Ideologies come and go. It is the social dynamics that matter.
In one of his fun and informed alternative history videos, the operator of the Whatifalthist YouTube channel makes the point that Communism was good for the US, because it hobbled the two countries most able to rival it — Russia and China.
Both Communist regimes killed millions of their citizens in mass famines, depressed fertility rates (intentionally in the case of China) and adopted highly inefficient command economies. Stalin did the US the extra favour of systematically killing off the kulaks — that is, those peasants who showed any initiative.
Stalin was ruthlessly effective at deploying available resources to create heavy industry to support a war machine. (Something that Mao and the Kim family regime of North Korea copied.) Nevertheless, at no stage did the Soviet economy achieve economic growth rates as high as did the Tsarist regime. Nor did the Soviet Union have the cultural, intellectual or scientific vitality of the Tsarist regime. (Soviet technological advances were either a result of theft or massive deployment of resources.) Under the Tsars, Russia had become a major agricultural exporter. The Soviet Union had perennial problems feeding itself.
Adding to the Soviet regime’s record of tyranny and mass murder, bringing back slavery (in the Soviet labour camp system) and serfdom (from 1940 to 1956, no worker could change workplace without the workplace’s permission) made it utterly clear that, no the Soviet Union was no sort of general moral advance over Tsarism. And, despite its Cold War rivalry with US, the Soviet Union was a smaller population state with a smaller economy than Russia would have been if it had never suffered Communist rule.
Both Russia and China have since become various forms of market economies. Nevertheless, the legacy of Communist rule means that both countries have less people and lower standards of living with less intellectual and cultural vitality than they would have if they had never been afflicted by Communism.
A case can be made that it is now the US’s turn to be hobbled by Leftism.
By Leftism I do not mean labourism. Labourism is the working class asserting itself through unions and political organisation. Communist regimes do not permit independent working class political action, unless (as in the case of Poland) they have been weakened by other pressures.
When folks attempt to define Leftism, they typically do so ideologically. But I am interested in the social dynamics, so I am not going to attempt an ideological definition.
In terms of social dynamics, Leftism is the human-and-cultural capital class seeking to achieve social dominance via social transformation politics. It is based on three propositions: (1) that the adherents have a clear understanding of social dynamics; (2) that they possess, or can discover, a clear path to the morally positive transformation of society: and (3) that path will be achieved if sufficient power is handed to people like them.
Leftism is members of the human-and-cultural capital class having massive tickets on themselves. Which is why Leftism tends to end up dominating those institutions and organisations that themselves are dominated by the human-and-cultural-capital class. Leftism not only gives them a (flattering) sense of status and purpose, it also generates a shared status strategy.
Adherence to Leftism means adherence to a set of prestige opinions (what good, smart, informed people believe and what malicious, stupid or ignorant people don’t) ready-made to assert social dominance. The latter is based on the deemed moral necessity of preferring to appoint, or otherwise support, people with said prestige opinions that mark the “good, smart, informed” people while stigmatising, and otherwise penalising, those who demur.
Once a particular version of Leftism achieves sufficient prestige-opinion dominance, it can sweep through organisations and institutional remarkably quickly. Especially bureaucracies, as it provides the advantage of simplifying selection processes (one picks “folk like us”, so folk select in their same image and likeness); simplifying internal coordination (people have common outlooks and expectations); and generates moral projects to be getting along with.
Without being able to mobilise and coordinate people with organisational skill, Leftism could never come to dominate societies sufficiently to hobble them. The existence of such capacity does not, however, mean that Leftism will be beneficial to a society. On the contrary, the features that make it good at gaining positions of power are also what recurrently turns its dominance into a human and social disaster.
Leftism in power hobbles societies because (1) none of its three constituent propositions ever turn out to be sufficiently true to have any other effect other than to hobble their societies and (2) Leftism destroys or distorts feedback mechanisms.
The second factor operates quite straightforwardly. The belief that Leftists have such profound social understanding and moral purpose immediately discredits any feedback that seems to contradict that status and purpose. Moreover, to achieve the deemed morally urgent social transformation, a level of social power has to be achieved sufficient to enable overriding of any resistance. This means breaking up any capacity to organise to resist the Leftist moral project, or to persuade others to do so. The result is a pervasive attack on, and blocking of, feedback mechanisms. This inevitably severely represses the information flows and incentives need to have effective error detection. The ability to detect error, consider alternatives, adjust actions and so on become sufficiently reduced that more disastrous policies can and will be followed.
As for the key propositions of Leftism — (1) that adherents have a clear understanding of social dynamics; (2) that they possess, or can discover, a clear path to the morally positive transformation of society: and (3) that path will be achieved if sufficient power is handed to people like them — they are simply never sufficiently true to have a dominant Leftism having other than having overall a highly negative effect on society.
The first problem is that the content of Leftism is primarily driven by the status strategy, because that is its prime appeal and it is that which the selection processes will operate most strongly to serve. Selection for the most efficacious set of prestige opinions and moralised dominance strategy is not selection for truth or accuracy.
On the contrary, the complexities of reality will get in the way of the prestige-and-dominance strategy, so there will be selection for simplifying moral salience. Including casting entire sections of society into having profoundly negative moral salience, so that any idea, experience or concern coming from them will be presumptively denigrated, dismissed or otherwise discounted. This will strongly tend to block or narrow the social understanding underpinning whatever flavour of Leftism has become dominant.
In particular, the particular flavour of Leftism will have some factor, or small set of factors, that will be deemed “to explain” the dynamics of the society to be transformed. Or, at least, the dynamics of whatever deemed moral failure requires said social transformation. As these factors have to play a set narrative role in the project of social transformation, in order to support that project of social transformation, social understanding must be narrowed so that those factors can play that narrative role. Any social factors that get in the way of that narrative will be denigrated, dismissed or ignored, ensuring that the transformation project will itself be based on a partial understanding, profoundly inadequate to fulfil the role cast for it.
The second problem is that the existing society has to be cast as being a profound moral and social failure so as to justify the deemed social transformation. That means, the society’s actual achievements must be dismissed or belittled. This means that the processes which led to those achievements will be denied, denigrated or dismissed. The more successful the society actually is, the more disastrously inaccurate that process of denial, denigration and dismissal will be. Conversely, the more fragile the underpinnings of existing social achievement, the more disastrous the effect of that denial, denigration and dismissal is likely to be.
The third problem is that the concentration of social power needed to achieve the deemed morally urgent social transformation will tend to aggravate the effect of all the above intellectual flaws and failings, precisely because of the concentration of social power operating on their basis. Moreover, a new selection process will be set up whereby manipulative personalities will be drawn to what is, in effect, the only game in town, given the massive concentration of social power involved. Indeed, there will be something of a selection process in favour of Dark Triad personalities (narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic) as they will be able to operate in, and manipulate, the power dynamics more effectively. In part because they will have fewer scruples, though the sense of moral urgency in the social transformation project will inherently tend to override scruples.
The entire pattern can be understood without any reference to some particular ideological claim. It is the social dynamics that are crucial. The particular doctrines involved mainly have an effect in aspects of how the social dynamics play out, not the fundamental social dynamics themselves.
We can see the patterns of Leftism well underway in the contemporary US: most obviously in California’s various dysfunctions but more generally in those metropolises dominated by progressive politics and in institutions dominated by the human-and-cultural capital class (such as media, Big Tech and education). As there is no sign that contemporary Leftism is losing its fervour or institutional hold — on the contrary, both seem to be increasing — the social dynamics of Leftism in the US have considerable way to go yet. How badly they end up hobbling the US will entirely depend, as it did in Russia and China, on how dominant Leftism becomes.