The Obsessions of the Illiberal Left and the Illiberal Right
The Illiberal Left is about deconstruction, and the Illiberal Right is about literalism.
Welcome to the Lib Lib Report, i.e. the Liberal Libertarian Report, where we talk about news and current affairs from a liberal libertarian point of view. We aim for a practical pro-liberty politics encouraging things like free speech and free thought in the here and now, while looking for more libertarian solutions moving towards the future.
Recently, I have been talking about how the illiberal left and the illiberal right are similar in many ways, including their blind faith in utopian fantasies, and the influence of critical theory on both movements. Today, however, I am going to look at a key difference between the illiberal left and the illiberal right. I think it is because of this difference that the two can’t ever be united.
From what I see, the biggest difference between the illiberal left and the illiberal right is what they are most obsessed about.
The illiberal left is obsessed with deconstruction. For the illiberal left, every part of the status quo, every structure and every institution, is a product of oppressive power relations, and needs to be deconstructed to bring about liberation. The illiberal left is illiberal because they believe the freedoms guaranteed by liberalism are part of the oppressive structure to maintain the status quo, to prevent the dismantling of the status quo. I believe this view is illustrated most clearly in Herbert Marcuse’s infamous essay Repressive Tolerance, where he essentially says that liberalism’s universal tolerance leads to the upholding of the repressive and oppressive status quo, and that a truly liberating tolerance must be selectively intolerant to some ideas, i.e. illiberal at least some of the time. Hence, the basic logic of the illiberal left looks like this: the freedoms guaranteed by liberalism make the liberated utopia they desire impossible to achieve, so they must be knocked down.
Meanwhile, the illiberal right is obsessed with literalism, as in the literal reading of statements and rules, and the rigid obedience to such rules. We all know that conservative Christianity often insists on a literal reading of the Bible. However, this worldview is not limited to religion. Conservative legal academics and judges approach the law with the same literalism, for example. I think some conservatives’ attitudes on LGBT issues also stem from their worldview that everything should function according to rigid rules, and their discomfort about LGBT rights could stem from their discomfort about what are clearly exceptions to the rule. For the authoritarian right, liberalism is bad because it allows people the freedom of conscience to interpret the rules of life, and to potentially break the rules some regard as sacred. When they speak of the ‘common good’, it is really the society-wide obedience to the sacred rules that they have in mind. Which, of course, is not what many of us would consider to be the common good.
A recent concern is that the illiberal right could start using judicial literalism to read down legal rights to liberty, so that the government could have more scope to legislate morality. This is in fact my biggest concern about the recent leaked US Supreme Court opinion on abortion and Roe v. Wade. This is not about whether Roe itself was the correct legal decision or not, but rather, the logic used to overturn Roe in the opinion. From what I understand, the logic is that, since the right to privacy is not explicitly stated in the US constitution, there is no rule that it must be respected by governments, at least not to the extent implied in Roe. Many people are concerned that this could set a precedent to roll back other rights, and I agree with them. The authoritarian right clearly intends to take a very narrow, literalist view on the guarantees to liberty in Western liberal democracies. Under their worldview, government action could be justified as long as it does not literally violate the word of the constitution. There is no respect for the broader spirit of liberty at all. For the authoritarian right, only the literal words of the law matter, the broader values of liberty don’t. I guess this is why they think they can transform the West to resemble illiberal democracies like Hungary, while still being true to the traditions of the West.
In conclusion, while the illiberal left and the illiberal right are similarly unrealistic, utopian, disrespectful to others’ freedoms, and influenced by critical theory, their ultimate objective is different, and this is why they can’t really unite to form a firm anti-liberal bloc. The illiberal left’s objective is to dismantle the status quo, while the illiberal right’s objective is to remake society into one that is rigidly bound by black and white rules that are often religiously inspired. These two goals are clearly incompatible with each other. I think certain personality traits, e.g. perfectionism and black and white thinking, could predispose a person towards both goals, and I think this could explain why there are so many people who switch from the illiberal left to the illiberal right, and vice versa. But one can only be committed to either goal at one time. Therefore, while illiberal people can and do switch camps, the two camps can’t ever be combined into one.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.