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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.”

  1. Clive Bibby says:

    Better late than never Jeremy.
    But you can’t quite bring yourself to admit that the 75 million Americans who voted for Trump did so as much as anything because they recognised the “illiberal” movements were already entrenched in the education systems of that country – they were well ahead of your darling effete snobs at the Economist. Unfortunately, Biden has simply accelerated the process.
    You could go further and acknowledge the same thing is happening here in Godzone.
    Although I hasten to add that might be expecting a bit much.
    One miracle per parliamentary term is about as much as most Kiwis can deal with.
    Mind you, it appears that many voters have already decided enough is enough and will vote accordingly next time they get the chance.
    In the meantime, those of us who care will just have to deal with these wholesale betrayals using what’s left of the democratic process. We’ll win in the end.

  2. Jacob McGrew, USA says:

    I voted for Trump for exactly the reasons spelled out in the Economist. But it’s not true that the Trumpian right is more dangerous than the illiberal left. Not by a very long way. The far left has the same goal as the Bolsheviks and if allowed to do so, will use the same methods. This is far more dangerous than any threat from the right. Or ISIS for that matter.

  3. Doug Smith says:

    I agree with nearly all of the observations and analysis provided by Jeremy and the Exor/Angelli-billionaire owned “The Economist”, but have reached very different conclusions about the nature of power and the “classical liberalism” they advocate.

    Since its founding, American democracy has divided labour/working-class citizens using racial animus, providing a free and open field for industry and corporations to pursue their private interests. European-American working class voters have generally sided with big business by swallowing the fantasy that all of them can be “high rollers”… just like Trump! And in fact they were allowed a privileged modicum of basic rights compared to non-European minorities, especially those of Asian and African ancestry who were initially enslaved, then oppressed under law, and now exploited by lack of equal opportunity and corporate hegemony.

    For over two centuries, the American socio-political system brought wealth and power to a large nation rich with natural resources ripe for industry to exploit. The key to this concentration of wealth and power has been America’s failure to constrain powerful elites. This has been described as a wise strategy that unleashes “freedom” and “competition” to the benefit of all. In reality, unrestrained corporate behavior has inevitably resulted in a race to the bottom mentality, lacking fundamental decency, fairness and justice. Recently, this was on full display as billionaire boomers frolicked in space while far far below huddled masses yearning for freedom and justice struggled under the inequitable weight of pandemic, monopoly and intentionally incompetent and divisive civic leadership.

    Thankfully, as Churchill observed, Americans can always be counted on to do the the right thing… after exhausting all the other options. At times in the past, when injustice becomes intolerable for regular citizens, America has shown a sporadic capacity to sort out more fair systems of rules and institutions and to restrain the rich and powerful’s freedom to manipulate and exploit for private gain. Generally, these corrections also involved some aspect of “Come to Jesus” spiritual revival as well.

    It seems that American-style democracy, with its peculiar form of divided government, permits a drift into the excesses of moneyed aristocracy and robber-baron-style fascism, while also denying these men absolute power. Then on rare occasions when mass movements are able to rapidly unify all three branches of US government, as well as mass media and social institutions, there have been equally rapid, massive and progressive advance (e.g abolitionists pushing the government to fight a bloody civil war to end slavery; the New Deal reforms following the Great Depression ; the mobilization for WWII; the Civil Rights movement).

    I have come to view America’s tango between unrestrained corporate power-seeking versus righteous freedom for all people as reflecting the dialectic of power itself in its two forms – destructive and creative power.

    The more forceful, masculine form of power is based on destructive (entropic) technologies. It embodies competitive, win-lose relationships in which winners can gather more power, wealth and influence (the rich get richer and the poor get poorer), which inexorably concentrates this form of power in hierarchies with relatively few individuals at the top. This cycle in which destructive power begets more power is a type of positive feedback loop. Nations that permit this freedom to dominate align with Milton Friedman’s neo-liberal economic model of ‘might-makes-right’ and ‘winner-takes-all’. Unfortunately, as any engineer, physiologist or physical scientist will tell you, positive feedback loops are explosively unstable and lead to cycles of exponential growth and then collapse. In this way, Friedman’s laissez-faire economic model of perpetual growth and prosperity has been discredited by French economist Thomas Piketty using persuasive evidence that this path in fact leads to concentrated destructive power, growing inequity, and social and environmental chaos. Beyond unstable economic cycles of boom and bust, and the resulting conflicts, many forward looking leaders warn that power-seeking industrialists are quickly gaining the capacity to wield artificial intelligence, posing novel risks of high-tech warfare and dystopian tyranny for America and our planet. Others call for major economic reforms that will transcend European-American neo-liberal industrial capitalism and the inherently addictive, unstable and destructive power-seeking that is at its core.

    Thankfully, there is another, very different form of power – one that is slower and based on win-win cooperation, reciprocity and self-regulation. This is the decentralized syntropic power of living things, including plants, animals, fungi and the beautiful and wondrous ecosystems they are able to create all on their own. These creative forms of power are compatible with healthy, fair and well-regulated marketplaces of the sort envisioned by Keynes, Galbraith and Adam Smith. They hold undeniable potential to nurture ecological regeneration and repair, and to meet the challenge of transition to a sustainable civilization. Such an effort will also require restraint of destructive power, particularly in America with its destructive economic activity concentrated into huge industrial, military and financial corporations (and the men who lead them).

    To this end, the pointed question is, how can we restrain destructive power without resorting to more destructive power? Politically and existentially, the resolution of this fundamental paradox is likely to determine the future for us here in Aotearoa-NZ and for our planet at large. I suspect a massive shift in societal values and ways of living together will need to be catalyzed by a corresponding shift in our worldview. This is unlikely to be led by your middle-class technocrats tinkering at the edges of empire (aka the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development). Some have suggested mass exposure to psychedelics could be part of the solution. Others, like recent US presidential candidate Marianne Williamson, have called for spiritual renewal.

    It remains to be seen if and when current excesses will be corrected in America. But if they are, this is unlikely to be because the reasonable middle has triumphed. It will be because the angry right and the working class left have seen fit to sweep aside the divisive wedges of ancestry and religion, to unify around shared interests and common values, and have set themselves to pulling out the weeds of corporate greed, influence and malfeasance. If this happens, as it has before, America may be able to honestly proclaim:

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

    To achieve this level of righteousness/fairness/justice, will require confronting the current interpretation under US law that Americans are the only people created equal and endowed with basic rights. There may need to be fierce recognition that these sentiments apply to all people everywhere, and perhaps to other living beings and ecosystems as well. If this day comes, the question will turn to what sort of ‘new Guards’ are needed to further our shared interest in one another’s Life, Liberty, Safety and pursuit of Happiness. As the Economist suggests, the answer may lie in the concept of Power, particularly a new worldview that understands the important differences between destructive power and creative power.

    Perhaps America, a nation deeply addicted to destructive power-seeking, will be once again be forced to reinvent herself from the grass-roots, rise from the ashes, and transcend its current purgatory. Maybe USA will lead the way, maybe not. Maybe leadership will come from intact indigenous communities with deep experience in sustainable living. Maybe it will come from many places all at once. We have witnessed the capacity for injustice in one place to spark a collective outcry around the world. Maybe the hunger and thirst for righteousness you lament in so many young Leftists signals that this global shift is already under way. I certainly hope so because the longer this transformation takes, the harder survival will be for present and future generations.

    On the other hand, the longer this takes and the worse humanities problem’s get, the clearer it will become to all of us just how far astray our self-absorbed power-seeking has taken us and just how wrong we have been to cling to the destructive status quo. Like many addicts, spiritually broken by the undeniable truth of hitting rock-bottom, we may come to thank raw suffering for allowing us to finally let go of what is killing our precious living world – after exhausting all other options that is.