High-Road to Hell: Theodore Dalrymple & Progressive Politics as Perpetual Misery Machine (2 of 2)

Part One

Part Two: A Snake in the Grass

“I believe that psychology as a discipline, all schools included, has (grosso modo) contributed nothing of importance to human self-understanding that is not available in literature and by means of intelligent self-examination. Better read Montaigne, Shakespeare, or Dr. Johnson!”
—Theodore Dalrymple, email to author

Despite his many years as a psychiatrist—as the above quote illustrates—Dalrymple places little value on the discipline of psychology. And yet, whatever he chooses to call it, and whoever his mentors may be (he has nothing but vitriol for Freud, and nothing much at all to say about Jung), he is, at base, engaged in a psychological study of culture. His work gravitates around his own insights—via direct experience—with the vicissitudes of the human psyche, identifying the root causes of social ills not merely in government policies—or even in the ideological rationales beneath them—but much closer both to home and to the bone.

For example, Dalrymple has made the argument, both succinct and compelling, that equality of opportunity is not merely an impossible goal but something far worse: a goal that, if pursued, can only lead to totalitarianism. He outlined some simple reasons that—he believed, and I would agree—really ought to be obvious to just about anyone. What determines the opportunity of individuals, he argued, cannot be restricted to conditions in society at large, because it begins in the formative years of every human being’s life, i.e., their domestic environment. “And for a society to exist in which there were equality of opportunity, the elimination of prejudice—including that in favor of one’s own children—would be required. . . . To do this would require methods of the kind described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [and] would necessitate a totalitarian dictatorship more terrifyingly thoroughgoing than any yet seen” (2007, p. 93, 99).

In his speech “The Mirage of ‘Equal Opportunity,’” at the sixth annual conference in Turkey of The Property and Freedom Society, in May 2011, Dalrymple described how the impossibility of achieving equality of opportunity “has a potentially disastrous effect upon many people’s psyches, and through that effect, on the psyche. . . of the whole of society itself.” Despite this, it has “become an almost unassailable goal that no politician in the Western world would dare deny.” He accounts for this odd paradox by indicating  “the use to which such an idea or ideal can be put.” At this juncture, Dalrymple interjects an interesting comment: “I’m not suggesting,” he says, “that there is any central plot or conspiracy, although of course I’d like to.” This comment can be read two ways: he would like to suggest a conspiracy, but he can’t because (as he joked on another occasion) even to use the word “conspiracy” these days causes people to inquire about one’s medication intake. Or, that he would like to believe in a central plot, because it is so much easier to do so. I am reasonably sure Dalrymple meant his jest the second way; but then; it is not necessarily either-or. He continues:

Let us try for a moment a little thought experiment. Let us suppose that one wanted, for whatever reason, to erect or create a society in which a bureaucratic government arrogated itself ever more power to regulate and control a population. But to do so, without the more obvious accoutrements of tyranny, indeed to do so with the consent, and even at the request, of the population itself, the espousal of what kind of ideal would be propitious to the erection or creation of such a society? I trust it will be obvious by now that equality of opportunity is precisely such an idea. The very impossibility of it, the very fact that it is a mirage that recedes as one tries to approach it, as it shimmers in the distance, is an advantage, not a disadvantage. For the failure to attain the goal justifies ever greater and more vigorous attempts but to reach it. Moreover, it is clear that the nature of the goal itself justifies interference in the lives of the citizens down to the very last detail. . . . And the greater the failure of each successive bureaucratic interference, the greater the locus standi for yet further interference. This is a world in which nothing succeeds like failure. . . . It is in a way a rather beautiful scheme: as near to a perpetual motion machine as anyone has yet invented. The laws of thermodynamics, it seems, do not apply in politics.

That methods that appear to be aimed at one result can bring about the exact opposite result is something we are all familiar with, even if (like Dalrymple) we tend to attribute it exclusively to unconscious behavior. The principles of reverse psychology go back as far as the Garden of Eden, but for a more up-to-date example, imagine the following: a man in an intimate relationship feels increasingly anxious, for whatever reason. Some part of him wants to escape the relationship, let us say, but most of him is unaware of this. Due to his growing anxiety, he begins to look for reasons to be anxious. He starts to monitor his partner’s behavior closely. He becomes pathetically needy yet irrationally defensive, unreasonably critical and yet hyper-sensitive to criticism. He insists that his partner change her behavior to ease his mind, to reassure him about her continued devotion. Ostensibly, the man is trying to salvage the relationship, or at least to prevent it from coming undone. But anyone who has had experience of these things knows, from bitter experience, that the actual result is more likely to be the opposite. By trying to keep his mate unnaturally close, he pushes her away. Yet throughout it all, barring some dawning of self-awareness on his part, the anxious lover gets to play the role of injured party.

Now imagine instead a more Machiavellian kind of person who decides that she (I will reverse the gender for the sake of equal opportunity) wants to get clear of her lover (perhaps to seek the pleasures of another), without appearing to be guilty of ending the affair and breaking her partner’s heart. Might not such a person consciously apply the same methods, knowing full well that, by these means, she will drive her partner away by appearing to be trying to bring him closer? While I doubt that such things play out very often in this way between couples (though I am sure it does happen), the point is, what may apply locally could, logically, be applied on a larger scale, within the social body itself, by groups wishing to manipulate collective reactions without getting rumbled in the process. Paranoid? Certainly. But the jury is still out as to whether, when trying to get to the bottom of the strange paradoxes of government policy, social progress, and cultural engineering, this sort of paranoia is a sign of a legitimately or an illegitimately disturbed mind.

Decide which outcome you wish to achieve, work out which precise set of beliefs, values, principles, and policies will most efficiently bring it about that can be coupled to an avowed aim opposite to the desired goal, and then: set about fostering these values and goals in the hearts and minds of your targeted society. Could it even be a natural configuration of such a self-perpetuating social misery machine—something to do with psychological laws applied to crowds—that the beliefs, values, principles, and policies that work best are ones that aspire to the exact opposite end to the one being achieved? Once again, this principle does seem to work when applied to the individual.  As Freud said a century or more ago: if you want to divine a man’s intentions, don’t waste time listening to what he says; look at the results of his actions. Socio-politically speaking, it might even be reduced to as simple a principle as: if you want to create a demand for—or at least an acceptance of—increasingly intrusive levels of social engineering, simply promote ideas and values guaranteed to spread more chaos.


In his work, Dalrymple skillfully maps the general onto the particular, the universal to the local, the macro to the micro, and demonstrates that we are looking not at two separate terrains but at a single territory. His work consistently reveals a sort of positive feedback loop in which individuals possessed by psychosocial “complexes” (unconscious behavioral traits) adopt, develop and pursue ideological principles and goals, thereby shaping the society that shaped them and that will go on to shape new generations of ever-more-enculturated (and ever-less cultured!) individuals, chasing after ever-more distant and amorphous utopian dreams of human perfection.

As it happens, this is quite close to my own methodology over the years: namely, the attempt to find existing congruities between social, cultural, political, and religious systems and trends, and individual psychological tendencies or “mechanisms.” In my own case, unlike Dalrymple’s, the endeavor has been fueled above all by a desire to render more coherent and rational an already existing conspiratorial worldview. Dalrymple has no apparent interest in postulating conscious conspiracy at base of overriding and underlying social trends. He is interested in taking a remorseless (though regretful) look at society’s ills and our own responsibility for them. Myself, I am unsure, at this stage, whether discovering these “levers” of social engineering is leading to the validation of a grand conspiracy theory of history or, conversely, to making such a viewpoint quaint, simple-minded, and redundant, even as a much larger, deeper, and more ancient pattern of human behavior reveals itself. I suspect it is really both at once, a “conspiracy theory” that will neither please nor validate anyone, least of all the arch-conspirators or their aspiring opponents (both of whom seem motivated by the desire for a providential role in society). A conspiracy in which we are all deeply embedded and complicit is, at base, no conspiracy at all, just The Way Things Are. But there may be a long and dark tunnel to traverse before we can reasonably end on so “light” a note.

It would of course be a mistake—illegitimately paranoid—to assume that bad ideas introduced into society are invariably done so consciously and deliberately (i.e., with the same end in mind which they eventually achieve). Yet it surely would be equally rash to assume the opposite, that no one ever deliberately and successfully introduced erroneous ideas, principles, or policies, in a Machiavellian fashion, knowing they would backfire, to bring about specific results. Many of these progressively “bad ideas” about how to implement—or at least lay the groundwork for—a fair, egalitarian, and just society via rational, scientific means, can (in Britain at least) be tracked back to the Fabian Society, a loose-knit group of highly influential intellectual Socialists (including Havelock Ellis, Edward Carpenter, George Bernard Shaw, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Annie Besant, H. G. Wells, Ramsay MacDonald, and John Maynard Keynes) who took their name from a Roman emperor (Fabius) whose strategy entailed painstakingly slow, incremental progress over long periods of time. While they are little known today (outside of conspiracy theorist circles and fans of Glenn Beck), the Fabians were responsible—directly or indirectly—for the creation of the Labor party (the principal Leftist party in the UK), the London School of Economics, the New School for Social Research, the National Health Service—and a hell of lot more besides. (These people were not slackers. As John Taylor Gatto has mapped extensively (see p. 212-221), the Fabian influence may have been most far-reaching and pernicious in the education systems—higher and lower—throughout the Western world.) When I asked Dalrymple if he was familiar with them (knowing the answer in advance), he replied, “Of course. Everyone in Britain is familiar with the Fabians—whether he knows it or not. He has been Fabian-ized.”

The Fabians began their plot for world conquest—that is, they started to draw up some quite elaborate, mostly open plans for social engineering—in the late 1800s, and they were still at it (publicly) in the 1950s (when my grandfather opened and chaired his own local branch in Hull). H. G. Wells—who eventually became disenchanted with them and disenfranchised himself—wrote a manifesto at the time called The Open Conspiracy, the basic template of which—which Bertrand Russell also explored—was for scientifically-based social organization. When I suggested to Dalrymple that the Fabian conspiracy was perhaps not so open as all that, insofar as the goals explored among themselves by Wells, Russell, and the Fabians were quite different to their more publicly understood aims of freedom, equality, fraternity, and justice for all—in fact, that they were diametrically opposed to it—Dalrymple was predictably skeptical. I say predictably, because I know how difficult it is, even for radical pessimists, to entertain the possibility of organized malevolence on this scale. Yet the Fabians’ logo was, and is, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, an image which signifies the use of an apparently benign social persona as a means to pursue interests that are the very opposite of benign.

My point to Dalrymple (in our conversation, and here now) is not so much that, behind seemingly wrong-headed utopian schemes for social progress there necessarily lurks the presence of organized malevolence; only that it might be so, and that, if there is any chance at all that such a canny and persistent (and ravenous) predator lurks among us, it would be wise not to rule out the possibility entirely. There is, after all, an ancient tradition for overlooking snakes in the grass.

6 thoughts on “High-Road to Hell: Theodore Dalrymple & Progressive Politics as Perpetual Misery Machine (2 of 2)

  1. I strongly suspect that the deliberate sewing of the seeds of chaos that might justify future control schema is a recent innovation born out of the systematic study of human behavior’s material aspect. Social engineering has always been the most disturbing aspect of the materialist/reductionist revolution in that it is the one that takes the approach to humanity that malevolent alien entlechies could be expected to: The approach human science takes to gibbons, rhesus monkeys and bunnies. Critiqueing this approach to human problems was the bedrock of science-fiction from the 50s on. From Slaughterhouse 5 to the Matrix.

  2. regarding Fabian Socialism, they don’t seem to have advocated for actual socialist ideals, such as workers owning in common the factories they worked in. It seems far more concerned with creating the ‘meritocracy’ Mandarin caste. Likewise the other bugbear of the modern right, the Frankfurt School seems to have spent most of its time in pointless obsessions over ‘theory’. Their only practical achievement seems to have been destroying Germany as a nation state and make literary criticism a ghetto for pretentious imbeciles. OK, WIlhelm Reich had a few useful insights, but he was not really central to the enterprise.

    • True about Fabian socialism yet I wonder if Fabian socialism isn’t closer to the roots of socialism, in other words, if the idea of it wasn’t always coupled with what appear to be the misappliances or distortions of it?

      From Wiki:

      The history of socialism has its origins in the French Revolution of 1789 and the changes which it wrought, although it has precedents in earlier movements and ideas. The Communist Manifesto was written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848 just before the Revolutions of 1848 swept Europe, expressing what they termed “scientific socialism”.

      If these ideas and ideals are sourced in the ruling class then there’s every chance that they were formulated consciously as disguised modes of social oppression: memetic wolves-in-sheep’s clothing?

      The assumption that there is true, working (benevolent) socialism might be just that, an assumption?

      Asking, not saying.

      • I think you have it. Long ago for some class I read Crane Brintons “Anatomy of Revolution”. The pattern is very clear. Any actually successful revolution invariably begins as a project of dissatisfied elements within the ruling caste. Peasant rebellions never pan out and end up with a lot of poor folk hanging from apple trees. The French Revolution was hatched in the upper class salons. I’m becoming convinced that the surveillance panopticon being constructed is to save the rulers from their upstart children. If Saturn could be omniscient, why bother devouring his children?

  3. “The assumption that there is true, working (benevolent) socialism might be just that, an assumption?”

    Any time you try to make things right, the money men (your fellow humans) work tirelessly to sabotage things.

    I encourage everyone to read both these wiki entries in full.
    Look at what both these men were trying to do.
    Look at the reaction from the other “rulers”.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiberius_Gracchus (Senators beat him to death with clubs!)

    “Gaius Sempronius Gracchus (154–121 BC) was a Roman Popularis politician in the 2nd century BC and brother of the reformer Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus. His election to the office of tribune in the years 123 BC and 122 BC and reformative policies while in office prompted a constitutional crisis and his death at the hands of the Roman Senate in 121 BC.”

    The “plan” as you stated:
    “Decide which outcome you wish to achieve, work out which precise set of beliefs, values, principles, and policies will most efficiently bring it about that can be coupled to an avowed aim opposite to the desired goal, and then: set about fostering these values and goals in the hearts and minds of your targeted society. ”

    Back to wiki to see it in action centuries ago:
    “The senate interpreted Gaius’ popularity and legislation as threats to its privilege and position. It backed another tribune, Livius Drusus. He was placed under strict orders not to incite violence; instead, he should propose legislation that would please the common people, and make it known that he had the Senate’s backing. In the event, his proposed legislation was neither credible nor beneficial to the commons, and was intended merely to undermine Gaius.”

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