By Steve Heikkila
“Nazism led to the gas chambers, communism led to the gulags, and neoliberalism leads to soup kitchens.” — Paul Verhaeghe, Says Who? The Struggle for Authority in a Market-Based Society
Surely you recall the fairytale’s narrative logic from childhood. Goldilocks tresspasses in the cottage of a family of bears. First she tries on Papa Bear’s politics, but Papa Bear’s politics are too right. Then she tries Momma Bear’s politics, but Momma Bear’s politics are too left. Finally, Goldilocks tries Baby Bear’s politics, and Baby Bear’s politics are juuuuuuuuust right. And like that Goldilocks becomes a liberal centrist of the Clintonian Third Wayvariety.
I know that’s not quite how the story goes. Of the things Goldilocks sampled during her uninvited visit to the bears’ cottage, politics wasn’t among them. Nevertheless, if politics had been on her menu, we all know that Goldilocks would have decided precisely as I just described. We know this because we’re well acquainted with Goldilocks’ shtick. When making selections Goldilocks always finds the middle term between two available extremes to be just right. It’s remarkably similar to the way liberal centrist thinking orients itself. Goldilocks and the centrists have more or less the same shtick. Not identical, but close enough to allow Goldilocks and the Three Bears to serve as a remarkably insightful metaphor for exploring and articulating the shortcomings of liberal centrist politics.
The ‘Just Right’ Center
Viewed in a certain light liberal centrism, this moderate, measured, non-extremist, just right politics, seems almost idyllic. Before we dive into its shortcomings, let’s take a moment to make sense of its appeal.
There is nothing inherent in liberalism as such that suggests “I am in the center.” And yet this center orientation has become a key element of its appeal. I take this to be an artifact of World War II and the Cold War, which provided us with the distinctively 20th century political spectrum we use to this day. Fascism, a 20th century invention that communists and liberal democracies joined forces to defeat in World War II, represents the far-right end of this spectrum. Soviet style communism, the liberal west’s ideological rival during the Cold War, marks the far-left end of the spectrum. And sitting in the putative ‘center’ like Baby Bear’s bowl of porridge is liberal democracy (political liberalism) and ‘free-market’ capitalism (economic liberalism). Liberalism predates both fascism and state-communism, so it obviously hasn’t always lived in the fascist-communist in-between. Now it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
There’s often plenty of wiggle room in the in-between. It seems entirely plausible, for instance, that after sampling Papa Bear’s too hot porridge and Mama Bear’s too cold porridge, Goldilocks might have made any number of declarations about Baby Bear’s porridge. It might have been cool (but not cold), or tepid, or just barely cooler than too hot. In other words, it might have been a serviceable porridge. Not great, but just sort of…“meh.” But that’s not what happens. Instead Goldilocks declares that Baby Bear’s porridge is just right. And to make it perfectly clear that this assessment wasn’t a fluke, she performs the same operation with the same results two more times: once with the just right chair bounded by a too hard and a too soft chair, and again with a just right bed bounded by a too hard and a too soft bed. When she does this she makes it clear that we’re dealing in each case with a golden mean.
Something similar is going on with liberal centrism. Virtue, Aristotle insisted, is a mean between two vicious extremes. And so it is apparently with porridge, chairs, beds, and political ideologies. The extremes of our Cold War political spectrum are vicious in just the way the Aristotelian reasoning requires. Travel to the far-right end of the spectrum (fascism) and you’ll end up in the gas chamber. Travel to the far-left end (communism) and you’ll land on the gulag archipelago. Both directions lead to totalitarian horror and mass murder. In the center is the just right domain of freedom itself, manifest in the form of a liberal democracy with a market economy. This is essentially the argument Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger offered in 1949 in one of the early articulations of Cold War liberal centrism: The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom.
This notion that the center is a virtuous golden mean performs an important function in liberal centrist politics. It keeps us from venturing too far into the radical wilderness. Since the vicious extremes–the fascist gas chamber and the communist gulag–define the terminal ends of a bounded spectrum, you can’t run away from one without running towards the other. The best possible political position under these conditions, the just right position, is equidistant to the gas chamber and the gulag, which is the position furthest away from both. Here we must stay put. And why would we ever want to leave? This position is the home of the political virtues: democracy, equality, economic opportunity, human rights, and freedom. Who wouldn’t want to be a liberal centrist?
The Vicious Center
This idyllic post-World War II liberalism is unfortunately just that: an idyll. It was never just right–certainly not for African Americans during Jim Crow, for example, or for women, or for any number of marginalized persons and communities living as less-than-full, -free and -equal citizens in liberal democracies. Still, at mid-century the liberal position was very attractive. Thanks to New Deal policies and post-war prosperity, the United States had a large and growing middle class, broad access to affordable education, and a fairly generous welfare state. This era of widely shared economic prosperity was also considered a capitalist golden age. Compared to memories of Nazi Germany, Stalin’s purges, and rumors of starvation in the People’s Republic of China, capitalism under liberal democracy looked about as just right as perhaps it ever would.
This is the picture of liberalism that a lot of liberal centrists still think about when they think about liberal centrism. It’s such a powerful vision in the American popular imagination that in 1989–already more than a decade into the neoliberal turn that would utterly eviscerate this manifestation of liberalism–Francis Fukuyama was able to write (apparently in all seriousness) that “the egalitarianism of modern America represents the essential achievement of the classless society envisioned by Marx.” Wow! Everyone is equal! This is from his celebrated essay The End of History? wherein Fukuyama used the imminent collapse of the Berlin Wall to announce that liberal democracy (and capitalism) has once-and-for-all defeated its ideological rivals fascism and communism.
Here we begin to glimpse what’s problematic about liberal centrism. If it wasn’t obvious in 1989, it’s certainly obvious today: this liberal Eden, Fukuyama’s ‘classless’ egalitarian American society basking at the benevolent end of history, is as much a fairytale as Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
If liberalism looked like a virtuous mean at mid-century, it certainly doesn’t look that way today. The Vital Centerthat Arthur Schlesinger defended in 1949 was a liberal democracy with a state-regulated market economy (Schlesinger defended it in these terms specifically). That is to say, it was a New Deal mixed-economy driven by Keynesian economics, which took full employment to be an economic goal. Today the state that was tasked with regulating this market economy in the interests of a democratic polity has been fully captured by the market, and market logic rather than democratic politics rules the day. Beginning with the Carter Administration’s Volcker Shock and the deregulation of transportation, and then ramping up in earnest during Reagan-Thatcherism, Keynesian economics was abandoned for the monetarist and neoliberal-style economics of Milton Freedman and FA Hayek. A long, slow dismantling of the New Deal commenced, as well as a relatively fast (during my own lifetime) redistribution of wealth from the working and middle classes to a tiny, ultra-rich elite.
The term liberal centrist as we use it today derives from the likes of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who suggested a Third Way, a centrism that marries center-right and center-left policies into a newly constituted golden mean. What it meant was that the New Democrats and New Labour were signing onto the viciously retrograde Reagan-Thatcherite neoliberal economic program, moving the center distinctly to the right. And to sweeten this bitter porridge, they actively embraced New Left style social movement politics. The resulting liberal centrism is what feminist critical theorist Nancy Fraser describes as Progressive neoliberalism: progressive on social issues narrowly inscribed (i.e., in a way that ensures no significant impact on economic policy), and neoliberal in its embrace of market fundamentalism.
The results of this neoliberal turn have been devastating, but many liberal centrists–still intoxicated by the Fukuyaman fairytale version of liberalism–stubbornly refuse to acknowledge that the transformation has occurred. Recent economic data paints a different picture. In his influential 2013 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century the French economist Thomas Piketty wrote:
“…it is important to note the considerable transfer of US income–on the order of 15 points–from the poorest 90 percent to the richest 10 percent since 1980. Specifically, if we consider the total growth of the US economy in the thirty years prior to the [financial] crisis, that is, from 1977 to 2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. […] It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.”
So much for Fukuyama’s egalitarian classless society. The current level of inequality in America, Piketty claims, is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world.” Echoing Piketty’s assessment, a 2012 study by economists Peter Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson shows that income inequality in America is likely greater than it was in 1774 even if you factor in slavery.
The Oxford, UK-based conglomeration of charitable organizations, OXFAM, publishes an annual report on economics and poverty. In January, 2016 OXFAM reported that the 62 richest individuals on earth owned the same amount of wealth as the bottom half of humanity (3.6 billion people). Only a year later (January 2017) OXFAM reported that this figure had dropped from 62 individuals to just eight men (yes men). Perhaps you’ve heard of some of these men. Bill Gates. Jeff Bezos. Amancio Ortega. Mark Zuckerberg. Warren Buffett. Carlos Slim Helu. Larry Ellison. Michael “I might run for president as a Democratic centrist” Bloomberg.
In January 2018 OXFAM reported that 1% of the world’s population pocketed 87% of all of the wealth produced in 2017.
These numbers are the stuff of Dickensian fiction. It’s almost unfathomable to imagine that anyone who looks seriously at these numbers could continue to believe that the liberal center is a golden mean of freedom, equality, and post-war prosperity.
In his book Says Who? The Struggle for Authority in a Market-Based Society, Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe offers an updated description of our familiar Cold War political spectrum: “Nazism led to the gas chambers, communism led to the gulags, and neoliberalism leads to soup kitchens.” Goodbye golden mean. Hello vicious center.
Amazon, the corporation that made Jeff Bezos rich, is valued at over $1Trillion (Amazon and Apple are the most valuable corporations in history). Last year Amazon paid zero dollars in taxes on $11.2 Billion in profits. Contributing absolutely nothing to the society that made Amazon’s success possible isn’t enough though. Amazon extorted the state of Virginia out of a $750 million taxpayer-funded cash subsidy by forcing American cities to compete in a race-to-the-bottom contest for Amazon’s second world headquarters. Imagine if, after sampling Papa Bear’s too hot porridge and Mama Bear’s too cold porridge, Goldilocks found Baby Bear’s porridge bowl empty because Jeff Bezos had eaten it aaaall up.
Goldilocks is a Conservative
Consider for a moment the full story arc of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks tresspasses in the bears’ cottage while they’re out. She eats some of their food, breaks one of their chairs, and sleeps in one of their beds. The bears come home and find her. They’re all “WTF are you doing?” and then Goldilocks runs off. The end. That’s it. That’s the story. There’s no real point to it. Nothing noteworthy or meaningful happens. There’s a bit of drama, but it doesn’t go anywhere, just like liberal centrist politics.
The Goldilockean dialectic is a false dialectic. The thesis and antithesis are never sublated. They persist in their unresolved tension–too hot versus too cold, too hard versus too soft. The just right sits frozen in the middle, like an insect trapped in amber. There is no movement. The engine of progress is stuck in neutral. This may be the most scandalous shortcoming of liberal centrism–that is, if you happen to find any fault with the way the world is right now.
The metaphor of a just right center is disastrous to any hope for progress. When you position your politics within a spectrum bounded on each end by horror there’s simply no room for movement–no room for change. The vicious extremes exert inward pressure towards the middle, encouraging the centrist to stay put no matter what. Liberal centrism in this sense functions as a conservatism. It’s conservative in the sense that it defaults to a defense of the status quo ante. The centrist can’t chart a path to a better world because all paths lead either to the gas chamber or to the gulag. The centrist is resigned to the conclusion that utopia must be right here, right now (“America is already great!”)–regardless of how vicious the status quo may have become.
Presenting a vicious status quo ante as a utopia of the present is incredibly cynical. We see this cynicism clearly in liberal centrist support for the current batch of establishment Democrat presidential candidates. The substance of these candidates’ platforms boils down to a single objective: Defeat Trump! That’s all they offer because that’s all they intend to accomplish. The reactionary Trump is dragging the progressive neoliberal center in the direction of the gas chamber, so he’s got to go (I frankly couldn’t agree more). But once he’s defeated (assuming he’s defeated) then what? Then nothing. According to Democratic centrist logic everything magically shifts back to being great again, even though little will have actually changed. The goal is to return to the same vicious status quo ante that drove voters to Trump in the first place.
If that platform seems a little thin, not to worry. These mainstream Democratic candidates will borrow platform positions from the progressive candidates (Medicare for all, Green New Deal, free college, Tuition reform), because these positions are actually popular with voters. However, they’ll do so only vaguely, and after dramatically throttling them back in scope and ambition in that signature do-nothing liberal centrist fashion. They have no intention of actually working to institute them. That would only lead to the gulag.
In our post-Citizens United campaign financing landscape a cynical take on these cynics might point out the political corruption angle here. This simply adds (and certainly not without merit) a financial incentive to the conservative valorization of the status quo. As Labor Institute co-founder Les Leopold has noted, what “unites” these moderate establishment candidates is “their unwillingness to take on Wall Street,” the architects and primary benefactors of our current vicious status quo ante. Because of this unwillingness, Leopold adds, “they are unable to confront the defining problem of our era — runaway inequality,” which, in Leopold’s view, transforms centrism into an “extremist ideology.” On the pretext of defending an illusory liberal Eden from fascists (Trump) and communists (Sanders, Warren, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), centrists are driving the whole world into the soup kitchen.
Goldilocks is a Pessimist
Liberal centrists are pessimists. As progressive journalist and political speech writer R.J. Eskow has observed, “The Democrats have achieved their greatest political and policy successes when they have ignored the “centrists” — in reality, ever-present naysayers who cloak their negativity in the pseudo-technocratic jargon of centrism. It’s hard to imagine that the New Deal, Medicare, or the Moon Landing would have ever happened if milquetoast Democrats like these had been in charge.”
Centrists obviously don’t describe themselves as pessimists. Instead they describe themselves as realists, which is how pessimists always euphemize their pessimism. This tendency is constantly confirmed by the centrist’s persistent demand that we be realistic whenever anyone advocates for meaningful political change. Proposals for transforming the status quo into something different–something better–are dismissed as pie-in-sky. It’s a wet blanket that centrists throw over the top of any expression of idealistic enthusiasm.
See, for example, Senator Diane Feinstein explaining to existentially-threatened children from the Sunrise movement that we cannot avert human extinction because it would be too expensive. Doing what it takes to preserve organized human life on earth just isn’t realistic.
See Speaker of the House and professional kill-joy Nancy Pelosi letting the air out of a balloon in February: “We welcome all the enthusiasm that people want to put on the table, and the Green New Deal is one of them, but we have to operate in a way that’s evidence-based, current in its data.” This is forewarning that once we dig into the nitty-gritty of this ambitious save life on earth proposal we’re sure to find out that it’s unrealistic. It’s too bad because we were really rooting for humanity.
See small-dreaming non-visionary Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer justify his refusal to support Medicare for all. “I’m going to support a plan that can pass,” he explained. Chuck can’t see a path from here to there, so instead he’ll chart a path from here to here. That’s more realistic.
This is what happens when you adopt the status quo ante as your North Star. There is nowhere to go because you’ve always already arrived.
Liberal Centrist Anti-Politics
It gets worse. The centrist’s insistence that we remain realistic about politics isn’t simply a reflection of pessimism. It also reflects a deeply internalized anti-politics. That is to say, it reflects a belief that political change is not only improbable, but impossible.
Politics–the means by which human beings collectively manage their affairs–unfold historically. When Francis Fukuyama declared in 1989 that liberalism had vanquished its ideological rivals fascism and communism, heralding the end of history, he was also declaring the end of politics. In doing so, Fukuyama, a member of the Reagan Administration at the time, was giving expression to one of neoliberalism’s ideological first principles. This first principle was most famously articulated by the Iron Lady herself, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. To silence any debate about the shortcomings of global capitalism, free trade, and unregulated markets (i.e., neoliberalism), Thatcher would simply declare, “There is no alternative” (TINA for short). She kept saying it until it stuck.This naturalization of neoliberal economic policy, like Fukuyama’s attempt to ossify history, had a clear aim: to create the illusion of a politico-economic necessity such that it would no longer occur to people that they were free to pursue alternatives to neoliberalism via political means. In this endeavor Thatcher and the neoliberals were very successful.
In the course of the gradual neoliberal neutralization and capture of liberal politics, “There is No Alternative” or “TINA” ended up getting internalized by liberal centrists. They’ve drunk the neolibral Kool-Aid, unwittingly in most cases, and now they believe it. They think this bit of ideology–this anti-politics–is reality. This is what cultural theorist Mark Fisher meant in referring to neoliberalism by an alternative descriptive name: capitalist realism.
In his book by the same name (Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?) Fisher notes that “[a]n ideological position can never really be successful until it is naturalized.” What it means for an ideological position to be ‘naturalized’ in this sense is that the ideology ceases to be thought of as a value or an idea and instead is perceived as a ‘fact’, as a part of reality itself. Capitalist realism (aka neoliberalism) is ‘reality’ in just this sense–as a naturalized ideology.
When a liberal centrist politician suggests that ambitious progressive political programs are unrealistic, we shouldn’t mistake this as a simple plea for moderation or an incremental approach to change.We have every reason to believe that what they mean is that these programs are literally impossible. Until they awaken from their capitalist realism ideological slumber, we should view their half-hearted gestures to partially or “pragmatically” support these programs anyway with skepticism.
Baby Bear is a Baby
Consider the story arc of Goldilocks and the Three Bears one more time. Goldilocks tresspasses in the bears’ cottage. She eats their food, breaks a chair, and sleeps in one of their beds. The bears return and are alarmed to find what Goldilocks has done. Goldilocks runs off. The end. It doesn’t seem to have a point.
This pointlessness was not lost on the Austrian-born American psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim. In 1976 Bettelheim published a book entitled The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairytales. The value of fairytales, Bettelheim claimed, was in encouraging children to deal with the existential puzzles they must confront in the process of maturing into adults–problems like how to cope with separation anxiety and how to deal with oedipal feelings and sibling rivalry. Much to Bettelheim’s consternation one fairytale fails to fulfill this important function: Goldilocks and the Three Bears. As author John Updike noted in his 1976 New York Times review of The Uses of Enchantment, Bettleheim reports in “a rather grumpy tone” that in Goldilocks and the Three Bears “nothing much happens.”
Goldilocks ultimately fails to find what is fitting for her. The bears, rather than being touched by her misadventure, are appalled. They don’t accept the outsider the way the dwarves do in Snow White. This might have provided children with a moral about acceptance and generosity. Nor, on the other hand, do the bears eat Goldilocks for her transgressions, as was the case in an earlier version of the fairytale. That might have served as a cautionary tale about respecting other people’s possessions. “[A]t its end there is neither recovery nor consolation;” Bettelheim laments, “there is no resolution of conflict, and thus no happy ending.”
Because of its inherent stay putness, because its engine of progress is stuck in neutral, liberal centrism disappoints in a very similar fashion.
It’s significant to observe that the just right selections that Goldilocks makes again and again belong to Baby Bear and that Baby Bear is a baby. By identifying with Baby Bear Goldilocks arrests her development at the infant stage. For Bettleheim, this is what’s wrong with Goldilocks and the Three Bears. It fails to encourage children “to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the problems which growing up presents.”
The political analogue here is straightforward enough. Liberal centrism is the idealization of arrested development itself. As practitioners of capitalist realist anti-politics, liberal centrists refuse to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the difficult problems we all face as members of a democratic polity. This paralyzing timidity even in the face of existential threat (human extinction) is, from a grown up point-of-view, irresponsible in the extreme. To borrow vernacular from the Millennial generation, liberal centrists refuse to adult.
Fascists Love Papa Bear
Plenty of people in the world are losing patience with Goldilocks’ Baby Bear ethos, the refusal to grow up it portends, and especially the economic viciousness it masks. Whereas Goldilocks found Papa Bear’s bed to be too hard, there is a growing ilk that thinks Papa Bear’s bed is juuuuuust right. I want to discuss this ilk briefly because in the aftermath of the Great Recession they’ve become the elephant in the room. I mean elephant here in the political mascot sense of the term.
We’re allegedly in the midst of a ‘crisis of masculinity’ today. Or so claims University of Toronto psychology professor turned reactionary celebrity YouTube intellectual, Jordan Peterson. When he’s not railing against feminism, political correctness, and an incomprehensible hobgoblin called “cultural Marxism,” he doles out fatherly advice to a huge following of existentially perplexed young men who aren’t sure anymore how to man. Peterson understands that now that women are people, manning is hard. So he tells these young men to stand up straight, to tell the truth, to clean their rooms, and to guard against trangender pronoun nazis who want to destroy Western civilization. Young men love him for it. Peterson is daddy–one of the kinder daddies actually.
Milo Yiannopoulos, the British neo-fascist (“alt-right”) provocateur who used to write for Breitbart news and travel around to college campuses “defending free speech”, has a nickname for Donald Trump. He calls Trump “daddy.”
“Xi Dada loves Peng Mama,” exclaimed a viral video in China in 2016. Xi Dada (Uncle Xi) is an affectionate Chinese nickname for President Xi Jinping. Despite the “uncle” moniker, the adoring descriptions from expats in this Chinese state media propaganda video make it clear that Xi Jinping is daddy: a “powerful Chinese leader,” “not only a businessman, but a family man,” “handsome […] and super charismatic,” “he’s like part of the family,” “like a big brother, maybe I can say like a father.”
Daddy is very popular these days. A headline from a Time Magazine article from May of last year declares The ‘Strongmen Era’ Is Here. The article trods out a global laundry list of daddies. Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Viktor Orbán, Narendra Modi. The article came out a bit too early to celebrate Brazilian fascist Jair Bolsonaro and Khashoggi butcher, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It did of course mentioned Milo Yiannopoulos’ daddy (MAGA daddy).
It sometimes looks as though we’re on the cusp of the final historical triumph of the patriarchy–like a Fukuyaman-style end of history, except where fascism triumphs instead of liberalism. Papa Bear will be calling the shots from now on, not just at home but for the nation (the ‘family’ that will replace the state). It’s too hot porridge and too hard beds from here on. I don’t believe that this is what’s happening though. I want to suggest, following Paul Verhaeghe, that this is the last gasp of the patriarchy. It’s far from clear that we’ll survive this last gasp. It’s quite a tantrum. But if we do there is reason to hope–if only we can convince Goldilocks to grow up.
Who’s Your Daddy?
In his recent book Says Who? The Struggle for Authority in a Market-Based Society, Belgian psychoanalyst Paul Verhaeghe makes a bold and provocative claim: “We’re taking leave of the patriarchal form of authority that determined all aspects of our lives for roughly 10,000 years–the sexual, the social, the religious, the political, and economic.” He thinks we’re in the midst of a global crisis of patriarchal authority.
For reactionaries like Jordan Peterson, who experience this crisis as a “crisis of masculinity,” feminism is posited as the cause. This reasoning would be laughable (mean girls won’t let men be men!) if it didn’t serve as a catalyst for the kind of toxic masculinity that thinks the worlds’ problems can be solved simply by putting women back “in their place”. And not only women.
Verhaeghe offers a much more plausible and formidable set of structural-technological causes–causes which suggest, despite the aspirations of fascists, that the genie isn’t likely to be forced back into the bottle. One is simply the technological advent of hormonal birth control which afforded women for the first time in history the autonomy to choose their own destiny and to compete in the world as equal persons (and they’ve been crushing it). Even more significantly though, we’re in the midst of a fundamental historical shift in organizational structure heralded by the digital age. A growing network of flat, horizontal relationships are obliterating the hierarchical-pyramidal organizational structures that patriarchal authority rests upon.
Since authority up to now has been synonymous with patriarchy, the crisis Verhaeghe describes is also, in a basic sense, a crisis of authority as such. While Verhaeghe is more than happy to celebrate the demise of the patriarchy, he’s concerned about the demise of authority. Authority in this sense is a way of exercising power. Power wielded with authority is internalized by the subject of authority–and people obey voluntarily. Verhaeghe, echoing Hannah Arendt, argues that some level of recognition of authority is essential to peaceful human cohabitation. When authority breaks down, power is increasingly exercised through violence. For this reason, and this is the project of his fascinating book, Verhaeghe searches for an alternative, non-patriarchal basis for authority–one that’s flat and horizontal to fit the digital age, one that’s more consensus-based, one that’s more democratic.
The reason I mention all of this is because the disciples of Papa Bear feel this crisis of authority too. It’s not unreasonable of them to feel it. It’s their solution that’s problematic. Their solution is to try to prop up the patriarchy to avert the terror they feel at the chaotic prospect of a vacuum of authority during frightening times. And as people increasingly refuse to recognize and internalize the authority of patriarchy, the enforcement of patriarchy must take on increasingly violent forms. Welcome to the new fascist era.
The Intercept’s Glen Greenwald recently interviewed Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (just Lula to Brazilians) in prison. Lula was an extremely popular center-left candidate for President who was imprisoned on dubious charges, paving the way for the election of neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro. When asked by Greenwald how Brazilian voters could vote for Bolsonaro, who expresses vocal contempt for women, for black people, for gay people, and for indiginous people, Lula offered the following reply: “In times of terror many people choose a monster to protect them.” This articulates an important insight regarding the disciples of Papa Bear.
When the world becomes frightening and scary, full of unpredictable changes and threats, a child often turns to daddy to be comforted and protected. Daddy is big and strong. Daddy will protect you. Daddy will make everything alright. Papa Bear’s appeal is based, in large part, upon a child-like fear. This despite fascism’s valorization of machismo, its glorification of violence, and its celebration of the dominance of the alpha male.
The disciples of Papa Bear–especially the male disciples–are clearly very nervous about this. It’s apparent in a popular put down that Papa Bear’s followers use to insult other men: Beta cuck. Beta, because a “real man” is supposed to be alpha, but the fascist man, in running to daddy for protection, anxiously worries that he’s actually a beta male. And cuck from cuckhold–a term borrowed from a genre of humiliation porn in which a man (typically a white man) is forced to watch his wife have sex with another man (typically a black man). This taunt was popular with Donald Trump’s former chief political strategist, Steve Bannon.
“In times of terror many people choose a monster to protect them.” This is an important lesson for the liberal centrist who thinks doubling down on the vicious status quo ante is a recipe for defeating fascism. As growing wealth disparity, poverty, economic crises, wars of conquest, climate change-induced refugee crises, and all of the other horrors driven by our investment in neoliberal brutality persist and grow, more and more people will find it appealing to run to Papa Bear for protection. And given that the wealth concentration created by neoliberalism reflects a pyramidal-hierarchical (i.e., patriarchal) economic structure (eight men, recall, own as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity), the idea that the neoliberal “center” will be invested in disabusing the disciples of Papa Bear of their fascist tendencies is also, in a manner of speaking, a fairytale.
This is a more than sufficient reason why the world can no longer afford to indulge liberal centrist’s Edenic Fukuyaman delusion.
Was ist Aufklärung?
In 1784, in a magazine called Berlinische Monatsschrift, the philosopher Immanuel Kant published a response to a solicited question: Was ist Aufklärung? (What is Enlightenment?). Kant’s essay famously opens with a single sentence definition that also serves as a kind of aspirational invitation:
“Aufklärung ist der Ausgang des Menschen aus seiner selbstverschuldeten Unmündigkeit.” Or in English, “Enlightenment is mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity.”
By immaturity in this context, Kant was thinking primarily of intellectual immaturity: the “inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” His use of the metaphor of a child growing up is instructive. Until they reach maturity, children lack the understanding required to make the kind of sound judgments required to safely navigate their way in the world. To protect their welfare and to keep them safe, a guardian (usually a parent) is obligated to limit the child’s autonomy and to make decisions for them. This is a benevolent paternalism, and none of us would likely make it to adulthood without it. But once the child becomes an adult, this paternalism ceases to be so benevolent.
Similarly, when the child becomes an adult and is capable of autonomy (self-governance, self-understanding without the guidance of a guardian), continued immaturity is self-incurred.
In the course of this piece we’ve explored the self-incurred immaturity of the liberal centrist–manifested in a Golidlockian refusal to adult–to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the difficult problems we all face as members of a democratic polity.
We’ve also explored the self-incurred immaturity of the reactionary fascist who, in looking to Papa Bear to call the shots, remains an eternal child.
I want to conclude by asking a question: in the twilight of the patriarchy, as we face formidable global social and economic unrest and the dual existential threats of nuclear annihilation and climate change-induced extinction, who is the grown up now? Donald Trump? Jair Bolsanaro? Jeff Bezos?
In attempting to answer this question you might notice that in our examination of the tripartite positions of the Goldilockian false dialectic we’ve left one position unexplored. We’ve examined the just right Baby Bear position fetishized by Goldilocks. We’ve explored the reactionary-fascist position adopted by the disciples of Papa Bear. Might the solution to our problems be a kind of Mama Bear leftism? I think it depends largely on what we mean. If Papa Bear is the archetype of hierarchical-pyramidal patriarchal authority, and if we think of Mama Bear as the antithesis of that, then the answer is yes. If Mama bear means flat, networked, horizontal, non-hierarchical, collaborative, coalitional, intersectional organization, then the answer is yes. The reign of the fascist daddy, but also the ‘just right’ reign of the billionaire elite, rests upon radically unequal, hierarchical social, political, and economic arrangements that force us to answer the political question I raised in the paragraph above–who is the grown up now? — with a meek, child-like “not us”. However, for just this reason, because of this unsatisfactory answer, if Mama Bear is simply a substitute for Papa Bear as someone to run to for comfort and protection (“the teat rather than the rod” as Verhaeghe bluntly puts it), then our answer must be no. The point is neither to remain a baby like Goldilocks, nor to run to Papa Bear or to Mama Bear. The point is to overcome childhood. The point is to grow up.
Who is the grown up now? We are. Or if we aren’t (the capitalist realist will certainly point out this ‘fact’), then we ought to be–even if it requires us to be militantly unrealistic about it.
I want to conclude by sketching very briefly what this ‘unrealistic’ growing up might look like. I want to sketch it from the point of view of our liberal centrist friend Goldilocks. It involves, I think, embracing disillusionment, it involves owning our autonomy, and it requires solidarity.
The Virtues of Disillusionment
Regarding disillusionment: for Kant the primary impediments to exiting our self-incurred immaturity were “cowardice and laziness.” And certainly these remain impediments. Still, in 1784 Kant knew nothing about the cultural transmission of ideology and propaganda that modern mass media affords. Already in 1961 in his classic The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America Daniel Boorstein observed, “We are the most illusioned people on earth. Yet we dare not become disillusioned, because our illusions are the very house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very existence.”
I’ve made the case throughout this piece that liberal centrists suffer a certain Fukuyaman delusion, and that the continued embrace of this delusion has arrested the centrists’ development in a way that keeps them from engaging in politics like responsible adults. To borrow yet another metaphor, it’s as though they’re plugged into the Neoliberal Matrix. They’ve taken the blue pill and awakened in their beds believing whatever they want to believe (and incidentally, their co-pay for the blue pill is $25,000). Instead of experiencing the vicious truth of a world ravaged by 30 years of neoliberalism, they live in a mid-century liberal centrist fairytale.
If you try to unplug the centrists from the Neoliberal Matrix they’ll fight you. They’ll accuse you of being a racist, a misogynist, a Russian, a bro. Anything to stay plugged in. To unplug would be to suffer disillusionment, and disillusionment is painful. But as I’ve already noted, the world can ill afford to protect the centrist from this disillusionment.
Maintaining the illusion is a lot of work. There have been a number of major glitches in the matrix. The Great Recession itself was the first. Here the new President Barack Obama had an opportunity to make history by becoming a second FDR by taming rapacious neoliberal capitalism while it was on its knees. Instead he bailed out the banks while 861,664 American families lost their homes to foreclosure in 2008 alone. Rather than leaving something akin to the New Deal as his legacy, his unfortunate legacy is President Trump.
Both Nancy Frasier and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek argue that the surprise election of Donald Trump constitutes another major glitch in the matrix. Using Fraser’s language, the election of a reactionary pseudo-populist like Trump destroyed the Progressive Neoliberal hegemonic bloc, and now we’re living in a politico-economic interregnum. How it turns out is up for grabs (I wrote about this last December).
The most recent glitch in the matrix, as Mark Fisher notes in his book Capitalist Realism, is the environmental disaster. It’s perhaps the perfect glitch, because it’ll keep on glitching, making it difficult to ignore. Here, the kids from the Sunrise Movement petitioning Senator Diane Feinstein was revealing. The Sunrise Movement kids behaved like the adults in the room in contrast to the Goldilockean arrested development of the centrist Feinstein. Like adults they understand, on the basis of the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community, that global warming is caused by human behavior, that if temperatures increase unchecked conditions for organized human life will be destroyed, and that our best hope for averting this most horrifying consequence is via collective political intervention. Against the relief of these very sobering realities, it’s difficult to avoid seeing the cracks in the facade of capitalist realism. Suddenly the notion that accepting things the way they are is the ‘grown up’ thing to do sounds like bullshit. Neoliberalism’s instrumentalist rationalizations no longer wash. Gutting support for social programs and other public goods on the grounds that they’re too expensive may have seemed reasonable in the past, but when the “good’ in question is human existence itself, the ruse finally fails. When Senator Feinstein explains that preserving human life on earth is “too expensive”, we see the moral perversity of her capitalist realism every bit as clearly as we do in the Republican politician’s lying claim that climate change isn’t “real”.
Rather than working so hard to maintain the delusion, the future itself may depend on liberal centrists and others embracing their disillusionment. Whereas disillusionment is experienced as a kind of loss, the Hungarian-born Canadian physician and childhood trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté offers the centrist a different way of looking at it. To be disillusioned means you no longer suffer under an illusion. It’s something you should embrace because now you can see the truth. To make the same point in the parlance of Kant’s famous essay, if the centrists’ refusal to give up their fairytale delusion is self-incurred immaturity, then embracing disillusionment is the path to enlightenment. It makes it possible for the liberal centrist to start adulting.
Autonomy and Solidarity
Kant’s answer to the question “What is Enlightenment?” is, in a nutshell, for humanity to embrace autonomy. “Our age is properly an age of critique, and to critique everything must submit,” wrote Kant in the preface to the Critique of Pure Reason, adding, “Religion and legislation commonly seek to exempt themselves from critique, religion through its sanctity and legislation through its majesty.” Here Kant challenges the two predominant traditional forms of patriarchal authority: the church and the monarchical state. The same challenge can be applied to the modern form of the latter instance: the fascist daddy. Unfortunately, however, this only takes us part of the way there.
As a believer in providence as a divine engine of historical progress, Kant maintained that individual expressions of autonomy, so long as the public use of reason remained unhindered, would lead the whole of humanity to grow up, take charge of themselves, and begin adulting. Facilitating this aim has been, since the Enlightenment, the promise of liberalism’s commitment to republican government and democratic freedom. In a liberalism wholly captured by the market (i.e., neoliberalism), autonomy reduces to atomized individualism, and, as Wendy Brown reminds us, to responsibilized individualism. Each of us is an isolated monad, rendered politically ineffectual in our singular individuality. Via radical wealth inequality, market capture of the commons, and perhaps most importantly of all, market capture of politics itself, capitalism–the putatively virtuous champion of democratic freedom–has failed democracy.
To autonomy, therefore, we must add solidarity to make collective self-governance a reality. As Paul Verhaeghe’s account of the global crisis of patriarchal authority suggests, formal democracy under neoliberal conditions doesn’t afford the kind of genuine democratic self-governance required for us seriously do what Goldilocks refuses to do: to pursue the hard labor of solving, one at a time, the difficult problems we all face as members of a democratic polity. This likely requires democratic engagement greater than just going to the polls every two years to elect a few technocrats to do your adulting for you. It also certainly requires some semblance of economic democracy in addition to political democracy. As long as eight men control as much wealth as half of humanity, the economic self-interest of the minuscule few at the top of the hierarchy threaten the future of us all. In this regard it’s time for liberal centrists to take the red pill. The left has the future–that is, if we’re to be afforded a future at all.