Several weeks ago, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars in what became a national spectacle. Commenting on the altercation between the two celebrity actors, Hunter College professor Eisa Nefertari Ulen claimed that what drove Will Smith to resort to physical violence was 400 years of “black erasure, black marginalization, black silence and black stereotyping.” The educated class churned out similar excuses to justify the actions of violent Black Lives Matter rioters during the summer of 2020. Blaming a broken system for individual wrongdoing is no new phenomenon; it traces back to 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau believed that humans had been corrupted by the institutions and customs of society, which strangle their natural freedom and vitiate their innocence. He romanticized a primordial condition of autonomous, uncorrupted humans living in harmony who have yet to succumb to society. Adopting Rousseau’s logic leads one to believe that imperfection and frailty—far from being inherent to the human condition—must be products of a society that fails to accord with man’s true nature and, as such, impedes the fulfillment of humanity’s potential. For this reason, Rousseau argued that the only just political society is founded on a “social contract.” On this view, only a social order consented to in the form of a contract adequately preserves and expresses humanity’s natural freedom and choice.
Curiously, at the heart of Rousseau’s philosophy lies a profound paradox. In his book Émile, Rousseau concedes that no men have ever actually lived in perfect harmony in a condition outside of society. Despite this concession, he insists that “The surest way to rise above prejudice, and to judge of things in their true relations, is to put ourselves in the place of an isolated man, and decide as he must concerning their real utility.” Rousseau maintains that although the state of nature is purely imaginary—a mere philosophical hypothetical—individuals should still position themselves psychically outside of the conditions of society and pass their judgments from that point of view. Put differently, Rousseau advises us to stand outside our institutions and customs and decide if we would freely choose them among alternatives. If an institution or custom, having been measured against an a priori standard of choice, fails to meet the mark, it must at once be considerably reformed or altogether discarded. As I see it, the paradoxical nature of Rousseau’s position exposes what lies beneath it all: the desire to delegitimize prevailing society so that the uncorrupted self may reign supreme. It would seem that the state of nature was much less an impartial, anthropological description of humanity’s natural condition than an excuse to dismantle existing society.
From Rousseau to Marx to Sarte, throughout leftist thought pervades the idea that society, as it currently exists, poses an obstacle to the fulfillment of humanity’s potential and requires massive top-down reshaping before it can be considered legitimate. Rightly understood, leftist revolutionary philosophy replaces religion with politics as the source of man’s salvation and liberation. (The inner religious meaning of leftist philosophy became especially palpable during the French Revolution, where The Cult of Reason, dedicated to worshiping the “goddess of Reason,” was embraced by the revolutionary party as a substitute for Catholicism.) Nevertheless, in truth, no degree of progress or reform will ever prove sufficient for most leftists since, underneath their platitudinous sloganeering, they are driven by an insatiable motive to destroy. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” the three pillars of America’s current regime, mirror the lofty ideals of “Libertad, Igualdad, e Fraternidad” exalted by the revolutionaries in France. These principles are most similar in their vagueness and generality: in practice, what would ensuring Diversity, Equity, or Inclusion even entail? Central to the revolutionary leftist worldview is a criterion or criteria of legitimacy which no actual institution can pass. In the end, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion are much less practical goals than licenses for the destruction and radical reordering of society. As Roger Scruton formulates it in his insightful book Fools, Frauds, and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, “The leftist argument is an argument that allows nothing to stand in its way. No existing custom, institution, law or hierarchy; no tradition, distinction, rule or piety can trump equality, if it cannot provide itself with independent credentials. Everything that does not conform to the egalitarian goal must be pulled down and built again, and the mere fact that some custom or institution has been handed down and accepted is no argument in its favor.” Leftists are concerned primarily with, as Karl Marx once put it, the “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” and only secondarily with providing any serious alternative to the status quo. This unconditionally critical attitude perhaps explains why, notwithstanding the undeniable progress made toward racial equality in America, leftists still complain about the specter of “systemic racism” and insist that we must go far beyond equality under the law to ensure equality of outcome.
Heedless destruction is doubtless exhilarating and partly explains why so many young people today are attracted to leftist philosophy. Leftism provides a means by which the resentful and spiteful can combine and channel their negative emotions toward shared aims. Moreover, mass leftist political movements confer the same sense of belonging and purpose people used to locate in organized religion; at the same time, the end goal of perfect equality glimmers of a kind of earthly salvation. However, it cannot be stressed enough that the negative instinct of the left has proved the most dangerous political force in modern history. The resentful impulse of leftists leads them to blame others for their shortcomings and grievances, characterizing entire groups as collectively offensive and bearing a collective guilt. This kind of resentment is unique in that it is directed not toward individuals but toward society as a whole. In the eyes of leftists who deny Original Sin and the imperfection of man, society itself is the cause of all evil in the world. For the resentful leftist, success is thus not a mark of virtue or talent but of “privilege”—of being favored by a biased and flawed system that must be torn down and built again. This belief makes perfect sense if one begins from the premise that humans are by nature perfectly equal and that human nature and character are primarily shaped by the social system under which one lives. The Rousseauvian and Marxian belief that humans are products of their social and material environment naturally leaves one convinced that all inequalities and hierarchies are unjust and artificial and that by transforming society through our own willfulness, we can transform human nature itself. Yet, from the French Revolution to the Russian Revolution, virtually all attempts to do away with existing society and remake it anew have culminated in persecution and genocide. Amid revolution, all impediments to or checks on the exercise of raw anger and resentment of those who control things are taken away—consequently, violence is ennobled and legitimized.