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Liberalism Radicalized: The Sexual Revolution, Multiculturalism, and the Rise of Identity Politics

Herbert Marcuse, the Humanists, and the 1960s Counterculture. Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979), a member of the Freudo-Marxist Frankfurt School and professor of political philosophy at Columbia, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California San Diego, renewed the question of eliminating repression in Eros and Civilization (1955). He applied his theory to politics in a trenchant critique of capitalist society entitled One-Dimensional Man (1964), which sold over 300,000 copies—a best-seller by academic standards. Journalists called him the “Father of the New Left” because of his immense popularity among student radicals.

Marcuse wrote a cursory critique of Reich, but a careful study reveals considerable similarity between the two. A soft-spoken philosopher and émigré from Nazi Germany, Marcuse rejected Freud’s and what he considered the whole of Western philosophy’s characterization of reason as something that “subdues the instincts.”[20] This, he thought, was the moralistic view of reason as the inhibitor of desire, which consequently divides the human person against itself. Rather, Marcuse argued that the philosophic life, or Reason properly speaking, was itself a life of desire. This life of Eros harmonized and unified the soul and therefore constituted the proper end of man. In Marcuse’s own words, “the things of nature become free to be what they are. But to be what they are they depend on the erotic attitude: they receive their telos only in it.”[21]

Marcuse heralded a new society to accompany his philosophic teaching. Historically, repression was needed because man faced necessity; political regimes, including the modern capitalist society, had been constructed upon moral teachings that erected a severe conscience: the self-denial required for industrial production. But now these virtues, which had been inculcated to solve the economic problem, were no longer necessary; indeed, he claimed that they intensified human aggression and thereby posed a threat to society.

Marcuse sought a progressive revolution to end what he called “surplus repression” and bring about the “aesthetic state”—something akin to European socialism.[22] “Polymorphous sexuality” would be liberated at the expense of the capitalist work ethic. The workday would be dramatically shortened, and individuals would choose their work, viewing it more as play. Modern man would accept a lower standard of living in return for the pleasures of instinctual gratification. He would fully detach sex from monogamy and reproduction and completely accept what he formerly viewed as sexual perversion.

In the progressive society, the “sadism” of traditional morality would be viewed as a perversion of human nature. Marcuse claimed that sadism could be removed in the fully erotic person: “Being is experienced as gratification, which unites man and nature so that the fulfillment of man is at the same time the fulfillment, without violence, of nature.”[23] The human body in its entirety—indeed, the whole human personality—would be viewed as an instrument of desire and pleasure.

Marcuse was not alone; Reich’s revolt was followed by other former psychoanalysts, who called themselves Humanists. One of their leading lights was Abraham Maslow, who advocated a return to a study of what was right by nature: “It is possible to study this inner nature scientifically and to discover what it is like—not invent—discover.”[24]

Maslow argued that a close study of natural human development could be the basis for an ethical psychology; hence, it was the nature of an individual, not moral principles, that set the parameters for self-actualization. “Intrinsic guilt,” he wrote, “is the betrayal of one’s own inner nature or self, a turning off the path to self-actualization.”[25] Self-actualization includes the achievement of peak experiences, which should be fostered and not limited by society. Although Maslow came to loathe what he called the “cultural & ethical relativism” of the 1960s, it was he who had written that sex was for most people “one of the easiest ways of getting peak experiences.”[26] While liberals defended the old morality as socially necessary, the Humanists argued that it now posed too great a danger to mankind because of the new technologies of destruction: Historically, those who secretly loathed human nature had turned to political-religious crusades to change it. Hence, the Humanists encouraged a political program to overturn the proposed institutions of repression: the nuclear family and conventional sexual mores.

They espoused socialism, the ideal regime for the pleasurable existence as it provides material goods—food, clothing, and shelter—and also the conditions for higher pleasures. New positive, political rights would be logically grounded in a new progressive framework that would give individuals the choices that allow them to actualize themselves within the realm of their possibilities so as to allow each individual to flower to his unique potential. This they called authenticity.

There are limits to these choices; even the Humanists regarded traditional sadism as unnatural and believed that violent offenders must be incarcerated. On the other hand, the sadism of asceticism must be removed by public education and government-subsidized therapy. The most common form of sadism is the construction of the idea of two distinct genders, a social imposition that limits personal growth by confining it within traditional gender roles. A healthy society, said the Humanists, would then recognize the many unique manifestations of erotic desire and grant sexual rights to its citizens to explore and express their discovered gender identities.

Humanism is imitated by a vulgar version: the teaching of self-creation that often results in various eccentricities, sexual promiscuity, and cultivated absurd behaviors. Still, having to choose between vulgar systems, the Humanists favored those over the liberals’ repression. Taking sides against the middle class in the culture wars of the 1950s, psychologists wrote popular books on sex to attack the old morality.

Leading psychologists and countercultural icons called American culture fascist, or sexually repressive, and Reich’s sexual liberation became the measure of the healthy society. Ginsberg and Kerouac, looking for a more authentic existence, turned away from American middle-class conformity to what they claimed was the healthier African American culture. The Beats imitated jazz—the very word slang for sex—in a new, spontaneous lifestyle and a new kind of writing. Kerouac, who featured Reich in On the Road, writes, “At lilac evening I walked…wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.”[27] Ginsberg eulogized in Howl: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”[28] In the growing counterculture, minority cultures were said to be superior precisely because, in contrast to white American culture, they celebrated “authentic” personalities.

In the 1960s, the counterculture went mainstream. Self-acceptance was embodied in songs and slogans like “Be True to Yourself” or “Follow Your Heart.” One could be false to oneself, or inauthentic, only if he desired what others told him he ought to desire. Hugh Hefner published the “Playboy Philosophy,” urging the liberation of sexual desire without guilt, and had his own variety/talk show featuring American celebrities. Helen Gurley Brown, in the bestseller Sex and the Single Girl (1962), rejected the idea of guilt for premarital sex.

College students would capture this new aesthetic of freedom in pithy slogans: “Make Love, not War”; “If it feels good, do it”; “Go With the Flow.” Reich’s influence on the New Left in West Germany was unparalleled. Protesting students scrawled slogans in graffiti: “Read Wilhelm Reich and act accordingly.”[29] In 1968 in Paris, student demonstrators threw copies of Reich’s books at police as the agents of sexual repression.

The Sociological Critique of Liberalism

Besides the psychological and psychiatric source in the sexual revolution, the second pillar of neo-progressivism—the politics of race, class, and gender—can be traced to the teachings of sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916–1962) on personal and cultural politics. While these movements have led to bigger, more intrusive government centralization, their original purpose was in fact to decentralize the American administrative state and state capitalism by fragmenting the American identity and carving it up into competing groups.

Interestingly, the new sociology approached political questions from a perspective opposite to psychology. While it too recognized a natural individual spontaneity, it ultimately stressed that human biological desires were largely shaped by society; spontaneity could never grow into a rational freedom unless one possessed choices within the social structure. Mills, asking which social organization best allowed individuals to thrive, was most concerned about the diminishing freedom under 1950s state capitalism. Coining the term “New Left,” he defined for future radicals an agenda in opposition to liberalism.

Mills, like Reich, was idiosyncratic, combining physical toughness with mental toughness. As a boy, his family was constantly on the move, and he made few close friends. He left Texas A&M University after his first year (it is rumored he was expelled after a fistfight). Four years later, he graduated from the University of Texas at Austin, where he excelled as an undergraduate, publishing articles in top sociological journals.

As a professor at Columbia University, Mills remained an outsider. He dressed in flannel shirts like one of the Beats, rode a motorcycle, and attacked snooty sociologists for their convoluted theories, which were written in pseudo-scientific gobbledygook so as to confuse the average reader. Scorning the limp, academic niche writers, he used logical rigor to penetrate big topics in stirring books. His writing, said the 1960s radicals, was manly and assertive, unlike the passivity of their well-adjusted white-collar fathers.

Mills’s career centered around a sociological study and critique of American liberalism, which he believed had derailed from its original goal of achieving reason and freedom. “For in our time,” he wrote, “these two values, reason and freedom, are in obvious yet subtle peril.”[30]

The “central goal of Western humanism,” wrote Mills, was “the audacious control by reason of man’s fate.”[31] Liberals had assumed that this goal could be accomplished by efficient bureaucracies, but the new scientific management had actually stunted the individual’s ability to reason and master his own fate. The attainment of true freedom, wrote Mills, here echoing earlier Progressives like John Dewey, would require a radical social reconstruction:

“The kingdom of freedom” of which Marx and the left in general have dreamed involves the mastering of one’s fate. A free society entails the social possibility and the psychological capacity of men to make rational political choices. The sociological theory of character development conceives of man as capable of making such choices only under favorable institutional conditions. It thus leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of changing institutions in order to enlarge man’s capacity to live freely.[32]

This road to freedom required a rejection of the old liberalism. A new social philosophy must be grounded, Mills wrote, “on the assumption that the liberal ethos, as developed in the first two decades of this century by such men as Beard, Dewey, Holmes, is now often irrelevant, and that the Marxian view, popular in the American ’thirties, is now often inadequate” because “they do not enable us to understand what is essential to our time.”[33]

Mills provided a sociological critique of the West. He argued that its theories of economic and intellectual freedom—liberalism and socialism—were passing phases. To usher in a new post-modern epoch, Mills sought to expose the myths of liberalism, replace them with new conceptions of “Reason and Freedom,” and organize a New Left capable of overthrowing state capitalism. Mills led the charge in a sociological assault on American society.

The first myth that Mills attacked was that of middle-class morality. Rugged individualism and the entrepreneurial spirit were “illusions” perpetuated by the state but practiced only by an insignificant class of small businessmen. The old virtues had been replaced by “scientism,” which applied the techniques of control from the physical sciences to human beings. In truth, liberals hated individuality and innovation; what they really loved, the unspoken morality of corporate cubicles, was efficiency: the stuffy air of the boardroom, long-winded meetings, and being nice.

Paul Goodman famously critiqued this “efficiency.” The new service jobs in modern society held no intrinsic importance: They were useless, and capitalistic society was absurd because it promoted uselessness. Young Americans, he claimed, knew the difference between useful work, which could be justified as life-important, and the efficient production of baubles and hamburgers for consumption.

Mills found the morality of efficiency to be even more insidious. He argued that white-collar work was dehumanizing: Workers became “cheerful robots” who only “pretend[ed] interest” in their own work.[34] They were forced to affect, in insincere smiles, that they liked their customers. In the “personality market,” their personalities were mechanized and their spontaneity destroyed.

The nuclear family, wrote Mills and other sociologists such as David Riesman and William H. Whyte, was the instrument of conformity. Riesman wrote of the “despotic walls of the patriarchal family.”[35] The father, the “organization man” who donned a “gray flannel suit,” was stripped of seriousness and hence of authority and virility as well. As presented in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which starred James Dean, domineering neurotic mothers had taken over, depriving young males of their rite of passage, leaving them confused and turning them to delinquency to prove their manhood.

The capitalistic disruption of the family also led to a denial of feminine sexuality. The frigid mother, detached from the unmanly role of her husband, fled to exotic sexual escapades or alcohol to find the excitement lacking at home. Housewives were stunted humans—Mills called them “darling little slaves”—confined to the prisons of suburban homes.[36] Social life was shaped by the children in a “filiarchy”—or a rule by children—that directed all aspects of life.[37] Going farther, Goodman called suburbanites the “new proletariat,” the servile child-bearers for the state.[38]

Sociologists generally reserved special hatred for the new suburbs, the “apotheosis of pragmatism,” which molded Americans into conformity.[39] Extensions of corporate growth, the suburbs reproduce like a polyp, lumping together large numbers of rootless, interchangeable strangers without any higher collective goal than moneymaking.

In his bestseller The Lonely Crowd (1950), David Riesman wrote that suburbanites, having lost their social institutions, lose on the one hand the necessary socialization for an authoritative sense of self required to resist conformity and, on the other, the traditions against which an autonomous individual derives a sense of purpose.[40] Desperate for community and seeking meaningful ties, the residents grow shallow roots—bridge clubs, canasta, and bowling leagues—that are just enough for the bare minimum of communal life. There is much social activity but little real civic or political activity. Friends are chosen for convenience, and new associations, led by tiny, unspectacular leaders, produce brief, ephemeral traditions. Surrendering to the fleeting opinion of the group, the residents place a premium on “adjustment”; indeed, the best-adjusted are the ones who are constantly adjusting.

Examining the “character structure” of these suburbanites, Riesman announced the decline of the “inner-directed personality,” which follows the demands of conscience, and the rise of the “other-directed personality,” which is anxious to receive the approval of others. Toleration of others becomes the premiere social virtue: Residents are intolerant of those who are not tolerant. But such toleration produces greater conformity because it levels all opinions, leaving nothing sacred.

Mills also attacked the liberal myth of “scientific” rationalization: that greater bureaucracy leads to more rational outcomes; rather, it led to chaotic, irrational policies, such as Mutually Assured Destruction. While the size of bureaucracies increases, it does not correlate to more rational policies or freer individuals. Lost in a rat maze of red tape, citizens take on the superstitions of medieval peasants:

Science, it turns out, is not a technological Second Coming. Universal education may lead to technological idiocy and nationalist provinciality, rather than to the informed and independent intelligence. Rationally organized social arrangements are not necessarily a means of increased freedom—for the individual or for the society. In fact, often they are a means of tyranny and manipulation, a means of expropriating the very chance to reason, the very capacity to act as a free man.[41]

Such tyranny begat tyranny. The abstracted world in which bureaucrats lived, functioned, and related made them capable of the greatest atrocities. American foreign policy only spread the slavery of state capitalism; it exhibited an aggressive expansion akin to other world empires. In the name of anti-Communism, America tyrannized over smaller countries, designating them the “Third World,” and in the name of liberating them exploited their natural resources.

But the greatest myth of all, wrote Mills, was the myth of liberal democracy and pluralism. Liberals argued that America’s pluralist politics balanced interests, safeguarding its people from authoritarian rule, but Mills found only a hierarchical “Power Elite” that manipulated the public through media to maintain the status quo.[42] It commanded the resources of vast, impersonal bureaucratic organizations and tyrannized over its subjects’ lives from afar. It staffed a convoluted bureaucracy with a priesthood of experts, who dissemble the workings of government. It stripped citizens of a sense of power and made of democracy an empty formality: Liberals and conservatives “are now parts of one and the same official line.”[43] Through personality adjustment, it herded children into public education to deprive them of charisma, not to cultivate it. It prevented opposition by monopolizing its subjects’ social and private roles, predicting the formation of new power groups, fragmenting their power bases, and co-opting their identities. It used ever more sophisticated and technological methods of control to atomize and alienate its subjects.

There was little difference, in Mills’s estimation, between the rule of the Power Elite in the United States and the Soviet Union.