The Political Compass is a model of two axes, one running horizontally from left to right, the other vertically down through the middle. One represents a spectrum of ideas concerning economic organisation: the far left of tightly controlled state economics running across to the deregulation and free markets of the right; the other of social control: a hard, top line of extreme authoritarianism sliding down into anarchy.
It is useful, this compass, in that it highlights well our preoccupation with left and right, to the extent that we tend not only to lose sight of the equally important vertical axis, but also to confuse the two; leading, among other things, to the often lazy conflation of the socially liberal with the left. It was in this way that a neo-liberal free marketeer such as Emmanuel Macron, was able in the French presidential election to be presented as somehow a candidate of the left, when in fact it was his libertarian, not leftist, values that held him in such stark contrast to Le Pen’s hateful authoritarianism.
Recent times have witnessed a frightening rise in political violence and intimidation, particularly towards women, and as one whose compass point sticks squarely in the centre of the libertarian left, I have become increasingly alarmed by what I view as a sharp spike in authoritarianism amongst those who would claim to be my kin. In what now seems a constant state of political panic, the rhetoric and hyperbole continually escalate, carrying with it a new breed of leftists whose ideas seep already deep into the mainstream, influencing policy and steering social change.
On first hearing the shouts of, “Punch a Nazi,” I will confess it did not immediately occur to me that anything much was amiss, because I too despise the far right and everything they stand for. Who, that believes ultimately in the right to physically defend our communities from those who would actively endeavour to destroy them, and who has vowed never, ever again, has tears to spare for the likes of Richard Spencer? Still, the moral quandary soon came, straddling the line between self defence and the idea that one can ever be justified in attacking another whose ideology you find deplorable, yet is physically harming no one. I began to shift slightly in my seat.
From there developed a new understanding of fascism, not as the sole preserve of a tiny minority of extremists, but as an increasingly broad church. Observing with discomfort as the new breed of leftists repeatedly cast their net wider and wider, hauling in every dawdling Brexiteer and errant journalist not looking where they were going: denouncing, assassinating, twisting words into knots. Fascists, it seemed, were now lurking around every sharp corner.
Finally, as was always inevitable I suppose, I unwittingly became a fascist myself. I dared write an article explaining gender as a social construct, and the new left descended. My article was killing people, quite literally, and by virtue of nothing more than these views regarding sex and gender, I was now a far right bigot, and so deserved to die. The rationale was thus: I had perpetrated what was known to be ideological violence, which was explained to me as being just exactly like physical violence, only worse, and so come the revolution I could expect the bullet. In the meantime, ‘punch a Nazi’ and ‘punch a TERF’ had become interchangeable.
Something was deeply wrong and so in my shock and confusion I began to search. The thought criminals I found were scattered all over, from the ex muslim women who dared speak their experiences of religiously justified oppression, to the free speech advocates and classical liberals; from the gender apostates and the radical feminists, to the wishy washy moderates: not one fascist among them, yet all had found themselves cast out as the window of acceptable Leftist thought had shrunk ever smaller, turning all outside it into a single, one dimensional monster.
Feminism has always been a political movement of the left, inherently collectivist and committed to justice and freedom. Yet in a cynical attempt to discourage others from engaging with what those of us who question the individualism of the third wave have to say, we are being portrayed by the new left as synonymous with the bigoted right. It isn’t true, but in a world without nuance, where anyone outside the acceptable thought window can be declared simply evil, there is no inconvenient voice cannot be dismissed out of hand.
This recasting of all disallowed opinion as fascist threat though, allows the idea espoused by some on the new left — that the biggest issue facing the Western world today is the rise of fascism — to become far more plausible. But while the populist right has undoubtedly been enjoying an increased recent visibility, and this has, among other concerns, put a frighteningly incompetent racist in the White House, I would still argue that the number of people genuinely supportive of a dictatorial nationalism is tiny. This small number may have been emboldened by recent political events — and of course must be robustly challenged wherever they preach their poison — but they are still few and abhorred by the majority. The vast bulk of Brexiteers and Trump supporters do not wish for the forcible creation of a white ethnostate, and to imply that they might is both alarmist and dangerous.
A left wing woman all my life, I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to say it is the rise of authoritarianism on my own apparent side that has become my more pressing concern; that what I am witnessing today are leftists who do not care to win the argument, but who wish to impose, on everyone, ideas with which the majority disagree or do not fully understand. Ideas, for example, such as that individual experiences of gender trump and dictate sex, which then becomes a meaningless construct. This is a nonsense, and yet the aim is to control all terminology and language deemed acceptable around the subject, and to punish with social sanctions any slight deviation. Not only does the new left consider it acceptable to shut down all and any questioning of this brand new doctrine, but also to intimidate and use physical violence against open dissenters. Those leftists that are not violent are then under pressure to engage in the justification, minimisation, or wilful ignoring of said violence in order to remain in favour and avoid becoming a target themselves. What I am witnessing today are fine principles of progressivism and freedom being weaponised in order to attack peoples rights, silence those who object, and promote the very opposite of those values laid claim to.
It is upside down and back to front: an ideology that allows wealthy, famous, and influential men to paint me, a single mother on a perilously low income, who rents her home from the council and has been interested in progressive politics her whole life long, as a powerful, right wing oppressor. It is an ideology that allows a white trans woman to point the finger at a prominent Somalian FGM campaigner, and dismiss her as a “White Feminist”. It is an ideology rapidly gaining in political support and social power, and which has already forced changes to the application of equality legislation before any material change has been made to the law. As principled people, I believe we have a duty to ask ourselves what an ideology such as this, in full control of state power, might look like.
No matter from which direction it comes, an increasing authoritarianism ought always to alarm free thinking people. Those who are so convinced of their absolute moral superiority and unquestionable rightness, they believe themselves entitled to use violence and intimidation to push their political agenda, are not those to whom we should wish to give more power. Their windows of acceptable thought will always inevitably shift and shrink. Today we may be safe inside, but tomorrow who can tell?