To expand on the Maoism post. Marquez came up with the flattery inflation theory to explain how cults of personality evolve in mechanistic terms. But the same idea can be used to explain not only Red Queen spirals of sycophancy. Any ideological innovation, both in states and inside small cults or organizations, behaves under the same principles.
Any political system, any organization, even the smallest one, is going to have people in power, and people out of power who want to be in power. Or at least marginally increase their level of power.
Which means you need to challenge those who are in power. The powerful are powerful because they have organized themselves into a power coalition, bound by ties of loyalty. A solid power block where all members are strongly loyal is, for all purposes, indestructible. So the only way to challenge the powerful is to try to incite disloyalty among its members.
More likely than not, some members of the ruling coalition are not very loyal. They’d rather defect. But they can’t backstab the coalition just like that. You don’t do that; it looks bad. Your comrades will go against you. There are costs to defection.
Unless you’re not the only defector. You need a way to signal your intention to defect, so that other disloyal fucks such as yourself (and they’re bound to be others) can join up, thus reducing the likely costs of defection. The way to signal your intention to defect is to come up with a good excuse. A good excuse to be disloyal becomes a rallying point through which other defectors can coordinate and cover their asses so that the ruling coalition doesn’t punish them. What is a good excuse?
Leftism is a great excuse. Claiming that the ruling coalition isn’t leftist enough, isn’t holy enough, not inclusive enough of women, of blacks, of gays, or gorillas, of pedophiles, of murderous Salafists, is the perfect way of signalling your disloyalty towards the existing power coalition. By using the existing ideology and pushing its logic just a little bit, you ensure that the powerful can’t punish you. At least not openly. And if you’re lucky, the mass of disloyal fucks in the ruling coalition might join your banner, and use your exact leftist point to jump ship and outflank the powerful.
Note that this applies to any ideological system. In Islam, the best excuse to defect is to claim to be more fundamentalist. In Medieval Europe, is to love Christ more. In pre-WW2 Japan, it was to be a more fanatic militarist who fights for the glory of the empire.
The same dynamic fuels the flattery inflation one sees in monarchical or dictatorial systems. In Mao China, if you want to defect, you claim to love Mao more than your boss. In Nazi Germany, you proclaim your love for Hitler and the great insight of his plan to take Stalingrad. In the Roman Empire, you claimed that Caesar is a God, son of Hercules, and those who deny it are treacherous bastards. In Ancient Persia you loudly proclaimed your faith in the Shah being the brother of the Sun and the Moon and King of all Kings on Earth. In Reformation Europe you proclaimed that you have discovered something new in the Bible and everybody else is damned to hell. Predestined by God!
All of the above is bullshit. But it’s useful bullshit. And humans will believe from the bottom of the hearts any bullshit that is useful enough. There’s some individual variance in the ability to come up and sincerely believe any crap, but there’s always cathartic rituals to prove that the we’re in all in this together, this licensing you to become a true believer. At any rate, the whole point of the above is to signal your disaffection from the status quo. The precise content of your signal is irrelevant. It is completely dependent on the particular ideological ecology of your culture. But the underlying mechanism is the same. You want power, and you signal your intent in the optimal way to minimize the chances of official punishment, and make it easy for others to join your banner.
The degree to which this signals spiral into complete madness depend on how strong the ruling coalition is, and how vital it is to attain power. If the ruling coalition is solid, and has good mechanisms in place to ensure the loyalty of their members, potential defectors will be punished for signalling their intentions, no matter how embellished they are in the language of the state religion. If you are well fed and life is safe and good, there’s little incentive to defect.
However, if the ruling coalition is too large, and hence weak, dispersed, and has few mechanisms of appraising and ensuring the loyalty of its members; or if the only way of ensuring access to food, shelter and security is to have some access to political power; signalling your intention to defect by proclaiming that 5 year olds should be able to be castrated, or by proclaiming that Kim Jong Un can climb buildings like Spiderman, is suddenly a good proposition. And once you do, and succeed, everybody else will be forced to follow your banner, and the new ideological innovation will become an official article of faith. You don’t want to be the last guy that denies that Kim Jong Un is Spiderman.
And again: the precise content of the ideological point doesn’t matter. Your human brain doesn’t care about ideology. Humans didn’t evolve to care about Marxist theory of class struggle, or about LGBTQWERTY theories of social identity. You just don’t know what it means. It’s all abstract points you’ve been told in a classroom. It doesn’t actually compute. Nothing that anybody ever said in a political debate ever made any actual, concrete sense to a human being.
So why do we care so much about politics? What’s the point of ideology? Ideology is just the water you swim in. It is a structured database of excuses, to be used to signal your allegiance or defection to the existing ruling coalition. Ideology is just the feed of the rationalization Hamster that runs incessantly in that corner of your brain. But it is immaterial, and in most cases actually inaccessible to the logical modules in your brain.
Nobody ever acts on their overt ideological claims if they can get away with it. Liberals proclaim their faith in the potential of black children while clustering in all white suburbs. Communist party members loudly talk about the proletariat while being hedonistic spenders. Al Gore talks about Global Warming while living in a lavish mansion. Cognitive dissonance, you say? No; those cognitive systems are not connected in the first place.
And ideological sincerity doesn’t make sense on the face of it. Why would anything like that ever evolve? Given how ideology actually behaves, a gene that made you be coherent with your ideology can’t possibly spread in the gene pool. A gene for being able to aptly manipulate nonsensical abstract points to signal your position and intention vs. the present power structure; now that’s useful.
Leftism evolved, step by step, backstab by backstab, as Christian Europeans signalled their dislike with the status quo by gently pushing the state religion just a little bit further, in the direction most likely to get people on your side, and prevent the powerful from punishing you. Surely nobody can disagree with extending the franchise to our hard working middle class? Surely nobody can disagree with abolishing the enslavement of our fellow humans? Surely nobody can disagree with giving citizenship rights to our women? Surely nobody can disagree with stopping the criminal prosecution of homosexuals?
And so, every little step in the way, power-seekers moved the consensus to the left. And open societies, democratic systems are by their decentralized nature, and by the size of their constituencies, much more vulnerable to this sort of signalling attacks. It is but impossible to appraise and enforce the loyalty of every single individual involved in a modern state. There’s too many of them. A Medieval King had a better chance of it; hence the slow movement of ideological innovation in those days. But the bigger the organization, the harder it is to gather accurate information of the loyalty of the whole coalition; and hence the ideological movement accelerates. And there is no stopping it.