One of the main reasons I have often despised conservatism in my life is the perception I’ve always had that conservatives were the enemies of freedom, as was often demonstrated by how often they would line up in support of cultural authoritarian throughout the 20th century as well as the current century. However, ever since my transition to socialist political thought, I now realize that one of the most insidious things about conservatism is, in fact, the way that they pretend to be in support of freedom, they way they bastardize the meaning of freedom in a very Orwellian fashion (which is ironic, considering how much conservatives love to quote Orwell on freedom). A good example of this that I stumbled onto recently is a video by the popular conservative YouTube channel known as Prager University, which is just organization that is not actually an accredited university but nonetheless calls itself one for some reason. The video in question was titled “Discipline = Freedom” and was narrated by a man named Jocko Willink, a retired Navy SEAL officer who hosts a self-help podcast dealing with topics about leadership, discipline and willpower.
The video is littered all manner of fairly bog-standard standard, self-help tropes but from a conservative and disciplinarian perspective, the funny thing being that the speaker rejects motivation as fickle and unreliable while also basically employing the rhetoric of motivational self-help. What sticks out for me though is the premise laid out in the video as pertains to “extreme ownership”, which is basically just your bog standard pop spiel about self-motivation with a subtle dash of Social-Darwinism, Nietzschean master morality, and the conservative worship of authority. Let me illustrate this with a quote from the video:
Let other people blame their parents, their boss, or the system. Let weaker people complain that the world isn’t fair. You are the leader of your life: take ownership of everything in it.
The level of trickery and deception being employed here should not be lost on you. Simultaneously he is teaching you that you are the master of your life and that you have no right to question the system around you. If you entertain the idea that the system is an impedient to your freedom or your well-being in any way whatsoever, that’s supposed to be taken as weakness. If we think about it for even a minute we would consider that psychologically training ourselves to obey the status quo because we have to do so isn’t really freedom, or self-mastery, or self-ownership, you’re just letting the system take ownership of you and your mind while tricking yourself into thinking that you’re just taking in charge of your life as a free and independent agent. “Freedom” in conservative parlance only means, as one young communist remarked, the freedom to conform to society and do what you’re told when you’re told to do it. This to me becomes all the more ironic when you take into account the fact that conservatives, since about 2015 or so, have been constantly pushing themselves as the victims of a system characterized by supposed liberal or left-wing domination of the institutions, some even still trying to bill themselves as the new counterculture. If we were to apply the pseudo-Stoic logic we’re presented here to conservatives, why are they in any position to be whining about the very system that they support suddenly turning against them in the way that fickle, almost anarchic market forces tend to do under capitalism? Shouldn’t they be taking responsibility for everything, even if it’s not their fault? Aren’t they the masters of their own lives at all times and in all circumstances? It’s here that much of the self-help rhetoric employed here can be exposed as self-serving woo whose only purpose is to berate people for being sick of a system that is actively hindering their prosperity and freedom.
The Social-Darwinism is also quite noticeable, and here it ironically serves as a way of inducing conformity to the system by appealing to your sense of strength vs the supposed weakness of others. You are told not to be like those wretches who take issue with rampant inequality, unfairness and suffering much of which is actually in our power to stop, and instead to pursue strength and self-mastery by keeping your head, never questioning the system and silencing the voice in your head that tells you that something’s wrong with the world around you and that it can changed. This concept of “extreme ownership” can be framed as a reflection of the conventional understanding of master morality and slave morality as per Nietzsche’s philosophy – master morality is said to originate from the strength of the aristocratic “noble man” while slave morality is said to originate from the weakness and ressentiment of his subjects. When the speaker says, “let weaker people complain that the world isn’t fair”, he is palpably invoking the idea of ressentiment, that the “weak” only criticize the society they live in because of envy and bitterness. It is notable that such analysis invariably fails to ask the question of what create said envy and bitterness. But this is immaterial to the speaker, because it interferes with the idea that you are, at all times, the master of your life and your surroundings, even in circumstances when this is objectively not the case.
The conservative view of freedom is both inconsistent and observably a mask for the desire for unquestioning obedience to the system. I am not saying that you cannot make the argument for discipline generating mental freedom (indeed, to the videos credit, it sometimes comes close to doing so, though never surpasses the realm of idealistic self-help axioms), in fact you might apply Pierre Joseph Proudhon’s liberty-authority dialectic as per The Principle of Federation in support of such efforts. But in this proposal of “extreme ownership”, discipline is not the seed of mental and spiritual freedom, but instead the means by which to silence the voice of such freedom, the spark of doubt and critique that would lead the individual against the capitalist system and against conservative ideology and morality, which of course Prager University wouldn’t want. Since I sometimes see similar rhetoric to the speaker being spouted by Left Hand Path types, and indeed I’ve seen Michael W. Ford parrot similar rhetoric in his videos, I would advise that we be very careful, and take a critical look at any proposal that tells us that to see the world as unjust or unfair for any reason is a sign of weakness, because such talking points are not bold statements against the establishment but in fact music to the ears of the system and its ruling elites. You will not find freedom by telling yourself to keep your head down as though it’s all your fault rather than raise your voice (and, eventually, your sword) against the enemy.