As Eric Hoffer observes in his famous book “The True Believer,” mass movements rely on a nostalgic version of the past, a Utopian vision of the future, and a revolted attitude towards the present. In order to maintain these vital attitudes, the thought leaders of the movement must twist the truth considerably: they must twist history to present the vision of a “Golden Age” that inspires the troops and gives them direction, they must downplay the positives in the present and only look at the most negative parts of society, and they must maintain the possibility of a future Utopia.
It is the latter point which interests me in this article. The true believer, in his disgust at the current state of things and his belief in the corrupt nature of man, as does any good believer, looks forward to a future where the work of corrupt man is wiped out- and sometimes, where the men themselves are slaughtered, as in fundamentalist Christianity- and replaced by something virtuous and righteous. He believes that once a central autocrat reorganizes everything in his or its image, the world (or underworld, as the case may be) will become a magically peaceful and happy place.
The notion of the Clean Slate, the Renewed Utopia, no doubt had its origins in religious texts, where the idea of wiping out the world and starting over is present. There are two such instances in the Christian Bible: Noah’s Flood, and the Apocalypse. Even in their own stories, the primitives showed that they didn’t really believe in Clean Slate: mere hours after the end of the Flood, Noah’s family is already fighting and cursing each other. In the end, God failed to renew the world. Thus our paradigmatic example of Clean Slate is also a paradigmatic example of total failure.
The belief in Clean Slate must necessarily fail. True believers hate human nature because it stands in the way of blind obedience and sacrifice to the transcendent ideal, and thus the syndrome of “Original Sin” comes to the fore. Communists hate human nature for its greed, Christians for its selfishness and individualism, Greenies for its willingness to exploit the environment and modern technology, and so on. Nevertheless, human nature will exist for as long as humans exist, and even within the confines of a sterile ideologically-motivated community or organization, human nature will make people seek more for their own condition. This is why utopian communities never work, no matter how many rifles are pointed at their own victims.
These Utopian ideals usually raise equality and community as their banners. These are good ways to attract obedient and submissive people, but not a good way to regulate the life of millions of people. While people do pretend to like equality and community, they don’t actually like either: they want to be happy. Most people would rather be happy in an unequal but prospering society, than be unhappy in a homogenized society.
The belief in Clean Slate is the antithesis of society. Agents in a society pursue their interests through an evolutionary process of socio-cultural, economic and technological progress. True believers find this very process too individualistic, despicable, base, materialistic, and want to wipe it out. But you can’t go back. Once the people in a society come to a new and novel perspective, that perspective can never be erased, and it informs the future of that society indelibly.
The lesser fallacy of “means and ends” comes from the belief in Clean Slate. These terms, “means” and “ends,” only make sense when analyzed in this way. In the mind of the believer, he is mobilized in order to achieve an “end,” the bringing about of the Utopia. Everything that comes before that is a “means.” The expression “the end justifies the means” simply means that someone who believes in an “end” should not let his conscience be affected by any immoral actions he must perform in order to help achieve it. This is a standard collectivist tactic of trying to dissociate the person from his values and sense of right and wrong.
In the mass movement dream world, causality comes to a grinding halt when the Utopia is achieved. When Jesus comes back, the world will finally be at peace forever. When man goes back to a primitive state, we will live at peace with all life on Earth. When the bourgeoisie is massacred, we will finally prosper and have true social justice. When this, when that… The problem with these naive narratives is that causality never stops. Everything we do has consequences, whether we like it or not. The widespread elimination of technology would brutally kill the great majority of the Earth’s population by starvation. In the case of communism, starvation already happened, with the results we now know. In the Christian Apocalypse, 7/8ths of the world would perish, as well. Clean Slate inevitably necessitates the elimination of the unbelievers, who are considered immoral within the memetic scheme.
We observe the same phenomenon within shorter-term “means and ends.” For example, a fundamentalist Christian might say something like “lies are justified if they can save some babies.” In short, the “means” (lying) are justified by the “end” (“saving babies”). But causality does not stop after the “end.” The consequences of fighting against abortion- crime, divorce, civil unrest- stay with us for decades afterwards.
This belief in “ends and means” really takes root in our narratives. In our stories, there is a state of beginning, a conflict, and a blissful (or not so blissful, in some cases) end state. The two states are assumed to be stable states, which only a great conflict could nudge off their axes. This illusion must be deconstructed in order to escape the pitfalls of belief that mar so many mass movements after their first accomplishments and turn them into monsters. We must remember that whatever we promote must stand, not as a “means to an end,” but as moral principles that can last for generations.