Democratic Party pollsters are starting to worry about the influence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s belligerent rhetoric. They say that she is providing the opposition everything they need to portray the Democrats as socialists who will destroy the economy with central planning. And it’s true that abolishing air travel and restructuring every building in the US are not the most politically marketable ideas.
Doesn’t she know that the first principle of politics is obfuscation?
There is another way of looking at her influence. She says what is on her mind. In some ways, she adopts the methods of the president she despises. Out with the gloss and down with the script. There is no complicated chasm separating her exoteric and esoteric belief system. She is a socialist. She is not shy of saying it. There is unity between her statements and her agenda. Agree or disagree with her, at least you know where she stands.
This contrasts with Elizabeth Warren, who says she wants to break up tech giants. Her claim is that doing so is consistent with capitalism, which relies on a greater degree of competition. The more companies the better, she says. But anyone who has followed her career knows that this is just clever rhetoric designed to confound her critics. She is probably just as socialistic as AOC; she has a different, more politically aware, method of pitching it.
Warren is a practitioner of the politics of Hillary Clinton, who told Goldman Sachs in 2013 that the banking establishment had no reason to be worried about her, despite her campaign rhetoric. She believes in having “both a public and a private position,” each designed to achieve the goal of gaining and keeping political power. Most American politicians would agree, which is why the revelation of her statement was not a source of scandal.
This habit of bifurcating public and private truth is in no way limited to the left. It also flourishes on the political right. Just recently there was a case of a young public intellectual who frequently spoke at mainstream events, wrote books on liberty and cryptocurrency, and otherwise promoted what seemed to be a normal form of libertarianism. It turned out, on closer look, that he was simultaneously a member of white supremacist and quasi-Nazi online cult that raged against Jews and non-whites and longed for fascist takeover of the country under the control of his tribe.
There was a vast gap that separated his clean public persona from his dark and private ideological longings. Creepy, yes, but not unusual in the realm of politics in which things are rarely as they seem on the surface. The Victorians had the perfect allegory for such people: the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a single person who excercised tight control over who experienced the virtuous physician and who was made victim of the grotesque killer unleashed by the potion he couldn’t resist. The story makes some sense of out many people who excel in politics today.
The Gnostic Temptation
These public practitioners of practiced duplicity are case studies in political Gnosticism. Gnosticism – from the Greek gnostikos for “having knowledge” – flourished in the early years of Christianity and produced hundreds of writings that came eventually to be excluded from the books that make up the Christian scriptures. There were many diverse sects of Gnostics, with varying beliefs, but they all believed themselves privy to a highly specialized form of knowledge, the secret teaching of a truth so profound and overwhelming that it can only be shared with insiders.
From this came the belief that the movement needs a sharp distinction between words shared among true believers and words used for the rest of the world. There was said to be an esoteric teaching, which was true, and an exoteric teaching, which is what outsiders would hear. (Jesus taught in parables not to hide truth but reveal it under trying circumstances, which is why Gnosticism was later regarded as heresy.)
The Gnostics didn’t consider themselves to be lying. They believed they were reflecting the divine path because God himself set up the universe in a dualistic way, granting truth only to a few while creating a false reality for everyone else. So the Gnostics believed they were masking the truth in the interest of protecting the secret teaching from corruption, plus denying the world a truth it was not yet prepared to handle.
Gnosticism has traditionally turned against everything outside the secret world of the few, believing that the world and all flesh are hopelessly corrupt. It was Eric Voegelin’s view that Gnosticism always comes to loathe the world and humanity as it is. Because it sees the world as unworthy of the full truth, it seeks a radical reordering of society through the efforts of the insiders, even (and maybe especially) if the means of doing so conflicts with a bourgeois sense of right and wrong. Killing and stealing become justifiable means. (Voegelin’s anti-Gnosticism came to be summed up in a once-catchy phrase: "Don't let them immanentize the eschaton!")
The Gnostic Habit
This belief structure creates an odd habit of mind. Political Gnostics are aware of their deception, which they believe to be necessary and therefore moral. They live their lives holding these two versions of what is true, carefully separating their private thoughts from public pronouncements. If you live this way long enough, you might come to assume that everyone else does the same. The public world you come to believe to be a mere veneer for the unsayable that lives elsewhere in inaccessible places. That leads to cynicism as a theory of life itself.
Gnosticism becomes a mindset in which the only truly valuable thoughts are those which can only be whispered to the elect. The circle of those entitled to true knowledge grows ever smaller and self-reinforcing. Only those with the stamina to adhere to the secret teaching are retained while dissidents are purged without remorse. It thus trends to ever crazier versions of the theory. The implausibility and eccentricity become unchecked by the sensibility and discipline of public exposure. And this is by design, a feature not a bug.
Politics fosters Gnosticism because so much of statecraft itself is bound up with implausible claims. Give this handful of smart people enough power and resources, they say, and they will bring to you everything you dream of having: security, prosperity, peace, justice, equality, moral purity, or whatever else you desire. It can’t possibly be true and it never works as planned. But the promise must keep being made in order to preserve and foster state management and the surrender of rights and liberties to authority. As Voltaire observed, “It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
Political democracy makes Gnosticism worse because elections require the mass telling of lies, all justified with some bigger end in mind. This is because statecraft runs off a different moral system from the rest of life. What we cannot do to each other the state can do to us. What would be evil and punishable for interpersonal relations is baptized to become good and necessary in the name of public policy. The only way to make that palpable is via deception, and the application of a moral creed that is non-universalizable. This prepares the terrain of politics to attract and feed the Gnostic mind.
The mindset is further fed by the presence of political taboo, that is, a series of topics that one cannot discuss with candor for fear of reprisal. The uninitiated are led to believe that these taboos exist only to hide truth. The curious mind seeks out darker and darker corners of opinion to indulge its desire to know, which are readily available in digital form. Their investigations lead political extremists to conspiracy theories of power and control, with conclusions that reinforce ideological strains on the left and the right. Those who make the existence of conspiracy the center of their worldview are inexorably drawn to be part of their own. The emergent Gnostic then seeks out others who similarly adhere to the tabooed truth. Communication takes place in forms of whispers, winks, nudges, and symbols.
In contrast, the traditional liberal spirit, from Voltaire to Mises, has always been about the truth about the human person (he and she want to be free), the gritty reality of state management (it is always rooted in violence) and uniting the individual conscience with social aspiration. Liberalism means rejecting the lie in favor of integrated truth. Not that we can and must agree on what that truth is but that we should aspire to believe and tell it is a given within the liberal tradition. There is no “noble lie,” nor “pious fiction;” there is only the rational telling of what is right, good for the human person, and good for the commonwealth.
It follows that the intellectual who believes in liberty should aspire to bring together public rhetoric and private belief. When they begin to separate – if you should begin to believe things that you find are completely unsayable – there should be a red flag of a potential problem. It is time to more carefully evaluate where your mind is drifting.
To be sure, there will always and everywhere be in every system of government certain truths that a sincere person comes to believe that he or she finds imprudent to preach for reasons of expediency. That is very different from coming to accept a theory of life that posits a permanent and needed separation between the esoteric and the exoteric, which is to say a Gnostic model of rhetoric.
The liberal mind seeks unity of belief and rhetoric. It seeks honesty about the state. It revels in its rightness to the point that it is not shy about revealing its aspirations. Liberalism is confident that its aspirations are good, based on public-spirited thoughts and genuinely noble beliefs about the dignity of the individual and the cooperativeness of society that is left alone in freedom. The believers in equal freedom for all do not desire nor need an elite cadre and secret teaching to construct an apparatus of manipulation. They seek the good of the one and the good of the many. That conviction alone is enough to lead to long-run victory in the ideological struggles of our day.
The liberal creed of political thinking was summed up by Voltaire: “Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.”
Let us, then, celebrate honesty in politics above all else, even when it preaches something brazenly wrong, such as is the case with the far left and the far right today. Sincerity and forthright telling of truth in the long run skew in the direction of freedom. It’s the Gnostics among us who confuse and confound and create social systems that do the same.