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Updating the Template
The ever-evolving template of transformational politics, from Marxism to the Current Thing
This piece can be adumbrated thusly: what has poured out of the universities and colonised our institutions is not Marxism or even cultural Marxism.
Post-enlightenment progressivism does not copy Marx’s substance, but his method, which requires grounding one’s politics in a future that does not exist, and from which there is no information.
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For decades, Marxism provided the dominant template for a politics of the transformative future. This is no longer true. Instead, what we’ve seen are two processes of evolution.
Moving on from Marxism, keeping the faith
First, there has been doctrinal evolution. While some believers in the transformational future have retained their Marxist faith—despite its grotesque record of tyrannising failure—the dominant behaviour over time has been to make a series of doctrinal adjustments, or even to adopt new doctrines entire. However, all these doctrines keep the faith in the transformational future and its politics.
So, the pattern has been to update the (originally Marxist) template with its belief in the transformational future and the creation of vanguard capital therefrom. Vanguard capital being skills and networking oriented towards acquiring power.
While it can be fun to trace the doctrinal influence of Marxism, it is its template for the dynamics of belief, and for the creation of vanguard capital, that is more important and enduring.
Philosopher Frederich Hegel’s historical dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is not incidental to the appeal of Marxism. On the contrary it is crucial to it, and why attempts after the 1914-1918 Dynasts’ War to update Marxism re-engaged with Hegel.
Hegel was explicitly engaged in the project of reconciling philosophy and religion, which makes him a rich source for reworking one’s faith in the transformational future. That he was explicitly a Hermetic thinker, an upholder of the notion that correct knowledge opens up the process of liberation, makes him even more useful for generating vanguard capital.
Though Hegel’s laughably incompetent scientific reasoning—including the claim there were a priori reasons why the solar system could only have seven celestial bodies or that a magnet acting on a lever proved that weight could increase without mass doing so—was surely a warning of nonsense ahead. If the turgid and pseudo-profound quality of Hegel’s prose was not enough of a warning sign.
Nevertheless, the Hegel mode of scientific illiteracy, prophetic pretension, power worship and obscurity creating a patina of profundity has continued to re-emerge in activist scholarship and to be an academic winner.
The failure of Marx’s economic forecasts led naturally to re-engagement with Hegel precisely because of his grand-synthesising future historical dialectic. If one abandons the grounding belief in, and authority of, the imagined future, then one of necessity abandons any motivating and justifying faith.
But Hegel’s historical dialectic of thesis-antithesis-synthesis as the dynamic of history is without evidentiary support. If you sort of squint at European history in a highly selective, even caricatured way, it vaguely fits his schema. Once you take a global perspective, his historical schema falls in a heap.
Hegel looks like a historical thinker, as his thought is so much about stages in history and processes through history. But Hegel is actually a deeply anti-historical thinker, for he profoundly denies history’s contingency. He embraces not history, with all its messy possibilities and happenstances, but a prefigured prophetic chronology.
Puffing up Napoleon—a temporary conqueror of peripheral bits of Eurasia—as the manifestation of World-Soul was the sort of ludicrous theologising of history that such anti-history produces. But the power-worship and elevation of theologised tyrants, the embrace of tyrannising monstrosities, was something to which Hegelian anti-history naturally leads.
The belittling of ordinary human agency intertwined with the elevation of monsters, each requiring the other, is deeply embedded in his replacement of the contingency of history with prefigured prophetic chronology. Even when Hegel talks of dignity and recognition, such talk is emptied of any strong sense of human agency by being framed by, indeed imprisoned in, his prophetic chronology.
Thus, agency is only legitimate when it acts according to the prefigured chronology. The more actions of great monsters fulfil that declared purpose, the more legitimate they become.
In its imprisoning of agency within chronology, Hegelian thought becomes inherently tyrannical, inherently anti-democratic. For democracy embraces human agency.
You can see the consequences of this anti-historical imprisonment of human agency within chronology in the writings and thought of both Marx, the quintessential Left-Hegelian, and in Ivan Ilyn, the quintessential Right-Hegelian.
Stalin knew from the collectivisation of the nomads of Kazakhstan that collectivisation led to mass death. Yet, as a Left-Hegelian, history had to be pushed along in its prefigured chronology. Peasants and pastoralists had to be turned into workers. So the collectivisation continued and expanded and more millions starved to death.
What Hegel’s schema does provide is a structure justifying belief in the transformative future. One based on a narrative prophesying the transformational future happening within an ostensibly, and reassuringly, secular guise. No supernatural claims here!
Just utterly unverifiable ones.
Marx took Hegel’s Hermetic historicism and made it materialistic through his economism, as well as Gnostic—hence so motivating. Gnostic in the sense of having the following features:
The world is bad (it is the world of the Demiurge: in Marx’s case, capitalism).
The world is fake, it is not what it seems (capitalism exploits and deludes).
There are evil forces behind what happens (the interests of the ruling oppressors).
There is esoteric knowledge that others do not share (those who have not embraced the truth of Marx’s system).
We are a piece of the good God thrust into this world of darkness (we are alienated from our labour due to exploitation by the owners of the means of production).
This secularised Gnosticism has also been worked into successive templates. The now endemic characterisation of constraint as oppression is deeply Gnostic. That it is outrageous that our wills are “imprisoned” within insufficiently pliant structure (including our biology).
Marx also took from Hegel the Hermetic notion that the true initiate’s knowledge of the workings of the universe gives them powers of discernment and action not given to others. A notion that Lenin’s Jacobinising of Marxism (politics unlimited in scope and in means) took even further.
In the updated templates—unless one has embraced the relevant Critical Theory—one is a tool of oppression. As mathematician—and critic of Theory—James Lindsay says, Hermeticism is the process and Gnosticism is the motivation.
The more completely one can define oneself, one can declare oneself, to be rescued from structural constraints, the more god-like one is. The contemporary Transcult, with its claim to define oneself on the basis of a gendered psyche so that one is a woman if one so declares, offers a typical escape from biological constraints.
The Transcult is, however, simply the latest version of the politics of the transformational future, albeit a highly individualised and self-involved form. A politics of the transformational future offers escape from all sorts of constraining structures: not least the constraints from being products of evolution. It makes the claim that we are not evolved beings with inherent cognitive structures but blank slates awaiting our transformation by the righteous possible.
Apart, that is, from the resisting dross. Those who refuse to go along with the politics of the transformational future. They who must be cast aside so that the righteous transformation can happen. Hence the inherently tyrannical nature, and tendency to cruelty, even murderousness, of any politics of the transformational future.
A tyrannising cruelty that the Transcult also displays, with its attempts to destroy the careers, reputations, business, the social and personal lives, of those who resist any part of its claims. The problem being that the demand for a gendered psyche to so triumph over biology that they are a woman even if they have a penis is fragile. It can be punctured or undermined when others refuse to affirm it.
Tolerance is not enough. There has to be acceptance. Which is to say, endorsement.
An enduring feature of the politics of the transformational future—the source of much of its tyrannising cruelty—is a belief that the general public are not citizens to be served but human clay to be moulded by true initiates (of the transformational future). While the resisting dross become manifestations of evil that must be exorcised from society by any means possible.
The various politics of the transformational future offer escape from constraints of structure: of history, biology, economics—from whatever constraints one chafes against. To utterly transform society, freeing it from all oppression and alienation: what is more godlike than that?
However far from Marxism the doctrines and politics of the transformational future have evolved, all the updated templates of such politics remain forms of secularised Hermeticism that Gnostically recoil from the social structures in which we are embedded.
They all manifest an essentially religious approach to information and authority, to authority-from-believing, grounded in an imagined future. They all give ultimate authority to a realm without checkable feedback.
The future isn’t what it used to be
The second process of evolution in the politics of the future has been a retreat from positive vision. The future which grounds such politics has became less and less overtly utopian, less and less with substantive in content, and more and more the future as only grounding left for such politics.
If you judge present and past by standards that have never been instantiated anywhere in human history, then the future becomes the only place to ground your politics. This politics can be compatible with a remarkable amount of pessimistic nihilism about human action and its possibilities, a classic case of mistaking darkness for depth.
The less of a positive vision there is—the more such politics is about undermining, blocking, destroying, and de-legitimising past legacies and present constraints—the easier it becomes to adapt such politics for other purposes.
To be, in all sorts of ways, not progressive but regressive.
The utility of falsity
To believe in Marxism is to believe in a mountain of falsity. Not only a mountain of falsity but, given its appalling record in power, a contemptible and tyrannising mountain of falsity.
Marxism is not an “interesting way of viewing the world”. It is a profoundly false way of viewing the world that leads to tyranny, mass murder, cruelty and economic stagnation.
But here’s the thing: so long as there is enough of a grain of truth to sustain belief, then falsity can actually be an excellent coordinating device, provided one is not operating in a social milieu where such falsity is subject to disabling reality-tests.
The willingness to deny, even stigmatise, inconvenient facts, to correctly not notice, to make the required affirmations, and to attack and disparage those who notice wrongly, provides an excellent marker of commitment that is central to creating and sustaining vanguard capital and networked status strategies.
Hence Marxism has flourished in academe, moreso than anywhere else. Because, despite delusions to the contrary, academe is a social milieu which has little in the way of effective reality tests. Even, at times, in the “hard” sciences.
Correctly packaged pseudo-knowledge can be accommodated and may even flourish, within the structures of academe. Ideas are laundered through simulacra of scholarship, via journal publications and peer review.
All this is done with complete sincerity. These mechanisms are highly functional. That does not mean they are conscious, intentional, or a deliberate con.
We Homo sapiens are very good at self-deception, which is part of being very good at moralising and rationalising our self-interest. Self-deception lowers our cognitive load and allows us to be more persuasive. It is so much easier to righteously seek one’s self-interest if one is sincere in what one advocates.
Self-deception is the path to self-interested moral and intellectual sincerity.
The lower the costs of error and the higher the gains from self-deception, the higher the efficient level of self-deception is going to be. With weak reality tests—and no effective character tests—academe (and intellectual life more generally) is a realm where the efficient level of self-deception is high.
Especially if there is a network or networks of folk for whom efficient levels of self-deception are convergent. They will tend to evolve mechanisms and responses (often involving motivated reasoning) to protect their shared self-deception.
What is known as epistemic closure.
Thus do various forms of belief in the transformational future flourish. Thus is academe the source point for the various evolutions of the templates of the transformational future. Including the creation of vanguard capital.
Hence also, academe itself has been overrun by networked status strategies and by vanguard capital. Something I’ll explore in later essays.
It’s clear that faith in a transformational future is well able to generate an ever-evolving set of doctrines. To hoover up techniques, mechanisms and outlooks from anywhere. All the way from Freud and Foucault to fandoms.
Marx’s motivating and justifying vision of the future is what drives his analysis and why it is so wrong. But the underlying power of his belief template, even faith, is very powerful. Hence the continual evolution of his template into new sets of false beliefs, where their falsity is not some disabling weakness, but a strength, a way of sorting commitment by required affirmations and not noticings.
Which also requires the stigmatising of wrongful noticing so as to protect the shared status and social leverage strategy, a shared conception of being of the smart and the good because one affirms X. The contempt, the anger, even hate, with which people who wrongfully notice are treated tells us that this is a status strategy that people are invested in as a matter of cognitive identity.
Such commitments can act to raise further the efficient level of sincere self-deception. For then there are the costs of inconvenient truths. As well as the cost of too much self-awareness. Costs from giving up the convergent heroic narrative, of possibly needing a new anchor for one’s cognitive identity.
The social costs of self-deception
The demand to not notice and make the required affirmations, to stigmatise wrongful noticing, is ultimately not compatible with freedom of thought and speech, or democracy or, even more immediately, good governance. The demand to affirm and to not notice is also a demand that other folk affirm and not notice. This produces intense siloing (not consuming media from sources that notice wrongly) but also a deep censoriousness. In order to protect the status that comes from affirming and not noticing correctly, it must be made illegitimate for other folk to notice wrongly.
We have become increasingly a civilisation of broken feedbacks as institutional and social milieus with ever higher levels of efficient level of self-deception have expanded.
Moreover, as Martin Gurri has argued, any structure that de-legitimises dissent is likely an excellent mechanism for elite dominance.
An elite culture of required affirmations, and of not noticing, and a “quality” media that shapes and panders to such a culture, is a direct path to bad public policy. It not only truncates “incorrect” feedback, it de-legitimises it. Serial public policy failures are an inevitable consequence.
The next essay examines the Pravda media model that is increasingly dominant across the world’s press.
Will Storr, The Status Game: On Social Position And How We Use It, HarperCollins, 2022.
Robert Trivers, The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, Basic Books, , 2013.
Articles, papers, book chapters, podcasts
Jo Freeman, ‘Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood,’ Ms magazine, April 1976, pp. 49-51, 92-98.
Ryan Grim, ‘The Elephant in the Zoom,’ The Intercept, June 14 2022.
Martin Gurri, ‘The Fifth Wave: Twittermania,’ Discourse Magazine, January 18, 2023.
Rob Henderson, ‘Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class—A Status Update,’ Quillette, 16 Nov 2019.
James Lindsay, ‘Gnosticism: Modern and Postmodern,’ New Discourses Podcast, 19 January 2023.
Josh Slocum, Disaffected Podcast.
Manvir Singh, Richard Wrangham & Luke Glowacki, ‘Self-Interest and the Design of Rules,’ Human Nature, August 2017.
Daniel Williams, ‘The marketplace of rationalizations,’ Economics & Philosophy (2022), 1–25.