Warning over threat from ‘illiberal left’
The latest Economist confronts an issue that exercises the political right and has been labelled “cancel culture”, warning that the danger of left-leaning identity politics should not be underestimated.
The international weekly newspaper is a champion of classical liberalism, a political ideology that at its heart believes human progress is brought about by debate and reform.
Its lead article this week says that while the most dangerous threat to Western liberalism is the Trumpian right, which denigrates “liberal edifices such as science and the rule of law as facades for a plot by the deep state against the people”, it is time for liberals to understand what they are up against from the “illiberal left”, and to fight back.
The Economist describes how a new style of politics has spread from elite university departments, with graduates bringing with them “a horror of feeling ‘unsafe’ and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups. They have also brought tactics to enforce ideological purity, by no-platforming their enemies and cancelling allies who have transgressed”.
While the illiberal left and classical liberals superficially want many of the same things — believing that people should be able to flourish whatever their sexuality or race, sharing a suspicion of authority and entrenched interests, and believing in the desirability of change — they “could hardly disagree more over how to bring these things about”.
Classical liberals believe in setting fair initial conditions and letting events unfold through competition. Separation of powers is critical. “By contrast the illiberal left put their own power at the centre of things, because they are sure real progress is possible only after they have first seen to it that racial, sexual and other hierarchies are dismantled.”
While illiberal progressives believed they had a blueprint for freeing oppressed groups, in reality it was a formula for the oppression of individuals — and not so different from the plans of the populist right. “In their different ways both extremes put power before process, ends before means and the interests of the group before the freedom of the individual.”
As these political wings have grown in strength, feeding off their hatred for each other, liberal debate had been starved of oxygen.
The Economist finishes by saying classical liberals should take on “the bullies and cancellers”. “Liberalism is still the best engine for equitable progress. Liberals must have the courage to say so.”