Liminality is the rhizomatic rootstock from which the radical movements of the far-right and the far-left sprout.
This is a theme we’ve been exploring the past few months as we’ve been diving into the work of anthropologist Victor Turner and his model of society. In his work, Turner distinguishes two overarching modes of human interrelation; he calls these modes Structure and Communitas (also known as Antistructure).
In previous articles we’ve looked at Turner’s account of this distinction, at Liminality and the other types of Antistructure — Marginality and Inferiority — and most recently we looked at how Liminality is a better model for understanding the Meaning Crisis than Nihilism and the Death of God.
In this instalment we are going to look at the other side of the Liminal equation. We’re going to look at how Turner’s description of Liminality bears an uncanny resemblance to the Leftist value system. Just as Liminality gave us a rigorous understanding of the causes of Nihilism and everything that comes with it including Existentialism and Fascism, it also gives us a rigorous glimpse into the roots of the Leftist value system.
What we see is that the seemingly antagonistic camps of Nietzschean Existentialists and Far-Right Populists on the one hand and the socially progressive Far-Left activists on the other are in fact different shoots growing from the same rootstock. That rootstock is Liminality.
In The Ritual Process Victor Turner explores the concept of Liminality — a term originally coined by ethnographer and folklorist Arnold von Gennep which refers to the middle stage of tribal and traditional rituals. This is the true ritualistic phase when all the values of Structured society have been dissolved and the participants are in a state “betwixt and between” their lives before and their lives after.
In Turner’s observations and study of the literature on such rituals he mapped the contours of this liminal state. In The Ritual Process gives a comparative list of 25 differences between the properties of the chaotic magical ritualistic state of liminality and the mundane hierarchical everyday state of Structure. These differences include:
- Absence of status/status
- Absence of rank/distinctions of rank
- Suspension of kinship rights and obligations/kinship rights and obligations
- Absence of property/property
- No distinctions of wealth/distinctions of wealth
- Humility/just pride of position
- Anonymity/systems of nomenclature
- Total obedience/obedience only to superior rank
- Sexual continence/sexuality (it’s worth noting here that this binary is a little more complex. On the one hand we have the monogamous sexuality between husband and wife/ves; on the other we have either celibacy or orgiastic promiscuity — both of which are polar opposites of the measured contained sexuality of monogamy)
- Nakedness or uniform clothing/distinctions of clothing
- Minimization of sex distinctions/maximization of sex distinctions
- Disregard for personal appearance/care for personal appearance
There are many obvious correlations with Leftist philosophy here but before we draw these out let’s first clarify what we mean by Leftism in the context of this video.
Drawing a definitive boundary around what is Leftism and what isn’t would be a fool’s errand. There is plenty of disagreement around what does and does not constitute leftism. But despite the fuzzy boundaries there are some movements and trends that are central to Leftists. While some of the following may be popular among the more central moderate Left i.e. liberals, the base and origin of these trends comes from Leftism proper.
These include the more canonical core of Leftism which is the political and economic critiques of capitalism by Socialists, Communists and Anarchists. This is the classical heart of Leftism but in the decade since Occupy Wall Street this economic and political core has been de-emphasised.
While it still provides much of the underlying framework, the public face of Leftism today is displayed by movements such as Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police, the LGBT rights movement, Feminism, multiculturalism and the environmental movement.
Historically we can see a pure embodiment of Leftism in the Suffragettes Movement, the Civil Rights movement and the 1960s counterculture in general — from the Stonewall Riots that gave birth to the Pride movement, to the anti-war demonstrations and the European student riots of 1968.
The unifying theme beneath all these manifestations of Leftism is radicalism — a mistrust in the system (or as Turner would put it: the Structure) and a belief that this system is rotten and must be overthrown.
The Liminal Left
With this definition of Leftism in place, let’s now converge our concepts of Leftism and Liminality.
Immediately there are a number of binary oppositions from Turner’s list that scream classic leftism. Let’s look at Turner’s list from the vantage point of the cornerstones of Leftism.
Starting with the economic/political school of Leftism we can think of the values of Socialism, Communism and Anarchism. Each of these schools of thought are utopian to some degree and dream of a world of Equality rather than inequality where hierarchies of status and rank are abolished; a world where all are joined in universal brotherhood and sisterhood rather than close-minded nationalistic parochialism; a world where property is no longer privately owned but is either commonly owned or abolished entirely. In this projected society, there will be no distinctions of wealth but all will be the same and return, free from civilisation’s structures of oppression, to our natural unselfish state where relations between us are spontaneous and heart-felt rather than tainted by the complexities of Structure.
Clearly then the classical economical and political wing of leftism is almost an exact match for Turner’s list. There are a couple of other observations we could add. For a start when it comes to sexuality and the economic/political left, obviously the sexual revolution of the 1960s counterculture would come to mind but even more than this we have the brief sexual revolution after the Soviets took power in Russia in 1917.
There were regions in Russia at this time that tried to outlaw the “privatisation” of women by their husbands and there were calls for the end of the traditional family which was seen as an individualist bourgeoise institution. But as with so much of the visions of the Soviet Revolution it wasn’t long before the liminality of the revolution gave way to a new tyrannical Structure. We come across many similar stories in the history of the French Revolution.
Authority and Liminality
All of which brings us onto another interesting note. There’s one of the binaries that stands out and challenges the convergence between this list of liminal properties and the leftist value structure. That is the binary of “Total obedience/obedience only to superior rank”.
It might not be something we’d expect in Liminality but if we return to the original liminal context it begins to make more sense. The tribal conception of humanity is as socially conditioned beings; in rites-of-passage rituals we are moulded into the form that our society dictates.
This moulding doesn’t happen automatically. Key to this ritualistic process is the initiator or initiators. Just as the blacksmith melts iron down in the forge — destroying its previous form in the crucible of the furnace — before pouring it into a new mould, so the initiator breaks down the old form of the initiates and moulds them into their new form. The ritual is the forge; the all-powerful initiator is the blacksmith.
The initiates in the ritual are totally obedient to the initiator. There is no question of the initiator’s role or legitimacy; there is no questioning their punishments or orders. There is total and implicit obedience to the initiator for the duration of the ritual.
As the concept of liminality has gained in notoriety, this core element of liminality has been conveniently overlooked. And there is something quite enigmatic in that overlooking.
When we listen to the values of the left the usual enemy is Fascism. But Fascism is merely the archetypal mask of the tendencies that Leftism abhors most i.e. authoritarianism and tyranny in all its forms. But as right-wing commentators are fond of pointing out: wherever these leftist value systems have come to power the result has not been utopian egalitarianism but authoritarian totalitarianism. What leftist ideologies and far-right ideologies share in common is their radicalism; this radicalism seems to inherently require an all-powerful initiator. This element is more explicit in far-right radicalism but seems to fly under the radar among their far-left cousins.
Of course the Anarchists are well aware of this and invoke the example of the Anarchist communities that formed and thrived in the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s. But such a short-lived example is not robust enough to serve as a counterexample. As we saw with the Bolshevik Sexual Revolution — even Soviet Russia experienced a liminal honeymoon period but this post-revolutionary liminality soon gave way to a new rigid Structure.
There is much more gold to be unearthed in this direction but for now we’ll close off this train of thought by noting that even in this outlier, leftism’s historical reality fits perfectly with Turner’s list of liminal traits even though its explicit values might disagree.
The Cultural Left
Having looked at the connections between Liminality and the economic/political Left let’s now turn our attention to its connections with the cultural left. By this we mean the cultural emphasis — which has come to dominate leftist rhetoric in recent years — on things like LGBT rights and race and sex discrimination.
Obviously the core emphasis of these movements is on equality. We should all be treated the same regardless of our sex, gender or skin colour. The privilege of the patriarchy should be abolished and all should have equality. These traits are shared with the economic/political left.
But as we dig a little deeper there are other items on Turner’s list which were less relevant to the economic/political leftism. Down at the bottom of our list we have “minimisation of sex distinctions/maximisation of sex distinctions”. The relevance of this to the Feminist movement is obvious. The same goes for the LGBT rights movement but, interestingly enough, in a different way.
For Feminism we can read this minimisation of differences as meaning an economic or cultural status of equalisation between the sexes. But with the LGBT rights movement this isn’t simply a matter of economic/political status. The pantheon of genders that emerged from Tumblr in its heyday don’t simply point to an economic/political reduction in sex distinctions but to a breaking down of the walls of the Structural concepts of man and woman. Those on the right parody this with polarised bad faith takes like Matt Walsh’s documentary What is a Woman but this is not the ungodly abomination as those on the right see it but a manifestation of the liminality that underpins this entire movement.
As the Danish sociologist Bjørn Thomassen put it in his article The Uses and Meaning of Liminality:
“Transexuality, or any form of “transgender”, may be seen and experienced as liminal, as is indeed claimed in postmodernist gender theory. Here, the liminal position is again turned into a vantage point of articulating diversity (see for example [Mandy Wilson’s article “‘I am the Prince of Pain, for I am a Princess in the Brain’: Liminal Transgender Identities, Narratives and the Elimination of Ambiguities”])”
Like twins in many tribal settings, transsexuality — whether that’s transgenderism or intersex — is an example of permanent liminality. The social controversy that transgenderism has kicked up in the last decade and the unheard of concern with who uses what bathroom and who takes part in what sport bears an uncanny resemblance to the tribal concern with the categorising of status and roles that we see in the works of anthropologists like Victor Turner or Rene Girard. The pages and pages of focus on the problems that twins posed for tribal status structures would have seemed alien to most people two decades ago but today it seems like perennial human problem we are all very familiar with in the 21st century.
The fact that transgenderism — quite often in spite of transgender individuals — has become the frontline of the Culture Wars is in this regard quite suitable. It is the perfect embodiment of our liminal times. This is a completely different angle on liminality from that more popular on the self-actualising right which as we’ve seen in previous instalments is either reactionary — looking to get back to simpler and greater times — or nihilistic, spiritual or Jungian. Over there the focus is on liminality as a cultural crisis following the death of God. Here once again we see that that explanation is too partial.
While a whole book could be written on the subject of liminality and our current cultural moment (for those interested in reading such a work I highly recommend the works of sociologist Arpad Szakolczai) the purpose of this video was simply to highlight the uncanny connection between leftism and liminality.
Putting this together with the previous article on the Nihilistic camp and liminality we can see that there is something happening on a deep level in our culture. Liminality proves to be a very helpful lens to look at this current cultural moment through.
Where Nihilism — bloated with self-destructive self-importance — suggests that a veil of illusion has been shred forever more and the horrendous naked truth of the world has been revealed by science, Liminality tells us that the Nihilistic crisis is nothing new.
Instead of a horrifying terminus in which the truth has been revealed by Darwin or Newton, the crisis of Nihilism instead appears to be a stage in the ebb and flow of value systems. Looking to history we can see a parallel period in the Axial Age two and a half thousand years ago. As those societies emerged from the Iron Age into the age of Antiquity there was a chasm in their value systems. In this time we saw the emergence of Buddhism and the Upanishads in India, Lao Tzu and Confucius in China; the formation of the modern Israelite religion and the rise of Greek philosophy. Given that Stoicism, Buddhism and Daoism emerged from such a liminal period it is perhaps not such a surprise to see them making a resurgence in this latest turn of the wheel of Structure and Liminality.
Armed with the perspective of liminality, Nihilism no longer seems like the bottom of the well but just another spoke in the Wheel of Time.
This doesn’t mean we have to dispense with the Nihilistic account — we just need to contextualise it. Nihilism is correct in diagnosing the death of God i.e. the rug being ripped from beneath our Western value system. And it is correct in speaking of the dangers of our situation. Unlike the highly choreographed rituals of tribal people, our culture has no initiator (unless you count the likes of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler) and no clear signs of the threshold leading out of liminality.