Chapter 10: The New-Time Religion
So that brings our story up to the 1960s. By this time, the entire planet has been pretty well sorted into two main blocks orbiting the two primary victors of the last world war: the US-centric social democratic First World and the USSR-centric communist Second World. By now, the familiar contours of the Cold War world order are well-established, complete with the expected chilly relations between the two main powers (which is quite the contrast from the comity between them in the ’40s).
The two sides spend the Cold War era fighting various proxy struggles. The details don’t matter so much, but there are a couple of things to keep in mind about the broader pattern. First, the USSR is consistently on the strategic offensive. They’re trying to convert new countries to some form of Communist government. When they succeed and a country firmly enters the Soviet orbit, this is considered irreversible and the battlefield moves to another non-Communist nation.
The US, on the other hand, adopts what was called the strategy of containment. Basically, the idea behind it is that the US should do its best to prevent Soviet expansionism without being overly confrontational. The alternative strategy, argued for by the hard-core anticommunists, was to claim the strategic initiative through what was called rollback – to try to actually take countries back from the Soviet sphere of influence. If you think about it, there’s mathematically no way that you can win a long-term war if you voluntarily renounce all offensive action. If the defender wins, all that happens is that the game goes on. If the attacker wins, then the clock ticks down to defeat.
But this seemingly silly strategy makes a lot of sense if you think about it from a religious perspective instead of a nationalist one. The theocrats of the West think that the endgame isn’t defeat of the Soviet Union. After all, they pretty much agree with the Russians that History is on their side – a socialist could no more picture the total defeat of the Soviet experiment than a devout Christian could envision the final defeat of the Kingdom of Heaven. No, the idea behind containment as a strategy is to convince the Soviets to chill out and agree to a peaceful, convergent evolution between the two systems. They want to smooth over the rough edges of the Soviet system, to make it more democratic and pleasant, not to abolish it.
And then the ’60s happen. Everybody with a pulse is aware of “the ’60s” as a phenomenon, but this religious model explains why it was so important. It was an intra-theocratic struggle over the doctrinal content of the state religion. The “Old Left” represented the old social democratic “evolutionary” consensus, while the “New Left” were the radical challengers to the system. To cut a long story short, the rebels won pretty much everywhere, and we live in the world that they built.
Since we live in a theocracy, the particular content of the state religion matters a lot. So let’s see if we can’t break down the tenets of this brand-new religion. What does it advocate? How does one rise in a status hierarchy organized along these lines?
To begin, the New Left is most definitely a socialist sect, just as was the Old Left they deposed. In the modern parlance, to declare yourself a “leftist” mostly means that you’re affirming your allegiance to the core socialist creed. They originally defined themselves as both more rigorously socialist and more rigorously democratic than those that they overcame, but as they’ve aged and settled into the demands of leadership, they’ve softened a little. This is the way of theocracies: the priests at the top are always less ideologically pure than the outsiders who do not have the responsibilities of rule.
The Old Left (both Communist and non-Communist alike) had defined its legitimacy largely on the basis that they spoke for the common worker and the Rousseauian “general will”. The New Left turned this on its head. They rebelled against the idea of venerating a single “general will” and the undifferentiated common man, claiming that that was the source of oppression and was, at heart, anti-democratic.
The New Left overthrew this, replacing the “general will” with the idea of “diversity” as the shining ideal. No longer should a government be measured largely on how it treated the average man; instead, a regime should be judged on how well it included the previously dispossessed, the marginal, and the different. Interestingly, the classification of victim groups was defined during the tribulations of the ’60s, and the hierarchy of status has been pretty much fixed since then.
Because the New Left cut its teeth during the Civil Rights struggles in the South, the most sacred kind of diversity is racial. Racism is the worst sin in the New Left catechism, and is to this day valid grounds for excommunication. Conversely, the ability to rightfully claim membership in a historically-persecuted group grants one special legal and social status. Affirmative action in education, employment and federal procurement quotas, equal opportunity laws in housing, and exemption from the anti-racist language purity norms are all examples of this process in action, but the list goes on and on.
But there are lots of other groups that have been granted historical victim status. Women, through the feminist movement, are legally and customarily considered disadvantaged. The novel legal category of sexual harassment has been created to give additional status to women in the workplace. Similarly, the family law has been written to strongly advantage women: they have the sole and complete legal authority over life in the womb; it is the strong presumption of any court in a divorce is that the woman should have dominion over the children; men are legally liable to support their children financially with a large fraction of their income; and the welfare and social support infrastructure is set up to be particularly generous to unmarried women with dependent children. Sexism is not typically considered as horrible a sin as racism, but it can be grave enough to lead to dismissal from important posts (e.g. the end of Larry Summers’s tenure as President of Harvard).
Some minorities defined by their sexual practices have also achieved official victim status. In particular, homosexuals have been granted protection in the equal opportunity legal infrastructure. Culturally, the expectation is that homosexuals should be considered to be of at least equal status to the majority. Accordingly, depictions of homosexuals in the mass media are almost uniformly positive. As of this writing, the most recent New Left civil rights reform has been to establish the entirely novel legal category of gay marriage. As best as I can tell, the point of this reform (as opposed to a “civil union”-style legal compromise) is to grant homosexual pair-bonded couples a form of middle-class status that had previously been denied them.
Finally, formal membership in an approved sect of a previously unpopular religion can also be used to declare victim status. In most western countries, being Muslim or Jewish both count for this purpose, but membership in the Mormon Church most certainly does not. And breakaway Protestant religious sects can get the legal designation of “cult” which, if they do, leads to active state suppression (e.g. the siege of the Waco compound in the ’90s).
In addition to the main thrust of “diversity”, it’s also interesting to note that the New Left also included in its broad umbrella the new doctrine of environmentalism. The original progressives in the previous plutocratic era had agitated for what they called conservation of the natural world in its natural state, which led to the establishment of national parks and nature preserves. But the New Left placed a new emphasis on the spiritual over the material, and one of the spiritual values that they sought to promote was a respect for the purity of nature.
The core tenet of environmentalism is that the preservation of the natural world as it is in the absence of humans is of the highest importance. Most argue that it is best for humans to try to live in ecological balance with the rest of the life on the planet, and that it is worth significant sacrifice to achieve this end. In its most extreme forms, environmentalists have argued that mankind is a cancer on the planet, and have accordingly argued for the voluntary abolition of mankind. Therefore, if given the choice between further industrial growth and human flourishing, or mass poverty and the preservation of fragile ecologies, environmentalists argue that it is morally incumbent to choose the latter.
Let’s pick up the story where we left off: in the chaos of the ’60s. The New Left rises to power in the United States in a turbulent time. There’s war abroad, as the Vietnam conflict escalates over the last half of the decade, and there’s war at home, as the civil rights demonstrations in the South have touched off waves of black riots in cities all across the country. Assassination of prominent personages becomes much more common. Other Western countries had similar disturbances in the latter half of the decade, most notably in France, when the country shut down in May of 1968 during a paralyzing general strike.
Even as it made quite rapid progress in converting the priest caste (especially the more youthful cohorts), it was decidedly unpopular with the electorate of the various Western nations. The general trend was that the New Left was able to gain control over the parties of the left and the universities relatively rapidly. These are great prizes, because they are the ruling institutions of a social democracy. But as they took over, the opposition parties started winning smashing electoral victories, as the traditional opponents of socialist rule united with the fading Old Left to try to resist the conversion.
The next world-shaking event happens in 1973. The OPEC cartel, largely made up of Middle Eastern nations, agrees to greatly restrict oil exports to the West as punishment for US support of Israel in the most recent (at the time) Arab-Israeli war. Real oil prices quadrupled virtually overnight, leading to a massive recession. Conventional measurements of economic output (such as inflation, GDP growth rate, and unemployment) all started going bad at the same time, leading to a condition known as “stagflation” – a combination of stagnation and inflation that was supposed to be impossible in a mixed economy regime using modern economic management.
Using the thermodynamic analytic perspective I’ve referred to earlier, it’s obvious why this would be such a horrible shock to the economy. A sudden restriction in energy supplies into the system means that, in order to maintain something resembling the previous growth rate, energy needs to be used in a much more efficient manner.
This doesn’t happen. In fact, according to the available evidence, the opposite happens. Total factor productivity growth (basically a measure of the overall efficiency growth in the economy, or a rough measure of the increase in the technical level of the society) downshifts starting at this crisis to a much lower level and never recovers.
During this recession, the New Left scores its first major victory (in hierarchical terms, since the old Social Democrats had repeatedly offered policy concessions to the New Leftists all throughout the ’60s) when the Watergate scandal is used to force President Nixon to resign. He is not immediately replaced by a New Leftist, but in the wake of the scandal the US legislature is captured by the New Left. This led to, among other things, the concession of Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) to the Communists when the North Vietnamese resumed their offensive in 1975. It also led to an increase in the prestige and formal power of the national press, elevating it to what is called “the fourth branch of government” by some in the US, alongside that of the three formally specified branches.
Things carry on in this way until the end of the decade, when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are elected to lead the UK and the USA, respectively. Reagan is essentially an Old Leftist with a nationalist edge. By 1980, this makes him a confirmed right-winger, but he would have been perfectly within the bounds of the social democratic consensus that prevailed between FDR and LBJ (which is what he meant by his famous line “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Party left me.”). By background, he was an anticommunist trade union man in Hollywood and pitchman for large companies before becoming a politician. He was always a supporter of the New Deal. And despite the press he got from both his supporters and his opponents, he was a strong believer in peace with the Soviet Union, and repeatedly pushed for arms control agreements to try to defuse the nuclear balance of terror.
From my caste perspective, Thatcher is by far the more interesting of the two. She’s an honest-to-goodness merchant leader, a real throwback to the old plutocratic era. And, given the considerable formal powers of the office of Prime Minister in her country, along with her long tenure, she manages to do some serious damage to the theocratic edifice in her country. But despite her broad popularity, she was eventually ousted by rivals within her own party and the theocratic order is restored, though along New Left lines than the previous Old Left consensus.
Historically, people usually conflate the two as leaders of the ’80s Anglospheric “New Right”, since they had many of the same enemies. But even if they arrived at somewhat similar policies, it’s critical to keep in mind that they got there from very different angles. This pattern recurs over and over again when analyzing modern Western politics. However they are formally organized, there are always two potentially governing coalitions. The left is the natural governing party, as it is the party of the official state religion. The right is the party of opposition. As such, it contains within it all of the dissenters to the regime, united by their negative reaction to the ruling power (as opposed to any common set of values).
So it’s somewhat strange that it was Reagan’s actions led, rather directly, to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As best as I can tell, Reagan and his coterie of foreign policy advisors were trying to execute a mildly more confrontational version of the old containment doctrine, with the old goal of convergent evolution. They wanted the Soviets to chill out and become a “normal” social democratic country. But they thought that they had a new angle they could attack the problem with.
In order to compete with the USA over the course of the Cold War while maintaining their offensive posture, the Soviets had been regularly forced to spend a much larger fraction of their economic output on the military than the US had needed to. Furthermore, during most of this time, the Soviets were playing catch-up technologically. Even with all of their effective espionage, they were years behind on detonating their first nuclear device, in getting nuclear missiles up and running, in miniaturizing their missiles, in submarine stealth technology, in achieving a guaranteed second strike capacity, and so on and so forth.
Reagan’s people knew all this. So their idea was, simply, to try to break the Russians’ budget, so that they’d realize they couldn’t win the arms race and accept US hegemony. The way they chose to do this was twofold: first, by waging a proxy war with the Russians in Afghanistan, where they were currently deployed to defend their Marxist puppet regime against an ongoing Islamic insurgency; and second, to put money into ostentatiously developing an expensive missile defense system (known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, or SDI).
The first was a threat to the Russian military budget for obvious reasons. But the second was more devious. The idea was that it threatened to make the entire massive Russian expenditure on strategic rocket forces obsolete overnight. It’s akin to what happened when the British had developed a brand-new battleship in the 1890s. It made everybody’s existing navy immediately obsolete, so the only way to compete in the new world order was to figure out how to build the expensive new ships and start cranking them out immediately. So the underlying threat was dire: if the US succeeded at getting this capacity, the Russians would have to match it or be forced into submission.
What basically nobody in the West knew (or could bring themselves to believe, perhaps) was that the Soviet Union was in a much more precarious position than it appeared. The USSR had been putting out doctored economic growth numbers for a long time, leading people to believe that the Soviets were economically competitive with the West, if perhaps somewhat behind. As a good example of this, the standard introductory economic textbooks in use in the West all claimed that the USSR was growing faster than the US and was certain to catch up soon. The truth was that the Soviet command economy was failing pretty badly by the mid ’80s, and they were already having a lot of trouble even keeping up appearances as it was.
And so the Soviets, under Gorbachev, embarked upon what were supposed to be mild reforms to their system to make it efficient enough to compete internationally. These reforms were collectively known as glasnost and perestroika. They were well-meaning and not at all obviously problematic. After all, who could really argue with multi-candidate elections (all of whom would be good Party men, of course), allowing some limited public criticism of past Party excesses, or some restructuring of the economy to better provide consumer goods to regular people? But together these reforms undermined the last few pillars upholding the Soviet system, and even tentative steps in that direction led to the complete dissolution of the USSR within the decade. Opposed to what some deeply silly academics have claimed, this was obviously not Gorbachev’s plan when he set out to reform the system.
As crazy as the fall of the Soviet Union must have seemed from within, it came as even more of a shock to the West. Remember: both the Old Left and the New Left had agreed that something resembling Soviet-style command socialism was the future, economically if not politically. Only a few nutty old-style plutocrats, unreformed aristocrats, or scattered religious hard-liners had dared dispute this tenet of faith. This wasn’t just an instance of History having a little hiccup, like the Taft-Hartley Act. The death of the Soviet Union was a complete meltdown in the nuclear reactor of History, spewing toxic fallout all over the ideological landscape. The once fine territory on the map of Idea Land labeled “Marxism” became uninhabitable overnight to anybody who wasn’t willing to risk glowing green or growing a third eye.