What Drives the Modern Left?

The New Barbarians: What Drives The Modern Left?
Andy Duncan (Honorary Vice-President of Mises UK)
A Speech Delivered in May 2017 at the 5th Austrian School Conference of Mises Brasil

I have a confession to make to you. Up until the age of thirty-five, I was a committed socialist. This is incredible, especially considering that now I am only twenty-seven years old! My personal time frame is quite confused.

I was always what you would consider a difficult child, always asking impertinent questions. I was so stubborn that my parents had to rebel against me, rather than the other way around. It got so bad for some teachers at my local state school, that they put me in a remedial class for children with learning difficulties. This was because I had the temerity to ask them awkward questions, such as why I had to obey them.

At the age of around ten, I left the local state children’s library, furnished with books on the glories of Soviet communism, and I sought out Das Kapital, in the adult library. I read it, and thought I understood it, and from that moment on became a devout Marxist. Of course, I didn’t really understand Das Kapital. Nobody ever does, because it is absolute meaningless gibberish. You will note, however, that the library was full of Karl Marx. There was no Mises, or Böhm-Bawerk, or Rothbard. If there had been, we would now be having a different conversation.

It then took 25 years of more questions and more reading until I finally understood that the Left is usually half right about every societal problem it discovers. They are right insofar as they identify a given problem with society. Their mistake is that they think the cause of that problem is ordinary people being greedy, selfish, and so on. The Marxist solution was that temporarily we need a greater state, to control the impulses of these evil people via a dictatorship of the proletariat. What most socialists fail to realise is that the problem is the state, which is an organised criminal gang composed of thieves and murderers. This is why a greater state always creates greater problems.

Fortunately, after much reading, I eventually managed to cure myself, mainly through the reading of Mises’ magnum opus Human Action. I finally managed to correct my wrong turn of twenty-five years earlier. But I understand the Left; I understand how they think, I know how they feel, and what they are trying to achieve. I also possess insight on how they manage to remain socialists, despite all of the evidence of continuing socialist evil all around them.andyduncan1

It is difficult to remain a socialist when you read Nineteen Eighty Four, An American in the Gulag, The Road to Serfdom, Atlas Shrugged, Eat the Rich, Economics in One Lesson, the Black Book of Communism, and so on. I know this because I struggled too. To remain a socialist day by day, you need to battle something called cognitive dissonance. Scott Fitzgerald summed this up best in his essay collection The Crack Up, where he wrote “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” George Orwell also described this as Doublethink, the ability to simultaneously accept two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct. Wikipedia defines cognitive dissonance as “the mental stress experienced by a person when confronted with new information that contradicts existing beliefs, ideas, and values.”

When Joseph Stalin died in 1953, the prison wall of the Soviet Union began to tumble down. When it did, information started leaking out about the horrors of communism, especially after the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and the Prague Spring in 1968. But the destruction of old-style socialism mainly resulted from the work of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Gradually, by the time of his Gulag Archipelago in 1973, around the time I was becoming a socialist, this exposed information started to break down Fortress Socialism.

Leftists now had a choice: they could either renounce socialism, or they could shut this information out. Some, like me, renounced it, eventually. But most socialists are trapped within a romantic ideal that they are highly intelligent oppressed heroes of mankind. They like this romantic ideal of themselves so much, and they prize their own intelligence so much, that they adopted the second course. They shut this information out to prevent it spoiling their own high opinion of themselves.

Yet this cognitive dissonance was inherent in socialism right from the beginning. Mikhail Bakunin pointed out to Karl Marx that the state would never wither away, once created by the Marxists. It would become a self-serving machine for a new ruling class of bureaucrats and technocrats. In turn, Marx pointed out to Bakunin that his socialist anarchy would quickly become a libertarian anarchy of property and freedom, once freed from the coercion of the state. Both men were half-right of course, as socialists often are, but incapable of seeing the flaws in their own positions.

However, even with Marx victorious and able to marginalize Bakunin, socialists gradually changed from being suit-wearing, tie-wearing people who talked about scientific progress, into becoming long-haired New Barbarians. They dropped all talk of economic progress under the wonder of socialism, and switched to environmentalism, atheism, feminism, anti-racism, gay rights, anti-capitalism, and multi-culturalism. They did whatever it took to remain socialists, to avoid thinking about whatever socialism always does whenever it rears its ugly head in the world.

Some have even now sought to go full barbarian, and worship the Mother Goddess Gaia, the same goddess worshipped fifty thousand years ago by our Stone Age ancestors. As Hayek might have said in his ‘Fatal Conceit’, they really have returned to the Stone Age.

This need to avoid thinking too deeply for fear of realising they are wrong is what drives the New Left. Of course, I will admit it. I was wrong for twenty-five years. I was stupid for twenty-five years. In the end, my need for rationality overcame my own cognitive dissonance. But the change was painful and slow.

As other socialists deal with the same problem, the infected pustule of socialism drives further into their minds and reaches the really primitive centres of their brains. In the end, they need to reject rationality altogether to maintain their precious state of political holiness. Now, they are so intolerant of anti-socialist information, that they have resorted to screaming abuse at people who dare to disagree with them, hiding in safe spaces and Facebook echo chambers, and censoring the speech of others either through direct physical intimidation or through new state regulations.

But this gives them even greater cognitive dissonance. For they would all say that they believe in ‘free speech’. But now they constantly try to shut free speech down. Free speech is good, so long as you say the right things. They would all say that they believe in peace. But now they routinely use violence to shut down dissenters to their cause. They escape the truth with lies. They say that they believe in love, but they have become filled with hate.

If you ask a typical socialist to name their favourite scientist in history, many of them would say Galileo. Why? Because he resisted the settled science of the day, that the Sun went about the Earth. Yet if any of us here were to challenge the ‘settled science’ of global warming, we would be howled down by a mob of angry socialists.

Many socialists are atheists. Why? They would explain that evolution is a wonderful spontaneous order mechanism that almost perfectly adapts species to changing conditions over time, without any need for a designer to make it work. Yet at the same time, they say that the free market is a terrible way for economic conditions to evolve slowly and almost perfectly over time, and needs a designer, the state, to make it work. It cannot work through spontaneous order. Spot the difference!

As we know from Hayek and his ‘Fatal Conceit’, both evolution and the free market involve competition, micro-signalling, and self-organisation, yet according to most socialists, one is theoretically certain and the other is theoretically impossible, because these contradictory beliefs tie into their pre-existing belief in socialism.andyduncan2

Again and again, we meet the same patterns of muddled thinking. The problem with socialists is that they are usually intelligent enough to spot a problem. But as Henry Hazlitt might have put it, not quite intelligent enough to spot the underlying cause of the problem. Convinced of their own moral certainty, they can see the trees, but can’t see the wood!

We see this clearly in minimum wage laws. Yes, a low wage can be a bad thing. But a rule put in place to stipulate a minimum wage which then drives people into unemployment is quite clearly worse. But once socialists put such an economic intervention in place, it hurts their own high estimate of their own high intelligence to acknowledge that minimum wage rules hurt, rather than help, the poor. So then they will do anything they can, in state-supporting, state-supported universities, to ‘prove’ that minimum wage laws can ‘work’, despite all reason and despite all evidence.

Indeed, to avoid the unpleasant feelings of cognitive dissonance, they refuse to even discuss it, labelling all those who wish to abolish minimum wage regulations as greedy racist or sexist capitalists. I think this gives us a second clue into the nature of what keeps people inside the tent of socialism, despite all of its obvious failures, such as the present condition of Venezuela, the Soviet Gulag, and the mass starvations of Chairman Mao. Socialism is in many ways religious.

When printing gave people access to their own bibles, and the knowledge of reading spread beyond ruling elites, people felt little need for priests to explain Scripture to them. For thousands of years, the intellectual bodyguards of the state had mostly been rewarded for their devotion to the state via the comfortable privileges of priesthood. When people discarded priests, the state’s intellectual bodyguard had to move on; they became modern university professors, teachers in the new state schools, newspaper writers, broadcasters, and worst of all, political agitators.

It is no coincidence that the rise of dense concentrations of political agitators began at around the time of the Reformation in Europe, the time of diminishing power and employment for the Church. To gain their state incomes, these new state intellectual bodyguards became bureaucrats and technocrats, and used the modern theory of socialism as their new religion – albeit a secular, profane religion. You might say that their Old Testament became Das Capital and their New Testament became the Communist Manifesto!

At first, Marxism appeared as the latest cutting edge of economic science in English. It did, after all, spring directly from the economics of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. We know that Menger and others in Austria were producing much finer economic ideas, but these, alas, stayed untranslated and remained in the German language, hidden inside central Europe. In English, the dominant economic ideas came from Marx, Alfred Marshall, and then the infamous John Maynard Keynes, all statists of one degree or another.

The rise of the Austrian School, particularly once published in English, meant inevitable cognitive dissonance for the socialists. The first telling blow to economic Leftism came with the ongoing publication of several books by Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk: History and Critique of Interest Theories in 1884; A Positive Theory of Capital in 1889; Karl Marx and the Close of His System in 1896; and Further Essays on Capital and Interest in 1921. These books destroyed the intellectual case for Marxist socialism, highlighting the many flaws and contradictions embedded within Das Kapital.

When Böhm-Bawerk began to run out of steam, his baton was taken up by Ludwig von Mises, with The Theory of Money and Credit in 1912, Economic Calculation in the Socialist Commonwealth in 1920, and my favourite Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis in 1922.

What was the Left’s reaction to this unanswerable onslaught? They could have become Austrians, but instead they began the long march into emotionalism, the rejection of reason, and back towards the original ideas of Mikhail Bakunin. From being the warriors of science and economic progress, they started to reject logic. If Christianity was the opiate of the masses, for the Left, socialism really is a drug stronger than crystal meth!

The new socialism was led by Antonio Gramsci, a neo-Marxist, who moved it away from its reliance on economic science, almost certainly because of this overwhelming onslaught by the Austrian school. We could devote several hours to Gramsci alone, but I will condense his influence into a few sentences.

From 1919, via his New Order newspaper in Italy, he generated the ideas of leftist cultural hegemony, the rejection of Marxist materialism, and the supremacy of historicism. His influence runs to this day, from the development of modern art, through to the pervasive influence of environmentalism and multiculturalism within recent socialism.

But mainly his influence persisted in two areas. The first is that of education and media. He insisted that left-wing intellectuals should invade these fields and take them over. We see these results today, where the mainstream media in many western countries makes even the Soviet newspapers of Isvestia and Pravda seem independent. It is especially ironic that ‘Pravda’ in Russian means ‘Truth’, when really it should have stood for lies, and how the mainstream media is now clamouring for ‘fake news’ to be censored by fact-checking government agencies, when the most pervasive disseminators of fake news are the mainstream media themselves.

The other main gift of Gramsci to the socialist movement was his insistence that linguistics and language should be controlled. He realised that words can be used to program people’s minds, in the same way that Neuro Linguistic Programming can be used to control minds. We see this mental control at work in the Newspeak developed by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty Four.

We see Gramsci’s ideas all around us now summed up in the phrase ‘political correctness’. A typical Gramscian trick is to rename things. In the United States, “Merry Christmas” becomes “Happy Holidays”, and “Easter” becomes “Spring Break”, to undermine Christianity. There is also a craze in the western world to rename college buildings, particularly any building named after a dead white man. Women are labelled as a minority, despite being half of most populations, if not a slight majority.

But my favourite example of language manipulation is the use of the term “pro-choice”, in relation to women’s right to an abortion. What is most curious about the term pro-choice is that socialists are not pro-choice about anything, because being pro-choice in every field really means you’ve become a libertarian. Another clear case of cognitive dissonance.

So, when Austrian School smashed socialism as an economic force, Gramsci mutated it into a cultural force. But having somehow survived the Austrian destruction of Marxist economics, they faced another enemy. They now started to have their morality undermined too, by stories escaping from the Soviet Union about the mass murder going on there.

Fortunately for socialism, useful idiots such as Professor Harold Laski, would visit the Soviet Union’s Potemkin villages, and come back proclaiming the virtues of Soviet Socialism and the wonders of the Moscow underground system. But even with his ruthless suppression of human freedom, Stalin failed to hold in his stories about his brutal Gulags. It reached the point that even Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party, had to denounce Stalin in 1956. But you will note that it took him three years to do this after the death of Stalin, and only then to a secret, closed session of the 20th congress. But the stories kept coming, and so did the novels of Solzhenitsyn, hidden from the KGB, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union.

This mass butchering of people happened again and again in every country where socialism took hold, with Hayek’s Road to Serfdom coming to pass, wherever the motivation of firing squads came to replace the motivation of consumer choice. This brings us to Che Guevara, the Argentine revolutionary and political icon of the Left, who ordered the executions of hundreds, possibly thousands of people, usually without any due legal process, probably taking part in many of these executions himself.

For this, Che Guevara adorns the T-shirts of the trendy Left. More cognitive dissonance. Do people wear T-shirts emblazoned with images of Adolf Hitler, a different kind of socialist? No, because even to recognise him as a socialist is too much for most on the Left, though Mises predicted the rise of such a figure in Socialism and clearly demonstrated Hitler’s socialist nature in later editions of the book.

So how did the Left manage to resist this second onslaught of the evidence of the brutality of socialism, especially after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956? Whereas before it retreated into the murky swamp of linguistic and cultural hegemony, now it retreated completely into the world of primitivist emotionalism. It particularly followed the German-based Herbert Marcuse, who rejected completely the involvement of socialism in labour disputes, its former natural home. Instead, he focused inwardly on man’s “erotic nature as the true liberation of humanity.” Bakunin was beginning to re-surface.

Others followed, such as the German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, who believed that socialism would prove the means for all human beings to become immortal and eventually to create God.

If ever you’ve been amongst socialists, you will have noticed the air of religion in the room. You could accuse us Austrians of that, too, I suppose, and many do accuse us of hero-worship. But the difference is that we are encouraged to challenge our heroes, as we see with Stephan Kinsella challenging Murray Rothbard on copyright.

And so with the New Left of the 1960s, we are back to the medieval radical Christian millenarialism I described yesterday. So how has the Left developed since the late 1960s and early 1970s? It has regressed even further into primitive tribalism. It has now become a vast melting pot of hundreds of different left-anarchists groups, Social Justice Warrior groups, and other alt-left groupings. It would take us all night just to list all the main groupings, but one word holds them all together: dysrationalia, or the inability to think and behave rationally despite adequate intelligence. The New Barbarians are all united by one thing: a retreat of the intellect into primitive emotion. Socialists now think almost entirely with emotion. What is worse, they are often incapable of expressing these emotions in words; it is an almost pre-human condition.

As well as cognitive dissonance, the a priori theoretical destruction of Marxist economics by Austrian economics, and the a posteriori positivist destruction of Marxist morals by the evidence of socialism in action in the twentieth century, a fourth factor has cemented together this potent mix, and that is the successful takeover of the education system by the Left. The international socialist Lenin held this as a priority, as did the national socialist Hitler. Forced state education has swept the world since the Massachusetts Bay Colony created compulsory state education in 1647 and especially after the Prussian government adopted similar measures in the late nineteenth century to generate docile subjects and willing soldiers. It is no coincidence, then, that Massachusetts is most heavily linked with socialism in the United States, and that many of the leading figures in socialism, such as Marx and Mercuse, originated in Germany, which is the modern version of a Greater Prussia.

Even if nominally private, most education systems around the world are either run directly by the state or heavily controlled by the state through regulation. What these day prisons teach is enough reading and mathematics to fill in tax returns, and, beyond that, how to obey. Very little else of what they teach is of much relevance to the unfortunate children forced each morning into this modern Gulag. And thus children are driven inwards into a world of bored emotion.

One thing particularly and ruthlessly excluded from state education is the teaching of how to think independently. Thus bored emotional children are squeezed from the end of the system without a rhetorical ability to think. The end result has been the rise of the millennial child: short attention spans, instant gratification, and emotional thinking. The statists have got what they wanted, a population filled with people with extremely high time preferences.

Children are no less innately intelligent than children of 10,000 years ago, or even a hundred years ago, but they have been deliberately trained by the state to stop thinking. Everything is now about feelings, not about logic. Thus the world was prepared for a global sweep of simple-minded religious socialism. People have feelings about polar bears, feelings about poverty, and even feelings about snowflakes. Emotion rules all.

Bad things in the environment, such as bad housing estates are spotted. And the most easily dreamt-up solution is immediately turned to: the rich must be made to pay subsidies for better housing. The emotions are satisfied. The next problem is spotted. The next intervention comes.

Now we in the Austrian School know why this method always fails. If you tax anything, such as wealth, you get less of it. If you subsidise anything, such as poverty, then you get more of it. But it takes chains of logical reasoning to work out why, and emotion-driven socialists have become incapable of performing these chains of reasoning. And now Bakunin is back too, in a final triumph over Marx. If you feel like smashing a window to advance the cause of socialism, then smash that window. Forget about all the economic damage that your action will cause. Indeed, don’t forget it. Don’t even think about it in the first place. Just do it.

The New Barbarians have solved the problem of cognitive dissonance. Once you fall into dysrationalia, you fall into the primitive emotional Stone Age of tribal behaviour. You can be ethical, and good, and full of love and pride for your tribe, and allow everyone in your tribe to have free speech. And you can be destructive, and evil, and full of hate and envy for other tribes, and shut down their opinions. And best of all, you can hold both of these systems of thought in your head at the same time and still function.

So what do we do? The first way we can take our world back to one of civilisation, property, and freedom is to continue our theoretical onslaught against economic Marxism. We must keep undermining Karl Marx. The second way is to take them on their cultural hegemony games, and to try to take back the cultural high ground. We can do that with novels, art, graphic novels, movies, television, anything so long as it constantly challenges the cultural hegemony of the left. We must also keep exposing the failures of socialism and pointing out why it keeps failing.

All around the world socialists are also trying to introduce government censorship via their memes of fake news and so on. We must resist this completely and turn the tide. It is government control and licensing of the news that we must remove.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly of all, we must do everything we can to get children out of state-controlled education. Whether this is by home-schooling, true private education, the use of Internet-based education systems, whatever it is, we must keep the precious minds of children away from socialist mind control. I know this is extremely difficult to do, but that still doesn’t stop it from being important. The Jesuits said “give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” I say, “keep the child out of the clutches of the state as long as you can.”

It is also important to save children before they enmeshed in socialism at an early age, as I was. That is why I applaud Helio Beltrao’s mission to translate all the major Austrian works into Portuguese. Perhaps another project for us to consider is to ensure that every library in the world contains a translated copy of Human Action, to compete with all those translated copies of Das Kapital.

If we do all these things, then we will eventually move towards a free world, by freeing the minds of those controlled by the mental chains of the state. Once they are free and can think for themselves, they will never go back. So let’s break those chains!

One comment

  1. Andy,

    Many thanks for your talk and transcript. You have highlighted one of the things which had begun to annoy me about the “old Libertarian Alliance” – that if an author, or as in your case speaker, takes the trouble to put forward a case with some moderately cogent arguments, the comment count would usually remain at zero. Since Ian B left a couple of years ago, there has been no-one able, willing and with time enough to comment regularly and sanely about anything at a level deeper than the topical.

    I was intrigued by your story. To think that reading is such a dangerous activity! No wonder that I have largely eschewed it, both when a child and as a libertarian; I’ve always preferred to write rather than to read! And no wonder those that claim to be our “masters” would like to make it a thing of the past. But seriously: read too much of the wrong stuff, and you can be swept away into a stagnant, smelly ideological backwater for a generation. That seems to be what happened to you. Fortunately, you managed to come to your senses, and you swam back eventually.

    But I’m not sure that you’re right to restrict your criticism to those you call the “left.” You’re correct, of course, that the left are usually half right. (And the right are usually half wrong!) But personally, I don’t find the political labels “left” and “right” useful any more. I prefer an axis at right angles to the left-right one: David Nolan’s “libertarian” and “authoritarian,” or my own “liberal” and “tyrannical” or “bottom-up” and “top-down.”

    And I don’t agree with you on doublethink. My view is that the backsliders – including most socialists – fail to understand that truths exist independently of what anyone might or might not think about them. I think that’s what Ayn Rand was trying to express when she said “Existence exists” – as opposed to Bishop Berkeley’s notion that everything is in the mind. The statists’ failure to understand this, I think, is very probably willed.

    I doubt that most statists experience very much of what you call “cognitive dissonance.” For to them, true and false are not only indistinguishable, but irrelevant. For evidence, I offer the observable conduct of “climate scientists.” And you’re right that they reject reason; for them, emotion is everything. And it gets worse. For, without a base of facts and logic to build it on, ethics becomes relative, and right and wrong become as indistinguishable as truth and falsehood. So, statists make “society” – and so, their state – into a god. And once in charge of the state, they can have a good life, thieving and murdering without fear of come-back.

    As to what to do about the situation: As a libertarian, economics has never been one of my great interests. It’s important, of course; and it affects everyone. But it seems to me that economics is like icing on a cake. If your ideas of truth and falsehood, and right and wrong, are off the beam, then your economic ideas are unlikely to be better. Without an edible crumb and a tasty filling, icing on a cake is irrelevant. So, while I applaud the intentions of the “new management” here to promote Austrian economics, I think it’s a bit premature.

    In my view, the war we’re in must be fought at lower levels than economics. We must ask questions like: “What is truth, and who may decide it?” “What is right, what is wrong, and how should we tell the difference?” And (my favourite): “Who’s we?”

    Cheers, Neil

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