How the Left Rose to Political Power and Cultural Dominance
by Barry Rubin (January 28, 1950 – February 3, 2014)
Broadside Books (HarperCollins) – 2014
“The goal was no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat but that of the beautiful people.”
“Proper thinking and good intentions are the test of virtue rather than the results of one’s actions.”
“A dictatorship led by the “right” people – be they the proletariat (which in the real world meant the party bosses) or the enlightened educated who know what’s best for you – is still a dictatorship.”
“… the United States has been transformed into a country of castes, something like medieval society, while the goal of equal treatment of citizens and the attempt to reward individual merit were overthrown over in favor of special privileges.”
“…the statist radicalism of the Third Left and “Progressive” liberals was, in historical terms, itself a reactionary worldview. Their effort to centralize intellectual and political power in their own hands, overriding pluralism and individual freedom, because only they knew how to promote the common good, was the same rationale used by feudalism, divine-right monarchism, fascism, Communism, and other nondemocratic movements. That is why the Third Left with its late-nineteenth century solutions must pretend it is dealing with late-nineteenth century capitalism.”
…America’s fundamental transformation already happened to a large extent before Obama ever declared his candidacy. … In effect, “liberalism” in America was redefined from a mild reformist impulse to improve the existing system into a radical, anticapitalist ideology seeking to overturn the country’s most fundamental principles. (14)
…the Third Left and its ideological allies, the “Progressive liberals” … forgot a point so well grasped by America’s founders: that a government, no matter who is running it, is a leading candidate to be the most powerful, oppressive force in society. A dictatorship led by the “right” people – be they the proletariat (which in the real world meant the party bosses) or the enlightened educated who know what’s best for you – is still a dictatorship. (66)
But in contrast to all the main leftist movements of the past 150 years, the Third Left abandoned a materialist philosophy for that of philosophical idealism. What could be more appropriate than the fact that the Third Left mega-guru Noam Chomsky was a linguist while many other leading intellectual figures denied the existence of truth and focused on the manipulation of words?
Philosophical idealism means deriving conclusions about the world from the mind rather than material evidence. If one simply asserts that certain ideas are “fair” and “just”, these must take precedence. Therefore, the fact that the left’s programs had failed so miserably and that liberal programs weren’t working becomes irrelevant. What’s important is that they should work and eventually – with enough time, money, and effort – they will do so because they are right. That’s why the phrase is political correctness and not factual correctness. (84)
The Third Left’s philosophical idealism accorded well with its class base: social groups that dealt in ideas and paperwork rather than producing material objects. The growth of these sectors was the outcome of what has been called a “postindustrial” society in an era when information – and control over it – was said to be primary. These people aspire to be the new ruling class, seeing themselves as the font of all that is good precisely because they are above grubby materialism.
In this context, members of the Third Left elite were rebelling against the West’s material success. The original Marxist left demanded that everyone share in higher living standards, only to discover that this goal, which they wrongly through capitalism and “bourgeois democracy” were incapable of achieving, drained the masses’ revolutionary motivation. Third Left cadre, who live very nice lives, want to denounce materialism and consumption without giving it up.
They usually solve this problem in daily life by trying to lead a “higher quality” lifestyle involving, for example, nonpolluting cars and healthier foods. These things are more expensive and tend to be upper-middle-class tastes. The people who follow this path have less and less in common with the poor, working class, and even much of the middle class. And naturally they think they are superior to all the others.
As a result, social snobbishness is transformed into political virtue. Wealthy people, intellectuals, and move stars want to be simultaneously a pampered elite and heroic strugglers for a better world. Isolated from what has to happen to keep them supplied with goods, paying others to protect liberty in battle, not having to meet a payroll or manufacture a three-dimensional product, this caste naturally tends to believe that ideas are everything and reality a subordinate to what’s in the mind. (86-87)
…so the Third Left movement would follow suit, empowering sections of the upper middle class, dressed up in self-serving revolutionary garb, against the rich and much of the rest of the middle class. It had been a New Left joke that the Weatherman group was composed of the most spoiled kids from the wealthiest families.
Actually, it made sense, since it was an elitist-led movement that most benefitted this elite’s interests, even while it fooled many of the masses (and also benefitted the parallel self-selected racial, gender, union, and immigrant elites) into thinking that it benefited their interests. For example, they were when necessary exempt from the most civilized fairness, the most deliberate slurs, and rewarded with most cynical success. (91)
The goal was no longer a dictatorship of the proletariat but that of the beautiful people. (96)
Those who became part of the successful new class thought of themselves as rightful rulers of the country; those who failed were bitter and eager for fundamental transformation. Along with these factors came the chronic psychological factors that have always produced radicals and revolutionaries, even when there was much greater injustice to rebel against: boredom, guilt, a superiority complex, a snobbish preference for the exotic, and revolutionary romanticism. Intensifying this hostility was the Western elite’s loss of confidence over its own system: guilt over enjoying high living standards, disgust at materialism, shame at historical injustices, and doubt about the virtues of their society. (97)
The basic idea of the state as a machine whose workings were undistorted by human characters or institutional interests would still be held by the twenty-first-century American left and its offspring. Good citizens with lots of education would be, in effect, philosopher kings, telling everyone else how to live and making decisions in their best interests for the common good. (102)
…The Third Left taught people to feel guilty about their privileges yet offered them not only redemption but also material benefits. You could enjoy a big house, a well-paid job, and expensive material goods while still being a hero of the virtuous revolution sort of like Che with an SUV. Beyond that, you were more likely to get that good job in a glamorous line of work if you toed the line. Ironically, the Marxists had been fair-minded in comparison. When they spoke of class struggle they were against the entire bourgeoisie, since their class standpoint was thought to be virtually inevitable. Far more effectively, the Third Left let the bourgeoisie make a choice. It could support the movement’s agenda, lose nothing, and gain a lot.
Finally, there is the transference of blame and snobbishness toward the lower orders as the Third Left absorbed the historic haughtiness of the rich. Historically, the left had delegitimized and ridiculed elites. The Third Left, however, ridiculed the masses. The “enlightened” upper-middle-class left liberal viewed his mission as transforming others to be just like himself, the enlightened epitome of history, in terms both of beliefs and behaviors, down to the very foods he prefers.
With good conscience they look down on those from most small towns and rural areas; big or small businesspeople; and lower-middle-class and blue-collar workers. They have put the hip social elite and yuppie upper middle class in place of the proletariat. They romanticize distant peasants – or terrorists – while jeering at anyone who shops at Walmart. (110-111)
…that’s why the current leftists worked so effectively. It allowed one to have a high living standard, believe oneself exceptionally virtuous, and flaunt supposed superiority. … And so this ideology is essentially a reactionary, snobbish and anti-diversity philosophy. The radical elite loves itself as it saves the world by staging a no-risk revolution, at considerable benefit to itself, while looking down on the backward, inferior guns-and-Bible-hugging little people. (112)
…the system seemed developing toward one in which universities would charge whatever they wanted and students, parents, or ultimately taxpayers would pay whatever they demanded. In effect, the middle-class was being forced to subsidize the future upper middle class. Thus a waitress or small businessperson or mechanic would pay for the better-off kids to study art appreciation, feminist studies, conflict management, philosophy, etc., and then the same kids would complain that capitalism was treating them unjustly. That wasn’t socialism; it was a class struggle in reverse. (138-139)
In other words, the United States has been transformed into a country of castes, something like medieval society, while the goal of equal treatment of citizens and the attempt to reward individual merit were overthrown over in favor of special privileges. Every male and white person becomes guilty and can only attain innocence by backing the destruction of their own “privileges”, that is, by backing the Third Left and “Progressive” liberal agenda. (151)
“Too rich,” of course, was an accusation also made against those involved in business, that is, people who produce jobs and products. It is never applied to liberal politicians, tuition-grubbing universities, Hollywood stars, or entertainment moguls. The grubbiness of making things and taking profits has more to do with unfavorable image than actual greed or dishonesty. In effect, the wealthy could buy protection and approval, richly illustrated by the previously cited example of how Arianna Huffington went from object of ridicule in Time magazine – “Should the Huffingtons be Stopped?” read one headline – to an acclaimed heroine and genius merely by switching sides. (153)
Proper thinking and good intentions are the test of virtue rather than the results of one’s actions. (153)
The basic American system has thus been changed, perhaps for a long time, possibly even permanently in that the interests of the political, cultural, and intellectual rulers and their electoral support base had become detached from the values, policies, and beliefs that had made the United States into a great, wealthy, and united country. (154)
A large part of humanity is composed of opportunists, conformists, and people who just want to make a nice living. None of them will make waves. Possession of the idea-making institutions was nine-tenths of the battle for authority. If it was in the New York Times it must be true; if a Harvard University professor says something that must be accurate. (156)
Alongside demonization was the power of fashion. The ability to bestow or withhold legitimacy is incredibly powerful, especially in Washington, Hollywood, and New York, where obtaining such a seal of approval is a matter of social life or death. As a snobbish movement of the “beautiful people” of high culture, good taste, and comfortable livelihood, the Third Left was like a caricature of those who historically opposed the left. For a movement seeking a mass base among the proletariat, such a contemptuous view would be suicidal. But for a movement shaped by an elite than already looked down on its own masses and deemed them hopeless as raw material for revolution, this concept made eminent sense. (157)
Thus the American people, with all good intentions, did not elect a generic African American politician but a left-wing African American who championed a view of America that had more in common with the white Third Left than with the overwhelming majority of black churches. That’s why, ironically, the white liberal elite found Obama so authentic, just as it found radical Islamists or semi-Marxist Third World radicals more authentic because they corresponded to their expectations and the narrative of guilt and retribution. (193)
The reason one cannot cite historically prestigious mass media or academic scholarly sources on Obama’s radicalism – and on the Third Left generally – is that they did not investigate these issues, and even if forced to do so blatantly put the priority on finding a way to clear Obama of any accusations. A key reason why they did not cover such issues is that they have been complicit in concealing them. (199)
One might ask such people: How can you misunderstand, slander, and demean a system that has done so well for you? The answer is simple: They have done so well by a different system, one they now wished to extend further. It would be a system in which companies succeeded not because they had a good product, daring innovation, hardworking leaders, and a well-thought-out business plan, but precisely because they contribute money to the government and get big subsidies as favored clients. It doesn’t matter if they throw the money away or, more accurately, steal it. This is how the economy works in Third World dictatorships and that’s why it doesn’t work very well. (255)
Yet in fact the Third Left or its new version of liberalism was quite different from historic liberalism. Indeed, the statist radicalism of the Third Left and “Progressive” liberals was, in historical terms, itself a reactionary worldview. Their effort to centralize intellectual and political power in their own hands, overriding pluralism and individual freedom, because only they knew how to promote the common good, was the same rationale used by feudalism, divine-right monarchism, fascism, Communism, and other nondemocratic movements. That is why the Third Left with its late-nineteenth century solutions must pretend it is dealing with late-nineteenth century capitalism. (274)
The kinds of people who become politicians and government bureaucrats have specific and especially developed character traits. They are people who crave power – I know this firsthand from growing up and living in these circles in Washington. D.C. – and who are prone to arrogance once they achieve that status. They do not like to be criticized and they are even more prone than most mortals to believe that they cannot be wrong. (288)
A new class of professional managers, bureaucrats, and those who controlled the commanding heights of idea and attitude production was empowered. And the giant federal government turned to crony capitalism, a different form of the late nineteenth century corruption of favoritism; massive handouts to buy votes, and ever-tighter regulation. (294)
The left’s success has been to capture most of liberal and even a great deal of moderate opinion, thus expanding its base from about 10 percent of the population to about 40 or even potentially 50 percent. What the Third Left achieved was not just some narrow electoral victory but indeed a fundamental paradigm shift. It also involved the conquest of institutions from which the Third Left cannot easily expelled or diminished, and the redefinition of issues – like gay marriage – that no one would have believed possible a few years earlier. (296)
…there is something strange in Western civilization, which has achieved such heights of greatness and prosperity and yet, in Europe even more than in America, seems to be facing decay with no easy or clear way out. The reasons for this situation are unknown but might be found in the very benefits of prosperity, which have brought the irreversible decline in religion and patriotism; a huge shift in gender roles and the family; a desire for an easy and rich life based on entitlement rather than hard work, now possible for the first time in the history of humanity; new technologies; and demographic shifts. (302)