A Role to the Left

The pursuit of an independent foreign policy by House speaker Nancy Pelosi is obviously a bad idea no matter what one’s political persuasion.

Yet the Democrats’ abrogation of powers and roles comes as no surprise to students of the modern Left. Pelosi is merely the last instance of a long evolution by the Left away from the Rule of Law and towards the rule of men.

The Rule of Law is really the Rule of Roles. The law grants decision making power in various areas to individuals fulfilling particular roles. If an individual changes roles, the scope of their decision making power changes as well. The advantages of such a system are obvious. It separates power. It enhances accountability. It makes decision makers interchangeable. It provides a clear, predefined standard for who makes what decision and when.

I think it no exaggeration to say that the Rule of Roles, more than any other cultural institution, created the prosperity and power of the western world.

Yet the Rule of Roles diminishes the status of any particular individual, and this causes those lacking essential personal or intellectual humility to attack it.

The first modern attack came from classical Marxists who viewed the Rule of Roles as perpetuating the doomed capitalist system. Classical Marxists as people believed that they alone understood how the world worked, and that they alone as a group possessed the capability to make true decisions. Everyone else merely functioned as a kind of economically programmed robot. Additionally, the concept of historical inevitability meant things would turn out the same in the end regardless of who made what decision. Short-term decisions affected only the pace of the inevitable evolution toward the communist end state.

Working from such a model, Marxists considered the idea that they, as individuals, should restrict the scope of their decisions based on a role assigned to them by law or custom, utterly ridiculous. Why should they artificially restrict themselves when only they possessed the special awareness necessary to make real decisions?

Communists and fascists took this idea and expanded it. Communists came to hold that individuals with the proper understanding of ideology developed what we today might classify as a mystical ability to make correct decisions. As a consequence, they justified rule by an elite class or even a single individual. Fascists added the idea of subjectivity of truth, based on innate characteristics such as race or gender. In both cases they created a political model in which a small elite or individual had no limitations placed on the scope of their decision making by any role they might fill.

Ever since the 1930s the Left within the democratic West has slowly succumbed to the idea of special individuals whose unique knowledge and morality free them from the limitations imposed by roles. This tendency accelerated massively during the ’60s. Nowadays an “activist” means an individual who has hijacked the decision making power of particular role such judge, journalist or academician in order to advance their own political ideas. (Hypocritically, they demand the privileges granted to those roles while at the same time ignoring the restrictions that made those privileges safe to grant.)

The Left is gradually succumbing to the seductive idea that a better world comes from having the “right” people in power. Roles and ultimately law, merely impeded the “right” people in fulfilling their noble goals. This conceit guts the traditional American concept that no individual or group can be trusted with power and that good government and good decision making result from sharply restricting the scope of any individual’s decision making.

So Pelosi isn’t doing anything alien to her political subculture. She considers herself above any restrictions placed on her while fulfilling the role of Speaker of the House. Indeed, she would consider it immoral not to abuse her office. Her ideological peers will criticize her for not “speaking out” by using the visibility of her office to undercut the Executive’s foreign policy,

The Left never learns to take the long view. The last 50 years have shown a pattern wherein the Left creates some new rationale for increasing the power of the state and then the Right adopts the rationale a few years later. The Right warned of the dangers of racial gerrymandering in the ’70s but by the late ’80s they were its more enthusiastic practitioners. The Left forgets that the power they abrogate today will belong to their opponents tomorrow.

It will be nothing but karmacally just if a future President Pelosi must contend with a Republican Speaker of the House undercutting her foreign policy. It would not, however, be good for America and our ideals.

9 thoughts on “A Role to the Left”

  1. I think it no exaggeration to say that the Rule of Roles, more than any other cultural institution, created the prosperity and power of the Western world.

    Yet the Rule of Roles diminishes the status of any particular individual and this causes those lacking essential personal or intellectual humility to attack it.

    And so we always come back to pride. Perhaps it is arrogant to throw up our thoughts on a screen & think anyone cares. Still, much we value about our tradition needs the restraint of a little humility. Doubts (not lip service but real) about our ability to restrain appropriate speech or manage climate, to manipulate the economy and raise other people’s children would be a useful corrective.

  2. I’m somewhat ambivalent about this analysis, although I agree with the thrust of the argument.

    What you are describing is the gnostic mindset, and I’m afraid I see evidence of it on all sides, not just the hard political left.

    It is not surprising that gnosticism was one of the earliest, and most virulent, Christian heresies, and, further, that western political ideologies, esp. marxism, which is basically an aetheistic version of a Christian heretical belief, should adopt it.

    Gnosticism appeals to two very powerful impulses in the human psyche—mysticism and ego.

    A dangerous combination in any circumstance, but esp. so when it involves wide ranging political powers. And, as you so aptly point out, if you are endowed with “special” knowledge, it is wrong to restrict yourself from acquiring, by any means, as much power as possible in order to put your knowledge to proper use.

    My reservation about Shannon’s analysis is that it applies very strongly, perhaps even more strongly, to the religious fundamentalists in the world as it does to the secular left. (Let’s not forget that there is a very influential religious left also—there just aren’t any scary newspaper articles about them crossing the divide between church and state)

    I would submit that the fabulist visions of the strange little man in Tehran, and his religious leaders and followers as well, fit into Shannon’s analysis very well, and the results of their peculiar brand of gnostic knowledge might be very bad for everyone at a much deeper level than political manuevering for partisan advantage.

  3. Veryretired,

    I wouldn’t reject the idea of a parallel between Leftist ideology and pre-enlightenment religious fundamentalism. Many have argued persuasively that Fascism and Communism functioned as religion even though they are ostensively secular doctrines.

    Shia is based around the idea of rule by special people. The Ayatollahs are a caste of priest-kings who claim the right to rule by heredity.

    Anyone who claims to have all the answers will fall prey to this idea. As Ginny points out, the central flaw that drives the adoption is simple hubris. In the West, the tragic vision of humanity, usually adopted by the Right offers some inoculation against this particular fault.

  4. One of my old teachers (in early American, of course) used to say regularly that “antinomianism is the great American heresy.” Our virtue is that we don’t accept a tradition that says something is good or virtuous or right because, well, that’s the way it is. Our vice is that we think the voice within us is God’s voice and our “right” is God’s right. I guess it’s good we think the government’s “right” should be constantly queried, but I suspect Shannon’s right, a bit more humility at our ability to hear that voice correctly is probably in order.

  5. I concede. It’s derived from some greek term, isn’t it? Anyway, it sure intimidated the hell out of me.

  6. Sorry, next to you all with science and math vocabularies, I never think of mine as specialized – but this comes from teaching Puritan lit. It isn’t a matter of knowing theology – I just know why Ann Hutchinson was sent into the wilderness.

    I really like Shannon’s perspective – the tragic view of human nature, the belief that to sin & die is inevitable – and agree awareness leads to a sensible humility. I always figured that the whole concept of checks and balances came from the blend of Puritans who thought that, pragmatists like Franklin (a man who may not have been sure about damnation but figured we’d all commit plenty of errata between the womb and the tomb), and those Virginians who believed in gentlemanly restraint. Those compromises & agreements have served us a good deal better than Utopian schemes based on the blank slate or, heaven forbid, Marx. I also suspect that is why Americans tend to want a man of faith – it is because they suspect our leaders should see in longer terms and with a strong sense that they are part of something bigger and greater than themselves. For most, that is brought home through a religion.

    I would quibble though about one thing; my understanding of Solzhenitsyn (which I admit comes from my husband’s study & not mine) is that he makes the opposite argument to yours. He argues that to Fascists there was a factual truth (as wrong as that truth was) but to Communists there was no consideration of factual truth (as demonstrated in the fanatic’s willingness to admit guilt when they were not guilty in show trials). He saw this demonstrated in the arguments by Stalin to kill people as examples – whether they were guilty or not. Of course, the Nazis were evil and wrong; the Communists, however, were not thinking in frameworks where evil and good or wrong and right could be applied – or at least only applied cynically. This argument was debated by George Steiner in the mid-70’s.

  7. I, too, would argue that the fallacy of assuming that the ‘right people’ can straighten government out is by no means unique to the left wingnuts. Right wingnuts do it too, and so do some centrists.

    Everyone likes to have faith in someone who they can trust to set things right. It’s a natural human response to the perception of a crisis.

  8. Ginny,

    Far be it from me to disagree with one such as Solzhenitsyn but I would argue that Fascist brought very heavily into the idea of subjective truth. They believed that the truth, or at least the ability to apprehend the truth, depended critically on the innate nature of the observer. I think this comes out very clearly in the writings of Fascist on science. (Of course, one has to be careful about making generalizations about Fascist because, especially in Germany, it was more a hodgepodge of various ideas than a coherent ideology.)

    I think Communist did believe in objective reality yet the concept of Historical Inevitability so warped their actions that they behaved as if they did not. The concept of Historical Inevitability holds that human social evolution is on rigid evolutionary path predetermined by materialistic forces beyond human control. All human societies will eventually evolve to the same communist state. The only thing that individual actors can do at any particular time is speed the process up or slow it down. This means communist do not have to get the details correct as the massive forces of history will make everything arrive at the same state anyway. Further, the benefits of the communist state would outweigh any of the cost needed to reach it. Combined, these to ideas created an intellectual milieu in which “facts” are useful in accelerating the evolution or not and it is on that basis alone that they are evaluated.

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