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Through nature to eternity: against political evopsych

I have long detected a problem with the evopsych approach to politics—as seen in men like Edward Dutton and Jordan Peterson. The typology used in this approach holds that conservatives are conscientious, detail-orientated, and not open to new experiences—liberals, on the other hand, have low conscientiousness (I almost wrote “are sloppy”), prefer the big picture, and are open to new experiences. However, this is a terribly poor model to understand politics and if you follow it through you will arrive at perverse conclusions.

In 1991, the Soviet army and the KGB launched a coup against Gorbachev. The men who launched the coup wished to preserve the Soviet system and maintained that Gorbachev’s reforms would lead the country into anarchy and disaster (they were not wrong). As men drawn from the army and the security services, we can reasonably infer they were conscientious, detail-orientated, and not open to new experiences—i.e. they were “conservatives”. Hence, if you speak from the evopsych perspective, the 1991 coup was a “right-wing coup”. This confounds common sense: the men who undertook the coup did so to maintain Communism—to maintain state-ownership of property, to continue the suppression of religion, and to continue to favour a philosophy that is egalitarian in its aspirations. Their opponents, on the other hand, favoured private property and “Western political norms”—and would reasonably be called “rightist” in the European context.

As a quasi-scientific theory, the evopsych approach tries to take out anything subjective or qualitative—it acts as if beliefs do not matter; only what is measurable—in this case, psychological predispositions—can be counted as important. It has no political theory, disregards what people believe or claim to believe—yet it defies common sense that what people believe, the views that provide the context for their actions, does not influence what we call politics and what we mean by “liberal” and “conservative”. Indeed, beliefs are crucial in war—and politics is war without violence, or perhaps constitutes frozen violence.

In part, as always, I blame the Americans—you can never go far wrong if you do that. This quasi-scientific view comes from the idea that people study “political science”—poli-sci as they say, to make themselves feel important—and because this involves the use of some scatter graphs it is somehow “scientific”. Yet this sad parody of physics is deeply impoverished and explains little about the real world. For a start, in this “liberal” and “conservative” political divide so beloved by evopsychs I detect American campus archetypes: I detect a laid-back liberal with a little moustache, a big 1970s-style sheepskin jacket, and a VW van with a peace sticker in the back (perhaps one that says “Save the Whales” for good measure too); and, on the other side, I detect some crew-cut, Apollo-program wannabe who hangs out at the American Legion post. The laidback hippy and the uptight square—unconscientious versus conscientious.

Yet, as is legendary, most psychology studies are conducted on American college students and “political science” itself is, in a way, an American invention—so that evolutionary psychology, supposedly scientifically universal, really exists within presumptions about American politics. It causes confusion because people will says, “Look, we know what a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ is objectively from these psychological tests.” Yet that is a meaningless statement in a way. I could be a liberal, in this sense, in the Iranian parliament who thinks women should wear the headscarf but might be allowed to expose quite a lot of hair—a conservative might say no hair is permissible. Yet that has nothing to do with the context we operate in, the context being an Islamic republic—just as it makes no sense for an MP, whether psychologically “conservative” or “liberal”, to stand up in the Commons and make a speech about how “we’re failing to live up to our obligations under Sharia law”.

In part, I think the theory’s poverty comes about because America never had a mass socialist movement—it only had the dialectic between “liberals” and “conservatives”, and even then American party allegiances have always been fluid (“bipartisan” is a worn catchphrase, but one way or another Americans have always been “bi”—if not bicurious). Mass socialist movements throw up men like Stalin: a conscientious, hierarchical, hard-working bureaucrat—indeed, on the evolutionary psychological view the entire Marxist-Leninist movement was “conservative”. If you think about it the Bolsheviks, organised as a quasi-military organisation, were hierarchical, conscientious, hard-working (prided themselves on working harder than anyone else).

Now, it might be that the theory is poor because the researchers are so parochial that they just think in terms of a dialectic between the hippy and the square, and that if they broadened their research to include socialist movements they would find other personality traits influence politics—although surely they must have already done so (or am I too confident that they have bothered to interview anyone other than American college graduates). Yet I think the overall point stands: unless you take beliefs and worldviews into account, you cannot have a realistic grip on politics—really, your statements are meaningless.

You are liable to find men like Steven Pinker or Jordan Peterson who will say, “We know, objectively, unlike these postmodern neo-Marxists, what constitutes a ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ in politics.” Of course, without taking traditions, history, and worldviews into account this is very misleading. There is a difference between a man who is constitutionally conservative—a small “c” conservative, as we say in England—and someone who has a philosophical commitment to right-wing ideas. For example, Ezra Pound, Richard Wagner, and Wyndham Lewis all lived bohemian laid-back lives—Wagner even told Nietzsche, when the latter complained German schoolchildren needed strict Prussian-style grammar drills, that he could never see the point himself when he was at school and, in a typically “liberal” statement, said he thought strict grammar drills put children off learning languages. Yet despite their bohemian habits, you cannot say that Pound, Wagner, and Lewis were not on the right—similarly, Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin were all martinets devoted to order.

In part, complaints about “wishy-washy postmodernism” disguise a hatred by people trained quasi-scientific ways for the arts and humanities—and actual scientists, like Richard Dawkins, make very dismissive comments about philosophers and theologians, in such a way as to imply those fields are just where you “make stuff up”. Indeed, I think that the materialist scientific view is connected to what the left is: the evolutionary science viewpoint always effectively supports something like progressive liberalism; since, if we take North Korea, the evopsych view is that this is a “conservative” regime—authoritarian, militaristic, and expresses strong sentiments that favour conscientiousness.

Indeed, on this view any “tyranny”, being more orientated towards hierarchy, conscientiousness, and militaristic views, is “rightist”—no matter what its stated worldview. Meanwhile, any regime that is not oppressive is “liberal”—being open to experience, easy-going, and, to use the progressive shibboleth, “tolerant”. The result is that political movements based on equalitarian principles that become tyrannies are hidden as being in fact manifestations of rightism—the left is always innocent. And, indeed, I have seen Americans—particularly liberals—say things like, “North Korea is an oppressive right-wing military dictatorship.”

The reason why evopsych automatically favours the left is that the left itself is intimately connected with the scientific materialist worldview: it wants to strip out history, philosophy, and religion—to do so makes everything universal and equal. Hence, in politics, we strip everything down to a psychological conservative-liberal axis, with the former being conscientious and the latter being laid-back. This is really an ideology, a subjective interest generalised, and the subjective interest generalised is the scientific worldview that will not admit that the subjective and qualitative have value. “A-ha unmasked, a postmodernist!” You can call me that if you like, but it doesn’t change the reality—and it also explains why the American “right”, men like Shapiro and Peterson, really constitutes a leftist movement. Their priority is to defend a universalist quantitative worldview—“objective political science”—against history, quality, and the subjective; and although they mostly talk about postmodernism, their view also excludes religion—as well as traditions and history.

In reality, the biological categories “conscientious” and “unconscientious” explain little—they have some value, if contextualised, and I apply them sometimes. Yet to tell people politics is about a conflict between “conscientious conservatives” and “unconscientious liberals” misleads as to what politics actually is—just as all materialist science misleads, being, by definition, a partial view; and, in fact, this view is itself a demonstration that the left is regnant—it is a democratic and universalist way to think about politics.


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