Since their turn towards post-structuralism in the 1960s, left-wing theorists have focused almost exclusively on the philosophical and political implications of human differences. They have typically rejected moral universalism, which holds that all of humanity should—and eventually will—agree on a single moral code that best supports human well-being and sweep all other views of morality aside. They regard moral universalism as at best unrealistic and at worst an ideological justification for marginalizing members of certain groups, arguing that it entails a rejection of difference—a kind of “othering” of those who disagree, as Edward Said has put it. They believe that moral universalism can only be achieved by forcing those who disagree with the approved moral code to conform to it, either through the power of the state, or socially, through ostracism or invidious discrimination. They usually expect that such a state would be imperialist, racist and capitalist, and would divide the world into the worthy (those who agree with the approved moral code) and the unworthy (those who disagree). And they argue that a more humane politics would respect, accommodate and even welcome differences, whether metaphysical or cultural.
Although I respect this point of view, I think that many leftists fail to realise the extent to which they only welcome those differences that they approve of—they often seem to assume that, if differences were welcomed, conservative and reactionary views would somehow be eliminated. But conservative and reactionary thinkers have their own philosophies about how to accommodate human differences. As the political theorist Sheldon Wolin puts it in his seminal book Tocqueville Between Two Worlds, “By the late twentieth century postmodernity would have forgotten that its highly prized value of ‘difference’ was once the property of traditionalists and elitists like Burke and Tocqueville.” Leftists have tended to forget this history, which is one reason why they’ve struggled to respond effectively to the far-right and postmodern conservative political movements that argue for an alternative way to accommodate differences—one that organises people into hierarchies and restricts their freedoms, as with the slide to nationalistic chauvinism and authoritarianism in illiberal Hungary and Poland.
The Liberal View
The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light.—John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
Although today’s so-called classical liberals tend to disdain leftist ideas about multiculturalism and rhetoric about toleration and inclusion, the idea that we should respect human differences has its historical roots in liberalism. Seventeenth-century liberals such as Hugo Grotius and John Locke wrote lengthy treatises imploring governments to respect religious dissenters within the population. Their positions may in part have been a reaction to the tremendous suffering of many Europeans during the pyrrhic religious wars of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries: at the time, there was a widespread yearning to move past irreconcilable conflicts by promoting mutual toleration. But these thinkers were also making principled arguments for respecting religious differences, rooted in their belief that for the state to interfere with people’s religious convictions was paternalistic and even tyrannical. The nineteenth-century liberal socialist J. S. Mill framed this idea more positively: he argued that respect for differences wasn’t merely a pragmatic concession or a safeguard against government oppression; rather, it was a requisite of justice. He wrote that a just world would be characterized by a vast array of “experiments in living,” each one reflecting an individual’s unique “inward force,” which must be allowed to “grow and develop itself on all sides.”
Late-twentieth-century pluralists, such as John Rawls and Will Kymlicka, have suggested that those earlier liberals conceived of toleration, individual freedom and respect for difference in terms that were too narrow and that earlier liberal societies were not liberal enough—because they still tried to enforce conformity to certain widely held social norms, such as beliefs in Christian practices, nationalism, conservatism, sexual mores and the need for newcomers to assimilate into the majority culture.
The Leftist View
The use of the abstractly universal slogan “all lives matter” serves to obscure the fact that it is “black lives” that are being lost to violence—especially police violence—in large and disproportionate numbers. We can’t make “all lives matter” without making “black lives matter”: the “universal” can only be true when the “particular” that is embedded within it is true.—Leo Casey, Dissent (2018)
Even though the radical leftist position on how to accommodate human differences has more in common with traditional liberal thought than many leftists might like to admit, it diverges from it in important ways. Radical leftist ideology has its roots in two separate traditions that are often conflated: the post-structuralism popular in many European academic circles, and the critical theory that fuels the current identity politics movement in the United States and elsewhere.
The philosophy of differences expounded by mid-twentieth-century post-structuralists such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Louis Althusser gained traction in the 1960s as the popularity of socialist and Marxist radicalism declined. These thinkers criticised liberal capitalist political systems for supporting conformity, violence and imperialism. Putting their faith in Marxist or Hegelian beliefs about the universal movement of history or dialectical inexorability, they hoped that revolutionary change would eventually sweep across the world and replace structures of domination with universal solidarity and equality.
Later post-structuralist thinkers were disillusioned with Marxism and socialism—convinced that those ideologies had proven no better than liberal capitalist ideology at preventing countries from descending into authoritarianism and imperialism. They attributed this failure in part to the belief in moral universalism that is common to both socialism and liberalism. They preferred a more Nietzschean approach: they were suspicious of universalism in any form, because it could be used to justify the elimination of cultural differences among groups, and thus as a pretext to extend the reach of socialism or liberal capitalism and expand its adherents’ personal political power. They believed instead in accepting that human beings have or create an endless array of different values and cultures, many of which may be worthwhile or at least functional. The most radical post-structuralist philosophers, such as Gilles Deleuze, argued that the entire history of western philosophy and politics could be seen as an effort to subsume all differences into some overarching shared identity. The most cogent extension of this viewpoint was that all disciplinary and controlling institutions should be eliminated and somehow replaced with so-called radical communities and true democracy—concepts that these thinkers rarely defined.
Today’s radical left ideology is also rooted in critical theory. Critical theorists, such as Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, are typically less interested in abstract philosophizing and metaphysics than in describing how liberal societies have historically failed—and continue to fail—to be welcoming towards cultural and racial differences and to live up to their vaunted principle of freedom for all. Most of these theorists would probably agree that what Frederick Douglass said in his famous 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July” is no less true today:
Your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety and hypocrisies—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages.
There is an ongoing debate as to whether it is most effective to challenge discrimination by promoting people from historically marginalised groups or whether it is better to reject such labels as means of oppression. For instance, radical feminists like Catharine MacKinnon demand respect for women because of their unique histories and needs, while theorists like Judith Butler suggest that the whole idea of womanhood as an identity needs to be questioned.
However, there is no denying that every country we think of today as liberal has historically advanced racist domestic policies, and that some of those nations have engaged in vast imperial and colonial enterprises. What is controversial, however, is the critical theorists’ claim that liberal states are still bastions of bigotry—patriarchy, heteronormativity, white privilege etc.—and that, rather than respecting differences, liberal states have simply found new ways to advance old forms of discrimination. Unlike the post-structuralists, critical theorists claim to have extensive empirical evidence in support of their assertions. They argue that, in practice, various groups are disadvantaged or marginalized by theoretically neutral policies, such as allegedly meritocratic competition. However, like the post-structuralists, their proposed solutions tend to be less revolutionary than one might expect: their arguments usually end in calls for a more inclusive kind of liberalism—of the sort that multiculturalists would probably find appealing. For example, Charles Mills, a critic of what he called racial liberalism, was adept at describing how liberal states have failed to respect differences, but acknowledged near the end of his life that he wanted, not an end to liberalism, but a kind of liberalism that was more radical, more welcoming of differences, more supportive of individual freedom—and also cleansed of the taint of its history. This is a project I personally support. But for traditional Marxists like David Harvey, critical theorists’ apparent preference for reform over revolution is proof that their supposed radicalism isn’t all that radical. Harvey argues that socialist universalism would be a much bigger threat to the status quo than the changes he believes critical theorists want, like more black female CEOs of large corporations.
The Right-Wing View
There is an instinct for rank which, more than anything, is already an indication of a high rank. There is a delight in the nuances of respect which permits us to surmise a noble origin and habits.—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil (1886)
For all their disagreements, liberals and leftists both tend to endorse the idea that, in general, societies should make space for people’s differences, because it is good for individuals and subgroups to be free to express their uniqueness rather than being pressured to conform. Both also often have egalitarian leanings—for example, they tend to agree that the state should not make laws that arbitrarily treat certain groups more favourably than others.
Those on the political right tend to agree that there are fundamental distinctions between people and that these differences add to the colour of life. Some of them contend that they are more committed to respecting differences than leftists and liberals are, because leftists and liberals prioritise equality, which requires that people be treated as the same in certain ways, in spite of their differences, whereas they believe that a genuine acknowledgement of human differences inevitably entails treating people differently.
Traditional conservatives tend to think that accommodating human differences requires the formation of many different communities and the sorting of those communities into hierarchies. A well-ordered society, in their view, is one in which people are differentiated by rank and privilege, and in which each group, regardless of its place on the ladder, does its part to maintain society, while also maintaining its distinctiveness; when people challenge the legitimacy of those gradations and try to put everyone in the same class or rank in the name of egalitarianism, disorder ensues. Early conservative critics of liberal capitalism, such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) and Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881), wrote disapprovingly about the decline of the aristocratic landowning class and the rise of a democratic, consumerist urban society. They saw these developments as allowing those whom Edmund Burke (1729–1797) called the “swinish multitude” to degrade the culture and turn politics into a vulgar spectacle. These views are still around today. For example, Yoram Hazony has called for the development of a “conservative” democracy that would reject the universalist aspirations of liberal cosmopolitanism, which he compares to the imperial ambitions of Catholicism and the Holy Roman empire. And Sohrab Ahmari has argued that liberalism results in a kind of “tyranny” that eradicates conservative communities on the pretext of achieving tolerance.
Although leftist post-structuralists often cite the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche, he was, ironically, an advocate of what he called “aristocratic radicalism.” For Nietzsche, differences of rank and merit were among the most important kinds of human differences, and he chastised liberalism for being hostile to them. He saw liberals as adherents of what he called Christian “slave morality,” which rejected the noble, life-affirming values of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Liberals, he argued, insist that all individuals are moral equals, and this makes it impossible to justify allowing some to have more power or opportunity than others. He therefore advocated replacing western metaphysical and moral philosophy with a concern with greatness and vulgarness, health and sickness, the rarefied and the herd. Many left-wing postmodernists have been attracted to Nietzsche because of his criticisms of Christian and bourgeois moralism. But Nietzsche thought it would be a mistake to eliminate power hierarchies, and that the few individuals who were actually capable of obtaining and exercising power should do so without scruple, and use the “herd” as fodder for grander and more interesting projects than could be dreamed of by the mediocre minds of liberal democrats.
These right-wing approaches have two things in common. First, they evince a hierarchical mindset. Most traditionalist conservatives, past and present, believe that real differences emerge as a result of the differentiation of society into what Edmund Burke called “little platoons” and small scale communities, with different social roles and different degrees of authority. They see liberal arguments for equality and freedom as the biggest threat to the tolerance of differences, because achieving equality would require levelling society to the point at which everyone sees things from the same mediocre standpoint. The second thing most traditionalist conservatives believe is that, for people’s authentic differences to emerge, only the most capable or worthy should be granted political and cultural authority. Some conservatives think that effacing political distinctions between citizens and migrants would deprive the state of its capacity to enforce a shared moral and cultural identity and would thus also destroy the unique features of the nation concerned. Other conservatives think that if the herd were granted political power and agency, they would inevitably use it to tear down anyone who was excellent rather than average.
The right-wing political approach to managing human differences is fatally flawed because it assumes that some people are more deserving than others. Liberals and leftists would be well advised to recognise that respect for differences does not necessarily compel people to fight for greater individual freedom, equality and mutual respect. Indeed, historically, emphasising human differences has tended to prompt people to calling for discrimination and social hierarchies and led them to believe in the pursuit of excellence for the chosen few, rather than the pursuit of happiness for the many. We forget this at our peril.