The Left's Endgame of Gnostic Activism

With the left's scorched-earth strategy in response to the Trump administration, we have entered a new stage of politics.  Some, including the great German philosopher Eric Voegelin, would point to that strategy as proof that we have entered the end stage of progressive activism.  When progressives would rather see the country fail than admit defeat, we are in serious difficulty.

Voegelin, who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, devoted his life to understanding the rise of modern statist culture, a development he saw as part of a larger tendency toward Gnosticism in Western culture.  Derived from the name of an early Christian sect who claimed secret knowledge of divine mysteries, Gnosticism is indeed a dangerously "knowing" attitude toward the world.

In its modern emanation, Gnosticism assumes that human agency can perfect society through centralized control and regulation.  Its checkered history includes everything from 19th-century social experiments based on the thinking of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen to 20th-century debacles including Hitler's Third Reich and Mao's Great Leap Forward.

Traditional ideas of human fallibility and limitation, a central tenet of all major religions, implied a foundation of humility and thankfulness toward the Creator.  Modern Gnostics substituted a boundless confidence in human capabilities, giving rise to a false religion with man, not God, at the center.  Not surprisingly, their efforts involved grandiose schemes designed to remake society and even, as they believed, to "transform" human nature through re-education and indoctrination.  Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Kim Il-sung, and Pol Pot come to mind, among many others.  A common thread is an arrogant abuse of power and a disdain for the well-being of ordinary people, who were willingly sacrificed on the altar of social engineering.

In Voegelin's mind, progressivism always leads to antidemocratic and tyrannical forms of governance.  Voegelin defined totalitarianism as "the existential rule of Gnostic activists," itself "the end form of progressive civilization" (New Science of Politics, Chicago: 1987, page 132).  Voegelin understood that the aim of progressivism is always the seizure of absolute and permanent power as the means of social transformation.  Progressives view the election of Donald Trump as an anomaly that stands in the way of their rightful control of the political system.  No wonder they have responded with violence and obstructionism.  When the Senate minority leader vows to block nearly every Trump appointee, sight unseen, we know we have entered a new stage of political division.

One doesn't have to look far to see where Gnosticism is leading us.  Voegelin, who was born in Cologne, Germany and lived from 1901 to 1985, witnessed the defeat of Germany in WWI, the ruinous turmoil of the Weimar period, the rise of fascism, and the annihilation of Germany in WWII.  He was fortunate enough to have escaped to the U.S., where he taught at several prestigious universities.  He lived long enough, however, to witness the resurgence of progressivism in the U.S. under Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

It is not difficult to predict what Voegelin would have thought of the Great Society as defined in Johnson's speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, in which Johnson declared that the "city of man" is "marching" toward an ever brighter future filled with "new [social] experiments."  Of special import to LBJ, along with urban planning and environmentalism, was the nation's classrooms, in which "your children's lives will be shaped" (not at home or at church, but in the classroom).  In order to establish the "new world" our ancestors envisioned, Johnson pledged to "assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America."  Johnson's Great Society speech was a call to arms for the young generation of the sixties.  "Your generation has been appointed, by history ... to lead America toward a new age," LBJ declared.

Another major document in the history of Gnosticism was Obama's first inaugural speech.  Here Obama committed to "the work of remaking America."  In a telling phrase, Obama declared that "[t]he question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."  In other words, don't concern yourself with government becoming "too big."  Obama's version of Gnostic activism preserved the goals of centralized control of education and the environment and added those of global universalism, multiculturalism, and unilateral disarmament.

Many Americans now live in fear of a government they despise.  They are right to be fearful and right to despise it.  Our federal government as it now exists would have been unimaginable to the Founders, who envisioned a small executive under the personal administration of the president working alongside and constrained by a Congress and judicial branch, each of these constrained by the Constitution.  Our federal leviathan is precisely what Washington and Jefferson warned of.  With his European experience and vast reading, Professor Voegelin was able to place this phenomenon of government expansion in the context of the broader tendency that he labeled Gnosticism.

At its heart, Gnosticism is driven by a dangerous confidence in the power of humans to control the world in which they live.  It is one thing to have created the wonders of modern medicine, the labor-saving technology of the computer, and the advances of modern-day agriculture.  It is quite another to pretend that a small, unelected ruling elite, all of them educated at the same universities and sharing the same predilections, should presume to govern by edict and court order.

How will it be with a president who promises to go "much further," as Hillary Clinton did in the recent campaign?  Obama's executive actions, as bad as they were, were just the preamble – testing the waters for a full-scale assault.  The end form of progressive civilization will not be, as some assume, a nonviolent democratic welfare state.  It will be a vast government bureaucracy through which the State, turning its vast powers against the people, will govern all aspects of life.

The vehement reaction of the left to Trump's victory is evidence of how deeply engrained this vision of the future has become among progressives.  It is foolish to imagine that, having poisoned half of our population, Gnostic activism will somehow dissipate under a Trump administration that itself betrays more than its share of Gnostic leanings.  It is more likely that Gnosticism will continue to metastasize until it largely controls American political life.  A full-blown progressive government, of which the Obama administration was a fair taste, would completely abandon constitutional limits in the service of what it deems the "higher purposes" of social equality or some other rationale.  The particular rationale is irrelevant – power is what matters to progressives. 

At that point, all constitutional liberties will have been lost, and we will subsist at the whim of a progressive elite dedicated to "perfecting" society, as they see it.  That end point will constitute, as Voegelin predicted long ago based on his observation of earlier totalitarian movements, "the end form of progressive civilization."  At that point, America will endure a catastrophe similar to what every other progressive state has done in the past.  As Voegelin noted, "Gnostic politics is self-defeating in so far as its disregard for the structure of reality leads to continuous warfare" (quoted in Enrico Peppe, "Eric Voegelin: Science, Politics, and Gnosticism," The Intellectual Conservative, November 2, 2003).  Following the catastrophe, with "the change of generations," Voegelin believed, Gnosticism might at last be abandoned.  That was one alternative.  The other was "horrible physical destruction" and unpredictable and ominous alterations in the social order. 

Gnostic politics leads inevitably to "warfare" of one sort or another.  Is not America, now divided into two great factions, already at war?  In the end, Gnosticism triggers a debacle, and what follows, as Voegelin understood, is unpredictable.  This, I fear, is the tragic path of American life over the next thirty years.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

With the left's scorched-earth strategy in response to the Trump administration, we have entered a new stage of politics.  Some, including the great German philosopher Eric Voegelin, would point to that strategy as proof that we have entered the end stage of progressive activism.  When progressives would rather see the country fail than admit defeat, we are in serious difficulty.

Voegelin, who fled Nazi Germany in 1938, devoted his life to understanding the rise of modern statist culture, a development he saw as part of a larger tendency toward Gnosticism in Western culture.  Derived from the name of an early Christian sect who claimed secret knowledge of divine mysteries, Gnosticism is indeed a dangerously "knowing" attitude toward the world.

In its modern emanation, Gnosticism assumes that human agency can perfect society through centralized control and regulation.  Its checkered history includes everything from 19th-century social experiments based on the thinking of Charles Fourier and Robert Owen to 20th-century debacles including Hitler's Third Reich and Mao's Great Leap Forward.

Traditional ideas of human fallibility and limitation, a central tenet of all major religions, implied a foundation of humility and thankfulness toward the Creator.  Modern Gnostics substituted a boundless confidence in human capabilities, giving rise to a false religion with man, not God, at the center.  Not surprisingly, their efforts involved grandiose schemes designed to remake society and even, as they believed, to "transform" human nature through re-education and indoctrination.  Lenin, Hitler, Mao, Castro, Kim Il-sung, and Pol Pot come to mind, among many others.  A common thread is an arrogant abuse of power and a disdain for the well-being of ordinary people, who were willingly sacrificed on the altar of social engineering.

In Voegelin's mind, progressivism always leads to antidemocratic and tyrannical forms of governance.  Voegelin defined totalitarianism as "the existential rule of Gnostic activists," itself "the end form of progressive civilization" (New Science of Politics, Chicago: 1987, page 132).  Voegelin understood that the aim of progressivism is always the seizure of absolute and permanent power as the means of social transformation.  Progressives view the election of Donald Trump as an anomaly that stands in the way of their rightful control of the political system.  No wonder they have responded with violence and obstructionism.  When the Senate minority leader vows to block nearly every Trump appointee, sight unseen, we know we have entered a new stage of political division.

One doesn't have to look far to see where Gnosticism is leading us.  Voegelin, who was born in Cologne, Germany and lived from 1901 to 1985, witnessed the defeat of Germany in WWI, the ruinous turmoil of the Weimar period, the rise of fascism, and the annihilation of Germany in WWII.  He was fortunate enough to have escaped to the U.S., where he taught at several prestigious universities.  He lived long enough, however, to witness the resurgence of progressivism in the U.S. under Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter.

It is not difficult to predict what Voegelin would have thought of the Great Society as defined in Johnson's speech at the University of Michigan on May 22, 1964, in which Johnson declared that the "city of man" is "marching" toward an ever brighter future filled with "new [social] experiments."  Of special import to LBJ, along with urban planning and environmentalism, was the nation's classrooms, in which "your children's lives will be shaped" (not at home or at church, but in the classroom).  In order to establish the "new world" our ancestors envisioned, Johnson pledged to "assemble the best thought and the broadest knowledge from all over the world to find those answers for America."  Johnson's Great Society speech was a call to arms for the young generation of the sixties.  "Your generation has been appointed, by history ... to lead America toward a new age," LBJ declared.

Another major document in the history of Gnosticism was Obama's first inaugural speech.  Here Obama committed to "the work of remaking America."  In a telling phrase, Obama declared that "[t]he question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works."  In other words, don't concern yourself with government becoming "too big."  Obama's version of Gnostic activism preserved the goals of centralized control of education and the environment and added those of global universalism, multiculturalism, and unilateral disarmament.

Many Americans now live in fear of a government they despise.  They are right to be fearful and right to despise it.  Our federal government as it now exists would have been unimaginable to the Founders, who envisioned a small executive under the personal administration of the president working alongside and constrained by a Congress and judicial branch, each of these constrained by the Constitution.  Our federal leviathan is precisely what Washington and Jefferson warned of.  With his European experience and vast reading, Professor Voegelin was able to place this phenomenon of government expansion in the context of the broader tendency that he labeled Gnosticism.

At its heart, Gnosticism is driven by a dangerous confidence in the power of humans to control the world in which they live.  It is one thing to have created the wonders of modern medicine, the labor-saving technology of the computer, and the advances of modern-day agriculture.  It is quite another to pretend that a small, unelected ruling elite, all of them educated at the same universities and sharing the same predilections, should presume to govern by edict and court order.

How will it be with a president who promises to go "much further," as Hillary Clinton did in the recent campaign?  Obama's executive actions, as bad as they were, were just the preamble – testing the waters for a full-scale assault.  The end form of progressive civilization will not be, as some assume, a nonviolent democratic welfare state.  It will be a vast government bureaucracy through which the State, turning its vast powers against the people, will govern all aspects of life.

The vehement reaction of the left to Trump's victory is evidence of how deeply engrained this vision of the future has become among progressives.  It is foolish to imagine that, having poisoned half of our population, Gnostic activism will somehow dissipate under a Trump administration that itself betrays more than its share of Gnostic leanings.  It is more likely that Gnosticism will continue to metastasize until it largely controls American political life.  A full-blown progressive government, of which the Obama administration was a fair taste, would completely abandon constitutional limits in the service of what it deems the "higher purposes" of social equality or some other rationale.  The particular rationale is irrelevant – power is what matters to progressives. 

At that point, all constitutional liberties will have been lost, and we will subsist at the whim of a progressive elite dedicated to "perfecting" society, as they see it.  That end point will constitute, as Voegelin predicted long ago based on his observation of earlier totalitarian movements, "the end form of progressive civilization."  At that point, America will endure a catastrophe similar to what every other progressive state has done in the past.  As Voegelin noted, "Gnostic politics is self-defeating in so far as its disregard for the structure of reality leads to continuous warfare" (quoted in Enrico Peppe, "Eric Voegelin: Science, Politics, and Gnosticism," The Intellectual Conservative, November 2, 2003).  Following the catastrophe, with "the change of generations," Voegelin believed, Gnosticism might at last be abandoned.  That was one alternative.  The other was "horrible physical destruction" and unpredictable and ominous alterations in the social order. 

Gnostic politics leads inevitably to "warfare" of one sort or another.  Is not America, now divided into two great factions, already at war?  In the end, Gnosticism triggers a debacle, and what follows, as Voegelin understood, is unpredictable.  This, I fear, is the tragic path of American life over the next thirty years.

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).