Jay B Gaskill
Sometime in the late 19th and early 20th century, leftists hijacked the term liberal, a term that first applied to those who endorsed free enterprise and open markets. These ideas were a great advance over feudalism, and over royalist mercantilism. Free markets and free exchanges were powerful reformist ideas because any truly free market system is also free from the political power brokers, political favoritism, and from all of the ancient prejudices of race, gender and class. Of course, we’re still living with politically managed markets and enterprises. A truly free marketplace, free of politics and favoritism, has yet to emerge on the world stage, but its approximations, even in communist China, are wildly more successful in advancing the general prosperity than socialist bureaucracies ever were.
Next, the leftists hijacked the term progressive. This was a term that in its original sense described the triumph of scientific and technological progress over superstition and entrenched privilege. Because science and technology have moved the human population from lives that Hobbes described as “nasty, brutal and short” into the well fed, civilized lifestyles we now enjoy in the developed West, the term progressive was aptly applied.
But in the hands of the progressive liberals (another term for the post-communist leftists) the original senses of the terms liberal and progressive were corrupted. Actually, the term, leftist comes to us from the British parliament, a comparatively late development, but its deep agenda has a more ancient provenance. The leftists, by whatever name, have always been about the leveling project. In practice, far more leveling down has been achieved than leveling up.
The wary Australians have an aphorism that captures that process nicely: Try not to be the tall poppy in the field - they are the first flowers to be cut down.
The leveling goal has remained a constant, in spite of its changing disguises. Because the impulse to level our fellow humans arises from the natural human tendency to jealousy (condemned, by the way, in the Decalogue – look it up), utopian leveling programs will always be with us.
Here is a working definition of the modern left:
The end product of the left’s agenda, whether pursued gradually or in a coup, is some form of authoritarian socialism. Socialism never ends well because its necessary control over human economic activities inevitably leads to an ever greater measure of control of all other human endeavors. This is especially damaging because socialist bureaucracies tend to smother the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial spirits among us, upon whose freedom and risk-taking so much of human progress has depended. This is why the authoritarian socialist models degrade over time into stagnation and widely shared poverty. The innate tendency of socialism to gather increasing control of all aspects of life was eloquently and compellingly exposed by the Austrian economist, Friedrich August von Hayek, in his classic work, “The Road to Serfdom”. His was a cautionary study that he addressed in an introductory letter to “my fellow socialists”.
By now, we’ve accumulated an impressive number of test cases – Russian and Chinese communism and the German Nazism variant, among them. All are chilling, revealing experiments about true nature of the leveling endgame. It turns out that the pursuit of equality uber alles has not worked out well in practice for the common people: Dissidents tend to be forcibly equalized or liquidated; party bosses replace the old elites; and life at the bottom begins to include more and more of the population.
So the leftists, starting with the British Fabian socialists, adopted a different strategy. The socialist dream was to be implemented very gradually, piecemeal, so as not to set off premature opposition, and naively, to avoid the endgame. But the leftist agenda inexorably leads to outcomes that are neither liberal nor progressive. Those labels were appropriated by the left because corrupting language is a very useful tool, helpful in neutralizing opposition, particularly among the category of well-meaning intellectuals (Lenin described them as “useful idiots”) until it is too late. Comprehensive political power, once sufficiently consolidated, proves very hard to dislodge.
Here’s the dirty little secret of the modern era: In practice, the left no longer believes that equality is possible, but its leaders do understand that the notion of equal human dignity (a conservative or old-fashioned liberal notion) is actually dangerous to the power brokers because it means ordinary people fully share in decision-making power. I suspect that Marx realized this when he called for a dictatorship of the proletariat (i.e. of the less than equal) while failing to disclose that the proletariat would be subject to the dictatorship by the party bosses. The wealthy liberal elites in the USA are softer versions of the hardnosed, prosperous party bosses in Russia and China, but they manifest the same levels of self-deception, hubris and hypocrisy.
In this context, modern conservatism, especially as enhanced by the Renaissance perspective I’m introducing in this series of essays, is the standard bearer of the older progressive and liberal legacy and the true wave of the future.