A point of consternation for many conservatives is accounting for the strange menagerie gathered beneath the progressive banner. What exactly do the radical feminist types have in common with, say, immigrant enclaves in Western Sydney, whose family structures involve all kinds of problematic elements? What binds the fat activist to the fierce proponent of the environment, when one spends much of her time eating the obsessions of the other? The excessively bourgeois Extinction Rebellion types to the lumpen-proletarian Black Lives Matter? Ever heard of “Queers for Palestine”? The obvious answer is the things they oppose in common: various shibboleths with predictable names like “white supremacy”, “the patriarchy”, or “neoliberal economics”, even as they are largely funded by the latter.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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It would be short-sighted to focus just on those individuals who have coalesced behind one or another of these movements. The problem is more general than these little vanguard factions; it is one that has burrowed deeply into how many once-ordinary people consider their place in the current order, how they act accordingly, and where, increasingly, they see their own advantage lying. It is why this peculiar alliance seems to always be growing, in spite of sometimes splintering in odd directions, like “Gays for Trump”, that many conservatives mistook for a genuine game-changing “aha” moment, a means to steal the enemy’s energy; admittedly, few are foolish enough to waste the other side’s traitors. Crafting from the bizarre trophies first, and workhorses second, is a habit of the Left, not the Right, however; a habit that has taken on a grander scale as the decades have passed. All this is permitted by the institutional victories the Left has managed while too many of us were busy talking about the economy, trying to be libertarians, or being otherwise unobservant.
Look at one of those diversity posters you see everywhere; these are groups that, if Lord of the Flies were to play out today, ought to be at one another’s throats any moment. It can be tempting to write the whole thing off as an ill-thought-out, obviously contradictory and rather comedic state of affairs. The alliance existing between those the Left loves is not a natural one, and one the Right has been complacent about, if rather amused by, for a long time. It pays to take a look beyond the immediate electoral intentions of this alliance, to examine its more obscure philosophical origins, and ponder why it seems to have held together so long. Many assumed that it would collapse, and eventually, it probably will; but that collapse may well happen without us, like rats fighting in a cage. The alliance is, in part, held together by the prospect of stripping you, and what you represent, of everything. Take some reassurance in knowing that you are an object of fear and hate, because nobody fears or hates that which doesn’t frighten them.
Yet it is an alliance that, should we take close examination, makes a great deal of sense, especially from a strategic perspective. Above all things, the Left desires power, though in terms of vaguely-principled articulations that can be broadly understood and embraced—so far as the Left can be considered to have principles—it has likewise been working very effectively for a very long time. Ever wondered why liberal elites seem to have so much sympathy for the criminal underclass? Why so much comes out of criminology departments and the press that lionises the criminally-minded as proto-revolutionary? I saw a piece of propaganda recently that asked me to imagine a world without police and without prisons. A world like that could only be a world without criminals, but I hardly imagine they were arguing for the wholesale liquidation of everybody who has had a brush with the law. It does no good to focus on juvenile and poorly-thought-out evasions when it comes to human evil, or the various contortions or denials propounded about its nature. For our purposes, we ought to think about exactly why the top applauds when the bottom runs around smashing things up, providing them a degree of moral and legal protection, as demonstrated in the United States during their “summer of love” in 2020. Recently, I read that California plans to essentially legalise shoplifting; after all, a law unenforced is no law at all. Accompanying this it seems that some individuals likely to run foul of the justice system, to be thrown to the dogs, are those who are not criminals, at least not criminals in the sense we once meant. Our country is little different.
In America, we might expect support for all this to come from Democrats, who are open in their endorsement of this alliance and smugly count on it to deliver them power in perpetuity. Republican figures joining Black Lives Matter marches, demonstrating a complete abandonment of thought, principle, or both, indicate this mentality has broken its banks, and seeped into other quarters that were not keeping sufficient watch. We see this in the ascent to sainthood of George Floyd, and the scenes that followed, as progressive reporters stood before burning buildings declaring the protests largely peaceful. Even the most enthusiastic moral-gymnast ought to have some problems accounting for that. The less ideologised observer, who watched small businesses burn, ordinary people beaten in the street, and diners thrown out of restaurants by the mob, might rightly wonder why the top and the bottom seem to equally hate the middle. Anarcho-tyranny, Sam Francis called it. In other words, why does the Left love those it loves, seemingly the most odious members of any society?
Someone called “Spandrel” on the online Right has written a prescient essay titled “Biological Leninism”, which purports to explain the function of this alliance, and the role of its patrons, in greater detail. You should read it, but be warned that it is strong meat. His thesis is unremarkable to those who’ve studied a little of the history of the communist world, but its application in liberal-democratic systems is worthy of note. I’ve drawn on it liberally here; I hope Spandrel does not mind too much, whoever he is.
Leninism is about bringing together the wretched of the world, promising to make them a little less wretched, and then deploying them as cannon-fodder to batter the existing order to pieces. It is a mistake to consider mobilisations of this sort as a popular movement; after all, many historians have quibbled about whether the Bolshevik victory better resembled a palace coup. The Leninist types provide an ideological bridgehead from which to channel whatever resentment presently exists into simply-grasped concepts: the equal sharing of misery, as Churchill put it. There’s always plenty of resentment in circulation, as long as relative poverty exists, despite general material conditions; and man being what he is, some will always do better than others. This temptation extends not only to the bottom but to the top, to those malformed souls who prefer to imagine themselves the puppeteers than the puppets, who wish to kindle some sort of fire in their hearts in an age of empty fireplaces, and have the means to do so.
The revolutionary must penetrate everywhere, Sergei Nechaev said, and he was careful to add the Winter Palace to his list. Peasant revolts lacking elite support tend to result in a lot of spiked heads, à la Wat Tyler; for a more contemporary example, look to the lockdown protests in Melbourne. Any pretensions that these Leninist attitudes are genuinely grass-roots sentiments should be quickly dispelled, as should their claims to genuinely egalitarian principles; all things that function in the world do so as hierarchies, even if their literature pretends otherwise. If this state of affairs emerged by itself, without endless stoking by those who have seized the means of cultural production, the universities would look very different; they would not need to function as enormous re-education camps. If phase one is capturing elite culture, phase two is mobilising the wretched. It amounts to those wishing to expand their stake promising power to those without any stake, at the expense of those with a genuine stake; it is a marriage of fanatics and desperados, and somewhere between those jaws are you and your modest life.
In the long term, the wretched generally don’t get the best deal out of this arrangement, and once the capture is complete, they are most often dispensed with; unnatural orders can only prosper so long, without billions spent propping them up, not to mention the panoply of fictions required as ideological fuel. Read Solzhenitsyn. But this wholescale abandonment is only possible when the capture is utterly complete and seemingly irreversible. Either way, while this systemisation continues gaining traction, you can look forward to being increasingly ruled, directly or indirectly, by the most loathsome elements of your own society. In our robust system, complete with English common law, residual belief in the rights that once guaranteed, as well as a wide dispersal of power including electoral politics never set in stone, total capture is difficult. After all, you’re reading this publication; the oxygen isn’t completely squeezed out of us yet. Alas, this inadvertently helps the other side, because they can always point to the barricades, to the next frontier to push; they can send forth the disparate elements of their alliance under streaming pendants. Ironically, complete victory would be the worst thing for these foot soldiers. They are better off with a three-quarter win, even though they hope for better. Their usefulness is not permanent, even if the call to revolution seems to be.
In our day, you can still smell the fumes of the old order, long in the process of being battered to pieces, origins largely eroded; you can see periwigs, small victories in the courts, the odd gleaming piece of genuine thought that makes its way into general parlance, and occasional setbacks to the liberal-Marxist synthesis that is sure to throw a tantrum whenever it is confounded, before preparing the next attack. There is still room to retreat into private life, into old books and old films, before the door is kicked in eventually. And in the little victories there are things to hope for, though without freshly generative materials, deeper in quality than the compromise-riddled flash-in-the-pans we are used to, I am not optimistic this will last forever. Perhaps we will end up with a completely transformed system in the near future, and we will all be living in Theseus’s ship, moreso than we already do. For this reason, among others, nobody should be an accelerationist. Things can always get worse.
To return to the alliance the Left cobbles together, it is best imagined as a patron-client relationship, like Pompey scattering coins to the cheering crowds that followed him around. Without patronage, the average leftist is nobody; even Marx needed Engels. Those groups and individuals that cleave to the leftist hegemon can hope for no advancement without firm institutional support, and this guarantees fanatical fidelity. Many of those dysgenic-looking people with coloured hair you see at the local shopping centre are as zealous as any Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution, and for reasons of personal advancement as much as any broader conviction. This, as Spandrel points out, helps to explain diversity recruitment campaigns, the endless expansion of HR departments, those worthies who flesh out job titles with “inclusion” in the name, and why we keep taking immigrants from the least compatible places on earth.
You might pinch yourself when a generous dose of dumb is proffered on a television program or in the press; why is anybody listening to what this person has to say? That person has likely sold their whole being to the project, because without it, they remain amongst the wretched. The project has rewarded them in turn. And the higher these wretched types climb, the more of the wretched they’ll bring with them. All those wretched types owe everything to this Leninist visitation.
The truth is that the better able you are to do on your own, the less the Left will love you. You are of no use to them, and they are no use to you; it is a matter of psychological health as much as any material component or socio-economic factor. You will be okay without them, as long as they don’t have too much of a say on the general condition of your life. Unfortunately, they are aiming to increase their stake in that very thing, for that very reason. It is hard now to avoid the consequences of our increasingly totalitarian tilt; there are fewer places to hide in plain sight, and those comforts provided by old music and old books risk being spoiled by their juxtaposition against everything now in style, or by your impending dekulakisation.
If we are immunised against the more traditional forms of wholesale politicisation—it is hard to imagine a contemporary Goebbels—we are more vulnerable than ever to the sort that arises horizontally, that is foisted on us by those rainbow-haired people around us, that is gently funnelled through every institution, popular media, or marketing department, ever careful to avoid resembling a jackboot too closely, or at least too soon. It turns out that soft tyranny does a better job than hard tyranny, and soft tyranny is certainly what we’ve ended up with, a very liberal kind of tyranny. It’ll enervate you in the end, but that’s much easier for any regime than, say, sending you to a gulag to dig ditches just to fill them in.
In short, the Left hates competence, because competence doesn’t need the same patronage, and the competent are likely to be sceptical of grand projects, especially ones that hit their hip pocket. The competent vote, and the more of them around, who sense that something isn’t quite right about the way things are heading, the less votes they might yield.
If you’ve wondered why nothing seems terribly competent any more, it is because the competent are deliberately excluded in the name of the party line, even if this has happened unselfconsciously, as though through osmosis. This helps explains why universal education appears to have done little to make people wiser; even as education departments talk about creating “twenty-first-century learners”, they are working at cross-purposes, because the last thing this alliance wants is a genuine mind. This has had its effect everywhere; it is hard to point to an area, outside of technology developed commercially and largely for leisure, where things have become more competent in recent years. Only the smartphone continues to advance. The sciences and mathematics are a little more resistant, being fields where nebulous concepts meet with either the scientific method or rationalist epistemology, ensuring the hard edge of reality remains relevant. But they’re after that too; have a look at articles about the “whiteness of maths” if you aren’t convinced, or examine how the hard sciences have caved almost entirely to the soft sciences when it comes to, say, gender.
Nowhere is this truer than in the world of ideas. Have you read a recent PhD thesis? Most candidates can’t write, nor seemingly think, but that doesn’t matter. It’s all about filling the intelligentsia with like-minds, with members of that alliance. Power comes before purpose, and competency is a long way down the list, not to mention truth. And if competency undermines loyalty, then it is easy to choose which is jettisoned first. If you work in a bureaucratic workplace, you have likely watched this happen around you, on a more immediate scale, because this ethos, like all elite-inspired ethe, radiates downwards into various copies of its original form, even if its first cause is forgotten. Robert Conquest’s adage was to imagine any bureaucracy as being controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies; now imagine that, but applied to our whole society.
It is helpful that this project can be wrapped in warm terms, like social justice, wealth redistribution, addressing systemic racism, or righting the wrongs of a colonial past; a true coalition of the virtuous, knocking down the palaces of their imagined optimate enemies. Every project needs its moral justifications, especially when it comes to subjugating one party to elevate another.
Never bother getting into moral arguments with leftists; it’s a waste of time. All you will experience is the moving of goalposts and the deployment of linguistic munitions designed to tear out your tongue. Wittgenstein called it playing different language games; if you’re being genuine, you’ll want to get to the truth of things. They rarely have any interest in doing that. Most of all, this project is a power-grab, and ought to be regarded as such. The well-heeled leftist who knows what he is about, and who is at the top of this project rather than the bottom, has little desire to have much to do with the types he promotes. By their deeds you shall know them.
The widespread propagation of moral dysfunction is a necessary part of this project, too, because unbroken people, as I hope I’ve established, don’t need the patronage of the Left. Thus, we see the encouragement of a generalised social chaos, of every sort of vice, camouflaged behind a kind of inversion of all values; justified in part by throwing off the oppressive norms of the past, or by abandoning any treason to the self. Things that help to build a sense of solidarity, in the Durkheimian sense, are carefully dismantled or violently dynamited. This in part helps explain the never-ending assault on families, churches, and on healthy sexual relations, which is as much about real tactical nous as it is about the deployment of ideological principles. People with loyalties to things they experience in daily life, or rooted in a tangible past, are less likely to cleave to abstractions. Picking off atomised individuals and folding them into the movement is central to the strategy.
Our collective moral schema has further taken up a sort of Nietzschean slave-morality, whereby aspiring to victimhood, in its various forms, is propounded as the highest moral good. Victimhood, bestowed by imagined or real circumstances, gives you a certain radiance; it is as fruitless to argue with the person drawing on “lived experience” as it is with that hardened leftist. People will look to scratch a meagre quantity of victim-status wherever possible, in order to have a claim to that hallowed ground, and to qualify for the patronage that is necessary and sometimes sufficient for advancement. The casualties are nobility, self-respect and a personal ontology that can resist the genuine victimisation that life will visit on everybody eventually. It certainly prepares nobody for that, though it was never intended to.
There is endless novelty in suffering, but there is something profoundly masochistic and myopic about a moral order that elevates the experience to qualifying one as among the elect; stoicism in the face of difficulty is not only beyond the imagination of most, but generates no advantage. It is worse that this suffering is often rendered another abstraction, delivered by inalienable parts of oneself; victimhood ascribed to inherent qualities, such as race or sex, in the name of expanding the ranks of the alliance. This enjoys the added advantage of helping to shame those who carry these inherent qualities, yet who might distrust the project, as the contemporary equivalent of class-traitors. Academics spend a great deal of time formalising this, drawing complex diagrams to show how various forms of disadvantage intersect with one another, like a postmodern incarnation of the Nuremberg Laws. We have allowed the widespread incentivisation of uselessness, along with the demonisation of personal responsibility, and have the audacity to wonder why the current landscape seems devoid of the latter while overflowing with the former. This is how fresh recruits are created, ready to throw themselves into the fray, and as long as this Leninist project retains the significant purchase it presently enjoys, we will be a long way from moral rejuvenation.
If a rising tide can lift certain boats, it can also flood all houses. Anything resembling a Benedict Option no longer seems possible for most people, who lack a sizeable war-chest to keep the furies at bay. Most of us have to live with this anarcho-tyranny; some of us must profess things we don’t believe, stay quiet when the obscenest lies are uttered with the surety of fact, or at the very least watch the slide into institutional incompetence that seems to be happening everywhere. This is a consequence of allowing nasty hierarchies to form above our heads, hierarchies that are able to mobilise monsters beneath them.
There is a lesson in this for the Right, being that we don’t abandon the wretched; certainly, that we don’t leave arguments about what makes life worth living entirely to the other side to make. Talking solely about market-based solutions and frowning on those who don’t make it in an ostensibly meritocratic society provides fodder for the other side; at the very least, it justifies to some the sacking of those optimate villas. To that extent we’ve earned our predicament, by carrying on about Friedman and Hayek, and believing that we could create an automated society that wouldn’t require good men, with good principles, to run it: the ultimate post-industrial vanity. Conservative elites were tempted away from the rudder, and abandoned their duties in many cases, duties grounded in noblesse oblige. By wholeheartedly embracing the fiction that everybody can be a perfectly actualised individual by any guiding light, the ideational element of what constitutes a functional society composed along natural lines was neglected, and the very worst guiding lights allowed to glow undimmed. The temptation to a light touch—a noble one—allowed the enemy a firm hand.
The Right badly needs an answer to this Leninist encroachment, and one that goes beyond offering snarky retorts, internet memes, and making fun of the other side’s ridiculousness. Their ridiculousness in no way undermines the danger, and there are many instances in history when ridiculous characters ended up burning everything to the ground.
Christopher Jolliffe is a frequent contributor. He wrote “The Heroic Masculine and the Devouring Stepmother” in the October issue