Compendium: The “Paranoid Style” as a Jeffersonian Obstacle for Hamiltonian Federal Socialism

Anyone who has made serious contemplations about the return of Hamiltonianism as “Federal Socialism” must contend with the “Paranoid Style” identified by the American historian Richard Hofstadter. Written in the wake of conspiracy theories surrounding the rise of Barry Goldwater (and by extension, Ronald Reagan), McCarthyism and the then-recent JFK assassination, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” remains relevant in important discussions of American politics under Jeffersonianism. Hofstadter maintained throughout the essay that American political-economic discourse has always been plagued by the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking since the end of the 18th century. It took on various guises in the 19th and early 20th centuries, as the American Union struggled with the issue of slavery and the influx of Roman Catholic immigrants from the European mainland. While Hofstadter stated that the phenomenon tends to be prevalent in the “American Right,” it would be remiss to never address its existence within the “American Left.”

The significance of Hoftstadtler’s discussions of the Paranoid Style in relation to the SMP Compendium pertains to the various characteristics displayed by this particular mentality. It is the same mindset that proliferates conspiracy theories, exploiting the recent developments in information technologies from the 20th century to reach a worldwide audience. There is also the potential for demagogues to exploit any rising populist fervor in the pursuit of their own self-interests. The impact of the Paranoid Style affecting Americans on any side of the Left-Right Political Spectrum is alluded to when Hofstadter wrote about American political-economic discourse as being the product of “angry minds.” Put another way, American politics is rife with people who are involved solely to voice their grievances rather than imbued with the determination to actually change any given aspect of the Union. Their rhetoric, Hoftstadter continued, will always contain certain exaggerations of historical facts, flawed conclusions derived from entertaining suspicions based on shoddy evidence (if any at all), and the belief and dissemination of conspiracy theories.  

Interestingly, the documentation cited by Hofstadter in relation to the conspiratorial thinking behind the Paranoid Style conveys economic and financial undertones. One recurring motif has been the Antisemitic belief that a cabal of international bankers controls American Kapital. This particular conspiracy theory was widely disseminated in America and the Western world between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, culminating in the propagation of the forgery known as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. Another has been the nativist belief that immigrants ‘invade’ the Union to ‘steal American jobs’ and ‘introduce’ their way of life to the American people. There is the persistent theme that work in itself is ‘scarce’, which is not only another influence of Liberal Capitalist thinking (as in “Marginal Utility”), but a reflection of the urbanization of the American cities in the North. Much of the Roman Catholic population between the 19th and 20th centuries were concentrated there. And the religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants were also motivated by conspiracy theories directed against the influence of the Catholic Church among American Catholics, particularly those of the Jesuit Order.       

But Antisemitism and Anti-Catholicism were not the only themes recurrent in the Paranoid Style that spawns conspiracy theories. Hoftstadter identified evidence of conspiracy theories with Anti-Freemason, Anti-Mormon, and Anti-Slavery themes. Here, it is possible to argue that the Paranoid Style permeates across different political, religious and ethnic orientations insofar as there is the consistent pattern of framing a specific collective identity as being involved in a conspiracy. It was in his discussions of religion in relation to this mindset by Hofstadter that an argument can be made regarding the decline of religiosity in America and the broader Western world  since the Enlightenment. It is also where this author is in agreement regarding how the more religious elements of the Federalist Party expressed opposition toward the Enlightenment by presenting Reason as a replacement for God. The significance of those religiously-devoted Federalists and that of Prussia and Socialism will be explored later on in this entry.

In essence, Hoftstadter rightfully identified that religiosity promotes a recurring belief in the existence of good and evil, that where there is good, there must also be evil. Both absolute good and absolute evil cannot exist without the other, just as there will always be the existence of morally ambiguous situations. What the Paranoid Style did differently, when religiosity gave rise to irreligiosity from the 19th century onward, was to reject the existence of anything that is morally ambiguous, supporting the belief in absolute good and absolute evil being locked in perpetual conflict. As Hoftstadter noted in the literature of the Paranoid Style, it is often absolute evil that prevails over absolute good, which in turn justifies its propagation of conspiracy theories.

The evidence of irreligiosity and the existence of economic and financial undertones were highlighted again by Hofstadter in relation to economic and financial injustices of the Gilded Era. It was known that some Anti-Catholic American Protestants peddled and believed in conspiracy theories blaming American Catholics for the “Panic of 1893.” Hoftstadler documented the various slanderous writings from the period, including a forged papal encyclical by Pope Leo XIII.

For those who are not familiar with economic history, the Panic of 1893 is an historical example of an asset-price bubble created by overspeculation in the American railroad companies and the Price of wheat. It was exacerbated by a run on the banks by Europeans who chose to hoard gold and silver after a wheat crop failure in Argentina led to the Argentine Revolution of 1890 and a collapse in wheat Prices. Worsening the crisis was an oversupply of silver in the United States that compelled the “Free Silver Movement” to agitate for the new silver to be converted into coins and made readily available as part of an expansionary monetary policy. These failures of Liberal Capitalism did not sit well with the Paranoid Style, preferring oversimplification and superficial explanations. Reviving Anti-Catholic sentiments, no matter how flawed the conclusions were, became conducive in the search for scapegoats.

Towards the latter half of the essay, Hoftstadter devoted much of the discussion on the various characteristics of the Paranoid Style. In addition to providing a connection between the tendency toward belief in conspiracy and irreligiosity as well as the economic and financial undertones, Hofstadter identified “fear of dispossession” as a recurring theme. Such a sentiment is tied to the flawed belief that Kapital constitutes a form of “Private Property,” which seems ridiculous until one realizes that both Private Property and Common Property ought to be understood as “Private Wealth” and “Common Wealth” (‘Commonwealth’) respectively. On the one hand, it is a sentimental holdover from America’s colonial past and on the other it is a manifestation of the Jeffersonian worldview. The latter became apparent in the decades after Hoftstadter wrote the essay, when the Bretton Woods System collapsed and gave rise to Supply-Side Economics, Monetarism, New Keynesianism, Cryptocurrencies, and financial technologies.    

It is precisely here that the arguments of Hofstadter become aligned with others already cited in the SMP Compendium. Familiar personalities included Ernst Jünger (in Der Arbeiter), Martin Heidegger (in Being and Time), and Oswald Spengler (in Prussianism and Socialism), with the latter being mentioned by Hofstadter in passing. In essence, the 20th century developments in Cybernetics and the resulting information technologies had exposed the tendencies of the Paranoid Style. Besides providing more efficient methods of projecting personal insecurities and shortcomings, information technologies made identification of the Paranoid Style more reliable. It was possible for the Paranoid Style to project its insecurities toward specific individuals rather than the overgeneralizations of collective identities. The result has enabled arguments against Income Taxation, the legacy of various New Deal programs like Social Security, attempts at continuing the New Deal as in the case of expanding Medicare coverage for all Americans, and allowing conspiratorial thinking to assume proper political-economic form. The Paranoid Style was no longer thinking in abstract terms anymore; the 20th century allowed for thoughts to be directed against imaginary “communists,” “crypto fascists,” or a “red-brown alliance of communists and fascists.” The McCarthy Era during the early half of the Cold War is an appropriate example cited by Hofstadter.

It would be grossly naïve to suggest that information technologies have enabled the Paranoid Style to become more accurate and factual with their conspiracy theories. On the contrary, Hofstadter insisted that it has provided the Paranoid Style with the need to keep mounds and mounds of circumstantial evidence. The need to hoard evidence is more akin to the need to collect gold and silver in an economic crisis as a sign of personal crisis. The Paranoid Style, upon realizing that there may be flaws in the veracity of their conspiracy theories, will try to gather more evidence in order to maintain their belief in them. That can lead to a conspiracy theory being connected to others, creating a grand narrative that is both artificially fabricated and unnaturally coherent.  

There is also the tendency to project enough personal insecurities of the Self to enable the Paranoid Style to imitate the very thing that they oppose. It contradicts the justification for viewing Life itself only in terms of either absolute good or absolute evil while leaving no room for anything in between or for the two absolutes to coexist. Subconsciously, the opposed figure is perceived as something to be emulated rather than actually opposed. One can argue that it arises from a conception of time where history follows a linear direction in terms of “Cause and Effect.” It opposes the more traditional approach of history unfolding in a circular pattern (as in the case of Spengler’s cultural morphology from The Decline of the West) or in spiral one (as in the case of “On the Question of Dialectics” from Vladimir Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks).

The idea that the Paranoid Style views the flow of time by perceiving the development of history as linear and thus progressive is a sound conclusion. Understanding the world in that sense entails viewing the economic and financial conditions as the “Cause” of everything else related to human intellect like art or religion as being its “Effect.” The prevalence of the Paranoid Style in the broader Western world, as Hofstadter addressed, should be seen as the negative effects of Modernity causing art and religion to become meaningless, lifeless and devoid of symbolism. It can be said that the Paranoid Style’s prominence in the Western world is tied to the need to believe in something that is more than a simple theological pastime. From the spread of conspiracy theories to the gravitation toward the New Age and the Occult, they are signs of the need to believe in something that is far greater than the Self.    

Categories: Compendium, Economic History, Philosophy, Politics

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