Pessimism in the Left


The peculiar pessimism of the left is something I had been thinking of writing about, but hadn't been able to frame properly. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gets to the heart of it, so I shall quote him.

From "Creativity", page 405:

During the heyday of Victorian optimism in the ninteenth century, it became a widely shared tacit assumption -- or prejudice -- that humankind, if not perfect, was well on its way to perfection. The great contribution of critical thinkers such as Marx or Freud has been to show that, on the contrary, human action was rife with selfishness, irrationality, and denial. Their insights have been expanded upon and refined by the perspectives of behaviorsim, sociobiology, and countless other "isms." The pessimism implied in these theories has further gained credibility as a result of the senseless evil that wars and ideologies have wrought in the last hundred years. So the new prejudice permeating our culture is now 180 degrees removed from the previous one, and holds that every human action is self-seeking, irrational, and not to be trusted.

In my opinion, neither of these extreme positions is very useful. To reconcile the opposite poles of the dialectic, we must recongize that our behaviour is largely determined by ancient genetic instructions designed for self-protection and self-replication, and by more recent cultural instructions we have learnt uncritically from the cultural milieu. At the same time, it makes no sense to deny that new memes, or ideas that have emerged through time -- such as the concepts of humanity, of democracy, of nonviolence -- can and do direct behavior toward new goals. My own prejudice is that this relative flexibility of human adaptation, or creativity, makes it possible to avoid the backward-looking pessimism of the currently accepted reductionistic explanations of behavior, and to entertain hope for a genuine evolution of mankind.

Note that ideologies ("isms") are cited as both a cause and a result of pessimism.

There's a perfect shitstorm brewing, and Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is right at the center of it. People like Martin Seligman, Donald Norman, even Joel Spolsky, have been flung off in interesting directions by it. But Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi seems to be prime cause, patient zero, the genius of our age, calmly and methodically redefining basic cultural concepts: happiness, creativity, evolution, character, culture.