It was difficult to not notice the wave of political moralism mounting on the internet over the last half decade or so. Even when you agreed with the basic concerns being articulated, you felt like there was an unreflective process going on here, and one where the pressure of shame and approved consensus was applied to try and modify behaviour, or exact punishment; not in response to the breaking of the law, but in response to people voicing the “wrong” opinions. Whether it was supposed “hate speech”, or the refusal to bake cakes for people, or wearing a supposedly “sexist” shirt, or the publishing of an article that criticised a “protected” group, or failed to deal with an issue “sensitively”, or just offending a sacred cow sensibility – the twitter hoards would descend, the online petitions would demand sackings, and sometimes people did get sacked, or felt obliged to make public apologies, like something out of Mao’s cultural revolution, making public amends for their thought crimes.
In typical fashion, the internet seemed to have catalysed and over heated this process, but it had been going on in different ways for decades. It came with the rise of the “New Left” of yesteryear, with feminism and identity politics, and with the decay of “revolution” into opinion creation and the influencing of behaviour, a kind of moral re-education; not in the tradition of ethics, but of the sins and virtues of oppression and victimhood. A kind of pseudo-Marxist social scheme, but one where the oppressed are saved not by themselves and their agency, but by a censuring and controlling authority. And all of this couched, not in terms of the individual, or the universal person, but seen through the lens of a kind of collectivism. Not who you were, but what you were. Enacted increasingly through the media, academia and policy making.
It’s funny looking back on this, though not amusing after all this time. The Left held enormous intellectual sway over parts of my generation, and over whole swathes of the intelligentsia during the 20th century. The moral failure of Soviet communism in the face of Stalinist totalitarianism was I think part of what led to the “New Left” (amongst other things) after the rise of the counterculture in the 1960s. It seemed like an answer to the idealism that the old Left had spoken to, an idealism which had come to supplant the idealism of Liberalism in popular youth culture, as being harder nosed, more incisive, and (to not put too fine a point on it) just more glamorous. Add to this mix women’s, black and gay “liberation” (truthfully quite different phenomena) and their place in the media and on TV, tied together with a frankly trippy semi-marxist spawning of ideologies, and you have the starting of identity politics.
There are plenty of dead ends along the way: lesbian separatist communes, anarcho-punks, true believing Trots, psychedelic revolutionaries, West European urban guerillas (remember Baader-Meinhof?), but something here got distilled into a post-modern phenomenon. Not an upsurge, but a dissemination, a lot it seems into the media and academia. Some of this was simply what ideologues gravitate to: ideas, their study and transmission. And some of it dovetailed with an ideology of bringing about change, not through violent conflict (as is necessary for Marxist theory), but still through coercion in effect. Struggle by other means. And I’m not making this up, because I know how we used to think, and sad as it might be, some people old enough to know better still don’t. Baby boomers, I tell ya. Or rather a section of us.
Where this kind of decomposed, virally recooked ideology found its perfect home was in things like feminism and post-modern gender theory it seems, along with “anti-imperialist” analyses of race and culture. Places where it could get from genesis to influence without too much objective examination. The popular expression of this was the arising of political correctness. Naming it as such is of course now viewed as a kind of malevolent tool of the Right, as one thing this frosty, sophistical ideology retained from its ancestry was the division of the world into revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries, liberators and reactionaries, us and the fascists.
But what this ideology, and its predecessors, has never been able to do, is understand human nature, or speak to the greater number of ordinary people. They would say that this is because human nature is the result of oppressive preconditions which can be changed, and because people need to be educated to be set free. But a far more likely reason is simply that they are wrong. Not morally (which is another discussion), but factually.
What we seem to be seeing recently is the rejection of this entire cultural project, through democratically expressed choice, and the rejection has come not from the machinations of “the Right”, but from the abject failure of the Left. Whether it is Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, political correctness, elitist contempt for large sections of the population, pandering to identity politics and collectivism rather than common humanity and intelligible ethical stances, and smooth, unaccountable globalism have driven people to give their answer. The spell seems to be broken, and well comrade, you done did it yourself.
The response of Left has of course been to double down and characterise those who had the audacity to oppose membership of the political institution of the EU, or the historic sainthood of Hillary Clinton, as racists, xenophobes, misogynists, homo and transphobes and pretty much the irreducible dregs of an old order. There was even the advice to “just not bother” with appealing to white men, and the famous characterisation of “the deplorables”. The Remain campaign in Britain fell into a panic of wounded identity, and quickly rallied into demonstrating their sense of moral superiority. Guardian readers against the approaching Fourth Reich. The response to a democratic mandate to leave the EU was ….. a petition to overturn it. Enough said.
The Left unfortunately cannot see anything other than Left and Right, or if under stress, The Valiant and The Fascists. Thus the need to turn this popular revolt into the work of “white supremacists” and “racists”. Hillary Clinton’s hilarious (mis)identification of the so called Alt-Right has since also given the media (which is still reeling) a way to characterise even people who have explicitly said that they are not part of the Alt-Right as white supremacists, as if you can attach “Alt-Right” to someone, then you can pretend they are part of a vicious fascist movement with inflated numbers, and imaginary unity and organisation.
All this, to avoid the obvious. That you were factually wrong, and people are sick of being told that they are morally wrong, when they haven’t done anything to be ashamed of. That they are sick of being told they have privilege by journalists and academics in luxury condos, and the student children of the rich, when they can’t pay their bills. That when they think, like the vast majority of humanity, that there are two genders, they are called bigots even when they respect someone for going the whole hog and transitioning. That when they see a mad raging queen going off on someone, they have to pretend it’s ok, however much reason they have to rage themselves, if they didn’t have manners and common decency.
It’s all that radicalism you shoved down people’s throats, with all the charm of a cold eyed fish. It’s all the common sense you ignored, because it wasn’t approved. It’s the problems you ignored, because they didn’t make ideological capital.
It’s over, but it probably won’t go without a whole load of drama.
And it’s nothing to do with “the Right”. It’s to do with having forgotten what Liberal actually meant, and why having “enlightenment values” isn’t an insult.
[2nd December 2016 – minor edit to 5th paragraph]