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The Psychology of Prohibiting Outside Thinkers

The real motivation of respectable progressivism is managing guilty conscience and conserving bourgeois privileges.

St. Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh

Why do so many respectable, intellectually oriented people (academics, artists, and activists) wish to exclude independent right-wing intellectual work on moral grounds? I have in mind several recent campaigns to ensure some right-wing writer/artist, not be allowed to speak or perform in some venue.

I am going to make a general theoretical point about a widespread social phenomenon, but I should also be honest about the specific individuals and institutions I see as motivating case studies. I have in mind the campaign to shut down the LD50 gallery, and the decision of The New Centre for Research & Practice to remove Nick Land from its roster of lecturers. I don't know these people, and I have nothing against them personally. I have no interest in impugning them or "calling them out," I would much rather enjoy thinking with them; the problem is that these are precisely cases of closing that door, on "progressive" grounds that appear dishonest, cowardly, and conservative.

Although I have no ill will, the only way to think about door-closers is from the outside of their door, e.g. about them, rather than with them. These campaigns and institutional decisions, and so many public pronouncements by other “progressive” actors, present themselves as efforts to protect the public sphere from violent or harmful effects, but it’s increasingly impossible to believe that this is the real motivation. There is a widespread fallacy, what we might call the ad hominem fallacy fallacy, that it’s unreasonable to question someone’s motivations. It may be unreasonable to dismiss someone’s arguments by impugning their motivations, but it’s very reasonable to theorize someone’s motivations as on object of interest in its own right—especially when the stated motivations are increasingly belied by the effects they repeatedly produce.

I want to offer a concrete, informal theoretical account of what institutional intellectuals are really doing when they pull-up their draw-bridges to independent right-wing intellectuals such as Nick Land. Very simply, they are imposing a cordon sanitaire that is instrumentally necessary to the continuation of their unjustified intellectual privileges in the institutional order. I am increasingly convinced there is simply no other public function to this political repetition compulsion. The reason this is important, from the left, is that this cordon sanitaire is straightforwardly a mechanism to conserve the status quo, everything progressives pretend to be interested in overthrowing. This is why neo-reactionary intellectuals speak of the status quo political order as dominated by a left-progressive “Cathedral,” and this post will provide one example of why I think they are correct to do so.

Genuine left revolutionaries will sooner than later learn to take heed from some of these right-wing diagnoses about what is rotten in left culture. If you believe in radical equality and collective liberation from unjust institutions, from the left, you have to be able to see how your compulsions might be a function of this Cathedral more than you care to admit. As someone who currently possesses bourgeois intellectual privileges, and as someone who believes in equality (i.e., I know I am not ultimately superior to many others who lack my platform), I wish to be perfectly clear about how these mechanisms function, as someone who bears witness to them introspectively. If it is still possible to be a genuinely radical intellectual committed to collective liberation, this is the least it will require.

First, it seems to be a fact that the genuinely intellectual wings of the alt-right or neo-reaction (NRx) or whatever you want to call it, are probably too intelligent and sophisticated for bourgeois intellectual workers to engage with, let alone compete with. The reason I know this is because I have only been able to really explore this world with the privilege of my sabbatical; bourgeois intellectual workers typically just don’t have the time to read a bunch of long essays on the internet. So if those essays are actually pretty smart and a legitimate challenge to your institutional authority as a credentialed intellectual—you are functionally required to close ranks, if only with a silent agreement to not engage. As an academic political scientist, I have at least average comfort with the history of political thought, yet when I really peruse all the independent NRx intellectuals, if I’m being honest I’d have to admit that I would need to go back to the books to really grok and engage what some of them are trying to say. I am on research leave and I don’t even have the time (or interest) in really doing that as deeply as would be required to engage all of it meaningfully. This is how I can very confidently call bullshit on any currently full-time bourgeois symbol-manipulator who pretends to know with any confidence the alleged uselessness or harmfulness of the NRx intellectual ecology.

Now, as soon as anyone from this non-institutional world produces effects within the institutional orbit, it is actually a really serious survival reflex for all institutionally privileged intellectuals to play the morality card (“no platform!”). If all these strange, outside autodidacts are actually smart and independently producing high-level intellectual content you don’t have the time to even understand, let alone defeat or otherwise control, this is an existential threat to your entire livelihood. Because all of your personal identity, your status, and your salary, is based directly on your credentialed, legitimated membership card giving your writings and pontifications an officially sanctioned power and authority. If that door is opened even a crack by non-credentialed outsiders, the whole jig is up for the respectable bourgeois monopoly on the official intellectual organs of society.

An interesting question is, because respectable intellectuals are often pretty smart and capable, why are they so fearful of outside intellectual projects, even if they are as evil as some fear? They are smart and capable intellectuals, so you’d think they would embrace some interesting challenge as an opportunity for productive contestation. Why don’t they? Well, here’s where the reality gets ugly. The reason respectable intellectuals so instinctively close ranks around the moral exclusion of NRx intellectuals is that currently working, respectable intellectuals privately know that the intellectual compromises they have made to secure their respectability and careers has rendered most of their life’s work sadly and vulnerably low-quality.

To convince status-quo cultural money dispensers to give you a grant, for instance, any currently “successful” academic or artist has to so extensively pepper their proposal with patently stupid words and notions that knowingly make the final result a sad, contorted piece of work 80% of which is bent to the flattery of our overlords. But we falsely rationalize this contortion as “mature discipline” which we then rationalize to be the warrant for our privileged status as legitimate intellectuals. This is just good old fashioned conservatism, the standard psychology of bourgeois hypocrisy that is the molecular basis for the stability of a capitalist society organized around unjust and unequal exploitation.

Because we know deep down inside that our life’s work is only half of what it could have been had we the courage to not ask for permission, if there ever arise people who are doing high-level intellectual work on the outside, exactly as they wish to without anyone’s permission or money, then not only are we naturally resentful, but we secretly know that at least some of these outsiders are likely doing more interesting, more valuable, more radically incisive work than we are, because we secretly know that we earn our salary by agreeing to only say half of what we could.

(Aside: The only reason I’m psychologically and sociologically capable of writing this is precisely because through the internet I am shifting a large share of my eggs into the basket of the outside, instead of writing grant bids that actively make me less interesting and less honest; and I am young enough in my academic career that my sunk costs and interpersonal investments in academic networks are sufficiently low that I can admit these realities without too much pain.)

Because the entire social value and self-esteem of respectable intellectuals is premised on this guilty conscience, moral opposition is the most immediately natural and useful symbolic flagpole around which a cordon sanitaire will rapidly and spontaneously be constructed and defended. In this natural and obvious urgency, bad faith will occasionally out itself in slips of the tongue whereby academics, such as a one David Golumbia, proudly and explicitly reveal their commitment to anti-intellectual tactics. You might think that rallying around such a patently unintellectual position typically associated with bourgeois-conservative simpletons would itself be avoided as an existential threat just as well, for it loudly publicizes a scandalous dearth of the very intellectual firepower on which our status and salaries are supposed to depend. That respectable bourgeois intellectual culture would seek to stave off one existential threat through the symbolic equivalent of a kamikaze gambit reflects a secret awareness of its own doomed nature.


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