One of the frames I employ in my first book, “Politics for the New Dark Age: Staying Positive Amidst Disorder” is the [not original] hypothesis that there’s a statistical correlation between progressive economic values and libertarian social views, and a corresponding correlation between conservatism and authoritarianism. So, at least in the modern Anglo-Saxon social equilibrium, an economic progressive is more likely than not to also be socially liberal, and a laissez-faire capitalist is more likely than not to be socially conservative. I suggest that this correlation is driven by the question of interpersonal trust: progressives believe that other people will look out for both their own best interests and the those of others.
But correlation is not deterministic, so there’ll be a significant minority of voters on the Left who are economically progressive but socially conservative, and a significant minority of voters on the Right who are ‘fiscally conservative’ but socially liberal. In order to win a majority, each side’s base (i.e. the economic and social progressives vs the economic and social conservatives) must cobble together a coalition from the minority factions - so both the Left and Right aim to sway a mix of working-class conservatives and socially liberal capitalists. Since the 1980s, the global Right has won this battle overall - in my view, largely because parties of the centre Left gave up on offering genuine economic alternative. We’ll return to the question of who really ‘won’ the neoliberal era later.
The Stupidpol Nexus
I’ve been reading [the late] Mark Fisher lately, as well as a little bit of Zizek. Both are cynical philosophers, deeply critical of capitalism. Their work represents the kind of writing that could inspire a movement like “Occupy Wall Street” but not offer a blueprint for the future. Today’s Left is a lot more optimistic about the potential for transformative economic change. Both Fisher and Zizek, though, sometimes let their critique of neoliberal capitalism seague into a critique of the liberal project more broadly. Fisher’s “Exiting the Vampire Castle” is one of the seminal texts of what later became the anti-Identity Politics Left and Zizek has been such an effective foil against the Intellectual Dark Web-types largely because he’s a quasi-Marxist who agrees with their some of their criticisms of feminism, queer theory and immigration.
As I’ve written before, the correct Left take on identity politics is that we like it, but recognise that it doesn’t offer a blueprint for meaningful structural change. It’s a tool for perfecting liberalism, not transforming it.
Which brings us to the inspiration for this week’s blog, the 100th episode of the “Red Scare” podcast, guest starring Angela Nagle. I don’t normally listen to Red Scare for reasons I’ll explain shortly, but horrifying prospect of Sailor Socialism and Nagle offering an unfiltered look into the minds of anti-IdPol Left was too fascinating to pass up. Red Scare is a dirtbag left-adjacent podcast whose co-hosts flirt openly with the ‘Strasserite’ label. Nagle, who rose to fame as one of the foremost experts on the online extreme right, has in recent years raised questions about how must sympathy she has for her subjects, and provoked firestorms with takes such as “The Left Case Against Open Borders” which openly employed right-wing anti-immigration narratives [Zizek loved it]. Both are rapidly pro-Bernie, but largely for the same reasons the liberal-Left hate him: his understatement of race and gender issues, scepticism about open borders and opposition to US foreign policy.
Even knowing what I was getting myself into, I was appalled. Egging each other on, the episode was shockingly reactionary. Flirting ironically [or not so ironically?] with ‘national socialism’, openly contemptuous of both political correctness and cosmopolitanism, Nagle and the hosts openly praised communitarian philosophy (and leaders such as Brazil’s Bolsonaro) in opposition to an ethic of individual freedom. Red Scare’s central thesis is not just that liberal identity politics is philosophically and political weak, but that it is actually harmful [to the left]. One could make the argument they mean this tactically (as in: “we need to win back white working-class men”) - but I suspect Nagle at least sees liberalism as actualy corrosive to her idea of society, which may be socialist but is definitely communitarian and exclusionary. In this, the progressivism that Nagle represents is far closer to the European Left as embodied by people like Melenchon, who combine radical politics with a hefty dose of cultural chauvinism.
It’s for this this reason that the r/stupidpol crowd often find itself agreeing with the ‘anti-SJW’ Right. The centre-Right are so incapable of agreeing to any socialist policies that Nagle and the views she represents seem like a revelation. But to the smarter neo-Nazis, such as Richard Spencer and Matthew Heimbach, and Fox News host Tucker Carlson, they represent an opportunity. True fascists have no compunction against economic resdistribution, so long as it favours their chosen in-group. What matters to fascists is destroying liberalism - with its emphasis on personal freedoms, its open and multicultural societies and social experimentation. And in the communitarian Left, they see willing accomplicies in achieving this goal.
The New Right crumbles
Coincidentally, I’ve also become aware of an emerging culture war split on the American Right, as embodied by the David French v Sohrab Ahmari debate. I don’t pretend to even remotely follow right-wing discourse and everything I know about the situation comes from summaries by other writers. In essence, there seems to be a sense that William Buckley’s New Right coalition of the pro-capitalist and socially conservative wings of the Right is coming under strain [we saw some analogies to this in Australia under the recent troubled Prime Ministerships of Tony Abbot and Malcolm Turnbull]. Despite the manifest success of this electoral strategy, there seems to be a growing view from the Right’s socially and economically conservative base that they no longer need the neoliberal/libertarian technocrats in suits - that, coupled with the populist [Trumpian] outreach to the socially conservative working class, a permanent socially reactionary majority is attainable.
In this, the hard Right has the same complaint about their alliance with right-wing liberals that the anti-IdPol Left has about their alliance with left-wing liberals. For social conservatives, pro-market liberalism is not just a philosophically and politically weak movement, but is actually harmful [to the right] and their desired society. And they have a point. “Woke Capitalism” may be dysfunctional and inegalitarian, but it‘s proved more than willing to accommodate movements for social change that don’t challenge capitalism, to integrate and even cater to minority populations, and to prioritise the interests of capital when it comes to migration over any communitarian concerns about social and cultural cohesion. Rather than seeing the last forty years as a history of unparalleled right-wing political dominance, the far right sees a series of cultural setbacks (particularly on gay rights and women’s reproductive freedom). Liberal political values of secularism and cultural pluralism are a meaningful roadblock to the communitarian kind of societies they want to build. Of course, they’re deluded - abortion is on the chopping bloc in the US and not as secure elsewhere as we might like, and the backlash against feminism and queer movements remains vicious and culturally powerful. But that’s their theory.
Here then, is my central thesis. As I began at the top of this bog, dominant political coalitions tend to bring in at least some of the minority perspective of the other side. For the hard Right, the bipartisan coalition between laissez-faire economics, social progressivism and social conservatism incudes too many social progressives for their liking. For the Left, the coalition between social progressives of all stripes, economic justice and neoliberalism has included far too much accommodation of the neoliberal perspective. The very coalitions each side needs to win power include sufficient moderating forces to prevent them from becoming entirely hegemonic.
In other words, the Culture War that is consuming the intra-factional politics of both Left and Right is about how each side should adopt and incorporate elements of the liberal political and social programme, which at least in the modern era is the hegemonic, centrist status quo against which other ideologies contend. My own position on this is clear: socialism is the natural heir and development of classical liberalism and the libertarian Marxist tradition’s emphasis on both political and economic freedom and self-development is the obvious next step in human cultural evolution. Stripped of its commitment to bourgeois liberal values, socialism has historically become extremely communitarian, rigid and dare I say Stalinist. In other words, I am a firm proponent of the alliance between social progressives and egalitarians of all stripes.
I also think it’s in the Left’s best interest to encourage and widen the split between cultural conservatives and economic liberals. We already see the foundations of this in Europe and Australia, when the pro-business Greens and pro-gay marriage Liberals constitute a genuine political threat to the conservative heartland - which in turn in moving in an ever-more populist direction. The worst possible thing the broader left could do in response to these trends is to jump exclusively on the cultural bandwagon, and become committed to urban, white-collar liberalism. Our commitment to social justice is secondary to our commitment to structural economic change and we have to make sure we win back the working class vote. In doing so, the Left’s base has to be bridge-builders not mere followers - convincing working class conservatives that social liberalism poses no threat to them if it also secures the material basis of their their way of life, and urban liberals that higher taxes and economic redistribution is the only route to action on climate change and true personal freedom.