A review of “Power and Purity: The Strange Origins of the Social Justice Movement,” by Mark T. Mitchell (Regnery Gateway, 256 pages, $26.99)

Nietzsche, Narcissism, and the Left

In Power and Purity, Mark T. Mitchell argues that today’s Left is a combination of two seemingly opposing forces: the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche and the intolerance of the Puritans. Take Nietzsche’s will-to-power and his rejection both of Christianity and of other supposedly “outdated” moral standards and mix that with the thunderous zealotry of Cotton Mather, and you have today’s social justice warriors and identity politicians.

Mitchell, who teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, Virginia, and is the co-founder of the webzine Front Porch Republic, writes that in SJWs “we see the devastating effects of the will to power married to a moral absolutism lacking any justification other than individual will subconsciously energized by a rejected Christian past.”

Mitchell is a clear writer and sharp thinker, but in my view his thesis is not entirely accurate. While there are certain elements of Nietzsche and the Puritans in their psychic makeup, today’s leftists in reality are not impervious egomaniacs, but psychological weaklings. It is their very lack of the imperious arrogance that marked the thought of Nietzsche and the Puritans that makes today’s Left so hysterical and unhinged. Instead of bestriding the world with a power ego they suffer from a minimal sense of self.

To understand why it’s helpful to turn to the work of Christopher Lasch. Lasch became famous with his 1979 book The Culture of Narcissism. a book that is frequently misunderstood. In the clinical definition that Lasch relied on, narcissism was not self-love and a strong ego, but their opposites. The narcissist had no sense of self, but is saddled with rage and suffering from psychological malformation. It’s a much more accurate description of the modern Left than the one provided by Mitchell in Power and Purity.

According to Lasch, societal changes that began in the 20th century started to prevent children from developing psychological health. These changes included the separation of work from the home, mass production, change in authority from personal to abstract, and to the takeover of education, mental health and even care of the soul to the professional “caring professions”—teachers, doctors, therapists.

These changes altered the traditional socialization of children. Critic Louis Menand summed it up well in an essay about Lasch:

Lasch held that psychological development and health is dependant on a child gradually reducing infantile fantasies of omnipotence and helplessness, accompanied by the child’s modest but growing sense of mastery, continually measured against its human and material surroundings. Formerly, the presence of potent but fallible individuals, economically self-sufficient, with final legal and moral authority over their children’s upbringing, provided one kind of template for the growing child’s psychic development.

Without this process of development, what is left is the “minimal self”—a narcissist with overwhelming feelings of rage and no sense of limits, mortality, or self.

The narcissist, wrote Lasch, is a “self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to remake the world in its own image or to merge into its environment in a blissful union.”  Menand notes that this makes “acceptance of limits, finitude, and death more difficult, which in turn makes commitment and perseverance of any kind—civic, artistic, sexual, parental—more difficult.”

Lasch’s full description of narcissism is quite powerful and relevant:

Having surrendered most of his technical skills to the corporation, [the contemporary American] can no longer provide for his material needs. As the family loses not only its productive functions but many of its reproductive functions as well, men and women no longer manage even to raise their children without the help of certified experts. The atrophy of older traditions of self-help has eroded everyday competence, in one area after another, and has made the individual dependent on the state, the corporation, and other bureaucracies.

Narcissism represents the psychological dimension of this dependence. Notwithstanding his occasional illusions of omnipotence, the narcissist depends on others to validate his self-esteem. He cannot live without an admiring audience. His apparent freedom from family ties and institutional constraints does not free him to stand along or to glory in his individuality. On the contrary, it contributes to his insecurity, which he can overcome only by seeing his “grandiose self” reflected in the attentions of others, or by attaching himself to those who radiate celebrity, power, and charisma. For the narcissist, the world is a mirror, whereas the rugged individualist saw it as an empty wilderness to be shaped to his own design.

Time spent on Twitter or other social media, or witnessing the raging of cable TV pundits, or the gladiator battles that our politics has become, makes it evident that our elite culture is not commanded by well-adjusted people whose calm reason and emotional continence set the tone of our public life.

Mitchell opens Power and Purity with several examples of the violent, bloody and crazed imagery employed by many leftist journalists during the 2018 nomination battle over Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Yet to this writer—who, some might recall, was very close to the blast zone of that conflict—the chants, marches, harassment and shrieks that erupted from the Left were nothing like the thunderously confident—and often very funny—declarations of Nietzsche or the infallible judgments of implacable Cotton Mather.

Instead, I was reminded of Lasch’s description of the narcissist: “a self uncertain of its own outlines, [yet] longing either to remake the world in its own image or to merge into its environment in a blissful union.” Thus the tendency of leftists to alternate between shrieking political rage and New Agey calls for peaceful union with the environment. These are sick people, but they are sick in a way that is much deeper and more disturbing than Power and Purity imagines.

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