Recently, some social and political movements associated with sexual identity seem to have taken a “totalitarian” turn. Rather than calling for tolerance in matters of sexuality, these movements present themselves as defenders of absolute human rights, which cannot be called into question by competing interests—like those, for example, of religious schools. They maintain that disagreements with their vision can only be the result of “bigotry” or “phobias,” and must be banned from the public sphere or even legally sanctioned because they promote “hate” and (potentially) violence. Naturally, this has created all sorts of conflicts and contributed to the excesses of “cancel culture.”
Rather than rehashing this familiar story, here I would like to briefly revisit its remote historical beginnings. I will use as a guide some observations by Italian political philosopher Augusto Del Noce, who in the 1960s witnessed the early stages of the sexual revolution. Del Noce was original in studying the sexual revolution as a philosophical phenomenon that reflected a new worldview and not just new social circumstances (e.g., women working, or contraception). In my opinion, a failure to fully grasp this worldview is the reason why today many intelligent people seem genuinely surprised that movements putatively seeking tolerance for marginalized minorities should be so intolerant of dissent.
Del Noce himself was frustrated by his fellow Catholics’ failure to correctly assess the sexual revolution. Despite being by all accounts a gentle and polite man, in 1970 he wrote that the fact that so many people thought they were merely facing changes in “society’s sense of modesty” could be used as evidence that “Catholics are a mentally inferior species.” In reality, he explained, what they were facing was “a condemnation of modesty as abnormal, and this condemnation is moral in its own way.” These words encapsulate what he considered the worst possible misunderstanding of the sexual revolution: as a slackening of morals. Looser sexual morality may have been its practical result, and was probably how common people experienced it, but it was absolutely not how the sexual revolution was conceived by the many writers, filmmakers, therapists, journalists, and intellectuals who advocated for it. To them it was not a moral slackening but a moral quickening. It meant freeing people from irrational and oppressive taboos, harmonizing morality and nature, reconciling life and science. The revolution was “in its own way” intransigently moral—it just inhabited a different ethical universe. This is why, Del Noce wrote, “any ‘dialogue’ with the advocates of sexual liberalization is perfectly useless, simply because they start by denying a priori the metaphysics that is the source of what they regard as ‘repressive’ morality.” It was a waste of time to try to convince them of moral claims that made sense only within a philosophical framework they rejected, and did little to alert the rest of society to what was really at stake.
In order to explain the “philosophy” of the sexual revolution, Del Noce refers to the works of Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. He does so not because Reich was a profound or particularly influential thinker, but because back in the 1930s he was the first to formulate the ideas about sexual liberation that after World War II would be rediscovered by many other authors and become ubiquitous. Del Noce summarizes Reich’s programmatic book The Sexual Revolution (“which I am tempted to call the Mein Kampf of permissivism”) as follows:
Reich’s thought is based on the premise . . . that there is no order of ends, no meta-empirical authority of values. Any trace not just of Christianity but of “idealism” in the broadest sense . . . is eliminated. What is man reduced to, then, if not to a bundle of physical needs? When these needs are satisfied—when, in short, every repression is removed—he will be happy . . . Having taken away every order of ends and eliminated every authority of values, all that is left is vital energy, which can be identified with sexuality . . . Hence, the core element of life will be sexual happiness. And since full sexual satisfaction is possible, happiness is within reach.
Reich’s approach is crudely scientistic: Sexuality has no symbolic meaning and no intrinsic finality—such as the procreation of children—while “sexual happiness” (as psychological well-being) enjoys the status of supreme human goal and takes on great social and political significance. In fact, his most important innovation was to turn sexual fulfillment into a political project, by marrying the Freudian idea of repression with the Marxist idea of liberation, thus begetting the concept of “liberation from repression.” The fact that Reich’s “Freudo-Marxism” actually betrayed the intentions of both Freud and Marx did not prevent it from being the prototype of a new type of politics. Del Noce points out that by replacing “the categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat with those of the advocates of repressive morality . . . and the advocates of sexual freedom” Reich was the precursor of an era in which “what is called the left fights less and less in terms of class warfare, and more and more in terms of ‘warfare against repression,’ claiming that the struggle for the economic progress of the disadvantaged is included in this more general struggle.”
The counterpart of this “sexualized Marxism” is the identification of “sexual repression” with “Fascism,” which Reich pioneered in another book, The Mass Psychology of Fascism. This idea, too, was rediscovered after the war and became a successful cliché, even though of course its historical basis is very shaky (one smiles at the thought of Mussolini, the proud libertine and insatiable womanizer, as an agent of “sexual repression”).
Circling back to our initial theme: Del Noce observed that Reich’s idea of “sexual revolution” contains in nuce exactly the totalitarian tendencies that have become more visible in recent years. Indeed, if “science” guarantees that mankind can achieve “happiness” by eliminating all forms of “repression,” how can “religion” (and “Fascism,” of course) be allowed to stand in the way? The following sentence from The Sexual Revolution sums it up nicely: “Religion should not be fought, but any interference with the right to carry the findings of natural science to the masses and with the attempts to secure their sexual happiness should not be tolerated.” Del Noce rephrases it as follows: “the Church is tolerated only to the extent that she does not take any stance on the moral assertions that supposedly derive from science, understood as the only valid form of knowledge.”
Far from being morally lax, the sexual revolution advances totalizing moral claims. However, these claims are not based on a transcendent moral order, but on scientism and on its ethical translation, which Del Noce called the “ethics of the direction of history” (in Reich’s case, the “direction towards universal sexual happiness.”) The precise “science” that establishes the “direction of history” may change—psychoanalysis, for example, today is out of fashion. But according to Del Noce, the end result remains the same: Those who do not serve the direction of history must be “marginalized and reduced to second-class citizens. They will be imprisoned, ultimately, in ‘moral’ concentration camps. But nobody can seriously think that moral punishments will be less severe than physical punishments.”
Carlo Lancellotti is professor of mathematics at the College of Staten Island.
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