Friday, December 25, 2015

"Fools, Frauds and Firebrands" Building Their Secular Theology

When commentators say that people are losing their faith in religion, I like to say: what are you talking about? Since the supposed "death of God" about 200 years ago we have seen an explosion of militant secular religions that have inspired billions of humans with their visions of a better world. And the most militant and vibrant of those secular religions has been Marxism.

So I ordered Roger Scruton's latest, Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left with anticipation. I have a lot of respect for Scruton, not least the fact that it was his horse that introduced him to his wife (it's a charming story).

Having read the book I confess myself a little disappointed. Scruton dismisses a lot of the lefty thinkers as purveyors of "nonsemes," or nonsense memes, and he discounts a lot of their writing as merely what we now call virtue signalling that communicates their reliability and orthodoxy to the others of their lefty faith.

I think the problem is that Scruton analyzes thinkers from Althusser to Žižek as if they were philosophers, when I think it is more sensible and accurate to describe them as secular theologians. For instance, one of Louis Althusser's books is Reading Capital, i.e., Marx's Das Kapital. The sensible way to understand such a book would be as an analysis of a holy text.

It is telling, as Scruton tells us, that these leftist thinkers do not reference any writers or sources outside the holy family of Marx and his epigones. I experienced this myself recently when reading the Marxist The Origin of Capitalism: A Longer View by Ellen Meiksins Wood. There is not a whisper in Wood's book about post-Marxian economics. Everything is analyzed from the holy texts, in terms of commodification of labor, exchange value vs. use value, surplus value, and class conflict. There is a word for this kind of thing. Fundamentalism. Don't bother me with the latest in science and research. That old time religion is good enough for me.

Now many of of the thinkers that Scruton analyzes I have never read. But some of them I have, including Foucault, Horkheimer, Adorno, and Habermas. I am sorry to say that Scruton, to me, does not allow them the benefit of the doubt. For instance Scruton dismembers The Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno as an attack on not just the bourgeoisie and capitalism but, hysterically, Enlightenment itself. OK, but I read Horkheimer and Adorno as saying that it is not just capitalism that threatens us with domination, but reason itself. Reason is not just a means to understand the world, but to dominate it. That is what they mean by "ïnstrumental reason." What they begin, Jürgen Habermas follows through, and by the time he has finished, in my view, the whole edifice of the revolutionary left is in ruins. Scruton criticizes the thinking of Habermas as labored and bureaucratic. But I think that it rips open the heart of leftist thinking. It says, in The Theory of Communicative Action, that instrumental reason is a domination can only be checked by inter-subjective communication between equals that trust each other. No doubt Habermas has to smother this idea in bushels of lefty orthodoxy to make it palatable to his lefty readers. And no doubt in his later Between Facts and Norms, Habermas utterly fails to show how his theory of moderating instrumental reason with intersubjective trust could be achieved in a big-government context, and submerges his failure in snowdrifts of bureaucratic waffle. But that is the point. Once you have opened the can of instrumental reason and begun to critique it, you have unwittingly exposed the impossibility of Marxism and socialism which are built on using people as instrumental pawns in a project of internal colonization. And no amount of beating around the bush can really hide it.

Now I choose to read Fools, Frauds and Firebrands through the reductive lens of my Three Peoples theory. I believe that lefties are People of the Creative Self and that their secular religion is an attempt to find meaning in this world for the creative life. That, to me, is the meaning of Sartre's existentialism and his idea of good faith and bad faith. Good faith is being a creative thinker; bad faith is repeating someone else's idea. Take Alain Badiou's idea of "the Event." He means, of course, the transformative political revolutionary event that every leftist longs for. But you can also see the Event as the creative breakthrough that every creative artist lives for. What Badiou calls "generic procedures"  I would call creative process.
Badiou identifies just four areas which admit of 'generic procedures', and in which the call to fidelity is heard: science (including mathematics), love (by which he means erotic love), art and politics. And it is only by through fidelity to such a 'generic procedure' that we achieve the good.
I understand this as a manifesto of creativity. Good faith is the creative act. To Badiou's creative self the only thing worth living for is the creative act, the invention of something new in science, love, art, and politics. The moment of creative inspiration is very heaven. Hell is unthinkingly regurgitating other peoples' ideas.

Very good. But to me Badiou's vision is crippled. Why just include science, love, art and politics as the sources of creativity? What about business? Has there been a more stunning creative achievement than the iPhone, brainchild of Steve Jobs? What about children? Is there anything more creative that joining with a woman to create and then to raise a child? And what founts of creativity are waiting undiscovered to the parent and the child as both set out on the journey of growth and discovery?

Yes, business. This capitalism that the left reviles is not a matter of "accumulation", but a miraculous story of creation and discovery. a process in the last two centuries that has raised human per-capita income by 3,000 percent. There has been nothing like the Great Enrichment, ever, as Deirdre McCloskey writes in her  "Bourgeois Era" books. George Gilder talks about the capitalist process as "surprise", one surprise after another. What is this "surprise" but the creative act?

Now, I think the Left's secular religion of the creative self has made one huge error. It has taken for granted that the great era of creativity, the celebration of the Events of creation, must necessarily be built on the ruins of the old age of the responsible self, what we will call, for the sake of argument, the bourgeois era. This is a monstrous mistake. The age of the creative self must be built on the shoulders of the age of the responsible self, by revising and extending the achievements of the age of the responsible self.

In my view, the creative lefties are repeating the mistake of the classical liberals of two hundred years ago. The classical liberals thought, as the middle class coming to power, that they would replace utterly the old age of the subordinate self in which ordinary people were subjected in feudal subordination to the great landowners and nobles. Now everyone would be a responsible self and a middle-class householder. But the truth is that plenty of people don't want to be rugged individualists. They want to live secure, safe lives as the clients under the shelter of some great patron. They are people that want a lifetime job working for the government or some great corporation. And when the classical liberals tried to impose their age of the responsible self the subordinate workers said: no way. Anyway, the first thing that happened in the new age of the responsible self was the nightmare of subordination and regimentation of the factory worker to the factory boss. A bit of a cock-up on the economic front.

Here's how the world should work. The creative class should have every opportunity to create and invent and surprise us with their original creations. But their culture must coexist with the culture of the responsible self. The responsible class should have every opportunity to live their lives as responsible individuals, working and wiving and thriving on their own account and not as the clients of some great CEO or politician. But this responsible culture must allow and concede space for people that are not ready, or just do not want to be anything more than subordinate clients to some great lord.

Of course, our lefty friends ought to know better than to build their cathedrals of meaning and their monuments of secular orthodoxy on a program of destruction, of the great Event that will demolish the unjust order of capitalism and domination. In that great apocalypse they will destroy themselves. But they are, as we all are, all too human.

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