In an increasingly global knowledge economy, the middle and working classes of developed countries are feeling the pinch. This economic stress has inspired a resurgence of extremist political movements. Once discredited, Marxism and fascism are on the rise. Millennials in the United States, for example, are more critical of free markets and more open to authoritarianism than their parents’ generation. In this turbulent era, it can be easy to forget why liberalism’s pluralistic and non-zero-sum worldview prevailed historically. As societies lose sight of the fundamental values upon which modern civilization was built, they run the risk of regression, undermining basic liberties such as queer rights and gender equality.
With roots in the Enlightenment, liberalism is a political philosophy that centres individual liberty. A rejection of feudalism, liberalism birthed modern democracy and laissez-faire economies, with their respective protections of political and economic freedom (the right to vote and to own property). Liberalism also promoted the concept of equality before the law, which justified civil rights like the freedom of speech, press and religion. Over time, these ideas expanded to human rights such as racial and gender equality. The world was not a utopia under the liberal order (and utopian promises made by competing ideologies never materialised). Nevertheless, as psychologist Steven Pinker chronicles in his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018), liberalism did empower humanity to build modern civilisation, leading to greater freedom, prosperity and peace than at any time before.
The rise of industrial economies was the primary challenge facing the liberal world during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The economic anxiety of the day gave rise to the greatest ideological threats to liberalism: Marxism (which challenged liberalism’s belief in free markets) and fascism (which challenged liberalism’s faith in the democratic process). After many bloody years of failed political and economic experiments, liberalism ultimately prevailed in developed countries (although illiberal ideologues remained in power in some developing nations). The figureheads of the defeated movements (i.e. Hitler, Stalin, et al.), once idolized, are now remembered as cautionary tales. It was clear that democracy and capitalism, while imperfect, were the best political and economic models. The liberal world codified a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, promising to defend these values at home and abroad so that nightmares like Nazism and communism would never rise again. Social safety nets were created to alleviate financial stress and help people weather economic changes.
Marxism and fascism remained out of fashion in developed nations until the early twenty-first century, when the developed world transitioned from distinct but connected industrial economies to a global economy that is increasingly centred on information. With technological progress accelerating international trade and automation replacing human labour, economic anxiety has risen again. Worldwide, income inequality is at an all-time low as workers in developing economies benefit from trade. Within developed countries, however, the gains have not been so widely shared. Middle- and working-class people in western democracies are the only group not growing richer, and they can sense it. As with the industrial transition before, the economic anxiety engendered by the Information Age has led to a resurgence of Marxism and fascism. The influence of these philosophies has extended to culture, including the narrative around queer issues.
In 1988, a women’s studies scholar named Peggy McIntosh authored a paper on what she called white privilege and male privilege, but it was not until recently that the phrase check your privilege became mainstream. Today, an iteration of this phrase is also used by some queer activists who admonish cisgendered heterosexual people to check their straight privilege. McIntosh’s argument about privilege is a direct application of Marx’s critique of capitalism upon what some call social or cultural capital. It rejects liberalism’s goal of fostering mutually beneficial cultural exchange between individuals in a free and pluralistic society. Instead, it views cultural exchange as an ongoing battle in a class war between oppressors (those with social capital) and oppressed (those without).
Privilege checking is an attempt to collectivise cultural capital in much the same way that Marx sought to collectivise economic capital, taking it away from individual ownership. This connection to economics is not merely metaphorical, since in the Marxist worldview those who possess social capital have undeserved economic advantages. Even Marxist critics of McIntosh’s idea do not take issue with the notion of privilege so much as with the emphasis upon culture. Author Sharon Smith, for instance, argues that while white and male privilege do exist, they are less important than what she calls “class privilege,” and thus should not be given as much credence.
Such Marxist infighting is, in the liberal view, little more than the oppression Olympics, and demonstrative of how the privilege narrative is counterproductive. Marxism is based upon a zero-sum view of economic and cultural exchange, whereas liberalism recognises the mutually beneficial nature of trade. It is inappropriate to characterise the marketplace as a struggle between oppressor and oppressed according to the liberal view, because that is unnecessarily divisive and fosters ill will.
Political Scientist Mark Lilla contends that “conflict is inevitable,” so a practical system should channel the natural human inclination toward political and economic competition in a useful direction. Democracy is a peaceful way to resolve political competition, and capitalism is a productive way to channel economic competition. Liberalism rejects the Marxist goal of equity (equality of outcome) as utopian, and prefers the liberal value of equal treatment under the law. Liberalism views the exchange of culture as taking place in a free market of ideas—cultural capitalism, if you will. By contrast, Marxian social theories operate through the lens of oppressor and oppressed, with the goal being the abolition of cultural capital (analogous to the abolition of private capital in communism).
Of course, communism and capitalism are not the only two lenses through which to view economic or cultural capital. They are simply the two frameworks involved in this current debate between liberalism, which has dominated the western political landscape for generations, and neo-Marxism, which is newly ascendant in western left-wing politics. Privilege checking appeals to Marxism as a way of redistributing cultural capital from oppressive groups to oppressed groups, but it is anathema to the liberal worldview since it violates the individual’s right to be treated equally, regardless of sex, sexuality, race, etc.
We can see this in practice at left-wing activist conferences such as Creating Change, where cis white men are sidelined and treated as second class citizens on the basis of their sex, race and gender identity. Peer pressure in these spaces discourages cis white men from expressing opinions on most topics, especially if they are critical of the dominant Marxist dogma.
Another example is the pervasive argument in leftist circles that it is literally impossible to support LGBT rights or women’s rights without also being a socialist or communist. Under the banner of intersectionality, neo-Marxism postulates that since most women and LGBT people are part of the working class (which they argue is oppressed by the capitalist class), one cannot be a true champion of those groups without embracing the socialist goal of the eradication of private capital and the seizing of the means of production. Liberals, by contrast, point out that since not all women and LGBT individuals are socialists, it is unfair to co-opt those communities in service of a political ideology they do not all hold.
The influence of Marxism upon contemporary political narratives is not limited to the hard left. It also characterizes the alt-right. The appeals of alt-right politicians like Donald Trump are a mirror image of the identity politics of the left. Sharing the zero-sum view of Marxism, the alt-right approach has embraced white, male and straight identity politics. The two movements feed off one another, dividing society up on the basis of race, sex and sexuality.
Marxist thinking is particularly noticeable in the alt-right incel (involuntarily celibate) movement, which was partially inspired by the ideas of social critic Michel Houellebecq. Back when marriage was solely between one man and one woman, Houellebecq reminisces, a man could expect to find a partner based on statistics alone. Today, with same-sex marriage, polyamory and hookup culture in the mainstream, people he terms the “sexual proletariat” (less attractive people) cannot compete. For this reason, he bemoans the “commodification of bodies” and proffers a critique of the “sexual marketplace.” It amounts to a Marxist criticism of sexual and romantic freedom. This leads popular thinkers like Jordan Peterson to call for “enforced monogamy”—a cultural shift back to the romantic, relationship and marriage norms of previous generations—as a way to ensure the equitable distribution of sexual and romantic partners (human capital).
Marxist thinking on the alt-right is also evident in their use of the derogatory term cuck, which in this context is a misogynistic judgment of feminist men. A true man, it is argued, is the breadwinner (a proper working-class value tied to work ethic). As with traditional Marxism, passive income is derided as a bourgeois luxury (and in this case, is deemed effeminate and emasculating). On the alt-right, the failure of some men to provide for the women in their lives is seen as a consequence of liberalism with its elite values like free trade. This explains the so-called alt-right preference for left-wing policies such as protectionism, isolationism and national corporate subsidies, as opposed to traditional right-wing policies that favour the free movement and exchange of people, goods and services.
As with the privilege checking narrative on the left, the identity politics of the alt-right are also hostile to liberal values. Susan Sontag once wrote that “Communism is in itself a variant, the most successful variant, of fascism. Fascism with a human face.” What she meant is that any attempt to undermine the liberal values of individual liberty, free speech, democracy and free trade is inherently fascist. Authoritarian thinking is the problem.
The Marxist left and the alt-right share an authoritarian streak, as well as a zero-sum view of human relations. Their views differ only with regard to which side they take in what they see as an epic struggle between identities. The neo-Marxist left sides with those viewed as oppressed: women, LGBT, people of colour, etc. The alt-right sides with those whose dominance they view as under threat from the left: men, straight people and white people. Both are old-fashioned in the way they prioritise what they view as the natural values of the common man over what they perceive as the values of the bourgeois or elite (aka liberalism). In other words, the neo-Marxist left and alt-right are both illiberal—which is to say they stand together in direct opposition to liberal values.
Liberalism does not view human relations as a zero-sum struggle along identitarian grounds. Instead, it upholds the essential need for a government that treats all people equally regardless of immutable characteristics. The liberal approach aims to foster upward mobility by bettering the human condition through voluntary, mutually-beneficial economic arrangements, not by fomenting class war through identification with an essentialised, supposedly permanent and oppressed underclass.
The originator of modern sexual orientation terms, Karl-Maria Kertbenny, did not, as is fashionable today, base his argument for the equal treatment of LGBT people on them having been born that way. He saw that narrative as a red herring. Instead, Kertbenny made the liberal argument that the principles of individual liberty and freedom should override the prudishness that dominated society in his day. This meant there was no need to justify LGBT rights along identitarian lines.
Centring individual liberty and equal treatment under the law remains the best philosophical defence of queer rights. That value is undermined when individuals fail to stand up for its liberal foundation, or when liberalism is supplanted for Marxism or fascism. The queer community would be unwise to continue to perpetuate the Marxist/alt-right narrative of zero-sum conflict between group identities, because whichever side wins, we all lose. Critics of liberalism make much out of the fact that the world was never perfect under the liberal order, but dogmatic ideologies promising a utopian world have a far worse track record. It is time to relearn the lessons of history before it’s too late.
As before, illiberal ideologies like Marxism and fascism must be defeated. Liberalism must prevail. This will once again require a reworking of the social contract. It means listening to the concerns of the social justice movement as well as those of the alt-right. To preserve liberalism, we must appease its critics on both sides. We can sympathize with people of various identities without embracing identity politics. The tried-and-true liberal strategy for doing so is to remind everyone that we have more in common than what divides us. Everyone is better off when we treat people equally—regardless of sex, sexuality, or any other immutable characteristics.