Liberals need to call out the New Far-Left. It’s not ‘siding with Trump’.

TaraElla
TaraElla
Jul 10 · 8 min read

The radical ideas of Marcuse and Foucault are threatening the Enlightenment vision of justice, and we cannot stay silent any longer.

The recent wave of racial and social justice movements, in the wake of the tragic death of George Floyd, has led to the ball rolling again on a series of long overdue reforms. I, along with many others, wholeheartedly welcome this development. After all, there is no effective right to life and liberty if there is systematic police brutality, or racial bias in law enforcement.

Capitulating to the revolution of the New Far-Left?

However, as the protest movements developed, something unsettling began to occur. People were toppling statues of not just confederate generals, but of Christopher Columbus, Winston Churchill, even George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, none of whom are commonly considered offensive to racial minorities. People began self-censoring, taking down acts of comedy they did years ago that could be perceived as racist in this moment, fearing that the cancel culture mob may come after them. And there has been surprisingly little resistance to all these developments: many ‘intellectuals’ hailed them as starting a new ‘discussion’ about social justice, and several even began ‘educating’ the rest of us on how ‘racist’ people like Columbus, Churchill, and the founding fathers of America were, and why it’s ‘white supremacy’ to celebrate them.

Compared to just three years ago, this time there are much fewer voices calling for rational debate or proper procedures to be followed, and many more voices saying how they have finally come around to recognize the extreme actions of some to be ‘effective political tactics’, as if this radical shift could be compared to, say, Obama finally evolving to support gay marriage. What I’m seeing is a wholesale shift in the Overton Window, one that I am very uncomfortable about (even as a racial minority myself).

Perhaps some of this has to do with President Trump, who is increasingly ramping up his rhetoric on the ‘far-left’ in an attempt to save his diminishing prospects of re-election. I guess some people are afraid that, if they speak up against the New Far-Left at this time, they could be seen as siding with Trump, and against the movement for racial justice. However, facts are facts, and they remain true no matter who is speaking them. If Trump believes that the sun rises in the East, and you believe the same thing too, you’re not actually siding with Trump, you’re just stating the facts.

The fact is, the movement for racial justice is being co-opted in multiple parts by New Far-Left forces, who are attempting to spread their ideology and worldview using this “opportunity,” an ideology that is fundamentally incompatible with the liberal Enlightenment conception of justice. If we don’t speak up against their actions, I fear that they will gain ground rapidly, and it may be too late to argue against them later.

Let’s not pretend “progressives” are united

And it’s not like everyone is comfortable with choosing either a ‘no enemies on the Left’ position or a pro-Trump position. Far from it.

In an open letter published a few days ago on the Harper’s Magazine website, co-signed by many progressive icons, public intellectuals from all walks of life expressed their concerns that the most recent wave of racial and social justice movements have come with a price: the erosion of previously strong norms around free speech and free debate. The signatories expressed a positive sentiment towards racial and social justice, and many of them are known to be critics of Trump, but even they feel they cannot just stand by and allow this change to happen. When you have Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Deirdre McCloskey and Zephyr Teachout all saying there’s a problem, it’s clearly not just in the imagination of conservatives, as some people often suggest.

Let’s face the truth here. Even among those of us who support racial and social justice causes, there is now a deep rift. On one side are those of us who believe in the power of rational arguments, the inherent dignity of treating individuals as equal beings with moral agency, and that the best arguments will prevail at the end of the day. In the tradition of giants such as the founding fathers of America, thinkers like John Stuart Mill and John Rawls, and bittersweet success stories from women’s suffrage to civil rights, to most recently the legalization of gay marriage, we believe in justice being best delivered by winning the arguments in the free market of ideas, using an appeal to self-evident moral truths that most people will come to agree with on their own terms, without coercion of any kind. On the other side are those who believe that society and culture are held up by structures of oppression that hold down marginalized minorities, that even rational debate would inevitably favor the status quo, and that human beings are no more than pieces in a system of privilege, oppression and false consciousness. These people believe that everything about society, including the norms of free speech and free debate, must be dismantled for justice to happen. Clearly, there is no ideological compatibility at all between the two camps.

The ideological fault line we mustn't ignore

The sad truth is that, many liberals are still unaware of, or unwilling to stand up against, those to our left who don’t share our fundamental commitments, whose ideology would indeed be offensive to what we believe is justice. I’m talking about a problem that has been festering in many parts of Western society for over five decades, since the student movements of the late 1960s. During that era, the ideas of radical critical theorists like Herbert Marcuse, whose infamous 1965 essay ‘Repressive Tolerance’ laid the foundation of arguments against free speech that are still used today, infected the minds of many young activists, some of whom went on to become influential people in many walks of life. This was compounded with the rise of postmodern forms of critical theory, espoused by thinkers like Michel Foucault, who saw all knowledge and discourse as constructions and devices of power. (Noam Chomsky famously criticized this nihilistic worldview during a debate with Foucault back in the 1970s, and I think it is very fitting that he is one of the signatories of the aforementioned letter today.) If you look at the deeply problematic ideas that are coming out of the New Far-Left today, you will see that most of them can probably be traced to the thinking of these two men, Marcuse and Foucault.

To understand where Marcuse and Foucault were coming from, and hence to look at this whole ideology in the bigger picture, we must understand the roots of their thinking. Marcuse was born in Germany and had migrated to America when his radical ideas took hold of the 1968 generation, and Foucault was a thinker in the broad milieu of French postmodernism. I’m not aware of their lives or their ideas actually crossing paths at any point during their lifetimes. However, both of them were strongly influenced by the intellectual currents of Western Marxism in the 20th century, generally known as critical theory.

A more useful way of putting this is to see it as using Marxism as methodology to examine just about everything in the world, including cultural and identity matters. The inventors of critical theory, the Frankfurt School, wanted to use what they believed was “the method of Marx” to examine things. Over the years, this ‘method’ generally came to be based around seeing the world as divided into the oppressed and the oppressors, with society generally designed by the ruling class (or identity group) to suppress and exploit the marginalized classes (or groups) for their own benefit. Marx’s famous line that the ideas of every era are the ideas that serve the ruling class became the fundamental lens through which culture is critiqued, often supplemented with ideas around ‘cultural hegemony’ borrowed from early 20th century Italian Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci. It was through this lens that Marcuse came to see indiscriminate tolerance of free speech as naturally favoring the ruling class and the privileged, and it was through this lens that Foucault came to see all knowledge, including everything from history and culture to medicine and science, to be fundamentally shaped by power, to favor the interests of the powerful.

The natural consequence of this worldview is that all that we hold dear as a society must be dismantled, and that everything we believe must be fundamentally challenged. If free speech stands in the way of this project, then it too must be seen as a device of the powerful to maintain the status quo, and its sanctity must also be dismantled, like all other ‘oppressive’ constructs.

The stakes are very high indeed

The radical critical theory worldview is clearly incompatible with Enlightenment liberal values, and by definition one must seek to defeat the other to fully realize its vision. Those on the side of radical critical theory clearly understand this. I believe it is time that we, as liberals who believe in the Enlightenment version of social justice, realize the stakes in this current battle of values and principles. We owe it to future generations to try our best to make our arguments prevail. There’s no exaggeration in saying that the shape of future values, institutions and even laws of Western society will depend on if we succeed or fail to uphold the ideals of the Enlightenment.

All this doesn’t prevent us from addressing issues of social justice, like bias in law enforcement, police brutality, and other forms of continued discrimination against ethnic minorities, LGBT people, disabled people, and the like. The liberal path of free debate, democratic process and continued reforms based on consensus are the best way to deal with these problems, and there is an indisputable historical track record to prove this. Rejecting the critical theory worldview doesn’t mean we reject justice; rather, embracing justice as we understand it in the liberal tradition requires rejecting a worldview which reduces human beings to pieces in a system without moral agency, and sees everything as a zero-sum game of endless power struggle.

TaraElla is a singer-songwriter, independent journalist and author, who is passionate about free speech, liberty and equality. She is the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which focus on developing a moral case for freedom-based politics in the 21st century.

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