I have always disagreed with people who liken the aims of Critical Social Justice (CSJ) activism to those of communist regimes. Last year, I still believed that, unlike communism, which has a clear end game of seizing the means of production for the proletariat, CSJ cannot become totalitarian because it is too contradictory, divided and irrational and too often operates like a circular firing squad since its proponents often lack a common goal.
Critical Social Justice has some intellectual underpinnings in “critical” neo-Marxism, but it is mostly grounded in postmodern notions of power, knowledge and language, which view society as constructed of oppressive systems of power and privilege that legitimize some forms of knowledge over others, which then creates ways of speaking about things—discourses—that perpetuate the oppressive power structures. Most people, it argues, are blithely unaware of those oppressive discourses and need theorists and activists to reveal them to us.
CSJ manifests in current scholarship as postcolonial and decolonial theory, Critical Race Theory, queer theory, intersectional feminist, disability and fat studies or simply as (Critical) Social Justice Scholarship. It appears in activism as a drive to decolonize everything, see whiteness and white fragility everywhere and scrutinise language for evidence of transphobia, ableism and fatphobia. It is colloquially referred to as wokeism to indicate an awareness of the oppressive power structures of white supremacy, patriarchy, imperialism, cisnormativity, fatphobia etc. that the majority of us are sleepwalking through.
At the beginning of 2019, I predicted that CSJ would break into smaller and smaller squabbling factions and eventually self-destruct. I still thought it was dangerous and needed addressing urgently. Before it inevitably imploded, I feared that it could take out a lot of good people, damage a lot of vital institutions, inflict potentially fatal wounds to liberalism, empiricism and rationalism and undermine or even reverse progress on racial, gender and LGBT issues.
However, over the over the past six months, it has become clear that CSJ can become totalitarian. Beginning in 2019, factionalism within CSJ has been gradually replaced by hierarchies. First, white women ceased to be a priority: the white women’s tears and Karen memes demonstrated their fall from oppressed to oppressor. White gay men also fell foul of the system by frequently failing to be woke and lesbians were automatically suspected of being TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). Asians, Jews and Hispanics became “white adjacent” because large numbers of them failed to espouse Critical Race Theory. Over the last six months, the idea of combating anti-blackness and transphobia has taken centre stage and, with it, totalitarian aims to revolutionise society by abolishing the police, compelling white people to confess their inherent complicity in white supremacy and punishing and silencing anyone who disbelieves in the queer and gender theories behind trans activism.
It should be clear by now that there is a genuine and serious problem here that affects the real world, not just the ivory tower and a few mad activists. There is ample evidence of Critical Race Theory and trans activism being imposed on the workplaces, universities and schools of average people. Anyone still claiming that the Social Justice left is just a few fringe loons must be wilfully blind.
However, when it comes to politics, morality, values and culture, we humans seem to long for simplicity. We want problems we can grasp, straightforward solutions, a cause to support and an enemy to fight. Never has this been clearer than since the US election.
Unfortunately, the problems we face right now—including the culture wars with their various feuding factions and sub-factions on left and right—are extremely complicated and navigating them in a responsible, nuanced way is hard work.
Right now, many things seem very precarious and people therefore feel extremely vulnerable. We have to balance the need to protect people from the coronavirus with safeguarding the economy to stop people from losing their businesses, jobs and homes. Global power shifts are causing significant uncertainty about economic stability in the west. The need for action on climate change has become urgent. All these issues have been intensely politicized because we are also going through momentous cultural shifts. There is a sense of existential dread: democracy and even the future of the west seem to be at stake.
At such times, people generally don’t want to think about things in a responsible, nuanced way while remaining open to a variety of different perspectives. That feels like a luxury that can only be indulged in times of security. In times of crisis, people want to be presented with a simple problem broken down into some clear evil that they can fight.
Humans can also be quite single-minded and tend to focus on one problem to the exclusion of all others. This is not an entirely negative thing. We need people to specialize and to bring their specialized knowledge to bear on situations. However, interpreting society through a single facet of it can cause people to become blinkered, trapped inside ideological bubbles and to catastrophize.
I myself have focused intensely and almost solely on Critical Social Justice over the past few years. This has caused some to accuse me of misdirecting my critiques at a fringe element of the left and neglecting the greater problem of the populist, post-truth right. However, when I recently urged Americans to vote for Biden, despite the likelihood that his victory would embolden the Critical Social Justice activists, many felt that—despite having critiqued CSJ for years—I underestimated the threat. This is not true.
Critical Social Justice is not the only or even the biggest problem in the world. Its body count is very low in comparison to Covid-19 and in comparison to the death toll likely to result if we do not address climate change and antibiotic resistance. Nor is the authoritarian ideological lunacy of the Social Justice left a greater risk than that of the truth-denying, conspiracy-mongering Trumpist right. Ethical conservatives should be addressing that problem as a matter of urgency.
Nevertheless, Critical Social Justice is a legitimate danger to liberal secular democracies.
We are in the midst of an attempted cultural revolution. This must be acknowledged, understood, faced head on and defeated.
People who anticipate that CSJ could evolve into something akin to a Maoist revolution complete with struggle sessions are not conjuring this possibility out of nowhere. Many people within the movement strongly advocate such a scenario and they enjoy a public respectability that right-wing authoritarian extremists do not. Neither are people wrong to think that Trump would oppose CSJ over-reach more forcefully than Biden will. Biden may not oppose it at all. This doesn’t make Trump a likely saviour of liberal, secular democracy, however.
I still think it unlikely that this attempted revolution can succeed in the long term, even in America where its advocates are strongest. Liberalism is too deeply rooted in American culture and in the Anglosphere, and CSJ is too incompatible with fundamental human intuitions of fairness and reciprocity to gain widespread public support. But therein lies another danger. If expectations of fairness and reciprocity are felt to be being transgressed, the darker side of humanity—our tribal and territorial instincts and our wish to avenge injustice and prejudice—emerges. This is particularly dangerous as the targets of CSJ movements add up to a majority. White, working class men and, increasingly, women; LGBT people who reject queer theory; Asians, Jews and Hispanics; and a growing number of black people who don’t buy into Critical Race or postcolonial theory are being incentivised to fight back. Some on the populist right do so with the same tools as the woke: identity politics, collective blame, competitive victimhood and dehumanising tribalism. This is unlikely to end well.
All the following things are true:
CSJ is neither the only nor the biggest problem in the world.
CSJ is a genuine problem that has been underestimated and it has respectability and power.
The populist, post-truth, conspiracy-mongering right is also a significant problem.
The woke left and the populist right feed each other’s narratives of injustice, victimhood and existential danger and thus increasingly lead people to condone violence as a solution.
CSJ is genuinely attempting a cultural revolution against the majority of the population.
The general population is unlikely to stand for this.
The populist right certainly won’t.
This all adds up to a recipe for disaster unless the liberal left acts fast to publicly discredit Critical Social Justice and assert an alternative worthy of respect. At the same time, an ethical conservative right needs to reject populist conspiracy theories and post-truth narratives in favour of a rational and consistent conservatism that has integrity.
The question now is not which side is worse but: How can we, making common cause with people from both left and right, defend the values of liberal secular democracies, including freedom of belief and speech and respect for science and reason, and push back the ideological lunacy before it spirals out of control and takes all of us with it?
Unfortunately – and I don’t say this with any glee – the only way to fight cancel culture and CSJ is to fight fire with fire. Picket their homes. Dox them. Organize counter-demonstrations. Because well-intentioned essays no matter how rational and generous are not going to do the job.
the following is my own human(e)ity idealism fictionalized; it’s one belonging in an unfortunately unattainable world in which there no longer are any horribly violent acts or even apathetic responses to needless suffering] …. IN ALL DUE FAIRNESS Listening to her teenage daughter’s recorded screams, the distraught mother could not contain her grief. With heaving sobs, she stood to leave the courtroom, only to have her weakened knees buckle and collapse onto the courtroom floor. Heartfelt gasps came from many in the audience (while some other spectators she’d suspected to be but heartless voyeurs), as the bailiff, district attorney, and even defense council, rushing to assist the bereaved woman. Slowly, gently facilitating the trembling frail woman to her feet, the three courtroom officials somehow misperceived stability in her pale expression and gradually pulled away their hands. But she was so shaken by the prosecution’s key evidence—that of the accused’s own… Read more »
I think my one disagreement with what you have written here is that CSJ absolutely IS a huge threat and one of the biggest problems we face, namely because it influences all the existential problems we’re going through right now. The populist right isn’t going to do anything about climate change, for example, and right-wing identity politics won’t let individuals do it even if they wanted to. The “savages” of the colonial era are being echoed in the “white supremacists” of today – the message might be different, but the marketing is the exact same, that certain people are less-than-evolved and you can tell them by the color of their skin. I’m a transgender man (recently out) and I can’t even count how many times I’ve been called “transphobic” for supporting the idea that sexual biology is, at this time, immutable, no matter what I change my outside to. If… Read more »
The same error again and again. Both communism and fascism were based on the same totalitarian collectivist ideology. If you take the trouble to read the Fascist Manifesto by Mussolini, it differs little from the communist slogans. Nevertheless, you continue to call fascism a movement of the far right and communism a movement of the far left, and this is your decisive mistake! The only and decisive difference between these movements, which occupied the same ecological niche (and precisely for this reason, so hated each other), was the attitude of the elites towards them. In the 30s of the last century, the elites viewed fascism as a force capable of destroying communism. This allowed fascism to come to power where the communist movements in the West were particularly strong. The totalitarianism of the left today has entered into exactly the same symbiotic relationship with the elites as fascism did back… Read more »
Well there is one huge difference. Post-truth Trumpist right spreads mostly through the bottom castes of the society. They have little power and best they could have done was to elect Trump for one turn. Trump hasn’t succeeded much in fighting CSJ, neither he brought any form of fascistic dictatorship. CSJ spreads exclusively through the elites. Universities, politicians, journalists, celebrities. This means that in long term it has a vastly bigger potential to impact or even shape the decision making process of western countries and societies. CSJ is not as incompatible with liberalism as one would think. If you listen to its brahmins they all invoke the principles of equality, reciprocity etc. that classical liberalism failed to deliver. In my opinion it’s best treated as a _reformation_ of liberalism or a _schism_ within it. This is why it’s far more difficult for liberals than it is to reactionary right to… Read more »
Wars and taxes only have an impact on men? You must be joking. “Women had always had the vote at local level”? Hardly. In fact, women were denied rights vis-a-vis their husbands in their own homes until fairly recently, i.e., the 1970s.
Nice article Helen. I’d be interested to hear you elaborate somewhere your understanding of “populism,” and justify why you think populism itself is a problem. You speak of the “populist, post-truth right,” and note that “some on the populist right” do “[white] identity politics.” I don’t deny there are targets fitting these descriptions, but many of us – who I hope qualify as your “ethical conservatives” – express our anti-wokeness as populism: the elites we’re against are the powerful wokes who, as you note, “enjoy a public respectability that right-wing authoritarian extremists do not.” It’s because we’re pro-truth that we’re against the (lying) woke elite. Why do you invariably think “populist” and “post-truth” together? For us, these determinations are opposed, not necessarily connected. “Limitation of space,” would be a fine enough answer, but I do worry that, by heaping scorn on “populism,” your categorization renders a respectable conservative position immoral… Read more »
Meanwhile the real threat to all living beings including the non-humans on this mostly non-human planet is the systematic destruction of the biosphere upon which we all depend – even for our next breath. And simultaneously the now everywhere 24/7 surveillance state in which everything you do, say and even watch on electronic media is listened into by Big Brother. And everywhere you go too the moment you turn on your “mart”-phone and via all of the surveillance cameras and high-in-the-sky facial recognition cameras etc. There is now nowhere to hide! But even that is the inevitable outcome of the military-industrial-propaganda/entertainment complex which Eisenhower warned us against. At another related level we are now “living” in what the truth-telling journalist and social critic Chris Hedges called the Brave New Dystopia which combines the dark visions of both Huxley’s Brave new World (and Brave New World Revisited) and Orwell’s 1984 –… Read more »
Great piece Helen! Used it as the featured piece in my daily newsletter on wokeism: https://snsmkr.com/the-fruits-and-thorns-of-liberalism-and-illiberalism-snsmkr-daily-digest/ As I wrote there:
This all has the distinct ring of Martin Niemoller’s post-war formulation:
First they came for the men, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a man.
Then they came for the whites, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not white.
Then they came for the white-Adjacent, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not white-Adjacent.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Think it stops there? Think again [link to article: “Straight Black Men Are the White People of Black People.”]
No, but it stands in the way of solving some of the biggest problems in the world.
As I wrote a little earlier today, our own current split of American liberals, progressives, and leftists into wokes and anti-wokes, authoritarians and liberals, Critical Social Justice and non-CSJ supporters, strikes me as uncannily echoing the split of American radicals and leftists in the 1930’s into “Stalinists” and “anti-Stalinists, as reflected for instance in the contrast of the “regulars” of Alcoves 1 (anti-Stalinist) and 2 (Stalinist) of the City College of New York lunchroom in those years, as recalled by “veterans” of those “alcove wars” like Irving Kristol (1920-2009), a 1940 CCNY graduate who was then a Ttrotsktyite Marxist and later became a leading neoconservative pundit. Here, for everyone’s information and entertainment, are a few interesting relevant paragraphs on those 1930’s CCNY alcoves from Kristol’s January 1923, 1977 “New York Times” article “Memoirs of a Trotskyist,” posted online at https://www.nytimes.com/1977/01/23/archives/memoirs-of-a-trotskyist-memoirs.html: “But the only alcoves that mattered to me were No.… Read more »
Ochlocracy and totalitarianism are not mutually exclusive.
In other words, the political center (aka the exhausted majority of America) needs to stand up and make its voices heard. Because otherwise the voices at the extremes are going to tear our society to shreads.
It seems American liberals, progressives, and leftists are about to fight the “Stalinist”–“anti-Stalinist” battles of the 1930’s all over again, that 90-odd years after the college days of the “New York Intellectuals” American college campuses in the 2020’s may in effect see a replay of the City College “alcove wars” between Communists versus anti-Communists recalled in the memoirs of writers like Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz! In the 1930’s,Party-line Moscow-loyal Communists bitterly argued and debated with a loose anti-Moscow, anti-Stalinist coalition of Trotskyites, Norman Thomas Socialists, and New Deal liberals. These days, the “woke”, “politically correct” Critical Social Justice zealots are the latter-day successors of the 1930’s Stalinists, while people like Helen Pluckrose are filling the role of Irving Howe, Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, and their anti-Stalinist friends in the 1930’s “alcove wars”!
“CSJ cannot become totalitarian because it is too contradictory, divided and irrational and too often operates like a circular firing squad since its proponents often lack a common goal.”
So, sort of like France in 1793/94?
Pluckrose is correct. It has been a rather interesting journey to see how many people need this patiently explained as I recognized early on the hijacking of the moral certitude of the ethics of racial integration back in the late 80s as multiculturalism became radicalized. There is no longer ‘multicultural literacy’, there is only a narrowminded and shallow political dogma whose irrational demands have put on a black man suit. And then a black woman’s suit. And then a black queer woman’s drag complete with iron fists. I speculate that at some point some kind of minority performance is the only thing that’s going to get the attention of the poor folks who thought they have been awakened when in fact they have been ‘woked’, a completely different type of transformation. I can’t see how universities, who should be doing this work, are going to rescue themselves from their own… Read more »
Thanks Helen, very nicely weighed. The left and the right are both deeply disturbed. Each should attend to its own sickness before worrying about the other.
Helen Pluckrose still doesn’t get quite how serious this is, and gets it wrong re the roots: ‘postmodernism’ is not the root. ‘Identity politics’ — a better term than ‘critical social justice’ — is the most all-pervasive and deep-seated totalitarianism the modern world has ever experienced, and the trajectory is towards full-blown civil war. ‘Identity politics’ (often or even usually dubbed ‘political correctness’) is the result of a political-Left major backlash against the mass of ordinary people (in Europe and ‘the West’), beginning in the 1920s/30s, in the wake of the persistent failure of Marxist theory to be realised in European ‘revolution’ or any real change through democracy. In shifting the blame away from Marxist theory and its adherents, and on to those the theory had prescribed and predicted would have been the beneficiaries — the workers — if only they had responded accordingly; then the cognitive-dissonance within the political-left… Read more »