In theoretical and high-energy physics, a major unsolved problem is to devise a theory or formula to unify gravity with the other fundamental forces–the so-called ‘theory of everything’ that would explain gravity at sub-atomic distances and at the earliest stages of the universe. String theory has been the most promising approach to finding such a theory, but there really isn’t such a thing as a ‘string theory equation’ in the way that General Relativity and the Standard Model have explicit formulas.
In the social sciences, there have also been attempts at creating ‘grand unified theories’ to explain human behavior, cycles of history, the rise and fall of nations and civilizations, how and why people vote and behave the way they do, and so on. Such examples include the works of Marx, Hegel, Spengler, Rawls, Nozick, Rothbard, and , fast-forward to today, Peter Turchin, who uses mathematical and statistical methods to predict the rise and fall of civilizations.
Another somewhat recent example is the 1981 book Class, in which cultural historian Paul Fussell explicates a set of class hierarchies in America stratified by social and economic factors. Bobos in Paradise, 2000, by David Brooks, can be thought of as a continuation of Class for the new millennium, and although the book is now more than two decades old, is still heavily discussed and influential in the ‘intellectual web’. Same for Class, which is still debated nearly half a century since its publication, and Scott recently wrote a long review about it, which generated intense discussion, showing that the premise of America having a quasi-caste system, carries considerable intellectual currency.
Over the past 15 or so years there has been interest in explaining human behavior as it it pertains to political orientations, party affiliation, and specifically, the increasing radicalization of the American left (or what some call SJWs). Many classically-minded liberals, conservatives, and centrists/moderates have noticed that ‘the left’ is becoming increasingly intolerant in recent years, such as the rise of ‘cancel culture,’ the required and mandatory use of preferred and non-binary pronouns, gender becoming a ‘spectrum’ and something that you can ‘choose’ (much like one’s clothes), the mainstreaming and forced-inclusion of trans-women in cis-women’s sports, de-platforming, the censorship of conservatives on social media, and other examples.
Attempts have been made at creating ‘grand-unified social theories’ that explain the tendency of the left to ‘spiral’ into increasingly intolerant and radicalized iterations. In 2007, programmer-turned-philosopher and blogger Moldbug attracted a large readership by blogging about what he calls ‘the Cathedral’, and devising his own theory to explain the left. At around the same time, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg wrote a popular book Liberal Fascism, as the title suggests, likening the left to fascists and showing how the two ideologies, although commonly understood to be diametrically opposed, are actually not that dissimilar in certain ways. This debate has intensified in recent years, especially since the 2016 publication of The Coddling of the American Mind by Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff, and the rise of the ‘IDW’, which can be thought of an intellectual movement composed of classical liberals who frequently push-back against the social-justice left.
My own opinion is that such a ‘grand unified theory’ to explain the behavior or origin of the American left, does not really exist. Rather, there are many competing theories and hypotheses, all of which may contribute in some way, but there is no single definitive one. Below, I have listed to some of the major hypotheses, which can be broken down at macro and individual levels. This is because the radicalization of the left is both a phenomenon at individual level in terms of human behavior, but also macro/societal/historical one in explaining why societies tend to become more liberal over time.
At the individual level:
- Some people genuinely believe in social justice, and form their beliefs through independent research or through personal/lived experience, such as feeling persecuted. Their motives are well-intentioned. They believe in systematic racism, and that, for example, police are systematically targeting blacks. This also includes do-gooders, who believe they are on the side of ‘good’ by standing for social justice. There is no ulterior motive.
- Brainwashing, coercion, peer-pressure. Some are compelled by friends, family, work, school, etc. to hold far-left views, for fear of ostracization for not being ‘sufficiently woke’. This includes feeling compelled to post ‘BLM tributes’ on one’s social media, such as posting pictures of George Floyd and other alleged victims of supposed police brutality, by posting BLM quotes, civil rights quotes, or by changing one’s social media avatar to a black square out of solidarity, and so on.
- Motivated by profit. Businesses can make more money and generate positive PR by pandering to social justice causes
- Boost one’s social status. This is similar to #2.
- To feel empowered, to rectify perceived imbalances of power. Social justice perhaps appeals to individuals who lack much social status, so attacking visible, successful targets helps boost one’s own status and standing without having to actually produce or do anything of value or merit, but by tearing other people down. It’s not about the social justice issues per say, but about the imbalance of power.
On a historical and or societal level:
- The Whig interpretation of history, that the march towards the democratization of society and social progress is inviable.
- Memetic transmission. The ideology implants itself in hosts and hijacks the host to propagate itself, much like a virus. Thus social justice exists for the purpose of its own replication.
- Vacuum of power. The dissolution of absolute monarchical rule in England created a power void and hence struggle of power between competing interests, one of those being what we would call ‘the left’. The inability of either side to secure absolute power leads to the left to spiral in an attempt to secure power.
- The ‘overproduction of elites.’ There are too many college graduates with debt and poor job prospects, and this leads to many of them turning to ‘grievance politics’. This is a new and one of the most interesting theories brought forth to explain the behavior of the left, including ‘radicalized’ genz-z and millennials.