Left-wing liberals who are opposed to the identity politics developments on the left increasingly find ourselves accused of being right wing, referred to as “right wing” and scornfully urged to admit that we are right wing by identitarian lefties.
No. Because that is not true.
Of course, there are some individuals who insist they are left-wing while supporting economic and social policies fundamentally associated with conservatism and those individuals are either confused or dishonest, but far more often, this claim is made about typically left-wing liberals who support progressive taxes, a strong social security net, universal healthcare, gender, racial and LGBT equality and reproductive freedom.
To understand this, it is probably necessary to have a quick look at divisions on the left right now. While all lefties support economic policies which seek to redistribute wealth, reduce inequalities and support the most socially disadvantaged in society, the largest and longest split is between the socialists who advocate social ownership of the means of production—thereby putting control in the hands of the workers—and the social democrats who seek to redistribute wealth within a regulated capitalist system within a liberal democracy. These have loosely been understood as the “radical Left” and the “liberal Left” and this is also loosely connected to differing principles around social issues such as feminism (radical feminism vs liberal feminism).
There has been much animosity between these groups with the radicals accusing the liberals of being half-measure sell-outs and the liberals accusing the radicals of being delusional Utopians. Nevertheless, these have been straightforward disagreements on comprehensible issues and civil and reasonable conversation and compromise have also been possible because both groups believe that objective truth exists, that evidence and reason are the way to access it and that language is a tool for conveying these.
More recently, we have seen a rise of the identitarian lefties who hold very different ideas about objective truth, evidence, reason and language and who view society as structured by discourse (ways of talking about things) which perpetuates systems of power and privilege. As they often fit the definition of “radical” but have little in common with the older radical leftism and seldom address economics or class issues coherently, preferring to focus on identity groups like race, gender and sexuality, things have become much more messy, and communication and compromise much more difficult. These are the individuals who frequently insist that the liberal lefties are actually right-wing. As the liberal lefties make up the majority of lefties and as they are the most moderate and reasonable element of the left—and therefore the most likely to win the support of the political middle ground—this is an accusation we cannot allow to stand. We are the left and we cannot let the identitarians define us any longer.
Liberalism is a broad concept which holds to certain values of freedom (both of markets and individuals), humanitarianism in the sense of assistance for those unable to support themselves and equal opportunity in relation to removing any barriers that prevent certain groups in society from accessing all the opportunities it offers. Liberals believe in social progress and that it can be achieved by refining all of the above.
Some liberals, particularly classical liberals, can share some values with conservatives (and so also define themselves as conservatives), but their liberalism tends to emphasize the freedom of markets and individuals. As such, they often seek to minimize the state provision of such things as financial assistance for the unemployed, elderly and disabled and single-parent or poor families as well as being opposed to nationalized healthcare and initiatives intended to increase the representation of underrepresented groups within profitable areas of work. This is because they believe this to limit freedom, autonomy and individual responsibility and be ultimately unproductive of social progress. They may also oppose attempts to strengthen gun control (in the US) and support home-schooling for these reasons. They are likely to support a smaller government, less government regulation on businesses, and consequently lower taxes.
Left-wing liberals typically disagree with them about this because we are motivated by values which are left-wing. Being liberal rather than socialist, we largely support the freedom of markets but there is also a strong focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society. For this reason, we also want some regulation in there to prevent exploitation of the poorest people with the fewest options. This focus on supporting the most vulnerable in society is a primary one and has historically been for the benefit of the working class but also, when warranted, for women and for racial and sexual minorities.
Liberal lefties support the freedom of the individual but may believe this requires some extra support in the case of those who are hindered by social or cultural issues. This usually falls short of affirmative action or positive discrimination in the case of hiring which is widely held to be illiberal but may include extra initiatives to improve boys’ literacy, girls’ engagement with STEM, the provision of English-language courses for immigrants and positive role models and schemes to raise interest and education in underprivileged and single-ethnicity areas. It also includes monitoring hiring practices for (solid) evidence of racial or gender discrimination and faith schools (in the UK) for inadequate education which limits the prospects of children from minority religions.
Left-wing liberals support higher taxes for the highest earners in order to provide universal healthcare and welfare provision for the unemployed, elderly and disabled and single-parent or poor families. We point out to the socialist left who condemn our acceptance of a blended economy with a robust capitalist engine driving it that allowing people to get very rich enables us to fund such things much more successfully. We point out to the right who accuse us of encouraging dependence that we are not tolerant of abuses of such systems but would prefer to refine ways to make free-riding harder and detect offenders than making it harder for those who need help to obtain it in the first place. If forced on the choice, left-liberals would rather that some people cheated the system than that anyone fell through gaps in it. We are not very sympathetic to arguments for poor regulation of firearms or for parents’ rights’ to deny their children an adequate education or medical care because of the cost of this to human life and wellbeing. In short, we function on the care/harm moral foundation of the liberal and on the economic/social foundation of the left. We are left-wing. We are liberal lefties. And being liberal, we’ll be happy to discuss these points with you and consider other perspectives.
The Identitarian Lefties
The kind of leftist who keeps insisting that we are right-wing (apart from some on the radical left who have always said we might as well be if we’re not going to be socialists) are the relatively new identitarian lefties. They are not liberal. They are a product of an intellectual shift which occurred in the sixties when leftist intellectuals became disillusioned with Marxism and developed the concept of postmodernism. This mode of thought saw society as a system of hierarchical power structures and argued that knowledge was actually a construct of power perpetuated by speech (discourse) which served the interests of dominant groups in society. By the nineties, this had been incorporated into several fields of scholarship like feminism, postcolonialism, queer theory and critical race theory. It had also been made more explicitly political and actionable. Concepts like “intersectionality,” “toxic masculinity” and “white fragility” became a part of social justice activism.
Consequently, these left-wing academics and activists saw identity politics as politically empowering and were critical of liberal leftism which sought to make identity categories socially irrelevant. They tended to see liberalism as part of an outdated and inadequate modernist system which was created by straight, white, rich, western men and therefore can be understood to support the interests of straight, white, rich, western men. They still do.
They believe this despite the fact that the Civil Rights Movement, Second-Wave liberal feminism and Gay Pride were all part of that liberalism and public support of them was such that the 60s and 70s saw huge leaps forward in anti-discrimination legislation, the decriminalization of male homosexuality and the advent of effective and legal birth control and reproductive freedom. Despite such legal equality and much social progress in the reduction of prejudice, the dramatic increase of women and racial and sexual minorities into professions and positions of power and the promise of continuing progress, they see racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia everywhere because of their intense focus on language which they read through an ideologically problematizing lens. Think of the focus on “microaggressions,” “mansplaining,” and “verbal violence.”
These lefties share some core tenets of leftism in that they want to support the most vulnerable in society, but they tend to neglect the poorest people if they lack other identity characteristics associated with disadvantage—being female, of ethnic minority or LGBT. There is little support for white, working class men and they frequently deny that straight, white men can face any disadvantages at all or speak in ways which assume this. This has almost certainly assisted the present reactionary surge to the right.
Identitarian lefties also share the care/harm foundation of liberalism with this drive to end inequality and prioritize groups seen as marginalized, but this is accompanied by a rage at groups seen as privileged. The result is a highly illiberal practice of evaluating the worth of individuals by their gender, race or sexuality. Because of the belief that power in society is constructed by language, they are also prone to authoritarian censoriousness about what language can and cannot be used and which ideas may or may not be discussed.
This bent to control is in profound contrast to the traditionally liberal support of the “marketplace of ideas.” The concept of the marketplace also placed a high value on the power of language in the sense that ideas could be presented by all, discussed by all and, in this way, the best ones would be revealed and this has been remarkably successful. This cannot work in a postmodern worldview because the latter assumes a standpoint epistemology, which holds that different groups have different knowledge and all are equally valid but that the ideas of dominant groups are falsely given more credibility than those of marginalized groups, necessitating dominant groups to be quiet and listen (See feminist epistemology).
The New Conflict
We are now in a situation in which the three parts of the left—radical, liberal and identitarian—are locked in an unproductive deadlock. The radicals oppose the identitarians whom they see as bourgeois elitists rooted in the academy who have completely abandoned the working class and the meaning of leftism. They remain at odds with the liberals for their lack of support for socialism. The liberals oppose the identitarians whom they regard as profoundly illiberal and threatening to undo decades of progress towards individual freedom and equality of opportunity regardless of race, gender and sexuality. They find the radicals of little help in supporting liberalism. The identitarians largely ignore the radicals except in the form of radical feminist rejection of trans identity which they condemn as transmisogynistic hatred but pay some confused lip-service to anti-capitalism (which does not mollify the radicals). They reserve most of their ire for the liberals who are addressing the same social and ethical issues that they are.
Liberal lefties receive most of the identitarian rage because we cannot support the postmodern rejection of an objective truth nor their science-denying cultural constructivism. More than this, however, we cannot support the idea that it is virtuous to see people as members of collectives arranged within a hierarchy that determines who may speak about what in some kind of grotesque recreation of a caste system or medieval feudalism. We cannot accept that the liberalism which has produced so much social progress for previously marginalized groups in society is part of a white, western, patriarchal, cis/heteronormative system of oppression due to its principle that we don’t evaluate people by race, gender or sexuality. We tend to be rather skeptical that we live in a white-supremacist, homophobic patriarchy at all and this is understood (somehow) to be an endorsement of it, although we nearly always accept that racism, sexism and homophobia still exist and have the principles and the will to counter them. For this, we are seen as right wing.
Even more damning, liberal lefties might not regard liberal righties as inveterate enemies but ally themselves against illiberal extremism with those who support liberal principles of freedom and equal opportunity consistently wherever they fall on the political spectrum. We still want left-wing parties to win and left-wing policies to be implemented and right-wing ones not to, but this does not require regarding everyone on the right as immoral bad actors with nothing of worth to contribute. For this, we are seen as right wing.
We are not right wing.
Some liberal lefties have denied that identitarian lefties are lefties at all, but an understanding of their origins and development reveals this to be wishful thinking. Although they share some views about gender and racial segregation and an authoritarian, censorious nature with those on the far-right, leading many to argue for horseshoe theory, these two groups come from very different places and work in very different ways. Identitarian lefties come from an intellectual development which took place on the left and the left must take responsibility for that and fix it.
The only way for the liberal left to fix this problem is to engage with it. For too long, too many of us have minimized the problem due to a perceived need to maintain solidarity against the rise of the populist right, alt-right and far right. Others have not addressed the problem, simply because they do not understand the counterintuitive ideological core of it and feel that anyone who seeks racial, gender and LGBT equality is an ally, even if some of them go too far in their zeal. Others are afraid of being called racist, sexist or homophobic and associated with the right which is, in fact, what is happening. Some have become so alienated from the left due to being called racist, sexist or homophobic that they have genuinely gone right, feeling that there, at least, they will be welcome. There has been much condemnation of this last group and some self-righteous crowing that they could never have been that committed to leftist principles in the first place. That could be true. Even if it is, we need to win them back if we want to win any elections and actually enact the policies which will help the most vulnerable people. This is far more important than gloating about one’s own supposed political purity.
There is also that problem inherent to liberalism: an excess of tolerance, a willingness to compromise and a desire not to impose on other people. Because the liberal left is the least radical, least authoritarian branch of the left, it is vulnerable to being shouted over by more radical voices who come to define the left for waverers. These louder voices undermine the left, however. Because the liberal left is the most open to other ideas, it is prone to appearing inconsistent. Because it is tolerant of ideas it does not agree with, provided they do not impose on others, it can be mistaken for a pushover. This is a mistake. The principles of liberalism, while diffuse, are strong enough and consistent enough to have become dominant throughout the whole of the western world. They are so widely held that the majority perceive them as sufficiently natural and self-evident that they neglect the need to defend them. (James Lindsay and I wrote about this here).
The liberal left has been hindered in its aims to oppose the identitarian left by misguided loyalty, by incomprehension, by denial, by fear, by despair, by complacency and by excessive tolerance. This gives the impression that there are few of us left and that the left is now defined by the identitarian, authoritarian ideologues. This gives strength to the right. We need to get more visible, more unified and braver. We need to accept that the problem exists, understand how it works and speak out against it calmly, civilly and reasonably at the risk of being called racist, sexist and homophobic—despite being the ones who reject the evaluation of individuals by their race, gender and sexuality. We need to remember how to argue our case and not assume it is obvious. The more of us who do this, the easier it will be for more to join. This is the way to win back the left, win back public confidence, win elections and bring about the policies we want to see made. We are not right wing. We are liberal lefties, we are the majority and we can fix this.