Why the social justice Left is doubling down
The left will never recover unless we ignore those who won’t accept defeat
For those of us who have always been left-wing but opposed the radicalism & identity politics that dominant strands of it have taken, predicting that the Left is going to turn this around any time now has become a regular pastime. “Surely,” we said after Donald Trump won the White House, “now we must all admit that we are losing people and need to change the way we are doing things?”
“Maybe,” we thought naively, “this could even work out well in the long run and act as a kind of chemotherapy for the Left which has become infected with authoritarian identity politics faction that deals with everything by calling dissenters ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ and ‘transphobic’. This could be a much-needed wake-up call and make the Left remember its roots in support of freedom of belief and speech and the interests of the working class (even those who are white, male and heterosexual).” Not so far, no.
Nevertheless, we saw something of a resurgence of this optimistic attitude following the absolute massacre of the Labour party at the general election, with a number of leftist journalists heralding the party’s need for change and the Labour MP, Jess Phillips, arguing that “there is a clique who don’t care if our appeal has narrowed, as long as they have control of the institutions and ideas of the party.” Ms Phillips warned that the alternative to serious introspection and change is “that the working-class voters who, in despair, lent the Tories their votes on Thursday, never take them back.”
It seems very likely that Ms Phillips is correct and that the working class, the “old Left” and the liberal Left are finding that the Labour party does not now represent their interests so much as they do those of a relative minority of “social justice” elements and radical activists. Benjamin Mueller for the New York Times was correct to argue that “The Left is now squabbling on both sides of the Atlantic, with both the Labour and Democratic parties grappling with a rancorous battle between young activists and more moderate voters.” However, the latter seem to hugely outnumber the former. A recent YouGov survey found that 44% of the public and 43% of Labour voters wanted the next leader to be more centrist while only 10% and 16% felt it should be more Leftist and almost nobody cared what sex he or she was. It seems clear that people generally including much of Labour’s base are sick of radical leftism and identity politics.
Despite these warnings, the activist lefties are doubling down, particularly on social media. The hashtag #CorbynWasRight has been trending for several days and one wonders what it was he was right about. It certainly wasn’t how to win an election and thus be in a position to enact left-wing policies. Nevertheless, his supporters continue to believe that “the people” have been cheated even though they were the ones who voted against him.
This talk of “the Establishment” and “the system” being against “the people” when analysing outcome of a democratic election is very strange. It conjures up the image of some kind of shadowy force working through people and causing them to vote against their own interests which — somehow — are only clear to the activists.
Many moderate lefties on Twitter have tried persuading the leftist activists that the only way to institute left-wing policies is to persuade enough people to vote for a left-wing government; but the response has typically been an angry refusal to compromise even at the price of continuing to lose over and over again.
It is simply bewildering to many sane lefties who cannot understand why winning elections is not a priority, even if it requires compromising with the less radical majority of leftist voters — something which seems ethically sound in any case. An attitude which demands a purity of values that excludes the majority of people inclined to vote for your party, and which guarantees that an opposing party with opposing aims will win, is incomprehensibly self-defeating. The hope that continual defeats will make the Left see how far it has drifted from its base and then self-correct are repeatedly dashed by this attitude.
This failure of recognition on the part of activists may confuse, but the explanation is simple, although counterintuitive. What we are dealing with right now in the case of the young activists on both sides of the Atlantic is a very particular conception of the world rooted in critical theory. The reason these activists sound as though they believe some shadowy “Establishment” or “system” is manipulating voters is because they really do believe it.
Critical theory has its roots in Marxism although its dominant form now is much more postmodern. Under Marxism, the idea that the majority of workers could act against their own interests was addressed as “false consciousness”. Marx’s aim was to raise the proletariat’s consciousness until they were aware of their class interests and prepared to initiate a revolution. It seemed inevitable to him that this would happen if they could only be persuaded to think in the right way. Marx himself was a member of the bourgeoisie and spent his life living on inheritances and handouts from Engels while writing about the correct consciousness for working people to have. Of course in the UK such a revolution never occurred, and instead liberal reforms addressed the exploitative treatment of workers.
When Marxism was finally decided to have failed by much of the leftist intelligentsia, postmodernism arose and this took a different stance on false consciousness. In order to have a false consciousness, there must be a right one and the postmodernists were radically sceptical of this and largely regarded Marxism as yet another failed grand narrative. To them, there were dominant discourses – ways of talking about things – and people learnt them and repeated them uncritically and thus perpetuated them. That is, power worked through people on every level by the way they spoke about things rather than being imposed on them by the ruling classes. Foucault is the most influential figure in the development of discourses as the constructor of social realities. The job of the postmodernists was to deconstruct the discourses to reveal their “constructedness” and “oppressiveness”.
Society works best when balanced by a sane Left and a sane Right both trying to appeal to a sane public
When the next wave of postmodernists arose in the late 80s, they took these ideas into postcolonial theory, queer theory, critical race theory and intersectional feminism, and thus the concept of a society underlain by largely invisible systems of imperialist, heterocentrist, white supremacist and patriarchal discourses became established. They are believed to be invisible because they constitute the water we swim in. Thus, we get the idea of being “woke” which means to have gained the ability, through knowledge of theory on a scholarly or popular level, to see these systems of power that most people cannot see.
Again, we have the concept of an educated elite being able to perceive something the general public cannot and of their being in a position to instruct the public how to think. These ideas have solidified further in the last ten years, popularised in books like White Fragility, until they are held as absolute truths. This elite believe they have a moral imperative to become woke, see the systems, dismantle them and liberate the marginalised.
It is now largely held to be the privileged who have a false and oppressive consciousness while women and racial and sexual minorities are able to see more of the truth. However, if women fail to believe they live in a patriarchy, or racial minorities doubt that white supremacy dominates everything, or LGBT people don’t find their lives blighted by heterocentrism, such views are merely dismissed as further evidence of the oppressive nature of a society that victimises certain groups in ways which their members are not yet woke enough to understand.
When you see the world in this way, believing that all of society is being constantly constructed and reconstructed by powerful oppressive forces and that people must be awakened to them and expected to dismantle them, compromise is not an option. The theory predicts that the majority of people will disagree with you and, when they do, this is further evidence that dominant discourses of patriarchy, white supremacy, capitalism, heterocentrism and imperialism are at work precisely as you thought. You can’t re-evaluate your beliefs and tactics and see where you are going wrong. It is everybody else who is wrong. You must intensify your efforts to resist the discourses and make others do the same. You must, in short, double down. This graphic by François Fourie depicts the process well.
It is essential that those of us who are on the Left and wish for the return of leftist parties, who represent the working class and hold consistent principles of freedom and non-discrimination, understand this dynamic if we are to combat it. Even those who are on the Right should wish for this, since society works best when balanced by a sane Left and a sane Right both trying to appeal to a sane public.
However, it is the responsibility of the Left to fix our problem and we cannot keep hoping that each catastrophic failure will be the one that makes our leaders realise their parties have to change and represent the people. We have to be that change. We have to recognise that the social justice activist Left is a small and ideologically blinded minority which cannot compromise or introspect about whether it could have got anything wrong. We must accept that by continuing to give this radical faction undue influence in leftist parties, we will continue to experience loss after loss and eternally fail to realise our goals for a rational left-wing government.
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