been universal, but they were strongly convinced of the truth of their moral views. In a sense, one could argue that this is inevitable because power needs a claim to legitimacy to grow and persist. A regime that would claim that truth, morality, and progress are nonsense and that it is solely pursuing its own self-interest against the interests of the people is not ensured a long existence. It is also doubtful that real nihilists will be drawn to the political process and public policy.
It is not really possible to predict the outcome of a society composed of people who do not recognize the existence of objective morals (or “rights”) because we have never been in such a state. But we can reasonably claim that morality is not dependent on the discovery of God-given or absolute values and will thrive whenever people with shared and competing interests recognize the need for coordination and rules. The evidence for this can even be observed in the world of the great apes and prehistoric humans. The source of complex moral behavior may not have been a supernatural being but something as “trivial” as the discovery of fire.
One does not need a “coherent argument” against Nazism when its policies clearly contradict the interests of many people. Arguments are often powerless in the face of coercion and violence and the best one can hope for is to establish an equilibrium in which resorting to violence will be a self-defeating strategy. Ironically, such as state of affairs is prevented as long as those seeking power can command submission by claiming some mysterious legitimacy for their conduct.
The power that liberals exercise, and that others of different ideological persuasion enjoyed in times past, goes beyond what is needed to coordinate and regulate mutually beneficial human interaction. The ideology of modern liberalism looks particularly incoherent and tortured but, as the author has so perfectly identified, this should be expected if one claims to fight power and hold it at the same time. This feature of modern liberalism also explains why the libertarian socialism that preceded the rise of the Protest Generation to power looks at least somewhat coherent compared to its contemporary form, in which the “libertarian” element has strangely disappeared.
Nowicki believes that in the end liberalism will self-destruct because as its dark nihilism will be recognized and practiced by society, no moral order will be possible. An alternative perspective is that liberalism still draws upon the residual moralism and herd behavior of Christianity and as soon as that is recognized people will no longer submit to its demands and more enlightened arrangements will emerge. Yet another perspective is that power and struggle have followed humans since they were great apes and that the real difference between us and them is that we can create elaborate thought systems that seek to “justify” such behavior. As a consequence, we can get too carried away by the analysis of “ideas” and pay insufficient attention to the dynamics that regulate power. It is only quite recently that evolutionary theory and economics seek to identify the biological basis and “micro-foundations” of political power.
Andy Nowicki is one the sharpest observers of contemporary liberalism that I know and it is unfortunate that his little book on the peculiar reasoning of modern liberals is now out of print. Unlike his book on suicide, there is no strong language or treatment of sexually explicit themes in this book. As such, there is no excuse for contemporary liberals to read it. If they would, many of them would prefer to skip his relentless assault on the incoherent nature of their ideology and focus on the “no morality without God” message, which I suspect, is an easier target. Such an approach would not be possible in the case of the atheist conservative Gustave Le Bon, whose 1898 classic, The Psychology of Socialism, analyzed socialism as yet another manifestation of the religious mindset and group hysteria that needs to be overcome.