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Give Me Liberty and Give Me Death!
The Lure of Equality and the Paradox of Annihilation
One way or another, it all goes back to Plato. As Whitehead put it, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” Our religion too. Judaism was the first (and only?) semi-successful attempt at implementing Plato’s political project as laid out in his final work, Laws. Christianity inherited that tradition, with further injections of Platonism—O.G. and neo. And socialism, the topic of my last several posts, inherited its DNA from both of these streams.1
Shafarevich calls philosophical socialism “chiliastic” for this very reason: the socialists propose a kind of millenarianist “Kingdom of God,” a more happy society built on the ashes of the old one, which is to be destroyed. In The Socialist Phenomenon he comments on the “profound dependence of socialist ideology” on Christianity: the ideal of equality (explicitly founded on the idea of equality before God), communality (on the practices of the Apostles in Acts and the monasteries), its historic goal, condemnation of the sinfulness of the world, and final judgment. In fact, the French socialists of the early 1800’s were explicitly religious, the Saint-Simonians espousing the “true” Christianity and “notions of the creation of the Kingdom of God on Earth, the final universal unity, the synthesis of religion, science, and philosophy, as well as the progressive regeneration of mankind by successive initiation” (Strube, “Socialism and Esotericism in July Monarchy France,” p. 214).
Shafarevich calls for an analysis of the ways in which Christian concepts are “redirected” and ultimately inverted in socialism: “for example, when God’s judgment over the world is reinterpreted as the judgment of the ‘elect’ over their enemies, or when the resurrection of the dead is translated into ‘deification’ in the sect of Free Spirits” (SP, p. 79). My interest runs a bit deeper: aside from the death instinct, what concerns—what deep aspects and aspirations of the human psyche—is socialism tapping into, whether it takes a religious or secular form?
Since equality/communality is the value from which many other socialist doctrines follow, let’s start there. Hardcore individualists may not like it, but egalitarianism is baked into humanity’s biology and psyche. The only reason we survived as Paleolithic hunter-gatherers was our ability to cooperate. And part of that cooperation involved “meat egalitarianism.” Everyone in the tribe got their fair share of food. Avarice was spotted quickly, and just as quickly dealt with, through teasing, shame, or, in recalcitrant cases, death or exile.2 (As was bragging, showing off, or any other display of egoistic douchebaggery.) That changed with the first cities and states, which made such egalitarianism impossible and elevated douchebaggery to the status of god-kingship (though modern states are much more egalitarian than their archaic predecessors).
I think it’s safe to say that we retain this mode of being in our psyche. Extreme wealth disparity, for example, may be perceived as unfair in moralistic terms; the call to equality resonates like the myth of a Golden Age, a long-lost time of peace and plenty. But it doesn’t just call out to our past. It also looks ahead, to the potentials for spiritual development immanent to greater or lesser degrees in the human psyche, sensed within as a possible future, an ideal unreached yet present in its absence. (The Saint-Simonian newspaper’s motto was: “The Golden Age, which a blind tradition has until now placed in the past, lies in the future.”) We feel the pull to something higher, some future state of mutual understanding and unity: the achievement of personality and active love. Dabrowski writes of this higher quality:
Another basic individual quality [of personality] is represented by lasting emotional bonds of love and friendship … The best example of such conjunction are the bonds between Christ and His Apostles, which lead to the highest degree of friendship … Such bonds are further exemplified by … the brotherhood often entered into in religious orders (St. Francis and his three friars, the spiritual union between St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa, or that between St. Clara and St. Francis). … In common life we encounter such individual or group unions of a higher order of spiritual tension in the love between married people, in the fraternal or sisterly unions, and in the friendly unions between individuals not related who go side by side desiring the realization of a common idea. (Personality-Shaping through Positive Disintegration, pp. 38-39)
The problem is that this is an ideal fully realized only among a tiny percentage of the population, and which probably only can be realized in that manner. For all others it remains just a vague scent or a subtle echo, fleetingly felt, or pathologically distorted. The wish for spiritual unity is easily perverted into a denial of practical realities and the brutish tendency to make a Procrustean bed of a distorted ideal. “If you don’t fit, by God, I’ll make you fit.” Amputation and the rack are often the implements resorted to when a mind refuses to conform to the standard set by the totalitarian. Any mass unity achieved by those means will be superficial at best, or pathological at worst.
The socialist ideals represent a pathological distortion, a funhouse mirror, of the spiritual brotherhood. They borrow the forms in several respects, but hollowed of their actual contents, replaced as they are with something else entirely. For instance, monastic vows are voluntary. The selection mechanism is fine-grained to the extent that prospects may be actively discouraged or outright rejected based on their incompatibility. Socialism, by contrast, is coercive. It sets an ideal and then forces everyone to fit that mold. And the mold itself is based on a complete rejection of the higher, not its exemplification.
What may start out as a heartfelt wish for spiritual unity can easily go off the rails when it crashes up against reality. What do you do when the people refuse to live up to your expectations and conform to the unity you are convinced will bring the Kingdom of God on Earth? It seems to me there are only two basic responses: either suffer your disillusionment like a man and admit you radically misjudged the situation, or double down and make them conform.
Some other socialist ideals:
Socialism is obsessed with material prosperity, not the development of higher spiritual functions.
Socialist writers yearn for liberation from the necessity of work, not for taking on greater and greater levels of responsibility (monks have a better work ethic than most).
Socialist self-sacrifice is often meaningless and arbitrary, like the purged Bolsheviks.
Socialist violence is directed toward others and the higher parts of oneself.
Socialism sanctifies egoism, rather than overcoming it.
Socialism desires liberation from moral constraints, not their exemplification in the form of virtue and liberation from the control of lower impulses.
Socialism produces weak mean who must rule by force; it doesn’t inspire inner strength and dignity.
Some individual socialist doctrines have deviated from some of these qualities (like Saint-Simonism, which wasn’t keen on abolition of private property and railed against egoism). But as an overall trend, such deviations can’t seem to escape the wider gravity well of the tradition and the doctrines tend to “regress toward the mean.” (Just look at the latest incarnation: CRT, queer theory, the Great Reset.) And even in their more benign forms, they still seem predicated on the fundamental project of transforming humanity—not transforming individuals (or “saving souls,” as it’s called in the religion business).
One thing that came to mind: it is of course reasonable to criticize the old Enlightenment dogma that “man can be formed and changed”, whether by making him more rational or more “communism-compatible”. Yes, these things go against man’s nature, if we define nature as his spiritual nature. But this move by the Enlightenment/Communist types could be seen as another example where ideologies exploit something true, like the psychopath exploits something true when seducing women: namely that man CAN change, and even overcome his “biological nature” in a sense, à la Dabrowski. It’s just that it must happen at an individual level, not collectively, and happen in a very different direction than the ideologues want to push us.
Exactly. The socialist and religious impulses are best seen as two opposite poles, each sharing a similar outer form. The desire to return to the Golden Age thus bifurcates: while some envision a return to the human egalitarianism of the Paleolithic age (whether explicitly formulated as such or not), others look to that other golden age: archaic despotism. Some feel the pull toward a Kingdom of God, a spiritual unity embodying the highest values, others toward a Kingdom of Man, embodying pure egoism and material comfort.
All that said, the “equality” envisioned by socialism is not simple food egalitarianism, or even what most people think of when they hear the word. Shafarevich writes:
The usual understanding of “equality,” when applied to people, entails equality of rights and sometimes equality of opportunity (social welfare, pensions, grants, etc.). But what is meant in all these cases is the equalization of external conditions which do not touch the individuality of man. In socialist ideology, however, the understanding of equality is akin to that used in mathematics (when one speaks of equal numbers or equal triangles), i.e., this is in fact identity, the abolition of differences in behavior as well as in the inner world of the individuals constituting society. From this point of view, a puzzling and at first sight contradictory property of socialist doctrines becomes apparent. They proclaim the greatest possible equality, the destruction of hierarchy in society and at the same time (in most cases) a strict regimentation of all of life, which would be impossible without absolute control and an all-powerful bureaucracy which would engender an incomparably greater inequality. The contradiction disappears, however, if we note that the terms “equality” and “inequality” are understood in two different ways. The equality proclaimed in socialist ideology means identity of individualities. The hierarchy against which the doctrine fights is a hierarchy based on individual qualities—origin, wealth, education, talent and authority. But this does not contradict the establishment of a hierarchy of internally identical individuals who only occupy different positions in the social machine, just as identical parts can have different functions in a mechanism. …
The preceding considerations lead us to the conclusion that at least three components of the socialist ideal—the abolition of private property, the abolition of the family and socialist equality—may be deduced from a single principle: the suppression of individuality. (SP, pp. 261-262)
It is this sense of equality from which, for Plato, abolition of the family and property followed. And the other socialist doctrine—abolition of religion—is directly related to this principle of anti-individuality.3 The socialist goal is to neuter the individual’s capacity for personality development, to lobotomize humanity’s higher potentials, to bring all down to the lowest level of development and prevent the only conditions from which a higher unity has any chance of actually developing. Since religion is intimately tied to the full development of individuality—and arguably equivalent in some sense—the suppression of individuality must necessarily be accompanied by the abolition of religion.
… human individuality finds its greatest support and its highest appreciation in religion. Only as a personality can man turn to God and only through this dialogue does he realize himself as a person commensurate with the person of God. (SP, p. 267)
Recall the excerpt from Dabrowski in my previous post:
The deepest respect and love of God do not obliterate the awareness of one’s individuality. This means that the sense of affinity and union with God exists together with preservation of distinct and permanent individual essence.
The only “inner leveling” possible (in a positive sense) is among those who have achieved a similar level of personality development. A fully developed personality from 13th-century Turkey will have more in common with a fully developed personality from 20th-century Mexico than either will have with the average person from their respective cultures. They would recognize in each other a kindred spirit. It’s impossible to bring everyone up to their level. But it’s very easy to bring humanity down: you just need to kill everyone with talent or prevent them from developing or making use of it.
In his conclusion, Shafarevich devotes several pages to the philosophical and religious currents of pessimism and nihilism, which he finds in Buddhism, Taoism, Schopenhauer, Heidegger, Sartre, Freud, and Marcuse. At its most extreme it takes the form of a desire to return to complete non-existence—the total annihilation of the self.4
Like the call for liberty, the pull of the death instinct is like a Rorschach test—it reveals something about the nature of the one attracted to it. And as we’ve seen, it comes down to two basic responses: life or death, spirit or matter. Some feel the pull of total annihilation, the complete extinction of self and consciousness. In the partial death instinct, the desire of annihilation is not absolute, but relative: the annihilation of the old self, its lower aspects (which Paul called “the flesh”). Individuality is retained, but as something new and part of something higher (being “one” with God).
This process requires an inner division “between the dependent and inauthentic ‘I’ and the autonomous and authentic ‘I’,” which is “the foundation of basic transformations of the mental structure and of the disappearance of one ‘personality’ and the birth and development of another”:
In all this struggle between higher and lower levels, between human and animalistic elements in oneself, the instinct of partial death takes a crucial role. It operates in the service of developmental forces, and aims at a destruction and annihilation of lower mental levels. (Dabrowski, Dynamics of Concepts, pp. 35-36)
The emotional, unconscious response to the telos of annihilation and the expression of the death instinct will vary depending on the developmental level of the individual. Here’s how I think it manifests on the various levels of Dabrowski’s system:
Level I: mostly external violence and brutality (perhaps suicide in some situations).
Level II: external violence and/or suicide (inner struggles may be overcome, but reintegration will be at a lower level, as seems the case with Piatakov).
Level III: attraction to the higher possibilities, the beginnings of inner separation and struggle (not always successful) not to lower oneself.
Levels IV-V: crucifixion of the flesh, birth of the realized personality ideal.
In Part 4 of my review of Mattias Desmet’s book, I discussed his analogy of the Sierpinski triangle. I also discussed it briefly with John Carter during our epic interview. Now, we can see in more detail just how great a metaphor it actually is. The “rules” followed to achieve the hidden order are determined by the developmental level of the individuals coordinating their actions, the endpoints of their action implicit in the emotions and instincts operative in their psyches. A collective action inspired by the death instinct, coordinated among individuals primarily at levels I and II (and that’s the majority of the population) and directed by psychopaths, can only ever lead to a monstrosity. The actual form of this “Sierpinski triangle” is fairly consistent throughout human history, especially when it takes the form of revolution based on a Trojan horse ideology. It’s the Inquisition archetype.5 In a word: pathocracy.
It would seem, first of all, that this is an example of activity that is not guided by conscious intent. The proposition that a striving for self-destruction is the main impulse in socialism has been extracted from a multi-stage analysis of socialist ideology, and is not taken directly from the writings of socialist thinkers or the slogans of socialist movements. It seems that those in the grip of socialist ideology are as little governed by any conscious understanding of this goal as a singing nightingale is concerned with the future of its species. The ideology’s impact is through the emotions, which render the ideology attractive to man and induce him to be ready for sacrifice on its behalf. Spiritual elation and inspiration are the kinds of emotions experienced by the participants in socialist movements. This accounts, too, for the behavior of the leaders of socialist movements in the thick of the fight, down through the ages—their seemingly inexhaustible reserves of energy as pamphleteers, agitators, and organizers.
For the very reason that the basic driving force of socialist ideology is subconscious and emotional, reason and rational discussion of facts have always played only a subordinate role in it. (SP, pp. 294-295)
Now imagine what the mirror image would look like of collective action inspired by the partial death instinct, coordinated among multilevel individuals, and directed by fully developed personalities. It might just look something like the Kingdom of God—something we have no tangible experience of, and which might turn out to be impossible on earth. But who knows? What’s certain is that it will not be achievable by any of the means employed through history by socialism (or any other political ideology).
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As bad as many of Plato’s ideas were, later socialism is best seen as a degeneration of them—at least Plato had ethics, even if they were fairly loose in many regards.
See Michael McConkey, The Managerial Class on Trial, and Peter Turchin, Ultrasociety, both of which cite Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest: The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.
Marcuse considered Freud’s greatest achievement the tearing down of “the notion of the autonomous individual,” which he considered “one of the strongest ideological fortifications” (SP, p. 264).
There’s an argument to be made that Buddhism isn’t totally pessimistic in this regard (suggested by the split between Hinayana and Mahayana), but the ambiguity is suggestive.