By many objective signs and indicators the world is becoming a far more materially comfortable place. Over the last thirty years, tens of millions of people have been raised out of poverty in various parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America. At the same time, new technologies have been transforming communications and conveniences of everyday life. Yet, present political trends in America and other places in the world seem to be suggesting a far different story.
Wherever degrees of market freedom exist anywhere around the globe there are amazing successes in creating wealth, opportunity and personal choice. But among many intellectuals and paternalistic ideologues every such improvement in the human condition is matched with condemnations and attempts to smother personal and economic liberty.
Statist Trends Around the World, Including America
For instance, the Chinese government and Communist Party leadership are proudly hailing its own brand of authoritarianism as a political model for the world, based on the silencing of disagreement and dissent combined with government guidance and planning of economic development for restored “national greatness.” The European Union continues to fracture, with revolts of nationalist and populist movements in many of the member countries opposed to the centralized planning bureaucracies and political elites headquartered in Brussels, but which desire to implement many of the same types of government policies only at the local levels of national control and command.
In the United States, political divisions seem to be growing even deeper between the progressive “left” and the Trumpitarian conservatives, with each side vying to transform America into their respective images through use of the state. The progressives want to use the government to impose a straightjacket of “politically correct” words, actions and attitudes. The Trumpitarian conservatives are determined to build walls against people and goods that might enter the country, while following their own version of America continuing to play policeman around the world. In the meantime, the U.S. government continues its path along worsening fiscal irresponsibility as both Democrats and Republicans in Congress “compromise” with each other to gain deficit-busting increases in both domestic and military spending
All of these trends, I would suggest, are instances of the fact that as we approach the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, the world is, again, in the grip of a wave of anti-individualism and anti-capitalism. In fact, it is merely a continuation of the same counter-revolutionary trend that has been at work for well over a century to reverse the achievements of nineteenth century classical liberalism. It is the same old collectivist wine poured into new political and cultural bottles. (See my article, “Before Modern Collectivism: The Rise and Fall of Classical Liberalism”.)
Collectivism’s Counter-Revolution Against Liberty
Classical liberalism and the ideal of a free, open competitive market society was already under attack by conservative, socialist, and nationalist forces in the middle and last decades of the nineteenth century. Though expressed differently, all of these counter-revolutionary movements emphasized the group before the individual, the submergence within and the submission of the person to the collective – whether that collective was called the hierarchical order of the aristocratic society, or the “workers of the world” united to impose socialist planning on mankind, or an ancestral call and appeal to tribal lineage of national blood and language.
The most repugnant, violent, and brutal of these competing collectivisms – Soviet communism, Italian fascism, and German National Socialism – all were gone by the end of the twentieth century (though some of the Soviet offspring still rule parts of the world, in such places as China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Venezuela). But the collectivist genus, of which communism, fascism and Nazism were merely species, persists and threatens, once more, to possibly prevail.
Freedom, Tyranny, and the Postwar Interventionist State
The post-World War II global struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union brought out certain defining features between a free society and a totalitarian one. It was visualized in such contrasts as that between West Berlin and East Berlin, especially after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961. (See my article, “The Berlin Wall and the Spirit of Freedom”.)
In West Berlin, there was a vibrant market-based material and cultural recovery, along with wide and respected civil liberties, after the destruction experienced by the German people due to their active or passive support for and obedience to the Nazi regime and the cataclysmic war that Hitler brought down on all of Europe. On the other side of the Wall, in East Berlin, was a drab, grey and dictatorial system, with its ever-present secret police, which was imposed on the East Germans by Stalin and those who followed after him in Moscow, with much of the rubble and ruin of the war still surrounding the East Berliners in the bright and beautiful East German socialist state. Who could deny the contrast between these two worlds separated by a Wall built to keep the captive people of communism inside and the ideas and hopes of freedom outside?
But in the West, the market-oriented economies during those post-1945 Cold War decades were not truly free markets, as understood in the classical liberal tradition. They were economies enveloped within and hampered by varying degrees and forms of government regulatory intervention and redistributive welfare statism. The interventionist-welfare state may have been more extensive and intrusive in a number of Western European nations compared to the United States, but they were all managed, manipulated and partly planned societies within democratic political regimes.
The Left’s “Shock” over the Crimes and Collapse of Soviet Socialism
Nonetheless, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were “shocks” to the emotions and the ideology of many of those on the political left in the Western world. For most of the seven decades following the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, the socialists, progressives and modern American “liberals” had all yearned for the success of the great experiment of “socialism-in-practice” in the hope of a government planned “better world.” In the middle decades of the twentieth century many of them were apologists and mouthpieces for Lenin’s and Stalin’s Russia. Reports and eyewitness accounts of terror, tyranny, and mass murder at the hands of the Soviet regime were often denied or ridiculed as anti-socialist “red baiting” or the false tales of disgruntled opponents of “the new Russia.”
After the revelations of “Stalin’s Crimes” following his death in 1953, the brutal suppression of the anti-Soviet uprising in Hungary in 1956 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 to crush “moderate” socialist reforms, many on the left in the West had their hopes and dreams of the Soviet model completely shattered. Instead, given the complementary failure of socialist central planning to bring either prosperity or freedom to those countries in the Soviet and socialist orbits, the democratic socialists in Europe and the progressives in America gave up their heart-felt ideal of ending capitalism and replacing it with the planned economy. Their fall back position by the 1970s was for a heavily regulated and more redistributive system to assure “social justice.”
With the end of the communist system in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the shift to market-oriented reforms in places like China, it seemed as if only “capitalism” was left standing, embodied in America’s political, economic, and military dominance of the world. The political and cultural progressive left retreated even further than before into the cloistered halls of higher education. They could sulk and lick their ideological wounds, while continuing to sit in their intellectual ivory towers chanting incantations that capitalism was evil, communalism was just, and the “oppressed” and “exploited” still needed liberation. And they could share their abiding “faith” in a collectivist better world to the clusters of students who passed through their college and university classes, with those young and innocent minds waiting to be remade with a “raised consciousness” concerning social justice.
Old Marxist Wine in New Collectivist Race and Gender Bottles
But the twenty-first century was no longer the “harsh conditions” of the industrial revolution in the early nineteenth century, nor the “bad times” of the Great Depression in the 1930s. America and Western Europe, especially, were highly “middle class” societies with standards of living even for the poorest that were unimaginable for the kings and princes of past times. Good or at least reasonable pay for most, comfortable daily lives with new technology-generating amenities constantly easing the chores of everyday life for larger circles of the population, and generally wide areas of personal freedom and civil liberties for almost everyone.
So who were the oppressed, the exploited and the “marginalized,” the “suffering masses” yearning to be freed from the injustice of capitalism? Enter the new variation on the old Marxist theme. For most of the last two hundred years, the socialists and communists insisted that the great human conflict centered on “social classes.” But how do you sell “class warfare” when most in society view themselves as and financially are “middle class,” and while those in the lower rungs of the income categories want nothing more than to become middle class themselves – maybe even rich, one of the “one percent”?
So the traditional socialist class warfare was jettisoned, and in its place there was offered the new race and gender warfare. The Marxists of old used to insisted that the failure of the proletariat to fully understand their exploitation by the capitalist bosses was due to their being indoctrinated with a “false consciousness” that they were “free” under capitalism, while all the time they were “wage slaves” not even knowing the extent to which they were the victims of the unjust social system of private ownership of the means of production.
A New Race and Gender-Based “False Consciousness”
Now the false consciousness was to believe that racism in Western society, if not eradicated (after all there will always be some stupid people with foolish ideas), at least was dramatically reduced compared to the past, with attitudes and actions by most people far more consistent with the American ideal of judging and treating others as individuals. All the while, racism, it was asserted, is in fact pervading the society, keeping “people of color” down for the benefit of those who were “privileged” merely by their “whiteness.”
The same applied to gender and sexual orientation. More women in the workplace and in a growing number of positions of authority and responsibility with salaries reflecting that status hid from view the reality of sexist and misogynist attitudes that were “really” keeping women in second place and leaving them open to all forms of physical and psychological abuse. Legal niceties about same-sex marriages and relationships created the lie that homophobia was not actually haunting every corner of society.
Anthropologists and psychologists will tell you that the power of magic is to get a person to believe something to be true that is objectively not the case. Convince someone that a witch doctor sticking a needle into a voodoo doll made to look like them will cause them pain, and that person may, under the power of suggestion, feel as if they were experiencing pain. As the hippies of the 1960s used to say, “It’s all in your head, man.”
Get people to believe that any experienced disappointment, every personal failure, any slight by another person (whether actually intended or unintended) is a demonstration of the pervasive and inescapable existence and practice of racism, gender discrimination or sexual orientation bigotry, and some people are made into viewing themselves as the inescapable victims of white and male and heterosexual oppression, everywhere and every day.
Individuals Submerged Within Race and Gender Intersectionality
Furthermore, this new variation on the collectivist theme insists that everyone’s identity and sense of “self” is bound up with their classified gender, race and sexuality. These define you, determine who you are, and establish the meaning and context of your life. But what of the person who denies this, who opposes this, who rejects this, and who thinks of him- or herself simply as a thinking and acting individual, or who appreciates that they may be, by accident of birth and circumstances, a particular race, or gender, or person of a certain sexual orientation, but considers these to be of secondary importance in terms of their own self-identity and purposes in life?
Then this is their form of “false consciousness” from which they need to be reeducated and liberated. They are a self-hating enemy of who they “really are,” who has been brainwashed and manipulated to serve the interests of the white, male, heterosexual oppressors of humankind.
Plus, there is “intersectionality.” It seems that there are many complex forms of gender and race discrimination and oppression. You may be oppressed for being a woman. Or discriminated against for being black. Or you may be oppressed and discriminated against because you are black and female. Or you may be “marginalized” by others because you have a physical handicap. So you maybe oppressed, discriminated against and marginalized because you are black, female, and handicapped. Or you may be gay and humiliated and made fun of. So you may be black, female, handicapped and gay and, therefore, a victim of all these abuses and “aggressions.”
Each of these “intersections” has their own category of meaning, experience, oppression, discrimination, abuse and “marginalization.” And others, even abused “black sisters” may not fully know “the troubles you’ve seen” because you are female, black, but also handicapped and/or gay. And, of course, a white woman can only really understand one fraction of what this other person goes through because, though a women, she is white and therefore has had some degree of “privilege” due to not being a “person of color.”
You can’t keep up with all the permutations of abuse, oppression, and discrimination without a detailed and complex intersectionality scorecard! Nor can you know the forms and types of “white privilege” unless you have a similar scorecard of unjust opportunities or benefits you may have no idea that you, as a “white person,” may have been enjoying without even realizing it or wanting it.
You get five points for being black, female and gay; but you only get three points because while you may be gay and handicapped you are a white female. As a white, heterosexual male with only a stutter, you get one point for the speech impediment but minus nine for being totally otherwise white privileged. The mind gets dizzy with all the intersectionality calculations and possibilities.
The focus on collective groups and “rights” in the context of these discussions of “intersectionality” submerges from view, attention and weighted significance in the social analysis one other “group”: the individual. This ignores or downplays how the individual person views and classifies himself, how he judges and evaluates the nature and meaning of the actions of others and his own actions toward them. And what he considers important, meaningful and relevant in the social setting in which he chooses and acts.
Censoring Discourse to Dictate Identity
Just as the old Marxists used to call upon all workers of the world to unite against their capitalist chains regardless of their particular ethnic, linguistic or national backgrounds, so, too, the new race and gender collectivists insist that all victims of all forms and permutations of white, male “privilege” must stand united as one force of resistance and liberation. An offense against one oppressed or “marginalized” group is an offense against all; even though the members of one such oppressed and marginalized group may never really know and understand the other. That is why it requires being “non-judgmental,” and “sensitive” to the “feelings” and experiences of all other subgroups in the wider, generic category of “oppression,” as each subgroup defines these things for themselves.
The communist states insisted that they needed to block and prevent all unapproved Western ideas from entering the socialist paradise, so capitalist propaganda could not undermine the educated and reeducated minds of the Soviet people about the glories and superiority of socialist life. The new version is the declaration by the race and gender collectivists that all “hateful” or “offensive” or “fascist-type” ideas may be censored and suppressed from having a hearing in various “public spaces.” And, if necessary, any person attempting to utter the forbidden words and ideas may be physically challenged and ejected. Welcome to the latest version of ideological thuggery. (See my articles, “Campus Collectivism and the Counter-Revolution Against Liberty”and “Tyrants of the Mind and the New Collectivism”.)
Confusing the Meaning of Words for Collectivist Ends
In addition, the progressives and race and gender collectivists have been highly successful in manipulating the meaning and use of words, and to make concepts that are different to seem as if they are synonyms. Thus, the word “discrimination” has been transformed into a synonym for “oppression.”
“Discrimination” means to “distinguish between,” and to prefer, value or act differently toward one defined group or set of things compared to another. Thus, for example, I “discriminate” against all writers of romance novels since I choose to never buy their books and, thus, limit the income they might otherwise have earned if I bought their works. I “discriminate” against Nazis and communists because I refuse to intentionally bring them into my circle of friends, and thus I “restrict” them from the benefits they might have wanted to obtain from my company. (See my article, “Discrimination in Indiana: Private or Political?”)
“Oppression,” on the other hands, normally connotes the use or threat of some form of violence or legal prohibition faced by an individual or a groups of individuals classified with certain characteristics. Slavery was oppression. Segregation laws were oppression. Laws penalizing consensual homosexual behavior were (are) oppression. Ending oppression involves prohibiting private acts of force or its threat toward others, and the repeal of laws and other legal restrictions preventing individuals defined as possessing some type(s) of group characteristics from peacefully pursuing their own affairs and/or in voluntary association and interaction with others.
Ending oppression requires education and legal action (that is, repeal of restrictive or prohibitory laws). Ending discrimination requires education and reason and persuasion that the criteria used by individuals in their choices and actions are incorrect or misplaced. Laws against discrimination can only coerce people in a different way, by prohibiting or insisting on their acting in certain ways toward others that by necessity reduces and limits their own peaceful choices and actions. To compel me to interact with someone with whom I’d rather not is no less oppressive than preventing me from peacefully interacting with someone whom I would like to for some personal and mutual advantage. (See my article, “The Case for Liberty, Through Thick and Thin”.)
Restoring America’s Individualist Roots
How did we get here? It is because we have travelled a long way from those founding American ideas of individual rights and liberty. From a society that accepts that individuals may think and act in many different ways, including how that individual views himself and relates to and associates with others for various purposes that gives value and meaning to their life. But it remains the individual who is the conscious, thinking, choosing and acting building block from and upon which all that we call “society” emerges and takes its patterns and forms.
We must retrace our steps, and return to our roots in philosophical, sociological and political individualism. We have to recapture our understanding and appreciation of who and why the individual is important and that any associative identifications that an individual makes should emerge out of his own reflections and judgements concerning the meaning of and purpose to his life. They should not be imposed on him by collectivist ideologues wanting to straightjacket him into categories and classifications not of his own making and to which they wish to confine and condemn him, and, indeed, through which to oppress him. Otherwise, we are heading for another dangerous and damaging episode in the history of mankind.
[Originally Published at the Future of Freedom Foundation]