The Liberal Delusion & Human Nature

8 Aug

Like John Marsh in The Liberal Delusion, I too have been beating a retreat from what I consider the flawed reasoning of social (and of course economic) liberalism. This critique seems particularly manifest in areas like crime and antisocial and problematic behaviours, where left/liberal takes of human nature seem to be in denial about our manifold capacity for decadence, wilful conflict and sadism.

Marsh also sees the erroneous intellectual mistakes of the European Enlightenment, with the evaluation of rationalism as the keystone in explanations of human nature. Whilst we do have a capacity for reason and rationalism, this is only party of our story. We are subject to a wide array of non-rational forces and biological drives.


Apollian: the rational side of human nature, tranquillity, predictability, orderliness

Dionysian:  the irrational side, attraction to creative chaos, passionate, dynamic experience)

[see An Introduction to the History of Psychology: B Hergenhahn,

Chpt: Romanticism and Existentialism]


The philosopher Nietzsche spoke in terms of Apollonian and Dionysian which equate with the two opposing principles of order and chaos. Nietzsche’s views defy any easy categorisation, but he tends to view the Dionysian in an affirmative context, although necessarily in dialectic fusion with the Apollonian – hence controlled passion. This was to combat the otherwise arid, lifeless prevailing rationalism of Western philosophy.

However it can be argued that our Dionysian inheritance which represents the most primal and barbarian of our natures, is also the most challenging and problematic.

Pleasure and sensation seeking: Physiological peaks – Dark Side of the Brain

We have become very adept at providing any number of stimuli for the purpose of gaining physiological ‘highs’, states of arousal that offer varying degrees of physical gratification for the individuals concerned. We have learned that some of these states are delivered by what initially appears as counter-intuitive, by the introduction of unpleasant discordant stimuli (i.e. pain, uncomfortable or potentially dangerous situations, fear-inducing scenarios and so on).

So people ‘get a kick’ out of being scared, which we can see is widely catered for with theme park rollercoasters, adrenaline fuelled extreme sports like bungee jumping, to more sedate but still fear laden pursuits like watching horror or disaster films, whereby the pleasures to be gained by this low-grade torture are altogether more vicarious.

This compulsive drive for sensation expresses itself with variety and intensity, for some individuals it is obviously far more pronounced and problematically addictive. They become restless and bored and are driven to seek out the necessary ingredient that will provide due satisfaction.

The fact that such drives lend themselves to addiction is also combined with the limitless possibilities afforded by external stimulants in the shape of drugs, be they classified soft or hard. This inevitably takes us into the terrain of crime, since some individuals begin to be so overwhelmed by physical addictions which they are no longer able to moderate or achieve a level of self-control. With an uncontainable dependency on illicit drugs, many individuals will of course turn to crime in order to fuel their habits and this behaviour is self-reinforcing.

Human nature exists on a vast and barely comprehensible continuum of possibility, with the psychic yens of individuals extending into infinite contingencies. Whilst we strive for kinship and attempt to forge bonds of mutual interests and sympathies with one another, at other points of this spectrum it would seems the chasm between certain individuals thrown up at random is insurmountable.

And so when it comes to our capacity for spectacle and stimulation of the senses, which range from the timid and retreatist, preferring modest intakes of sensory stimulation, to the most brazen of sensation and adventure seekers, with their penchants for extreme sport or debauchery.

Fiction writers like J G Ballard and Anthony Burgess have explored this subterranean feature of violence and psychopathy wired into our human nature, whilst for crime and horror writers, milking this terrain is their stock- in- trade. There is a perennial fascination with low level criminology and the gruesome pathology case studies wheeled out on a never ending conveyer belt of horror. Not for nothing are crime dramas and sensationalist documentaries the staple fillers of evening television schedules. We remain appalled, titillated and entranced by our species capacity for transgression and pushing the boundaries of decadent spectacle.

Each individual represents a unique psychodynamic personality with a propensity for further intellectual growth and psychic development. We thrive and prosper with a sufficiently stimulating environment that poses challenges for us; we can talk about an innate capacity for adventurism. Keeping balance to our often contradictory psychological requirements is often fraught with difficulty, and the possibilities of becoming unbalanced and off kilter remain ever present. Societies thus evolve with a variety of sophisticated mechanisms, both officially sanctioned and illicit, to cater for our Dionysian whimsies.

It seems in recent decades that we have given vent and free reign to these impulses which quickly become toxic if they are not to be contained within acceptable boundaries. Since liberals refuse to accept the unfortunate noxious fall-out from their creed of non-interventionism, we are all picking up the tab for much greater levels of anti-social behaviour. Conservatives, at least with a small ‘c’, seem to have a firmer grip on the unpleasant truths of human nature, which require the ministrations of the state to prevail over narrow individual concerns in the final analysis. However latter-day right wing parties seem to have largely jettisoned their erstwhile statist paternalism in favour of the all-embracing cosmology of neoliberalism, a creed which is concerned to divest itself of the public realm at the heart of the nation-state, in favour of the unfettered, borderless global market.

With the most problematic and violent of behaviours concentrated on young men, it seems some of the issues can be understood profitably by perspectives from psychopathology. Alternative liberal explanations which seek to understand crime and deviance by way of a frustration of social justice and manifest inequalities, fail to offer credible accounts of such behaviour when the context is relatively affluent with high disposal incomes for cars and alcohol, some conspicuous markers of problem behaviour.

Many youths seem to be subconsciously acting out a psychodrama of sorts, perhaps in a quest to find a suitable father/authority figure who can finally command the respect and deference by virtue of providing the resolute strength and character of the hitherto absent paternalism. If youth is a time of episodic experimental insubordination, then they instinctually strive towards a need for suitable parameters of structure and discipline that will serve them for the rest of their adult lives.

John Marsh says that religion possesses a crucial quality of reflective transcendence, which provides our mortal selves with a sense of something greater than our hollowed out liberal acquisitiveness. Liberalism is premised on rational, autonomous individuals. Because it is de-anchored from collectivist thinking and practices, it becomes relativistic and ultimately nihilistic, because it throws up contradictory positions that are unable to be reconciled (liberal tolerance of illiberal intolerance!). It is therefore unable to sufficiently safeguard its once distinct version of the good life, leaving the gates wide upon to the cultural vandals and barbarians who bring renewed possibilities of anarchy into the community.

So social disorder and anomie can be read as outcomes of maladaptive practices sponsored by a decadent, highly commercialised society, socialising its audiences with increasing sophistication, a la corporate capture. Commercialism has given license to disturbingly violent video games (glorified rape and murder dystopias/simulacrums), gangsta rap, violence laden film and cinema and pornography. We seem to be embracing the possibilities of another licentious epoch with the bloodletting and catharsis of gladiatorial combat. Although our modern bread and circuses are initially confined to elaborate computer software, there is the obvious concern about the consequent desensitisation and overspill into actual real life events, with an ongoing debate about how influential and malign these activities are.

Grand Theft Auto franchise self evidentially finds it corollary in the consequent carjackings, boy racers, joy riding, drive-by shootings and other general mayhem. To be fair GTA is probably at the milder end of the spectrum for this genre, although it has the biggest profile. What is not in contention however is the distance travelled in the interim from the likes of the famous Hays Code, whereby such a culture now openly celebrates in lingering gory detail the grim spectacle and carnage of ruthless criminality, a franchise which positively embraces the viewpoint of the criminal at the centre of the narrative.



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