Friday, September 02, 2011

The Heroic Ideological Myth

A plucky band of adventurers pit themselves against an evil empire, led by (what else) an evil Emperor or an evil Cabal. But with assistance from a mysterious power, the adventurers, by defeating the malevolent power behind the empire, will establish a better world, a world guided by the mysterious power.

This is the plot of Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and dozens of other works of science fiction, fantasy, and mythology. It is also the plot espoused by dozens of religions and political ideologies. It was the plot that Stalin used to justify the Gulag, and Hitler used to justify the Holocaust. It is the most popular plot in the world.

For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, obvious, and wrong. If your solution follows this plot, it is almost certainly one of those.

So let's pick out the basic elements of the myth. There is a plucky band of adventurers struggling against an Evil Empire, led by an Evil Emperor or Organization. There is a Mysterious Power of Good which will both aid the adventurers and guide the outcome. There is a Malevolent Power to be overcome, and a Utopia that will result.

So, Star Wars:
The Rebels pit themselves against the empire, led by the Sith Lords. But with the power of the Light Side of the Force, the Rebels, by defeating the Dark Side, will restore the Republic, which will by guided by the Light Side of the Force.

The Lord of the Rings:
The Fellowship of the Ring pit themselves against Morder, led by Sauron. But with assistance of the Valar, the Fellowship, by destroying the Ring, will restore Gondor, a kingdom ruled by a just king guided by the Valar.

Harry Potter:
Harry, Ron, Hermione, and the Order of the Pheonix pit themselves against the Death Eaters, led by Voldemort. But with the power of love, Harry and his allies, by destroying the Horcruxes, will restore the wizarding world, a world guided by love.

Those are the myths of fantasy. These are the myths that operate in our own world:

Fundamentalist Islam
Faithful Muslims pit themselves against the Satanic forces of the West, led by the President of the United States. But with the power of Allah, True Muslims, by defeating the Great Satan, will establish the Caliphate, a world guided by Allah.

Fundamentalist Christianity
Faithful Christian pit themselves against the Satanic forces in the world, led by Satan himself. But with the power of God, Christians, by defeating the forces of immorality, will establish the Kingdom of God, a world guided by Jesus.

The Proletariat will pit themselves against Capitalism, led by the Capitalists. But with knowledge of Dialectical Materialism, the Proletariat, by defeating Capitalism, will establish the workers paradise, a world guided by egalitarianism, the final product of Dialectical Materialism.

Conspiracy Theorist
Those in the know will pit themselves against the World Order, led by the Illuminati. But with the power of the Truth, the Informed, by defeating the Global Conspiracy, will lead the sheeple to enlightenment, a world guided by the Truth.

The postmodern critics shall pit themselves against the dominant narrative, led by cultural hegemons. But with the knowledge of Critical Theory, the postmodernists, by defeating the narrative of dead white European males, will establish a truly multicultural world, a world guided by Theory. (Theory here is a catch-all which may be replaced by dialectical materialism--many postmodernists are practicing Marxists.)

Libertarians pit themselves against government, led by the liberal elite. But with the power of the market, libertarians, by defeating socialism, will establish a libertarian utopia, a world guided by the free market.

You will notice that liberals and conservatives are not on this list. Both positions are complex enough that they do not fit a mythological narrative, although there are members of both camps that do fall into this template (not surprisingly, the most strident of the lot.) But the luminaries of both positions do not fall into this trap: Keynes, for example, despised state-run economies, while Hayek supported the welfare state. Radical culture warriors on both sides, however, may fall into this trap, identifying each other as the Malevolent Power or Evil Empire. The curious thing is that both may look to the same Mysterious Power of Good (the people, the founding fathers, Democracy, etc) for victory amd guidance.

The particulars are irrelevant and can be easily replaced, so changes in any of the basic elements--the adventurers, the Evil Empire, the Evil Leaders, the Mysterious Power of Good, the Malevolent Power, or the Utopia--are not important. The essential thing here is the form, which is the same in all cases.

The adherents of the myth are the adventurers here, and this is a rather flattering position. Everything depends upon them. They alone have the secret, the aid of the mysterious power, and the knowledge of the enemy. Because the enemy is the personification of evil, they are good by definition. Theirs is a holy mission, and anyone who opposes it is in the wrong. Whatever is done in the cause is justified. They alone can lead the way to the promised land.

The Enemy is likewise special, in that they wield the malevolent power, but they are both wise and foolish--wise in that they can wield this power, foolish in that they have not chosen the true power. They are almost gods themselves, in that they have conquered the world and seem to be able to control it through near omniscience and omnipotence. But the adventurers have the true power, which evil cannot touch or understand, and this will lead to their inevitable victory.

The Utopia that will result will not be a result of hard work or understanding, but will be the automatic product of the ascendance of the mysterious power. All will be well. There will be no messy details to deal with, because everything will fall into place. The right people will rule, justice and wisdom shall rain from the skies, and a perfect world will spring back into being, just as it was meant to be.

But it should also be noted that the adventurers, or adherants, are to become the new rulers. For mythologies that supposedly take place in the real world, the gods, theories, principles, or knowledge that constitute the force for good are accessible only to the adventurers. In other words, they themselves are to be the mysterious power and the guiding force. What they propose is not anything resembling a democracy, but a dictatorship of the ideologues. This is obvious when considering the communists (and even the post-modernists), and the fundamentalists (conspiracists will never gain power unless allied to another ideology.) But this is also why I consider libertarians to be the new bolsheviks, who also promised the end of the state.

The comparison between bolsheviks and libertarians may seem a stretch, but consider this: capitalism requires the protection of the state. The state must enforce contract law, permits and facilitates incorporation, and enforces criminal law. Let us consider what seems to be the least problematic: criminal law. Your life is worth a price. You may be outraged to consider how low that price may be--in a place like Somalia, it might be as low as ten or twenty dollars. This is the free market in action. What the state attempts to do through criminal law is to make goods like your life prohibitively expensive. It is the business of the state to interfere with the market. And the libertarians, once in power, will quickly realize this, as the bolsheviks quickly discovered the limitations of their own ideology. What other restrictions might they put on the market--particularly when self-interest, their universal justification, comes into play? Might the powerful rob the weaker? Might they skew contract law in their favour? And if you find their regime onerous, might they prevent people from voting with their feet to leave their "utopia"? The bolsheviks did. Why not the libertarians?

The real world is far more complex than the heroic myth can deal with. Progress is made on a halting basis, two steps forward, one step back. We must constantly submit to evidence and peer review, argue with people who disagree with us, check our facts, and find ourselves surprised by unexpected information. Reality is messy, difficult, and counter-intuitive. Human beings usually rely on heuristics that mislead them. The heroic mythology, like the god in the sky, is an amateur's first guess. Humility alone should convince us that it is wrong.