Social noble lies

In the Republic, Socrates introduced the “noble lie”: governmental officials may, on occasion, be justified in propagating lies to their constituents in order to advance a more just society. Dishonesty is one tool of the political class (or even pre-political — the planning class) to secure order. This maxim is at the center of the debate about transparency in government.

Then, in the 20th century, when academic Marxism was in its prime, the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser became concerned with the issue of social reproduction. How does a society survive from one generation to the next, with most of its moors, morals and economic model still in place? This question was of particular interest to the Orthodox Marxists: their conflict theory of history doesn’t illuminate how a society is held together, since competing groups are always struggling for power. Althusser came up with “Ideological State Apparatuses”: institutions, coercive or purely ideological, that reinforce societal beliefs across generations. This necessarily includes all the intelligence agencies, like the CIA and FBI, and state thugs, like the Gestapo and NKVD, but it also includes the family unit (authorized by a marriage contract), public education and the political party system. “ISAs” also include traditions in the private sector, since for Althusser, the state exists primarily to protect these interests.

It’s rarely easy enough to point to a country and say, “This is the dominant ideology.” However, and here the Marxists are right, it can be useful to observe the material trends of citizens, and what sorts of interests people (of any class) save up money for, teach their children to admire, etc. In the United States, there is a conditional diversity of philosophies: many different strains abound, but most within the small notecard of acceptable opinion. Someone like Althusser might say there is a single philosophy in effect — liberal capitalism — getting reproduced across apparatuses; a political careerist might recognize antagonists across the board vying for their own particular interests. In any case, the theory of ISAs is one answer to conflict theory’s deficiencies.

There is no reason, at any time, to think that most of the ideas spreading through a given society are true. Plenty of people could point to a lesson taught in a fifth grade classroom and find something they disagree with, and not just because the lessons in elementary school are simplified often to distortion. Although ideas often spread naturally, they can also be thrusted upon a people, like agitprop or Uncle Sam, and their influence is either more or less deleterious.

Those outlooks thrust upon a people might take the form of a noble lie. I can give qualified support for noble lies, but not for the government. (The idea that noble lies are a right of government implies some sort of unique power for government actors.) There are currently two social lies which carry a lot of weight in the States. The first one comes from the political right, and it says: anyone can work their way to financial security. Anyone can come from the bottom and make a name for themselves. Sentiment like this is typically derided as pulling oneself up from the bootstraps, and in the 21st century we find this narrative is losing force.

The second lie comes from the left, and it says: the system is rigged for xyz privileged classes, and it’s necessarily easier for members of these groups to succeed than it is for non-members. White people, specifically white men, all possess better opportunities in society than others. This theory, on the other hand, is increasingly popular, and continues to spawn vicious spinoffs.

Of the two, neither is true. That said, it’s clear which is the more “socially useful” lie. A lie which encourages more personal responsibility is clearly healthier than one which blames one’s ills all on society and others. If you tell someone long enough that their position is out of their hands because the game is rigged, they will grow frustrated and hateful, and lose touch with their own creative power, opting to seek rent instead. Therefore one lie promotes individualism, the other tribalism.

Althusser wrote before the good old fashioned class struggle of Marxism died out, before the postmodernists splintered the left into undialectical identity politics. God knows what he would think of intersectionality, the ninth circle in the Dante’s Inferno of progressivism. These ideas are being spread regardless of what anyone does, are incorporated into “apparatuses” of some sort, and are both false. If we had to choose one lie to tell, though, it’s obvious to me the preferable one: the one which doesn’t imply collectivism in politics and tribalism in culture.

Threesome Liberation

Defenders of traditional marriage have lost, alas. Rather than just sulk, I suggest that conservatives, especially those from Utah, respond by promoting legalization of polygamous marriage. This will put “progressives” in a lovely bind.

They will have a hard time opposing the idea because it is supported by the same arguments they used to support gay marriage. Why is love among threesomes any less valid than love of couples? Surely it’s past time for threesomes to come out of the shadows and break free of the yoke of suppression! End triophobia!

They will also have a hard time supporting it because almost all plural marriages, whether among Mormons in times past or in Islamic countries currently, feature one man with multiple wives. Clearly these are exploitative sexist unions! Most un-progressive!

Conservatives, don’t get mad, get even! Put it out there and watch ‘em squirm.

From the Comments: What do progressives think of Hillary Clinton?

This comes from Professor Terry:

I suspect I’m the only one around here that spends significant time on progressive blogs etc so let me tell you what it’s like over there….Progressives seem depressed but resigned. HRC will be the nominee. There are no other viable candidates. Sanders will be entertaining, O’Malley not so much….there’s no one on the sidelines. Prof. P’s [‘P’ is for ‘Pinocchio’ – bc] lust driven fantasy about Sen. Warren aside, no last minute candidacy from her.

Progressives take some solace in not having someone from the Republikan Klown Kar selecting Supreme Court nominees but that’s about it. Progressives take it for granted that the Democratic nominee will win the general election [they can read the electoral map and count]. They aspire to take back the senate but have no illusions about the House of Representatives so no significant new legislation will happen.

In my opinion scenario 3 is inevitable, I will dearly miss the Obama administration and it will happen sooner than I’ll like…

Thanks Dr A. This is excellent insight, and I am curious about the names of these progressive blogs. Who knows: some of them might even end up on NOL‘s vaunted blogroll. Professor Terry, by the way, teaches and researches up at a fancy business school in Toronto.

I still don’t have a solid definition of what ‘progressive’ means, though. It’s Left-wing. It’s anti-racist (or purportedly, anyway, as it can be argued that identity politics is itself racist, but I digress). Aside from those qualities, I don’t see much about it that is progressive. They are protectionists. They love big government except when they don’t. They are Democrats, or at least anti-GOP, but doesn’t necessarily approve of the Democratic leadership (especially when it works with Republicans). This leads me to suspect that progressivism is a political movement rather than ideological or intellectual one. This deduction, in turn, suggests to me that progressives are the US’s reactionaries (conservatives). I would be happy to change my tune about progressives once I get a solid definition of what they actually believe in, but again I don’t have one and reactionaries are usually defined by what they oppose (in this case Republicans) rather than what they stand for.

Anyway, NOL‘s blogroll – one of the best, if not the best blogroll out there in my humble opinion – has a bunch of Leftist group blogs on it, including: Angry Bear, Crooked Timber, Disorder of Things, Duck of Minerva, JHIBlog, Lawyers, Guns & Money, the RBC, Monkey Cage, and Mischiefs of Faction. None have coughed up a definition of ‘progressive’ yet, but Professor Terry has an open invitation to do just that here at NOL.

Every society needs its reactionaries, of course. It would just be nice of progressives to actually, honestly identify themselves as the reactionary party here (and as the Tories do in the UK), rather than deceive themselves by referring to their reactions as “progressive.” The Progressives of the 19th century (different bag of reactionaries than today’s progressives) did the exact same thing when they started calling themselves “liberals” in order to make their policies more palpable to the general voting public, and look how that turned out.

Liberty is what creates progress, not legislation. Just ask all of those progressives currently resigned to voting for HRC because she’s “better than the alternative.”

The Obama Presidency as the Pinnacle of Progressivism

Recently, I have been seeing a lot of libertarians tsk tsking  progressives for pinning their hopes on somebody like President Obama. For example, in a thread initiated by this article by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic, an anonymous libertarian stated that Obama was “no progressive at all.”

Yet this is untrue. If anything, the Obama administration represents the pinnacle of Progressivism: “big” government taking care of the forgotten man in all aspects of his life. Self-styled progressives feigning disgust in the current administration’s dirty laundry need not do so. Either they implicitly endorse the authoritarianism of the Obama administration and pretend not to in polite company, or they don’t fully understand the moral and intellectual foundations of the ideology they purport to adhere to.