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Human nature, liberalism, and the politics of transformation
There is no information from the future: stop comparing the present with it
In response to a request from Professor Lee Jussim, I commissioned a series of essays from Lorenzo Warby on just how the social sciences fell off an intellectual cliff. Public knowledge of this tends to start and stop at the replications crisis, which is immense. Something that started in psychology is now rapidly colonising everything else in the social sciences, and has even spilt over into STEM (especially medicine).
Lorenzo wrote a short essay on the issue last month, and Lee wanted more, which is fair enough.
However, it’s not fair to publish the essays without giving readers a framework for Lorenzo’s thinking.
That framework is simple: the universities have been colonised by a large number of theoretical approaches that compare the present and the past with the future — a future that doesn’t exist, and from which we get no information. Focussing on the future also has the effect of blinding people to real things that exist in the here and now, which means even analyses of the present are descriptively inaccurate.
This, Lorenzo argues, is at the root of the worst and most deranged nonsense in the social sciences. In other words, it’s not all underpowered studies and p-hacking.
Anyone who’s ever relied on a weather forecast and finished up drenched, or done their dough at the races knows how difficult it is to predict even discreet, proximate-in-time events. And don’t get me started on the Bank of England, which throws more darts blindfolded than the Met Office.
Envisioning entire civilisations and socio-political orders is orders of magnitude harder, properly the realm of science fiction writers, and for good reason. When we get it wrong, no harm, no foul. And maybe we entertained you into the bargain.
Not so political theorists, politicians, and policy planners.
I’ll leave you with Lorenzo now, but do please keep an eye out for future installments, which I hope to release once a week (in between bits of my own writing). Lorenzo has written a short book, and it’s very much worth your time (I wouldn’t be publishing it if I didn’t think it was good). He’s on Twitter @LorenzoFrom if you want to follow him there.
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The Classical, or at least Aristotelian and Platonic, view of nature was of things with essences: essential features and purposes they were directed towards. So, the proper aim of social life, and political life, was being the best we could be. Politics, like everything else, had a telos, a proper purpose, with which wisdom sought to understand and act in accordance.
The Christian view of nature is as something created by God (so a direct manifestation of God’s goodness), but which is now inhabited by Fallen creatures (us). We, who were made in the image of God, were granted dominion over the natural world but we are flawed in the exercise of that dominion, as we are in all things, by being Fallen. However, we can gain redemption — and so, salvation — as we depart from nature into eternity.
When Europe moves out of its medieval period, political thought, while written by committed Christians, evolves in a direction that rejects the Classical political tradition. Leo Strauss argued, plausibly, that this shift started with Niccolo Machiavelli.
Machiavelli changed the framing of thinking about politics and the political away from politics grounded in seeking such excellence as humans are capable — from being directed toward wisdom — towards a grounding in the motives that humans display. Specifically, being grounded in humans seeking glory, an intense form of status ambition.
Thomas Hobbes moved further from the Classical conception by grounding politics in the human fear of death, particularly violent death. Or, more generally, the human desire for ease and comfort. In other words, the politics of prudence. Prudence that is directed towards the material satisfactions of life. Even more than Machiavelli, Hobbes believed that by understanding the mechanics of politics, we can minimise the role of chance in human affairs. Nature became a realm of chaos and chance we must seek to tame.
From Hobbes developed the fundamental vision of liberal politics: it seeks to create a prudential order that permits people the maximum chance to develop their capacities and enjoy the (material) satisfactions of life. The greater our capacities, the more we can order the social and material world to our own satisfaction.
From Hobbes came the Sceptical Enlightenment, which held human nature to be constant across human societies, something we must work with. However, that nature also provides the basis for universal truths about the structure, and structuring, of politics.
Sceptical Enlightenment politics could range from the aristocratic and monarchical to the democratic, but it grounded political understanding in the constants and constraints of human nature. Constants and constraints that made the past a rich source of lessons and understanding to be used to construct a better future. James Madison’s “failure analysis” of previous republics that informed his drafting of the US Constitution was a classic manifestation of such Sceptical Enlightenment politics.
When we take human nature as a constant, though, we limit the level of social harmony we can achieve. Biologist E. O. Wilson’s comment about Communism (“wonderful idea, wrong species”) expresses liberal limitations on the achievable very clearly.
The Darwinian revolution in biology did not overturn these limitations on the achievable. It gave us a systematic way of understanding our place in nature, our origins, our evolved cognitive architecture, our embodied cognition. It provided a partial replacement for the role previously played by religious narratives.
Evolutionary biology gives us a better understanding of the trade-offs that being alive, being part of the biosphere, involve and from whence they come. It does not offer us a way of transcending trade-offs inherent in being biological beings; it simply lets us manage them better due to greater understanding.
There was, however, a different way to understand expanding human capacities. That was as providing a way to transcend our nature as it has developed from history and society and so create a profoundly harmonious society. A society that would allow us, to a substantial degree, to obviate the trade-offs we have been, until now, trapped within.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of humans as being naturally good but corrupted by the temptations and restrictions of society, provided a conceptual starting point for this alternative vision: if we created a society of equal and mass abundance, our nature could be liberated from those inhibiting corruptions and a society of profound harmony would emerge.
There is a paradox inherent in this vision. All existing humans are trapped by societal corruptions and the past’s burdensome legacies. Yet, somehow, some humans can see and act past and through all that, setting out a path that will liberate us from those corruptions and legacies.
Now, there is no evidence that any such claim is true. All attempts to act upon such a vision have not only failed, they have led to mass murder, tyranny, and economic stagnation. The societies upon which such transformational politics have been inflicted have been much worse off than they would have been if they had remained within the ordinary paths of human development.
Yet, the politics of the transformative future remain alive and well. There is something enormously attractive about the dream of transcening limitations that have hitherto restricted human possibilities.
The apostles of technology make such claims, and they some basis for their optimism. It is obviously true that technological advance has greatly expanded human capacities, allowing us to live longer, to be far more prosperous, to be able to do much more, than our ancestors could.
But such technological progress is not an overturning of liberal politics. Far from it. It is a practical expression of underlying liberal optimism about expanding human capacities. In some ways, it’s hyper-liberal politics.
For the natural metier of liberal politics is commerce and electoral politics, particularly parliamentary politics.
Commerce permits new possibilities about what people are willing to buy and find uses for to be hypothesised and explored, plus new mechanisms to handle risk and loss. Electoral politics allow politics to be a series of bargains between groups and individuals, subject to ultimate ratification by popular votes, and the votes of elected representatives.
Commerce is a discovery process that is largely self-operating, provided there is sufficient social and legal order. Electoral politics are grounded in people expressing their wishes (or, at least, preferences among offered alternatives). Both commerce and electoral politics express the prudential politics of material satisfaction. They are both, in that underlying sense, inherently liberal. Of course, people can vote for illiberal politics.
One of the problems of the liberal order is that it tends to encourage the swallowing of society by either commerce or politics. Religion provides the basis for a third realm of action, as do local connections. As religion has declined, increased mobility (including from mass migration), information technology, and suburbanisation have eaten away at local connections. This means resistance to the liberal imperialism of commerce and politics has weakened.
Monetised commerce has “scaled up”, discovering new things to offer. Liberal bargaining politics has found new things for the coercive power of the state to manage. Together, they have combined to create a neoliberal order that attenuates social action outside the commerce-politics dyad.
Technology that expands our capacities, and so expands our choices, tends to socially liberalise. In the case of information technology, since it provides so many choices and possibilities for individual users, it tends to be hyper-liberalising.
Despite the potential for connection-creation, these are “virtual” interactions, and so lack the multi-dimensional, physically grounded nature of fuller social connections. They tend not to push back against commerce or politics. Indeed, they show distinct tendencies to be new manifestations of one, the other, or both.
Moreover, if technology underpinning these expanding capacities plays on, even targets, our cognitive architecture in ways that turn out to be individually or socially dysfunctional, then there is a problem. Encouraging us to retreat into our personal choices, our personal material satisfactions, is likely isolating in ways that do not suit, or are inimical to, our cognitive architecture, our embodied cognition.
But the liberal politics of commerce and electoral politics, of bargains both commercial and political, does not promise complete social harmony. Yes, it can create peaceful and highly ordered societies. But folk must still work for a living, there is plenty to argue over, there can be considerable disparities in outcomes. If one seeks a truly transformative social order, then liberal politics and liberalism will not deliver.
Seeking such a profoundly transformative social order has various advantages. By grounding one’s politics in an imagined future, it, as a thing of imagination (for there is no information from the future), can be as perfect as one wants. It can be something no existing order will match.
That gives its adherents a great rhetorical advantage over those who wish to defend what does or has existed. Inevitably, what exists or existed will be full of trade-offs and sins. The defenders of anything that exists, that has a history, can be berated for all those trade-offs and sins while those whose politics look to an imagined future have no such awkwardnesses to defend.
The second advantage is that, given the imagined future can be as perfect as one wants, it can be as morally grand as one wants. It can therefore justify almost any action one wants to undertake, provided one can pass it off as directed towards that imagined future. All those who dissent or oppose one’s intent and actions are therefore blocking the achievement of the morally grand imagined future, so are illegitimate. The sheer moral grandeur of the aim frees one from moral restraints. A lot of people find this very attractive.
The third advantage is that the moral grandeur of the transformative, harmonious future is motivating. It provides a grand framework for one’s political motives and actions. As the politics of the grand, transformative future develops and evolves, it also coordinates. Fellow believers recognise and support each other; they inhabit the same moral (and terminological) universe of motivation and justification.
Those inside such networks are mutually supported. Those outside the networks are not. They may even be targeted for their failure to support the politics of the transformative future. The larger such networks grow, the bigger the advantage in belonging to them, and the greater one’s vulnerability when outside them.
This is precisely why network goods tend toward monopoly. As the network grows, it becomes cheaper and cheaper to add each extra person; once in, people get more and more benefits. Once such a belief network reaches a certain critical mass, it can expand through institutions and social milieux at speed.
There are problems with all this, however. The first is that a lot of people become invested in motivated reasoning. If the politics of the imagined future is motivating, justifying, and coordinating, as it is, then people are going to be resistant to evidence and reasoning inconvenient to those motivations and justifications. More, they are going to be jointly resistant. So critical thinking gets selected out and motivated reasoning gets selected in. Institutions and organisations colonised by such networks are going to become increasingly dysfunctional.
A second problem is that grounding politics in the imagined, transformative future messes with one’s relationship to time and evidence. If the future is where the secular heaven lies, then the past becomes moral hell and the present purgatory (or moral hell, continued).
The ability to learn from past and present is thereby seriously degraded. Combined with the shared interest in motivated reasoning to defend framings that jointly motivate and justify, this can lead to people adopting, en masse, ideas which are seriously at odds with reality.
A third problem is the sort of people who are attracted to such politics. The ability to discount moral or social constraints on one’s actions — because the goal is so wonderful — and to see disagreement with the politics of social transformation as illegitimate, attracts the personality disordered. The ability to justify unconstrained behaviour and to discount the inconvenient views and interests of others is very congenial. It accords with the emotional patterns that “Cluster B” personality disorders display.
Thing is, we have no reason to believe that transformation of the social order and human condition is possible. There is no information from the future; there is no evidence for its achievability. Nor, however, is there evidence against its achievability. Only experience of past and present can do that, and such evidence is, as we have seen, systematically discounted in the transformative future’s cause.
Which is why the politics of the transformative future is perennially committed to a blank slate view of human nature. Only a blank slate allows such transformations to be fully possible.
The more structured and invariant our embodied cognition, the more binding is past and present experience. Our cognitive architecture and our embodied cognition limits what is feasible. That will get you liberal politics. It will not provide you with genuinely transformative politics. It will not abolish trade-offs and disparities.
Hence the motivated reasoning to block anything from evolutionary biology that gets in the way of the transformative future: inherited personality traits, intelligence, cognitive sexual dimorphism.
An ideology can be motivating, justifying, and coordinating, it can allow its adherents to dominate institutions, to seize power and yet be disastrous for any society upon which it is inflicted. That is, after all, the experience of Revolutionary Marxism. Both Russia and China would be more populous, more prosperous, more culturally, technologically, and scientifically dynamic absent Marxism.
The Hegel-Marx intellectual complex generates all the dynamics of the politics of the transformative future outlined above. Hegel provides the historical theory of the transformative future. Marx turned that into a materialist theory and provides the oppressor-oppressive, exploiter-exploited dichotomy.
The failure of the working class in most “capitalist” societies to produce revolutions, even after the stress of the 1914-1918 Great War, led to revisions of Marx’s theories. Revisions that amped up the Hegelianism. The morally grand transformative future is the profoundly engaging element. So, the heart of the motivating, justifying and coordinating effects.
New theories of oppressor-oppression dynamics, and of mechanisms of social change, could and were developed. Notably, all the versions of Critical Theory that have become so influential in academe and education. All are evolutions from the Hegel-Marx intellectual complex and all replicate its flaws and patterns.
Poisoned at the root
Everything from Hegel is poisoned at the root. Hegel imprisons human agency within a prefigured chronology. The open choices of electoral politics, and of commerce, are not legitimate unless they manifest the preset chronology. This imprisoning of agency with chronology is why Hegelianism is the path to tyrannising politics. Whether the Left-Hegelianism of Marx or the Right-Hegelianism of Ivan Ilyin — who Vladimir Putin so admires.
The grandeur of the imagined, but never spelled-out future continues to sparkle. It mobilises expanding networks of mutually signalling believers.
The drive to de-legitimise all human agency that does not conform to the proper arc of history, the arc that bends towards the imagined future, is alive and well. It is far from clear that the liberal order will survive it.
In a forthcoming series of essays, to be published on Helen Dale’s Substack, I will explore the above dynamics, and more. Concluding with a what is to be done? action plan.
David Gress, From Plato to NATO: The Idea of the West and Its Opponents, The Free Press, 1998.
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B.Macpherson, Penguin,  1968.
Mark Lilla, The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics and the Modern West, Alfred A Knopf, 2007.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. George Bull, The Folio Society,  1975.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, trans. Maurice Cranston, Penguin,  1968.
Timothy Snyder, ‘Ukraine and Russia in a Fracturing Europe,’ Lecture at the Watson Institute for International Affairs, Brown University, published online 3 May 2016.