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Liberal leftism and left leftism

A friend sent me a copy of a note he had written arguing against the neoconservative claim that the liberalism dominant today in the academy, the Democratic Party, and the New York Times is the illegitimate result of smuggling (bad) Leftism into (good) pre-60s liberalism. My response:

I agree with your overall argument. The distinction between the moderate left (liberalism) and the leftist left doesn’t last. Moderation is a style and not an independent self-sustaining principle. It can’t support itself indefinitely when the authoritative principles (freedom and equality) make logically unbounded demands and there’s nothing transcending them to keep them in their place. In the 30s there was the tag that communists are democrats in a hurry. I think there was something to that.

I’d say the process goes as follows:

  • First, all authoritative concepts of the transcendent (e.g., established religion) get tossed.
  • That means that desire is the only thing that can really be authoritative.
  • The political good therefore becomes liberation of desire (freedom) and then satisfaction of desire (promotion of prosperity and the welfare state).
  • Since all desires are equally desires they are all equally authoritative. Therefore equality becomes an additional standard. The result is first a demand for economic redistribution, then “civil rights” legislation, and finally a generalized and enforceable principle of “tolerance”—the principle that the only legitimate desires are ones that accept the equal value of all other desires that accept equality.
  • The foregoing is radically at odds with all existing societies but nonetheless metaphysically necessary. Continuing progressive social change therefore becomes an absolute demand of morality.
  • How fast and how radical you think the change should be depends on a variety of personal factors—how cautious you are, how concrete or abstract your thinking is, how well-integrated you are with the current set-up, and so on.
  • The ultimate implications of the principles are the same in any event, and are inconceivably radical. The cautious, well-integrated and concretely-minded find that alarming, so they find ways of avoiding the conclusion and refusing to recognize obvious implications of their own principles. Since cautious, well-integrated and concretely-minded people tend to run things that kind of obfuscation becomes official doctrine.
  • When radical implications nonetheless arrive (PC suppression of thought, “gay marriage,” and so on) the cautious, well-integrated and concretely-minded men in authority are reduced to insisting that the innovations are “mainstream” or instances of “social change,” where saying something is “social change” somehow makes it absurd or a sign of psychological disturbance to contest it.