A different strand of late modern philosophy saw something darker.
Hobbes, mentioned above, had a notoriously cynical view of human nature — from which we get the adjective Hobbesian for social situations of unrestrained competition among the self-interested. Hobbes was, in today’s terms, a psychological egoist — asserting that human beings are by nature selfish, greedy, grasping, conniving; one of the jobs of the state is to control these traits which make life in the state of nature the nasty affair it is. French philosophe Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715 – 1771) built on this with a theory of ideology: ideas are put forth and used not with the intent of getting at the truth but advancing interests — one’s own or that of one’s group.
Georg W.F. Hegel (1770 – 1831), the next major figure in German philosophy after Kant, emphasized historical development, and his variant on the presumption of mediation saw something Kant had passed over: the difference between the Master (Lordship, Herrschaft) and the Slave (Bondage, Knechtschaft), which eventually became archetypes of a sort for groups with interests who because of their deeply contrasting social status experience the world in incommensurable ways.
Master-consciousness, that is, mediates experience in one way: in terms of power, opulence, privilege, ease. Slave-consciousness inhabits a different world: one of hardship, deprivation, servitude, powerlessness. Never the twain shall meet in the sense of a meeting of minds (the rough meaning of that $50 word incommensurable).
Hegel saw history as driven by violent clashes between the two. The outcome of these clashes resulted in novel societal states of affairs that began the process over again (as this is informally expressed: thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Again, I am greatly simplifying, but hopefully you get an idea where this is going. Unless you really want that 2,000 pages.
Hegelians — those who saw Hegel’s writings and concepts as akin to Scripture (but less readable) — divided into two camps which have been warring ever since. We’ll honor convention and call them right-wing and left-wing Hegelians. Right-wing Hegelians championed the consciousness and values of the Master, just as those who championed the traditional monarchy sat on the right side of the French assembly. Left-wing Hegelians sided with the Slave, just as those who championed the new “liberated” order sat to the left.
The former prized courage, strength, or might, and saw these embodied in patriotism, militarism, national pride, and in the rising nation state and its heroes. To right-wing Hegelians the Master was best suited to carry history forward to its ultimate goal, the physical realization of the Absolute in the triumph of the all-powerful State. Figures such as Friedrich List (1789 – 1846) and his celebration of the national political economy, or Thomas Carlyle (1795 – 1881) and his concept of the “great man,” come to mind.
And while rejecting as foolish the idea that history was moving toward some ideal state or condition, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) clearly drew on many of the values of right-wing Hegelians with his revaluation of all values, extracting Christian moral premises from the picture. Nietzsche distinguished clearly between the Master’s moral dichotomy of good versus bad (that which inconveniences or thwarts the Master’s will) and the Slave’s morality of good versus evil (the Slave’s term for the Master’s power-focused goals and techniques, justified by superior position alone).
Left-wing Hegelians, as we said, took sides with history’s Slaves and tried to articulate the specifics of Slave consciousness. What legitimated the Slave’s consciousness over that of the Master was its direct contact with the material world through hard physical labor, the starting-point of all production. The Master’s opulence and privilege was gained at the expense of the Slave, who could become conscious of this! Left-wing Hegelians thus saw the Slave’s suffering and his will to rebel and overthrow his Master as the true drivers of history.
Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) are the obvious exemplars. In their hands, merging a materialist view of the world with Hegel’s view of history (“dialectical materialism”), this became the “inevitable” revolution of the proletariat: workers with only their labor to sell, against the bourgeoisie: capitalists, owners of the means of production, controllers of the relations of production, creators of surplus value (profit), unearned as it did not result from labor. Human consciousness, according to dialectical materialism, is a product of material relations, not the reverse. Material relations, that is, are the primary mediators of thought — not abstract Kantian categories. They give rise to all social relations and culture. Capital accumulation was the primary economic and therefore social reality of the times.
With the replacement of global capitalism by global socialism, the state, under sway of the Master, would wither away, not become “absolute,” when true Communism was realized at the End of History: the Slave’s triumph in liberation from slavery! True Communism as Marx envisioned it (not to be confused with what the Soviets and Maoists established) would abolish the Master-Slave dichotomy by having ended its material conditions: private property owned by the Master, control over production by the Master, and over unearned capital accumulation in the hands of the Master.
That isn’t what happened, of course. What went wrong with this agenda, and what replaced it? Once we have some answers here, we’ll be prepared to return to the alt-right.
What happened was the replacement of economic Marxism with cultural Marxism. Cultural Marxism is not a “conspiracy theory.” It was a strategy early twentieth century Marxists developed when they realized that the proletariat had no interest in overthrowing the bourgeoisie; the proletariat wanted to join the bourgeoisie. Courtesy of the capitalist engine’s capacity to create and distribute wealth for the majority of those willing to work to achieve it, a financially independent middle class was growing, outside Hegelian Master-Slave categorization. Other things being equal, many in the working class would have joined it in just one or two more generations.
Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (1891 – 1937) and Hungarian Marxist Györgi Lukácz (1885 – 1971) thus proposed that a purely economic Marxism was a losing proposition. To succeed in overthrowing capitalism, they would have to broaden their agenda. They would need a major paradigm shift concerning what were the primary mediators of consciousness in civilization: from economics alone back to the full range of beliefs, habits, practices, and institutions that constitute what we call culture, so they could launch an attack on every aspect of the culture of capitalism, not just its economics. They incorporated ideas from the psychoanalysis of Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939) to de-Christianize Western civilization while encouraging a fascination with sex especially among the young, and one did not have to be a Freudian to recognize the power of the unleashed libido.
The cultural Marxists founded the Frankfurt School to further their goals; it moved to New York City in the 1930s to escape the Nazis, whose acts gave them the idea of using the term fascist to discredit their critics and opponents. From their new home base at the New School for Social Research they launched critical theory, as they called it: its goal being to criticize all the institutions and practices of bourgeois civilization. Among the chief luminaries of this school were Theodor Adorno (1903 – 1969) and Herbert Marcuse (1898 – 1979). The former penned a work entitled The Authoritarian Personality (1950). This book was a textbook exercise in critical theory, redefining traditional sex roles and sexual mores as prejudices suggestive of fascist temptations. The latter built on this with Eros and Civilization (1955) which combined Freud and Marx into a single analysis holding that sexual repression was an essential feature of capitalist culture. Combined with the Rockefeller-bankrolled Kinsey studies, Marcuse’s work propelled the sexual revolution that would change the face of the culture in the 1960s.
Marcuse went further by resurrecting the presumption of mediation in the guise the cultural Marxist brand of left-wing Hegelianism needed: the forging of a coalition of those with Slave consciousness — the “victims” of capitalist civilization, initially limited to blacks but quickly including women, homosexuals, and eventually transsexuals (in today’s jargon, transgenders). Marcuse also penned an essay entitled “Repressive Tolerance” (1965). This essay introduced the idea that permitting the Master the same free speech rights as the Slave only maintained the repression of the Slave, and thus shouldn’t be allowed. This became the seed from which political correctness grew.
Incidentally, a group known as the Fabians adopted a strategy similar to that of the Frankfurt School, their goal being to “penetrate and permeate” (their phrase) institutions, transforming them from within to move them leftward. Originating in 1883 and receiving a huge grant from the estate of a deceased wealthy member in 1895, they founded what would become one of the most prestigious social sciences academies in the world, the London School of Economics, at which both David Rockefeller Sr. (1915 – 2017) and George Soros (1930 – ) were students. The LSE was not exclusively a haven for socialists, though. Leading libertarian theorist Friedrich A. Hayek (1899 – 1992) spent time there, prior to his better-known period at the University of Chicago. The guiding philosophy of Fabianism was: work with anyone (even conservatives!) who will work with you, compromising them, incorporating collectivism into their activities. The Fabians taught evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. While their most visible influence was in Great Britain via the Labour Party which they had virtually founded, they had “cells” in all the Ivy League universities and other institutions in America. Arguably they and their protégés, soon to include tax-exempt foundations such as Rockefeller and Ford, were responsible for the leftward tilt of American academia that provided the fertile soil in which the seeds of political correctness were planted, decades later.
Today’s academic humanities, including contemporary philosophy, are scenes of multiple voices clamoring for the status symbol (it has become that, after all) of Hegelian Slave. Candidates for mediator other than Marxian economic relations. The most obvious was race/ethnicity: the black descendent of slaves under the heel of continuing “white privilege,” the latter ensuring continuing “discrimination,” “underrepresentation” and “marginalization.” This gave rise, especially beginning in the 1970s, to policies, e.g., “affirmative action,” designed within the governmental and academic-bureaucratic complexes to further the interests of Slave over Master (ponder that one a moment).
Gender received a significant boost when philosopher-psychologist Carol Gilligan (1936 – ) contended that masculinity and femininity employed different moral categories: the male voice being logical and individualist while the female one was relational and emphasized caring. Academic feminists began using phrases like standpoint theory or standpoint epistemology — meaning the perspective from which a “marginalized” group experiences the world, authentic only if expressed through that group’s lived experience. Postmodernist feminists saw gender as a social construct apart from biological sex, creating many possibilities, as that which is constructed is optional, not essential (postmodernist feminism rejects essentialism), can be deconstructed, or constructed in a different way: one reason we are seeing a proliferation of sexual minorities and “genders” today. For there is also homosexuality, of course. And bisexuality. And transsexuality. And each of these in various combinations, including with racial/ethnic “marginalized” status—we could read about the “special perspective” of the “transgender person of color.” What one has is a lot of mediators of experience! Small wonder identity politics has taken over significant portions of the humanities (and small wonder there are academic “turf wars” over who has the better claim to being “marginalized”)!
These are all the step-progeny of left-wing Hegelians in America, operating mostly through prestigious universities. Their presumption of mediation is seen in their claim that we experience the world through standpoints (descendants of Kant’s categories) supplied by race, gender, sexual preference, etc. Capitalist-produced technology had created the conditions for many cultural changes left-wing Hegelians welcomed. Mass media provided means of reaching millions of people at once, given that by 1970 nearly every home had at least one television. They would use television (daytime dramas, commercial advertisements, sitcoms, “docu-dramas,” MTV when it appeared) as instruments of slow, cultural needle-moving until popular entertainment culture was saturated with “repressed” groups as well as sexual liberation — and utterly intolerant of Christian conservatives who were depicted as backward, uneducated, and borderline-violent.
One final item to factor in here is the replacement of a nation-focused consciousness with globalist cosmopolitanism for an increasingly borderless world, a process long underway within capitalist civilization and which increased exponentially following the collapse of the Soviet Union. To left-wing Hegelians, national identity is a sign of backwardness and regression, at worse, latent fascism again. Despite the strong capitalism of globalists, they and left-wing Hegelianism became allies of convenience, many of the latter surprisingly untroubled by the neoliberal economics used to underwrite the rise to global power of immensely wealthy global corporations. This explains the growing rift within the left that became most visible in last year’s clash between Hillary Clinton’s supporters who clearly identified with power and those of Bernie Sanders who did not, and wanted to reignite a discussion of class under capitalism as it exists in the twenty-first century.
Class — privileged in classical Marxism but largely shunned by cultural Marxism — had shrunk into near-insignificance under cultural Marxism. The squeakier wheels definitely received the axel grease of social policy, and policies which redistributed wealth, jobs, political favors, etc., from Peter to Paul definitely had the support of Paul (and Paula!). The elimination of class from the Babel of Slave voices enabled the Democratic Party, once the institutional mouthpiece of the working class in America, to kick blue collar workers to the curb. They were too white, too male, too Christian, too provincial; there were too many “bitter clingers” and “deplorables” in their midst.
This, as everybody now understands (or should), propelled the ascendancy of Donald J. Trump, which was as much about the increasing cultural marginalization (the real thing, not the academic invention) of an entire segment of the American population, as well as its worsening economic standing. Despite his own billionaire status Trump could speak the language of the working class and appeal to a blue collar consciousness, especially in the face of rising borderless globalism which Trump could argue had exported their jobs while importing cheap immigrant labor and driving down wages.
The American working class did not fit into the narrative in which identity politics had found a home, especially in the Democratic Party — that of a country of changing demographics: more ethnically diverse, sexually liberated, less Christian, less tied to national identity, more tied to the kind of formal university education required by an increasingly technology-driven workplace, more cosmopolitan overall: the “blue” culture of the big coastal cities and suburbs in a nutshell.
“Red” culture, that of rural America — dismissed by the “blues” as “flyover country” — was latently tied by its history and viscerally, by its racial composition and religious tendencies to the Master mindset despite its obvious absence of any such status in the world outside left-wing Hegelian academic and media echo chambers. Disdained because of its self-identification with many Master values (individual rights, national identity, the authority of the U.S. Constitution, the value of work with one’s hands, etc.), the white working class was forgotten until Trump_vs_deep_state rose to remind us of it. Its consciousness had overtly resisted progressive change. It was increasingly a blight upon a changing world, that of former Slaves rising to power!
“Red” culture saw Donald Trump as its “great man”! It responded enthusiastically to The Donald’s attacks on political correctness and his openly belittling celebrity pseudo-pundits such as Megyn Kelly. It celebrated his overt masculinity, however disdained in the “metrosexual” big city culture. It cheered when, e.g., a Black Lives Matter leftist would show up at a Trump rally obviously simply to cause trouble and Trump would respond with a dismissive, “Get ‘im outta here!” It commented on the irony of supposed violence encouraged at Trump rallies while leftist protesters attacked Trump supporters trying to leave, or blocked roads and highways trying to prevent attendees from driving to Trump events. Trump’s popularity grew as he chewed up and spit out his rivals in the GOP debates, then did the same to a Hillary Clinton for whom the support of the Left had never been more than lukewarm — this despite obvious and blatant media bias in her favor!
“Red” culture was unfazed as the media attacks on Trump grew increasingly ugly, eventually including evidence-free allegations of sexual assault, amidst revelations he’d used a casual crudity for a woman’s sexual organ on the infamous Access Hollywood tape made years ago. “Blue” culture was caught completely off guard when Trump won an election their pundits had unanimously predicted he would lose by a landslide—won in the Electoral College, that is, because in one of the worst strategic moves in recent political history, Hillary had simply not campaigned in several “red” states (including states Obama had won four years before)!
“Red” culture remains unimpressed by insinuations which, if they could be proven, would amount to treason: that’s Trump’s campaign was aided by Russian hackers who sabotaged Hillary Clinton’s campaign, releasing thousands of compromising emails to WikiLeaks, continuing ongoing covert collusion with Russian intelligence operatives working under orders from Russian president Vladimir Putin. Hard evidence that any such things actually happened has yet to be made public, but the official narrative stays in place and is being pushed intensely by mainstream media stalwarts such as The Washington Post and the New York Times that have never been secret about their hatred for the Trump administration or their disdain for the white working class.