Is the Ultra-Right Insane? (They May Just Be!)

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There is probably no leftist who has not asked herself after encountering some particularly egregious example of right-wing ideology or behavior, "Are they insane?" Recent scientific studies in fields as diverse as research psychology, economics and evolutionary biology offer tantalizing hints that some of those who irrationally espouse an aggressive, dog-eat-dog, virtue-of-selfishness ultraconservatism may indeed be suffering from significant personal or collective mental disorder.

Karl Marx long ago pointed out that individuals' political beliefs and actions do not fall from the sky, but rather have material reasons. Clearly, it would be almost as deluded for a successful billionaire real-estate speculator to embrace Marxist ideas as it would be for an unemployed working person to spend time proclaiming the virtues of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism (as many are now doing!). A man who has materially benefited from sexism (or who imagines he will be able to do so in the future) is unlikely to support equal rights for women. A young person who is sexually active can be reasonably expected to have a very different moral view about birth control than that held by an elderly, celibate clergyman. In short, people's beliefs and ideologies are ordinarily determined by real-world, material factors.

This Marxist insight is an immense improvement over earlier (and later) idealistic analyses proposing that sociopolitical ideas, ideologies and systems spontaneously arise more or less by themselves, stem from some mysterious "zeitgeist" [spirit of the time or moment], or even come down from heaven by divine inspiration.

However, Marx and Engels recognized the existence and the occasionally decisive importance of the phenomenon they called "false consciousness," where working people adopt a political stance that is blatantly at odds with their own real interests. True, what seems to be false consciousness is sometimes really the result of material bribery or threats. Even then, in many contemporary Left analyses false consciousness is far too often simply acknowledged and then ignored, seen as an unconquerable obstacle shrouded in idealist mystery, or chalked up to ignorance, lack of class-consciousness, enemy control of media and public consciousness, or Left failure to offer credible and practical alternatives.

If the axiom that "ideology follows reality" is applied mechanically and not dynamically it suffers from almost the same fatal error as the capitalist infallible-market theory that led up to the current world economic crisis: both false theories wrongly assume that human beings are ideal rational actors, carefully seeking out and correctly considering available information, objectively analyzing material conditions, and, unless deceived by fraudulent data or fallacious argument, almost inevitably deciding on valid, rational conclusions and correct actions.

Yet we know that the human brain is completely material in nature, with ever-changing strengths and weaknesses, varying degrees of development and vulnerability to disorders, growth and inevitable aging, just the same as any other body part. Marx's correct observation that thought and attitudes are always material seems even more remarkable today when we consider that in Marx's day, and even well into the 20th century, the brain was effectively a "black box," understandable only by outside observation and empirical theorization of behavior, or (later) with crude measurements of brain waves and electrical discharges.

In fact, the idea that material factors like childhood upbringing, past experience, physical and mental health and brain function can all affect a person's politics is by no means new. Over the last century, scientific studies on victims of autocratic, rigid or negligent child-raising have repeatedly found that this abuse is very often reflected in victims' ultraconservative, anti-democratic political attitudes as adults. Avoidance of just such mass personality and behavioral distortions (and the fascist horrors they were seen as having engendered) formed much of the theoretical underpinning of the late Dr. Benjamin Spock's immensely popular post-World War II child raising philosophy (a "permissive" approach which, unsurprisingly, was and still is the target of relentless right-wing attack).

However, the material association of mental disorder with ultraconservatism goes even deeper. One of the most interesting recent studies in this regard was presented at the 2008 meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. There, researchers reported close correlation between an abnormally strong startle-response and political conservatism. This study and a related book, Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, were reviewed together in February, 2010 by New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Yet another very recent study, this one published in a March, 2010 issue of the journal Science, seems to partially validate Marx's empirical observation that "moral" consciousness, in this case ordinary people's sense of "fairness" and willingness to punish antisocial behavior, increases in direct relationship to the local degree of economic development (and also, interestingly enough, with increasing community size and adherence to some major contemporary world religion). Another, recent study reported in Science found that when scanned, human brains spontaneously "light up" with indignation at an unfair distribution of income (even the brain of the individuals who receive the unfair share react this way!), and show unconscious signs of pleasure at income equality, even if the individual being scanned consciously denies it.

Still another recent study found that political conservatism strongly correlates with the strength of a person's disgust reaction at things he or she sees as physically, socially or morally "dirty" or "nasty."

Studies like these are gradually debunking the 1980's "standard model" of evolutionary psychology, which postulated that human beings (like all other life-forms) are little more than "genetic codes on legs" whose social and individual behaviors are ultimately explainable only by dog-eat-dog evolutionary competition for reproductive success. If one accepts this pseudo-materialist "selfish gene" theory, (a theory that conveniently justifies the economic and social tenets of ultra-right-wing ideology), any and all disinterested solidarity, comradeship, friendship, social service or even charity and almsgiving to non-relatives is, by definition, madness.

However, this badly over-simplified, mechanical, and politically ultra-conservative model of evolutionary behavior has proven incapable of explaining simple, everyday human cooperation, not to mention incidents of heroic altruism or self-sacrifice (or even human care for animal pets!), unless these behaviors can somehow be shown to result in increased reproduction of one's own genes. Over recent decades dozens of researchers have tried all manner of theoretical and scientific "hand-stands," in unsuccessful attempts to cram the obdurately material reality that homo sapiens is a cooperative, and ultimately Communist species, into the false theoretical shell of imaginary, genetically-driven hyper-individualism and merciless selfishness.

Happily, this phony Darwinistic dogma is now being invalidated by repeated experiments that reveal that selfishness, greed, inequality and ultra-individualism, far from being the default human condition, are in fact symptoms of mental disorder (and in some cases, illness or physical brain injury). The possibility that, in not a few cases, extreme conservative, anti-Communist and reactionary attitudes and behaviors may be symptoms of deeper underlying physical or psychological sickness can no longer be minimized or discarded out of hand by thoughtful progressives.

Naturally, one must be extremely cautious before arbitrarily declaring any given right-winger "mad." Long-ago abuses perpetrated by twentieth-century socialist governments in locking up nonviolent dissidents, reactionaries and political enemies as "insane" must never be entirely forgotten. And, anyone of whatever class who is materially prospering from the current state of things, or who has rational plans for somehow doing so, is by no means crazy to oppose progressive change.

And, when overwhelmed by fear (of unemployment, poverty, homelessness or simply of change), some working people may become irrationally conservative even while still perfectly sane. Today, given the immense harshness of the current crisis, honest, thoughtful workers who look backward to some imaginary "good old days" instead of forward for a better model of affordable health care, employment, peace and prosperity can hardly be faulted for a lack of rationality, This is particularly true when the Left has, at least up to now, enjoyed minimal success in educating, agitating or organizing unemployed workers on a mass basis, even as Teabagger-style lunacy stands ready and eager to take up our slack.

However, the first practical lesson that liberals and progressives can draw from recent studies may well be that rather than wasting time rationally answering every new barrage of hair-brained, anti-human, right-wing claptrap that comes across the media, it may be far more fruitful for progressive writers and communicators to concentrate on broadly de-legitimizing conservatism and the right wing by proving that extreme right-wing ideology is, in fact, objectively insane; as disordered and dangerously deluded as believing one is Napoleon or is being pursued by flying pink elephants.

And secondly, these material findings strongly suggest that it is not nearly enough for us as progressives to appeal only to the relatively miniscule number of "rebels by temperament," or to imagine we can coldly and objectively place the facts before some rationally-calculating, fantasy working class who, if given access to solid evidence and free choice, will always logically choose socialism as the best option for themselves and their families. This tactic hasn't worked yet, it isn't working now, and, we can confidently predict, won't work in the future either.

Very much to the contrary, in order to grow as a party or movement we must creatively develop appeals that truly communicate with (and carefully listen to) wounded working people who may have (tragically) been raised by their parents to stand at attention and salute, with fragile workers whose voices tremble with disgust and change-phobia every time their state changes the number on their license plates, with fear-haunted working people who stay awake at night in stark fear of terrorists under the bed, and all those temperamentally wound-up workers who jump through the roof every time the mechanic in the next repair bay drops a wrench.

Of course, "biology is not destiny," but a healthy recognition that working people have widely differing brain-based personality styles and attitudes toward change is no more than an acknowledgement of reality. Part of Lenin's genius was that he was an expert at this. Recognizing this reality, socialism needs to be honestly advocated to workers whose experiences and world-views are wildly different from our own.

This is not two-faced deception, only truth! To freethinkers and rebels, socialism is automatically appealing to some degree simply because it is rebellion. But at the same time, socialism should have an equally strong appeal to workers whose peak value-forming experience was "the woodshed," the high school football locker-room, basic training or boot camp. For these, socialism is the best-planned, most disciplined, most team-oriented and least chaotic system for our future. There may be no "I" in "Team," but you can't even write "Socialism," much less build it, without an "I" in it!

For good working people whose "ick reflex" is instantaneous, socialism is obviously the most elegant and best organized system for ensuring our future health and well-being and that of our children. Under socialism we could finally have a chance to sweep away the horror of stinking, graffiti-ridden slums, rotting schools, uncontrolled air and water pollution and profit-driven ecological degradation. We shouldn't be ashamed to point out that past and present socialist states, even with all their grave shortcomings, are historically the only societies to ever have successfully cleaned up organized prostitution, pimps, and the commercial smut industry. Under socialism we could easily do it here, too! Plus, in a socialist system, you can always see a doctor!

And as for the millions of lonely and marginalized working, retired and unemployed Americans, old and young, socialism is, well, social. This is a plain and proud fact that we should never minimize or gloss over either.

We know that socialism is the most reasonable, sensible road to a better tomorrow, but we must never stop proclaiming out loud, just as Lenin did, that socialism is the happiest, most loving, most humane and most human choice as well! We may or may not have young children of our own, but we must never forget to remind soccer dads and band moms that, under socialism, instead of their having to constantly advocate for their children's needs, their kids and all kids would be the only privileged class. Socialism is a system of love, unity and solidarity instead of "pit bulls," pushy advertisers and vicious union-busters, where all of us could proudly look to the future instead of back at today's profit-and-loss figures for inspiration.

Today, in the midst of the "Great Recession," American working people truly have nothing to lose but our fear: the constant and growing fear of joblessness; increasing social atomization and fear of individual isolation; fear of eternal war and acute crisis; unpaid furloughs, wage cuts and cutbacks; fear of trillions in unpayable debt clamped to our children's and their children's ankles like a ball and chain; fear of the real domestic terrorism of poverty, foreclosure and homelessness circling over us like three hundred million very personal 9/11's. Add to this ruling class arrogance, discrimination, racism and exploitation, and we have an inhuman, insane system run by criminals, defensible only by the self-interested, the deluded and the demented, a system whose only real excuse for itself is TINA, "There Is No Alternative."

Our job is to ceaselessly proclaim and effectively prove by successful immediate, medium and long-term struggle that there is a practical alternative, that it does not have to be this way! If we can do this, we can begin to effectively talk about socialism as "a world to win."

And as we do this, we must never be afraid to share the dreadful truth out loud, that those who publicly denounce moderate health care reform as "Armageddon," scream the n-word at the President, worship the "virtue of selfishness," or wear tee-shirts reading "I'd rather be waterboarding," may indeed be clinically, even violently psychopathic, clear and present threats to themselves and to others, with all that legally and logically implies. We have seen again and again what happens when violent individual or collective insanity grabs the wheel of a major country, and we must never let it happen here.

(Photo by Sage Ross, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, cc by 2.0)

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