Over the past few months, I’ve written a number of pieces for outlets like Quillette and this magazine, Areo. While these magazines publish articles on a wide variety of topics—from political thought to the dangers and opportunities of artificial intelligence—in the public’s mind, they are indelibly associated with a critique of certain kinds of left wing politics. The Guardian characterized Quillette as a magazine “obsessed” with pointing out the vulgarities of campus politics and attacks on free speech. After the Sokal Squared hoax, Areo’s own Helen Pluckrose was criticized for providing “red meat” to right-wing reactionaries, by mocking certain forms of progressive scholarship. This has led to the assumption that these forums, and others like them, are at best forums for venting about left-wing idiosyncrasies, and at worst a back door to right-wing indoctrination.
Certain progressives automatically assume that I am a conservative—or at least a boring neoliberal centrist—because I write for Areo. They’re often surprised when I tell them I’m a proud leftist and have little interest in converting. Moreover, I spend a healthy chunk of my time in these outlets criticizing conservative ideas. The inevitable follow up question is: why write for these outlets? Why engage with a space that is associated with conservatives and right-wing ideas?
This always strikes me as an unusual set of questions, demonstrating the extent to which political polarization has taken root in our culture. This kind of polarization impacts leftists as much as anyone. Many progressives spend a great deal of their time engaging with and reading left-wing literature. This literature is obviously highly critical of conservative positions, but in a telling way. Often, left wing criticisms of conservative positions take the form of dismissal, moral injunction and ad hominem attacks. While these have the virtue of galvanizing attention, there are limitations to this style of politics. The most obvious is that they are preaching to the converted. This kind of progressive literature tends to dismiss conservative positions, without really breaking down why they are wrong in any detail. It is unlikely to inspire or persuade anyone who is not already on board with progressive positions. This has led to many of the stereotypes associated with the left: that leftists put emotion over reason, tribalism over universalism, condemnation over debate and so on.
A lot of these claims are dramatically overstated, but some are not without basis. And even if the right-wing caricatures of the left were entirely off base, it is something of a moot point because many people feel that they are true. The left has an image problem. In this piece, I want to profile the emergence of what I called the engaged left. The people who make up this sector of the left are a new set of creators, writers and intellectuals, who have broken with the stereotype of left-wing puritanism. Most importantly, they are not afraid to rigorously analyze and break down the weak points in conservative arguments. And they are far more willing to move past various forms of what David Harvey calls “militant particularism,” to offer big picture analyses of the current political climate. In other words, engaged leftists differ quite a lot from their forebears.
The Old Left and the New Left
Defining the left is a difficult task in part because the style and positions associated with the label have evolved drastically over time. Few contemporary leftists—or conservatives—would likely feel they have a great deal in common with their predecessors in the National Assembly of France, which is where the left-right political dichotomy emerged. Moreover, these binaries don’t respect the often considerable ideological differences amongst even those who associate with the same political label.
It might be helpful here to distinguish between what is sometimes called the old left and the new left. The old left was arguably ascendant until the mid-twentieth century, and it still casts a long shadow. Some trace its origins to the egalitarian traditions of the nineteenth century: Benthamite utilitarianism, socialism and Marxism. While adopting very different philosophical standpoints, these traditions were united by the same underpinning orientation. While the old left often emphasized civil and women’s rights, its overriding concern was the elimination of class conflict and the establishment of a more economically egalitarian society. On the more extreme end, this often meant a commitment to the wholesale overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of a communist society. This was of course the position taken by the various Marxist parties, which grew in influence after the rise of the Soviet Union. Later, social democratic Keynesians and social democrats pushed for the more moderate agenda of establishing a robust welfare state, which would retain (modest) economic incentive structures, but redistribute wealth to ensure that everyone enjoyed a certain quality of life. For many, the old left reached its apex with the near revolutions of 1968, and gradually diminished in importance until the fall of the Soviet Union brought about an end to history, after which any substantial tampering with neoliberal capitalism was regarded as unthinkable. The grand narratives about a new kind of society which had defined the old left, particularly its Marxist wing, were seen as a thing of the past. As the Marxist Slavoj Žižek puts it, everyone became closet Fukuyamists, convinced that even the modest goal of expanding the welfare state was no longer realistic.
What has since become known as the new left emerged in the 1960s, in part as a rejection of Marxist and social democratic positions and styles of agitation. New left forms of politics differed considerably from those of the old left in rejecting what Jean Francois Lyotard calls the “grand [egalitarian] narratives” of the past. In these narratives, there was a universal path to equality and emancipation, which all people must follow to create a more just world. After the failures of the Marxist and social democratic movements, the aims of these ambitious theories and this political grandiosity seemed highly implausible. The new left had to push for greater equality and political participation by demanding different kinds of policy changes and adopting a novel style.
New leftism tended to be defined by a combination of critical irony towards established traditions and political identities, combined with expressions of outrage at their persistence. It was declaratory, positioning itself through ideological distaste at what it was opposed to. In this respect, what leftism was for was rather relative and ambiguous. New leftists focused on calls for greater inclusion in political institutions and criticism of different processes of marginalization. But this was often done in an ironic way, by demonstrating why established traditions and political identities were not really universal since they left so many groups out. For instance, by showing that ideals like free speech and universal rights could never be truly realized in liberal (or any) societies, these older leftists hoped to destabilize the status quo and create new spaces for political participation. Or by arguing that gender and sexual binaries were unstable and ideologically driven, they hoped to increase acceptance of gender and sexual minorities. Often, these efforts were admirably successful, provoking serious conversations and reforms, which helped everyone from racial minorities to LQBT people—achievements essential to securing the human dignity of many groups that have for too long been marginalized. However, there was a price to pay for this deconstructive irony: many people came to associate the new left with a purely negative and even nihilistic attitude.
Who Are the Engaged Leftists?
The engaged leftists of today include YouTube commentators like Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints fame and Zero Book’s Douglas Lain; scholars like Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind; magazine editors, such as Current Affairs’ Nathan Robinson; writers like Angela Nagle; and entertainers like John Oliver and Trevor Noah. Some of these people focus more on providing accessible and in-depth analyses of left-wing ideas: see for example the YouTube channels Cuck Philosophy and Philosophy Tube. Others focus more on criticizing conservative or conservative-leaning ideas and intellectual leaders, from the alt right to Jordan Peterson. Critiques of economic inequality, presented by figures like Mexie, are becoming as common as discussions of ongoing racial marginalization and sexism. These leftists obviously share commonalities with their predecessors, but differ from them in dramatic ways as well.
Engaged leftists remain opposed to all forms of reactionary conservatism. But their style tends to be more argumentative than declaratory. Responding to the caricature of new leftists as puritanical and shrill, the engaged leftists approach their work with a substantially different tone. People like Natalie Wynn and John Oliver deliver their ideas with a sense of humor and sarcasm, but also with sincerity and a desire to engage, which are uncharacteristic of postmodern art and leftism.
This is related to the substance of their claims. Engaged leftists tend to present themselves as being for policies or ideologies—such as the establishment of a social democracy—for which they argue concretely, while arguing against the counterproposals of their conservative opponents. Consequently, engaged leftists are more willing to acknowledge where they might have something to learn from their political opponents. This is because the aim is not just to ironically deconstruct and criticize established traditions and political identities, but to show how these may be better realized and respected in a more egalitarian society. This contrasts with the more ironic and didactic style used by earlier leftists, who tended to deploy deconstruction as a tool of ambiguous emancipation, while declaring their fidelity to a set of political values.
The Argumentative Style of the Engaged Left
One characteristic gambit of the engaged leftists is to take conservative arguments and sentiments seriously, while still arguing for progressive positions. Whether it is Cuck Philosophy releasing a nearly hour-long video criticizing Stephen Hicks’ approach to postmodernism, John Oliver dedicating an entire segment of his show to the viability of Trump’s wall, or Zero Books analyzing the problems with social justice warriors, engaged leftists everywhere are tackling conservative arguments head on. Rather than simply condemning them outright or caricaturing them as bigoted, these figures tend to look at the claims of their opponents carefully. They acknowledge aspects of their positions that may have some value, before proceeding to argue that they are nonetheless wrong either overall or where it matters. And, more importantly, they recognize the emotional basis of many conservative positions. Where the earlier, more ironic style of new left agitation aimed at deconstruction, the engaged left often looks for points of mutual understanding, since this abets communication and might encourage a shift in viewpoints.
One exemplar of the engaged left style is Natalie Wynn of Contrapoints, who has been praised by figures on the left and even the right for her ability to successfully engage with conservative audiences and positions. In her recent video “The Apocalypse,” which discusses the impact of climate change, Wynn stages a debate between a climate activist and a denier. The activist carefully points out various facts and details to the denier, who is relaxing and enjoying some wine, only to be rebuffed at each point. The climate denier concedes some of the scientific points put forward about climate change, but admits that she feels powerless to do anything about it and simply wants to live her life in peace. This mock dialogue staged by Wynn is quite telling. She concedes that many climate change deniers aren’t likely to be persuaded by facts and figures alone, because—even if true—they seem overwhelming and don’t provide a deeper emotional impetus to action. Another exemplar of this style is Zero Book’s ongoing look at the emotional appeal of conservative and far right positions. In a recent video on incels and anti-feminists, Douglas Lain doesn’t simply condemn such people for holding undeniably repugnant views about women. Instead, he recognizes that the society we live in can produce various forms of alienation, which inspire many to turn to reactionary political positions. Or there is the video “Steve Bannon,” produced by Philosophy Tube, which racked up over a hundred thousand views in a few days. The video is a point-by-point analysis of Bannon’s post-liberal nationalism, analyzing its appeal and the nuggets of insight it contains, before subjecting it to withering criticism.
In each of these examples, the orientation of engaged left-wing agitation has shifted away from ironic criticism and declarations of political fidelity to left-wing values. It has moved towards understanding, argument and persuasion. This allows for the genuine confrontation of polarizing ideas. As Wynn herself observes in an early Contrapoints video, there is something inspiring about leaving one’s ideological comfort zone and engaging with ideas and people who may hold very different and even repellent views. As a bonus, one might also be able to persuade a few people to see the light, though of course this is exceptionally difficult.
Being an engaged leftist means being less declaratory and ironic, more argumentative and persuasive. This is an art, not a science—and some engaged leftists are more talented at it than others. But this shift has happened in response to the cultural dynamics and criticisms of leftist positions made over the past several years.
Areo is an outlet that welcomes voices from all ends of the political spectrum, so long as they present their positions clearly and demonstrate a degree of analytical rigor in their argumentation. Its readers also tend to hold eclectic positions on a range of issues, but are noteworthy for their willingness to engage with their opponents, so long as the latter have something interesting and provocative to say. This makes it a worthy forum for defending progressive positions, while engaging in fair, but concerted, criticism of conservative positions. No doubt there will be ongoing controversies and occasionally furious arguments—from whether it makes sense to move away from postmodern epistemologies to whether it makes sense to adopt constructivist teaching methods. But being an engaged leftist means not shying away from these bigger questions and demonstrating a willingness to argue with those who disagree most passionately with us. This is what can make Areo and other new media outlets valuable to progressives looking to get away from irony and willing to tackle the big controversies of the day.