The Italian Marxist philosopher, Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), laid the foundations of the effort to transfer the Marxist revolution from the streets and factories into academia and the world of high culture. He redirected the program of the Left as a cultural revolution that was to spread silently, without violence, through a society intoxicated by consumerism and concupiscence.
Cultural Marxism is a label applied to Critical Theory, the teaching of the Frankfurt School in interwar Germany that sought to eradicate discrimination against women, Jews, and homosexuals, which they identified with Fascism. Though members of the Frankfurt School, thinkers like Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer, favoured the economic program of state control of the sources of production, they saw socialism primarily as a means of achieving their cultural objectives.
Identity politics, another Marxist tactic, give the ideas of the Frankfurt School an ugly twist. It sets a limit in any debate beyond which further questions, comments, or analysis are branded as racism, sexism, or fascism. So reason is again shut down and condemned as a construct concealing the Will to Power. Words and ideas lose their ability to bring people together in dialogue and are reduced to instruments for manipulating reality and oppressing one’s enemies. This is why politics has ceased to be a quest for consensus and compromise, and become instead an effort to discredit opponents and impose one’s will on them through intimidation and subterfuge.
The sad reality is that the social program of the Frankfurt School has become a feature of the secular, welfare states of the West, as Liberal Democracy succumbs to the anti-democratic forces it has unleashed upon itself. As Ernst Böckenforde pointed out some 40 years ago, the survival of Liberal Democracy requires certain moral standards and self-regulation in its citizens that cannot be enforced without violating the liberal principle of radical individual freedom.
And then came Foucault, the perfect oracle for a nihilistic, narcissistic, naïve society of autonomous individuals shackled to the all-powerful state. A Romanian friend, who combines his engineering acumen with a remarkable reservoir of high culture, once told me that a program of corporate workshops at the multinational that employed him were heavily laced with the ideas of Foucault. Of course, anyone who browses the philosophy sections in bookstores or libraries knows that the shelves have been dominated by Foucault’s oeuvre for several decades. By the beginning of the third millennium, he was the most cited author in humanities departments in western universities.
The central focus of Foucault’s philosophy is power, building on Nietzsche’s nihilist assertion that “This world is the Will to Power – and nothing else!” Foucault saw power as being operative everywhere, in politics, business, communities, families, and all interpersonal relationships. He insisted that power shapes individuals by directing the way they think, emphasising that human behaviour is always culturally conditioned, and not in any way the product of nature. This means that human nature is irrelevant; we are made by power that is external to us. But – and this was and is the kicker for the feckless egos of the consumer society – the Will to Power frees us to throw off our cultural conditioning and to remake ourselves according to personal desires.
But Foucault’s freedom is a snare because, as has been demonstrated again and again throughout history, when freedom becomes licence, it lets Leviathan loose, and the all-powerful state is always a threat to human flourishing. The fact that swathes of people are infected with the ideas of Foucault predisposes western societies to the anti-democratic, repressive policies increasingly imposed on once free peoples.
People living in a socio-political atmosphere of fear and uncertainty, in which once trusted mechanisms of law and order are perverted and used as instruments of oppression, will struggle to make sense of their lives, more especially without a rational religious worldview to guide them. The radical freedom to define reality for oneself, except when political correctness decrees otherwise, has ushered in a pandemic of social dysfunction and the ever-increasing power of the managerial state, with its bloated bureaucracy intruding on every aspect of life.
The suppression of truth is destructive of the psychological well-being of both individuals and society.
Many years ago, I was deeply shocked to hear that a good friend and ex-colleague had committed suicide in the United Kingdom. It seemed incomprehensible that a man of such remarkable character should be driven to the ultimate act of despair, leaving behind his wife and child. We had taught together at a high school in Rhodesia, where he had been Head of Science and probably the best teacher it had been my good fortune to know. I know many men, now in their sixties, who still passionately testify to the ineradicably principled impact this great man had on their lives. Brilliant, dedicated, compassionate, and creative, he was everything a teacher needs to be. How on earth had such a tragedy come to pass? A mutual friend provided the answers.
As teachers, we also did military service during the Rhodesian War. On one stint in the bush, our friend had witnessed the interrogation of a terrorist, who was taken several hundred feet up in a helicopter to strike fear into him in order to make him give up his knowledge. The young man was then hurled out of the chopper, and fell screaming to his death. Our friend was naturally traumatised, but the Official Secrets Act and an atmosphere in which criticism of the armed forces was treated with suspicion, prevented him from saying anything about the ugly incident. Not long afterwards, he and his family emigrated to the UK, where he was appointed to teach at a famous public school. There he was subjected to relentless pressure and bullying by senior staff who were well-aware of the employment insecurity of new immigrants, and the unlikelihood of any pushback.
Who can fathom the depths of human anguish even when the victim is allowed to openly express his or her feelings? Our friend was not, and a great soul finally broke down.
The current climate of political correctess, cancel culture, calumny, corporate censorship, fear-mongering, fake news, and almost universal employment insecurity is doing precisely this to millions of people, who are daily subjected to the elevation of untruth as truth, injustice as justice, treason as patriotism, and quackery as science. Vaclav Havel and all those brave men and women who have opposed tyranny would be aghast at the docility with which we have allowed this cancer to come upon us so soon after the tragedies of the 20th century.
Reality or ideology, truth or lies, sanity or insanity, leadership or misleadership – the right choice is clear, but who will have the courage to make it?