#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#78: What Is Social Justice – and What Isn’t

Monument to the Burning of Giordano Bruno at the Campo dei Fiori in Rome.
“A BRUNO – IL SECOLO DA LUI DIVINATO – QUI DOVE IL ROGO ARSE”
(“To Bruno – from the age he divined  – here where the fire burned”).

If a term like Social Justice has to have any meaning, it needs to solve problems in society.

The biggest social problems typically have one thing in common: They create division.

Overcoming division and enhancing participation in a shared society is thus key to solving such problems.

The first component of Social Justice is thus a focus on society itself, on commonality, on unity, on harmony. Anything that enhances social peace is better than that which creates social strife.

Now to the second component, justice. Justice means a repairing of those aspects of society that are not contributing to social peace, to equal participation, to overcoming division. Problems past, present and future need to be addressed, honestly and openly, and remedies found for repairing the damage caused, and opportunities sought to increase social awareness of social injustice, in order to promote – jointly, collaboratively – social justice.

Social Justice is nothing but social peace, and peace means happiness, productivity, equity of access, equality of worth, shared humanity, acknowledgment of human dignity, even a recognition of the dignity of all life.

Social Justice draws from certain traumatic moments in human history, and aims to learn from them, create justice for the future out of the pain from the past. Social Justice sets itself as a reaction to the Holocaust and other genocides, slavery, mistreatment of others as a group due to culturally constructed differences such as race, class, gender, age, ability, species, and in the future surely the distinction between natural/artificial life forms. All these divisions exist because of culturally constructed differences that are creating differential understandings of others as human or infrahuman (to use Paul Gilroy’s term).

Thus if we truly want to work to enact social justice, some guidelines might help:

  1. We are all living beings with the same rights every human being has. We may be in different standing in society, in different professions, following different beliefs and ideologies, may be richer or poorer, but at the core, we are all the same. We all share in the human community and the human condition.
  2. We also share in community with our planet and the natural world; we are part of them, and our actions or inactions directly affect the natural world, and consequently again ourselves. We are all on the same planet, we share the same home, and everybody has a right to be here.
  3. We shall never forget that the categories of difference that discrimination is based upon are culturally and socially constructed. Reifying and validating these categories of difference will only further division instead of creating justice.
  4. We are all equal in worth and deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Every single life matters, and a mistreatment of one is a mistreatment of all. Some of us are more vulnerable than others and may need to be given special consideration and support. Those who are strong have a duty to protect those who are weaker, and not exploit them.
  5. In a Social Justice framework, there can be no thinking of other human beings as enemies. We are all fellow living beings, no matter our differences.
  6. Without honesty, no community can survive. We need to be striving for truth always, wherever it may lead us, irrespective of ideology.
  7. If you favor Social Justice, you cannot hate other human beings. Hatred means dividing yourself from others, preventing a connection and understanding rather than building them.
  8. Free speech is absolute. Everybody should have a right to speak, just as everybody should also have a duty to listen and be respectful of each other. We only learn, we only progress, if we learn together and from each other, and if we progress together. Once people feel that their voices are being suppressed, they may vent their frustration in a space where much less learning will be possible, and further division is created.
  9. We need to recognize that we are all imperfect beings. We all have the right to say or do things and regret them later and be forgiven for them. Social Justice is social healing, first and for all.
  10. There shall not ever again be masters and slaves – no group shall set itself apart from the others. We need to overcome traditional hierarchy, not recreate it.
  11. There needs to be humility about the things we can achieve. We may have high aspirations, but a recognition of our fallibility protects against undue despair and depression. We do not live only to work, we work to live.
  12. There needs to be grace towards those that fail to live up to standards that may be seen as higher. We all travel through time throughout our lives, and the world keeps changing around us. Assume it will happen to you yourself eventually, and draw humility from that thought.

Certainly there could be more points, but for now, I’ll leave it here.

#53: What Is “Left”? A Very Erratic Attempt

Marx famously called for “a ruthless criticism of everything existing” in his 1843 letter to Ruge. Even if you do not agree with Marx in many other things, there is something in here that actually functions as an endorsement of disagreement and skepticism. In the letter it says, in the Original:

“Ist die Construction der Zukunft und das fertig werden für alle Zeiten nicht unsere Sache; so ist desto gewisser, was wir gegenwärtig zu vollbringen haben, ich meine die rücksichtslose Kritik alles Bestehenden, rücksichtslos sowohl in dem Sinne, dass die Kritik sich nicht vor ihren Resultaten fürchtet und eben so wenig vor dem Conflikte mit den vorhandenen Mächten.”

and in English:

“If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of everything existing, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.”

There’s a reason it’s called the “left” – la sinistra, in Italian – the sinister side, not the “right” side, not the straight and narrow, but the other, the alternative, the deviant, creative, non-conforming, erratic, always critical, always critical of criticism, always irreverent part. Insults, hyperbole, aggressive argument (but no physical violence), joie de vivre, endless nights of spirited, no-holds-barred discussion, possibly lubricated with alcohol, THAT is what the left has always been. The chaos out of which a deconstructed order can grow. The cry of the wounded animal seeking healing.

This ruthlessness is an act of respect towards the other disputant. You treat the other person as the idealized version of themselves. You do not give false deference to somebody, you assume they can take it, not that they are weak (does that sound too Klingon? Marx would have loved Klingon blood wine and drink…)

No terms are agreed upon, nothing stands still, thinking never stands still, thinking always has multiple dimensions. There shalt be no orthodoxy. There shalt be no conformity. No collective. No agreement. No safe spaces intellectually, only physically.

Leftism is venal, is concrete, is bacchanalian, both generative and degenerate, both intellectually creative and destructive, but it is not crass – crass is crassism for its own sake. There is always a point to leftism: The destruction of dogma, the liberation of the individual mind, a ruthless and voracious education, and the utopian dedication to shaping a better future made up of a bunch of probably drunk belligerent intellectuals who like to lecture the “little people” on how best to join them, or at least to listen to them. But ideally, the more, the merrier.

Nobody excluded, no dogma, no thoughts forbidden, nothing too inconvenient, everything outright offensive, all language allowed, especially sarcasm, irony, fun, play, and deviance.

This is how the left as an intellectual movement can thrive.

But, sadly, there will always come a point where the creative, destructive, demonic, dialectic energy is contained, harmonized, dogmaticized, in order to bring the troops in line. Manifestos are written, party ideologues take over, discussion is streamlined, the nonconformists swapped out for the conformists, and the character of the “Left” disappears.

The happy catholic spectacle of radical theology (for what else is theology than unhinged philosophy?) turns into the frown-faced and dour eliminationist puritanism that will never tolerate an inconvenient thought. Whatever this new censorious regime of right and wrong, new left and alt-right, of good and evil may be, it certainly should not be called “left,” and it is heading nowhere good.

Personally, I don’t much care for too much causticity in dialog, and Marx’ personality certainly was not very, well, conciliatory. Neither is the talking down to the “little people” helpful. We need to be respectful of each other, and be inclusive of everyone. But respect does not survive well in a puritan thought-control environment either. There needs to be a middle way.