By Emmett Rensin
JUNE 18, 2017
In the six months since the election of Donald Trump, American liberals have managed to regroup, assembling themselves into a self-styled “Resistance” and attempting to reassert control over a world they no longer recognize. But something happened out there in the desert. There is something off about them now. On every level, our most prominent technocrats have entered the new year like uncanny valley copies of themselves, stuttering and miming their old habits, with each take trying to remember what their lives felt like before the accident. They can’t quite get the message right. For months, serious journalists studied The Origins of Totalitarianism like a divination manual, wondering when Trump would pass his enabling act. First, the president was a fascist, until he failed to consolidate power. Then he was an authoritarian, until he showed no interest in micro- or macro-management. Then he merely had authoritarian tendencies, or something, and at any rate was probably a Kremlin agent.
The situation is no better on television. Rachel Maddow, once the charming spokesperson of a kinder world, crazily unveils tax returns she found in Al Capone’s vault. Keith Olbermann — never charming but at least self-confident — now squats on the floor in promotional photos, swaddled in an American flag. The newer stars of the left — the Louise Mensches and Eric Garlands — are using game theory to outwit invisible Soviet assassins. Elected Democrats are paralyzed. They repeat, over and over, that none of this is normal, commit themselves to the fight, and then roll over, confirming the president’s appointments, praising the beauty of a missile strike, or begging the FBI to save them. Hillary Clinton emerges from the woods to blame Jim Comey, the DNC, and the Russians for her loss, and the day before the United States withdraws from the Paris Climate Agreement, she tweets a covfefe joke.
On television, in journals, in the halls of Congress, none of the old methods by which American liberals enforced their claim to superior expertise are working anymore. For all their “resistance,” the greatest impediment to Donald Trump remains his own stupidity. Despite every evil and crime of his administration, the most ambitious Democratic victory on the horizon is making Mike Pence president. Our liberals are right: none of this is normal. This isn’t how it used to be. Everywhere, our best and brightest blink. Are they still in the desert? Is all this an hallucination, a bad dream?
So far, critics of contemporary liberalism have attributed all of this disorder to the shock of our recent election. It’s just the ordinary chaos, they insist, that follows an unexpected loss. But something deeper is amiss. Something was lost in the confusion after they crashed into November, and nothing, not even future victories, will bring it back. This breakdown has been a long time coming. These last few months have only made it more obvious, and more complete. What happened?
The most significant development in the past 30 years of liberal self-conception was the replacement of politics understood as an ideological conflict with politics understood as a struggle against idiots unwilling to recognize liberalism’s monopoly on empirical reason. The trouble with liberalism’s enemies was no longer that they were evil, although they might be that too. The problem, reinforced by Daily Kos essays in your Facebook feed and retweeted Daily Show clips, was that liberalism’s enemies were factually wrong about the world. Just take a look at this chart …
This shift was a necessary accommodation to the fact that, beginning with Bill Clinton, the slim ideological differences that existed between the Democrats and the GOP were replaced with differences of style. Clinton’s “Third Way” promised to be every bit the dupe-servant of war and profit its rivals were, but to do it with the measured confidence of an expert. The New Democrats would destroy the labor movement, but sigh about it. They would frown while they voted to authorize the next war. They would make only the concessions necessary to bolster the flailing engine of finance capital, but they would do it with the latest research in the world. The point, as Jonathan Chait made clear in his 2005 manifesto for this new liberalism, “Fact Finders,” was not the moral content of any particular policy, but the fact that liberals in the 21st century were open to evidence, whereas conservatives were not. “The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism,” he wrote, “ultimately lies […] in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy — more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition.” It is not a coincidence that Chait’s essay quickly devolves into a defense of welfare reform.
Liberalism remained slightly kinder than pure reaction — not quite so racist, not so terribly brutal to the poor — but even these commitments were subsumed by the ideology of pure competence. Bigotry wasn’t evil, it was just stupid, an impediment to growth. Health care reform and the welfare state were not moral necessities, they were the best means of keeping workers healthy and productive. The notion that knowledge asymmetries lay at the root of all political conflict was quickly transmuted into the basis of policy itself. If liberals became masters of the world due to their superior respect for facts, then education — not redistribution — was the only hope for the dispossessed. If liberals believed in climate change because scientists told them they should, then the trouble was not the metastatic excesses of capital but the failure of reactionaries to bow to empirical consensus.
The result was an American political movement whose center was a moral void. When John Kerry spoke out against the death penalty, his opposition was based in flawed application — the punishment just wasn’t smart. When he criticized Bush’s handling of the War in Iraq, his position was similar: he would continue the war but be more strategic about it. When Kerry lost, American liberals opined that there were just too many rubes out there. They would have voted better — smarter — if only they had had the right data visualizations in front of them. When Barack Obama won, and then passed the Heritage Foundation’s health care policy while carrying out a drone war responsible for the incineration of children in half a dozen sovereign nations, he did it while remaining the smartest guy in the room. That was what mattered. At the dawn of the 21st century, we stood on the doorstep of a permanent managerial world order. The wonks just needed to finish explaining it to the rest of us.
The 2016 presidential election was meant to be the final victory of the wonk-managers, the triumph of a West Wing fantasy wherein the leadership class didn’t quite do anything beyond displaying the sublime confidence of cerebral people hurrying down the hallways of power with matters well in hand. Donald Trump was a perfect foe: the forces of stupidity and reaction, starkly manifested, were about to be dispatched. By this point, the knowledge-asymmetry theory of politics had become a commitment so pervasive that its champions could articulate it explicitly: Hillary Clinton was the most qualified candidate in history, full stop. The Clinton campaign was technocratic liberalism incarnate. Its surrogates might have been empty or evil, but they were smart. Its ideas might have been inert, but they were backed up by the latest charts. The campaign’s messaging apparatus was a digital marvel, cooked up by the best computers Robby Mook could buy. The Clinton campaign believed that it would win because it predicted that it would win, and because the capacity to predict and manage was precisely the competence Clinton’s team was selling. But then Clinton lost. The car crashed in the desert instead.
Fake news — “Fake news!” in its current incarnation — did not originate with Donald Trump. Fake news originated in the liberal impulse. On November 9, 2016, liberals who had not yet seized on the Russians as the proximate cause of their defeat attributed the election results to a widespread and decentralized propaganda campaign: social networks had allowed distorted or even outright false stories to go viral, sometimes outperforming real news items, and it was the ignorance and confirmation bias engendered by these stories that gave Trump his essential margins in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. It is significant that this was liberalism’s immediate reaction, before international conspiracies or morally tinged appeals to bigotry took its place. Despite spending 20 years fact-checking its way into losing control of every level of government in the United States, the Democratic Party’s first recourse was to fact-check once again. Here we begin to see what is so strange about today’s liberals. It isn’t that they’ve changed. Rather, the political landscape has been irrevocably altered. Liberalism is only doing what it always has, the only thing it can do. Fact check Donald: You’re wrong! run hundred-post replies to each of the president’s tweets.
Sigmund Freud conceived of the superego as a normative instrument, but it is better understood as a censorious machine. Its strictures, after all, do not come from some interior wellspring; it is not a moral imagination. The rules — and they are rules, nothing more — are received from outside, then internalized and enforced. The superego, even in Freud, does not direct the ego toward high principle or even a particular sensitivity to injustice. “The super-ego can be thought of as a type of conscience that punishes misbehavior with feelings of guilt,” Freud wrote in Introduction to Psychoanalysis. When a transgression is detected, the superego inflicts a psychic wound. It is not a conscience so much as a fully automated priest. The mechanism is simple: sin goes in, censure comes out. Slip up too much and you’re excommunicated.
I am not qualified to make, nor do I want to make, any claims about the psychological character of any particular American liberal. And I am not at all convinced that Freudian psychoanalysis constitutes the most useful way to do so, in any case. But the superego as a metaphor for the collective operation of the liberal world order throws a great deal of much-needed light on what we are observing in the wake of the 2016 election. When history is meant to be over and a single political faction begins to conceive of itself as the permanent manager of a static world, then that faction ceases to be political in the ordinary sense. Politics, in its classic incarnation, is the art of deriving an is from an ought; the point, as Marx famously said, is not to describe the world but to change it. But if the world is as it ought to be already and the essential task is to maintain it — that is, to police the circumscribed boundaries of permissible behavior and ideas — then those tasked with that maintenance must conceive of themselves as acting above politics itself. They become a superego, beyond the libidinal whims of any faction and dedicated not to some alternative vision of the world but to resisting all impulse toward alternatives. Possibility goes in, correction comes out. The End of History suggests a perfectly healthy mind; thus, any attempt to alter this situation is dangerous. But the trouble with superegos is that, once they have taken on this role, they cannot cease to perform it. When the id can be kept in control, all is well. But when it can’t, then the result is not the superego’s surrender — it is repetitious, manic dysfunction. It becomes the blathering superego at the end of history.
The ordinary understanding of managerial liberalism — that it is a normal political faction of the capitalist center-left — leads inevitably to a number of difficult-to-answer questions. Why, for example, do liberals who routinely insist they support more ambitious progressive programs in their hearts, only rejecting them for now on pragmatic grounds, nonetheless oppose any such leftward movement when it becomes a realistic possibility? Why do they take up that opposition with a special enthusiasm, one that often feels more aggressive and personal than their rejection of their official rivals on the right? The reaction of American liberals to even the moderate-left candidacy of Bernie Sanders reached its apex not in any argument about policy but in Hillary Clinton declaring that single-payer health care was “never, ever” going to happen. The present campaign within the British Labour Party to sabotage Jeremy Corbyn moves along similar lines: the problem is that Corbyn is irresponsible and can’t possibly win, a position that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The left now reacts to its notional allies with the cluck-cluck chiding ordinarily directed toward disobedient kids. I do not expect this will be much abated by Corbyn’s extraordinary success in an actual election.
If liberalism has ceased to function as a political faction so much as a censorious regency for capital, then there is little difference, in its view, between left and right — both are id-ish impulses that must be suppressed. The language of irresponsibility and childishness is not just a messaging contrivance but an explicit statement of core values: the trouble with all of these radical politics is that they want to pull society up by the root — and the root, as any adult knows, must be kept firmly in place. The fact that the right receives a larger share of liberalism’s disdain is not a reflection of a larger distaste but simply of the fact that the right happens to be winning. That it might be winning because managerial liberalism has hamstrung progressive impulses is an unthinkable idea, dutifully suppressed.
Like any superego, managerial liberalism is concerned first and foremost with appearances. This explains why, in the face of so much bad policy, liberals are incessantly talking about decorum. Thus, the vulgarity and impropriety of Donald Trump are more offensive than his policies, the callousness of his collusion with dictators more insulting than the collusion itself (ordinarily, that is done more quietly, and only with governments like Saudi Arabia, which can butcher their own citizens but not threaten American hegemony). Meanwhile, liberal politicians and journalists express frustration with the rude socialists popping up in their Twitter feeds and at their town halls, refusing to respect their elders. It’s all so embarrassing and juvenile, they claim, when what is needed is a sober, adult response to Donald Trump — never mentioning that the adults were all routed at the polls by this Monster from the Id.
What has changed in these past few years has only been the capacity of our liberal managers to maintain control. The internet, as the truism goes, is a forum for the id and while it became for liberals a forum for the superego — a place to censor and correct and chide in real time — the essential nature of the medium chipped away at their control in the same manner it chips away at the capacity of any individual superego to rein in the bad behavior of individuals: it’s just easier to act out online. The deeper cause was material: control and propriety are easier to maintain in lush times, and as Western inequality grows in the shadow of an apocalyptic crisis of global ecology, it becomes more and more difficult to suppress radical impulses of all kinds. What became strange, in this new year, was not the behavior of our liberals. That remained the same. What became strange was the world.
For 60 years, liberal managers believed that their political authority was derived from their intellectual authority. When their political authority was suddenly and violently ripped away, they tried to reestablish it by reminding the world that they still knew better than the rest of us. But they got the order of their power backward: without political power, there is no power to assert the boundaries of the normal. “Fake news” was meant to chide the new right into complacency. Instead, the new right, newly in control of our whole government, simply stole the phrase and projected it back again. Now The New York Times and CNN are the Fake News. But a superego can only do one thing — correct — and so it says “No you!” while its enemies shrug and carry on. The truth is that intellectual authority does not cause political authority, and political authority does not cause intellectual superiority. Both are derived from class power. For 60 years, capital believed that it had the whole world well in hand, and so its most important servants were just the smiling reformists who could keep it that way. But the world changed. Now money has no need for its superego.
Managerial liberalism is doing what any superego must under severe stress: continue, against all hope, to assert control. Yet, faced with an ascendant global right and a resurgent global left, its correcting and corralling impulses have gone haywire. It becomes frenzied, elevating cranks like Louise Mensch in a last-ditch effort to reestablish its authority, shouting this is not normal this is not normal into a void. But what is abnormal is not any particular political state, it is the accelerating collapse of the superego’s capacity to regulate the behavior of the body politic. It is the realization that history is not over, and that nothing — not the temporary restoration of the Democratic Party to power, or the defeat of every fascist in Europe, or the transformation of the United States’s young socialists into eager NIMBY liberals — will ever make it stop.
Something strange did happen out there in the desert: the liberal order collapsed, and its survivors wandered back into society, unaware they were now out of a job. Capital has new servants, and new enemies, no longer content merely to battle over a four percent difference in the top marginal tax rate.
In the face of these epochal changes, the superego of managerial liberalism is impotent. On some level it knows that. But it cannot simply abdicate, and it will take a while yet for it to wither entirely away. In the meantime, all it can do is blather, make empty threats of guilt and shame, issue fact-checks and explainers, shout from the roadside to an indifferent planet as the whole world goes libidinal and mad.
Emmett Rensin is an essayist and contributing editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and other venues.