The New Charlatans

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The new charlatans by LS O’Brien.

“You ain’t a real lion if you love the circus…”

– Atmosphere, Virgo

In response to the spectacular and catastrophic failure of the global Liberal Capitalist system, Messrs. Classical Liberals, centrists, IDWers, and other representatives of the Quiet Life camp, are adamant they have the solution: Liberal Capitalism.

Goya identified the charlatans of 18th century Spain as the priests, corrupt politicians, aristos and money men who would tell the masses that the cause of their ills was their cure.² Protracting the wretched state of the poor, with a veneer of paternalism and virtue. “Follow us to the Promised Land of Now.”

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Today, I foolishly draw more attention to that group of endlessly-publicised, well positioned Westerners who, in the process of defending the status quo, have managed to market themselves as subversive rebels. We see Jordan Peterson (AKA Top Lobster, the reincarnation of John Brockleson, the Weeping Oracle of Toronto), Sam ‘Droner’ Harris, the Weinsteins, and the rest of that so-called “Intellectual Dark Web”. Their flanks are covered by those imperialist twerps Douglas Murray and Ben Shapiro,³ British state asset Maajid Nawaz,⁴ and Steven Pangloss Pinker, the elite’s answer to Mystic Meg.

Pangloss was a professor of Voltaire’s invention, who, despite living in a world where rape, destitution, war and weaponised stupidity were all commonplace, insisted that this was the “best of all possible worlds”. Certainly living between the ivory tower and the highest courts of the land helped in maintaining the delusion. But even when he was forced face-to-face with just some of the horrors produced by his species, his insufferable brand of Optimism, that had made him a star in salons across Europe, prevented him from registering them.

So it is with Pinker. His grand thesis goes: as capitalism went global, so did Liberalism, and they, together, became the source of all good things. Passed over is the brutal institution of capitalism, of which Marx (capitalism’s greatest surveyor yet) was only too aware.

The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the beginning of the conquest and looting of the East Indies, the turning of Africa into a warren for the commercial hunting of black-skins, signalised the rosy dawn of … capitalist production.⁵

Blankly ignored is the forceful imposition of state-backed capital in the “Third World,” an invention of that those Victorian decades. An overlooked and tragic period explored by Mike Davis,⁶ during which perhaps 60 million perished. It was the ideas of Locke, Hobbes, Malthus and the race scientists⁷ which carried the day.

It is often said, by Pinker and others, that “capitalism lifted millions out of poverty,” without considering what it is was that dispossessed them to begin with. Morons on message boards may be excused, a “leading public intellectual” can not.

But even if you could disregard the explosion of those dark, satanic mills, and our vast “underclass” of slaves, on which the whole beast — from its very inception⁸ — depends, you’re still left with the looming cliff edge. Capitalism, and its insidious cult of growth, is not sustainable.

Liberal Capitalism saw off feudalism, Fascism, Communism and countless threats from the Third World; it can’t, it seems, survive hegemonic domination. Building upon Karl Polanyi’s concerns about disembedded markets, Wolfgang Streeck has written:

“…Having no opposition may actually be more of a liability for capitalism than an asset. Social systems thrive on internal heterogenity, on a pluralism of organising principles protecting them from dedicating themselves entirely to a single purpose, crowding out other goals that must also be attended to if the system is to be sustainable.”⁹

Without the counterforces of trade unionism and socialism, capital accumulation — that “mad quest for singularity”¹⁰ — has made Progress synonymous with suicide: the telos, fittingly, of Professor Pangloss’s logos.

There’s only so long that one can deny reality by reciting the “accurate but meaningless facts”¹¹ of GDP, or the IMF’s dodgy poverty statistics.¹² Positioned, as we are, in a society consumed by private debt, suicidal despair and substance abuse.¹³ Only so long we can dismiss all that as external, and therefore insignificant, to the over-riding concerns of the Bottom Line.

And how many of us dare peek out past the chasm at the dust storms, inferno firestorms, luminous waterways and the ever rising plastic sea consuming the below?

It’s time to reclaim the mantle of “Progress” for progressives. By slyly tethering the concept of progress to free market economics and centrist values, Steven Pinker has tried to appropriate a great idea for which he has no rightful claim. Progress in the quality of life, for humans and nonhumans alike, is something that anyone with a heart should celebrate. It did not come about through capitalism, and in many cases, it has been achieved despite the “free market” that Pinker espouses.

Jeremy Lent¹⁴

With Liberalism in such a crisis, a market for Pinker’s half-truths can be understood. The Peterson phenomenon, however, is all together weirder.

One can see the young Peterson, stewing alone in his university halls, hunched over CIA rags, like Encounter and Paris Review, or the National Review. Taking breaks to daydream about William F. Buckley sitting through a long, squeaky monologue of his on how Jungian archetypes can explain the tumult of the 60s. (Just what is it with these defenders of masculinity?)

It’s clear Peterson entered public consciousness far later than he had hoped, i.e. long after credible red threat had vanished. Nevertheless, he’s determined to make the “culture war” talking points of the last century something again. Through reintroducing these stale Cold Warrior arguments to a whole new generation — be they the endorsement of race ‘science’, an unhealthy obsession with Communism as a supposed threat, or erroneous claims about natural law — he has made unknowing neoconservatives of a whole swath of Fortnite Gen-ers.¹⁵

What is peculiar about this display, is that the clearly, and often proudly, reactionary positions of the 70s and 80s are being promoted as new, shiny and oh-so-edgy in the present. That they can possibly be received as such is enough to drive one to despair.¹⁶ (It seems our contemporary neoliberal freak show has destroyed much that was once collective; and now, I guess, we can add shared history to that pile.)

It would be easy to dismiss Brockleson 2.0 as a loon, but it must be conceded that real intelligence and guile is necessary to convince some millions living in the hellscape of Mises’ imaginings that Marx is the problem.¹⁷ It surely takes skill to shift the attentions of thousands to the polemics of Solzhenitsyn, far away from an actually existing system engaged in slavery, mass incarceration and ideologically-driven slaughter.¹⁸ The very one they function within.

Peterson has been described as the “re-mystifier of capitalism,” and this is out of all of the descriptors the most accurate. There’s his heavy reliance of Jungian mysticism, but more importantly this “free speech warrior” seems to want nothing more than to shut down the humanities, to put an end to a sustained interrogation of society.¹⁹ Like all conservatives in the most negative sense, he wants to shield the youth from what he deems dangerous knowledge; the workings of a system that benefits him.

Perhaps it’s best that all university courses be suspended, until the Trilateral Commission can work out what’s safe to impart? That shady organisation Peterson is now involved with, and one Chomsky opposed (on far more coherent classical liberal grounds), saying:

The Trilateral Commission was concerned with trying to induce what they called “more moderation in democracy” — turn people back to passivity and obedience so they don’t put so many constraints on state power and so on. In particular they were worried about young people. They were concerned about the institutions responsible for the “indoctrination of the young” (that’s their phrase), meaning schools, universities, church and so on — they’re not doing their job, the young are not being sufficiently indoctrinated. They’re too free to pursue their own initiatives and concerns and you’ve got to control them better.²⁰

It is in the IDW that the worst elements of both the Anglo and Continental traditions come together. A heavy dose of hypocrisy and the valorisation of instrumental rationality from one; the junk economics of the Austrian school from the other. They, along with many of us, stand in the shadow of Mont Pèlerin, and upon the human refuse cast off by Empire.

Yet as they stick so doggedly to the framework of the “culture war,” they, depending on their level of cynicism, refuse or are simply incapable of addressing this reality.

For without exception the cultural treasures he surveys have an origin which he cannot contemplate without horror. They owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries. There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another.

Walter Benjamin²¹

Their self-identified “centrist” fanbase repeatedly exclaim that they’re just a nice, rational group of guys responding to a chaotic world. And while your grievances are postmodern neo-Marxist inventions, all of theirs are genuine postmodern neo-Marxist impositions (evidence pending). They will never miss an opportunity tell the “coddled” masses that they really are today’s most sat-upon.

Yet what else is their full immersion into the realm of “culture wars,” to the cost of recognising their material conditions, if not irrational? They spend their days trawling social media, looking to evidence their Stealers Wheel thesis, and don’t even begin to approach the very real policies and social arrangements which hold sway — and which have been, ever since Third Wayism, exclusively right-wing.²²

They foolishly believe that their incessant online interventions, which invariably cite Reason, “evidence-based decision making” (absent of sources), and St Pinker, have any sort of effect. That those dreaded “both sides” aren’t just scoffing at these attempts to elevate triviality to the lofty heights of Civil Discourse. And that, possibly, they don’t just see “history’s pickpockets” for what they are.

And who are all these democratic moralists? Ideologists of intermediary layers who have fallen, or are in fear of falling between the two fires. The chief traits of the prophets of this type are alienism to great historical movements, a hardened conservative mentality, smug narrowness, and a most primitive political cowardice. More than anything moralists wish that history should leave them in peace with their petty books, little magazines, subscribers, common sense, and moral copy books. But history does not leave them in peace. It cuffs them now from the left, now from the right.

Leon Trotsky²³

Pointedly absent from their talking points is any examination of economics². Likely because the neoliberal economic system the Centre champions doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. In this, they have simply adopted a long-running practice of our compliant mainstream press.²⁴

So it goes: insist that advocates for trans-rights are one step away from enacting Maoist terror, and you can expect glowing coverage in the NYT. Float the idea that genetics might explain racially-skewed conviction statistics and, oh my, you’re well on the way to becoming an “unfairly maligned” intellectual martyr.²⁵ But put forward modest social democratic policies to counteract neoliberalism — the total commodification of all — and expect to be hounded by all corners of the media class, and denounced, by those very martyrs, as Stalin Redux.²⁶ (With regards to Trudeau, this Peterson tactic is bizarre. Outside of insisting upon the neutral “human” over “Man” he’s giving the centre right everything they want.)²⁷

This should remind us of Chomsky’s indispensable propaganda model: encourage a vigorous debate on a narrow set of mostly insignificant issues, while actively shutting down serious examinations of the prevailing ideology.²⁸ But even if, somehow, these new charlatans were put on the defensive in a fundamental way, I suspect the best we’d get in return is, “this? This is not real Liberalism.”

Goya’s famous epigraph “the sleep of Reason produces monsters” can be read two ways. The less obvious one, the one New Atheists rather ignore, is almost certainly what the disillusioned artist had in mind. The self-styled partisans of The Enlightenment, then as now, so often disregard scepticism where they need it the most: in their precepts. And with this, Reason is their blindness.

Further Reading

¹ Considered in What Have You Got?

² Francisco Goya, Troupe of the Charlatans.

³ Please see Michael Brooks re: Sam Harris, and Pankaj Mishra on Murray. Refer to Shapiro himself, if you can bear it.

⁴ See Max Blumenthal and Nafeez Ahmed’s investigation.

⁵ Karl Marx, Capital.

⁶ Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World. An apposite extract:

Indeed, the chief preoccupation of the India Office, as revealed by recent studies of the official correspondence between London and Calcutta, was neither the holocaust in lives nor the threat of revolution, but that Indian disasters might “disturb the intricate system for the multilateral settlement of [Britain’s] balance of payments, in which India played a large and vital part.”53 Hamilton and Elgin fretted that sales of Indian wheat, tea and jute would collapse in face of growing foreign fears about the plague and the proposed embargo of trade between India and Europe that the French were advocating. In a land where famished laborers were easily replaced, “The Secretary of State in London was telling the Viceroy that he was ‘more concerned about plague than famine’ because a ‘market once lost, or even partially deserted, is not easily regained.’”

⁷ Stephen Jay Gould provides an excellent history and rebuttal of the race scientists in The Mismeasure of Man.

The Slavery Debate: Why C.L.R James & Eric Williams were right.

⁹ Wolfgang Streek, How Will Capitalism End? For more on Karl Polanyi, I recommend Tim Rogan’s The Moral Economists.

¹⁰ Pankaj Mishra, Age of Anger. He fittingly quotes Herder as writing:

The German philosopher and theologian Herder attacked the conceit of French philosophes, which was later manifested by intellectuals in many powerful countries, that they lived in the best of all worlds, and were a source of sweetness and light: As a rule, the philosopher is never more of an ass than when he most confidently wishes to play God; when with remarkable assurance, he pronounces on the perfection of the world, wholly convinced that everything moves just so, in a nice, straight line, that every succeeding generation reaches perfection in a completely linear progression, according to his ideals of virtue and happiness. It so happens that he is always the ratio ultima, the last, the highest, link in the chain of being, the very culmination of it all. ‘Just see to what enlightenment, virtue, and happiness the world has swung! And here, behold, am I at the top of the pendulum, the gilded tongue of the world’s scales!’

¹¹ Christopher Lasch, Culture of Narcissism. Explored in Remainers’ Ongoing Battle With Reality.

¹² For a critical look at the IMF, Anup Shah, Structural Adjustment — a Major Cause of Poverty, and Hakim.

¹³ See the brilliant work of Chris Hedges and Counterpunch.

¹⁴ Jeremy Lent, Steven Pinker’s ideas are fatally flawed. These eight graphs show why.

¹⁵ Explored in my series of posts, beginning here “Seriously?”: Part One of Critiquing Jordan Peterson’s Politics.

¹⁶ Bari Weiss, Meet the Renegades of the Intellectual Dark Web.

¹⁷ For an examination of Mises and the other neoliberals, I can not recommend Quinn Slobodian’s Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism more highly.

¹⁸ See 1.

¹⁹ Bernard Schiff, I was Jordan Peterson’s strongest supporter. Now I think he’s dangerous.

²⁰ Credit to MontyPanesar666. Both Chomsky and Peterson’s claim to classical liberalism are explored here.

²¹ Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History.

²² Tom Nairn, After Britain.

²³ Leon Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours.

²⁴ Explored in It Wouldn’t Do.

²⁵ Sam Harris’ “Forbidden Knowledge”.

²⁶ Caitlin Johnstone is perhaps the best source on the mainstream media’s campaign against the Left.

²⁷ Here, Counterpunch‘s coverage of Trudeau is indispensable.

²⁸ Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.