Classical. Liberal. Fictional.
The Economist's attack on woke is a justification for inaction against the far right threat
With impeccable timing The Economist has splashed its front cover today with the headline: "The threat from the illiberal left".
Sure, in Texas, they just cancelled abortion rights and set bounty hunters to round up health workers. Sure, last night in Budapest, a wall of uniformed fascists hurled missiles at England's multi-ethnic football team.
But what's important right now is to attack wokeness. For that's what the associated leader column does.
An unwary reader might have assumed this was going to be a polemic on radical leftists like Corbyn, Lula, Melenchon or Ocasio-Cortes. But the target is closer to home.
Because the "illiberal left" threat, the Economist alleges, has appeared from within liberalism itself, and is focused on the concept of social justice. Hence the opening sentence:
Something has gone very wrong with Western liberalism.
The magazine wants defend something called "classical liberalism" against a new form of liberalism based around what the it alleges is a "caste-based" concept of social justice, which leads to needless conflict and destabilises liberal democracy.
Let's start then, by identifying the Economist's "classical liberalism" for what it is: a conceit.
Claiming to be a "classical liberal" in a world of tech monopolies, surveillance states and central bank money creation has is like claiming to be a "pre-1905 Bolshevik" or a Bismarckian state socialist under the same conditions.
Either you're running a political re-enactment group, with no material relationship to the modern world, or you provide an account of how your chosen doctrine historically evolved into something else, how its actions created those aspects of the modern economy, state and civil society you dislike.
The Economist, instead, begins its attack on wokeness and Critical Race Theory with the assertion:
The best way to navigate disruptive change in a divided world is through a universal commitment to individual dignity, open markets and limited government.
First, there cannot be "universal commitment" to these values because their effects - rampant poverty, criminalisation of minority communities, social atomisation, state violence and surveillance, the dominance of fossil and finance capital - are always going to be contested.
Second, to defend individual "dignity" (not rights, not freedom) together with the small state and the free market is - in the context of today's combined crises of growth, inequality and climate chaos - to defend neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is the ideology that sponsored, coercively imposed and then validated a set of social relations that generated high inequality and destroy social solidarity in Western societies over a period of 30-odd years.
The Economist has understood that the struggle for social, economic and climate justice increasingly challenges the structures of neoliberalism. Hence, it resorts to the central untruth:
Over the past 250 years classical liberalism has helped bring about unparalleled progress.
Wrong. Whether we measure progress through technological change, rising real wages or the expansion of the franchise, women's reproductive rights and the rule of law, the one force that "helped" above all to achieve these things was the organised working class.
Historically, "classical liberals" opposed the extension of the franchise to the working class, opposed laws to abolish child labour, opposed reductions of the working day and ruthlessly used the rigged 19th century institutions of governance to jail, deport and censor those actively fighting for social justice.
Today it is not just the ungrateful and undeserving poor who are staging a revolt, but black, gay and feminist liberals who have identified the structures of injustice and inequality within modern capitalism and are using the logic of social liberalism, and the institutions of academia, to fight back.
The Economist admits that "the most dangerous threat in liberalism’s spiritual home comes from the Trumpian right". This is correct.
But it claims there is now a symmetrical challenge, arising from black and feminist advancement through elite universities:
"As young graduates have taken jobs in the upmarket media and in politics, business and education, they have brought with them a horror of feeling 'unsafe' and an agenda obsessed with a narrow vision of obtaining justice for oppressed identity groups."
It takes a lot of chutzpah to see the emergence of a new academic discipline, in the form of Critical Race Theory, as a threat symmetrical to a fascist insurrection that storms the US Congress. But for the Economist, the threat posed to liberalism by social justice theory has become existential. Here's why:
For classical liberals, the precise direction of progress is unknowable. It must be spontaneous and from the bottom up—and it depends on the separation of powers, so that nobody nor any group is able to exert lasting control.
This is the central fiction of modern liberal ideology. If the precise direction of progress were "unknowable" why would it always be mandatory for it to include globalised free markets and wealth inequalities, and to exclude, for example, an economy based on human need instead of profit? The fiction is challenged, however because:
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.
This, then, is not an ideological battle over who owns liberalism, it is a material challenge to the power of bankers, police chiefs, fossil fuel capitalists and the economists and political theorists who validate their power.
Oppressed groups within capitalism are using the system's formal commitment to legal equality to wage a struggle over material interest. Just as investment banks do.
And they are right to do so. Real progress - as the socialists of the 19th century knew - has to include, and prioritise racial, sexual and inequalities. And it has to possess what liberalism does not: a theory of catastrophe - the notion that unless progress is made towards the concrete goals of decarbonisation, women’s liberation, complete practical equality for ethnic minorities, and the end of financial exploitation, liberal democracies won’t survive.
"Classical liberals," the Economist asserts "believe in setting fair initial conditions and letting events unfold through competition—by, say, eliminating corporate monopolies, opening up guilds, radically reforming taxation and making education accessible with vouchers".
They believe these things so hard that, after a 30 year period of neoliberal governance, none of them have been achieved.
Corporate monopolies are strenghthened; "guilds" in the form of the Eton-educated meritocracy that runs the British state, are ubiquitous; taxation has been radically reformed to exclude global corporations and rich individuals from social obligation - and the educational achievement gap between private and publicly educated children is yawning.
"Progressives," alleges the Economist "see laissez-faire as a pretence which powerful vested interests use to preserve the status quo. Instead, they believe in imposing “equity”—the outcomes that they deem just".
Yes, the progressives have uncovered the hidden fiction within liberalism and moved on from it, to more effective forms of struggle - and towards a concrete goal of progress. That's their heresy - to dream of a world free of class, racial and gender oppression.
They "deem" it just because they, unlike the average leader columnist at the Economist, have experienced injustice. And though they may never haveread Rawls, they possess a theory of justice that fills the vacuum left within classical liberalism by its blindness to goals, struggle and justice.
In the process, this new, progressive liberalism, has - to the Economist's distaste - discovered that institutions like weekly magazines, economics departments at universities and carbon-funded think tanks can function as ideological tools of elite power. "The illiberal left" it complains "believe that the marketplace of ideas is rigged just like all the others."
It is here that we get to the central allegation against woke academia and political activism:
That means restricting their freedom of speech, using a caste system of victimhood in which those on top must defer to those with a greater claim to restorative justice.
I am against restricting freedom of speech for all except fascists, those who incite racial and gender violence, and genocide advocates. But the progressive movement sweeping academia and political life is not about "restricting freedom of speech", nor is it imposing a "caste system of victimhood".
It is simply using the power of activism and choice to combat the micro-aggressions, structures and hierarchies used to silence people from oppressed groups.
The Economist's characterisation of their demands as a "caste system of victimhood" a way of revealing that classical liberalism has no theory of oppression or exploitation, nor indeed of ideology.
Like the white supremacists it claims to oppose, classical liberalism can only see the revolt of oppressed people as a form of oppression against itself:
It also involves making an example of supposed reactionaries, by punishing them when they say something that is taken to make someone who is less privileged feel unsafe. The results are calling-out, cancellation and no-platforming.
Calling people out is another way of saying “criticising people in authority”. Cancellation? From the earliest labor movements, at the time of Peterloo onwards, oppressed people have used boycotts, targeting individuals who act as agents of the exploiting class. That's where the word scab comes from.
As for no-platforming - the only people who should be coercively no-platformed are fascists. On the other hand, Cambridge University has no legal obligation to employ people who edit pseudoscience journals: neoliberalism has created a marketplace for ideas, in which the consumers have the right to request certain products are not on the shelves.
You get a sense of the Economist's desparation from its appeal to good ol' Milton Friedman:
Milton Friedman once said that the “society that puts equality before freedom will end up with neither”. He was right.
This is the Freidman who rushed to congratulate Augusto Pinochet even as his soldiers raped and murdered leftists in the cells of Santiago.
The modern and consistent Friedmanites are figures like Paypal founder Peter Thiel, who declared as early as 2009 that, in light of the financial crisis and the enfranchisement of women, "democracy and freedom are incompatible".
The point about the social justice movements is that their concept of freedom - unlike Freidman’s - no longer revolves around economics, but society.
And here we come to the ultimate irony. We, the radical left, are used to being stigmatised with the "horseshoe theory", whereby our resistance is catagorised in the same language as fascist violence. Now the Economist deploys the horseshoe theory against progressive liberalism itself:
Illiberal progressives think they have a blueprint for freeing oppressed groups. In reality theirs is a formula for the oppression of individuals—and, in that, it is not so very 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.
This is where the Economist's leader ceases to be an exercise in sophistry and becomes politically functional for the financial elite that buys the magazine.
This is the excuse by which a generation of neoliberals will forbid themselves to side with the left against the far/populist right.
And here's the payload of the horseshoe theory:
When populists put partisanship before truth, they sabotage good government. When progressives divide people into competing castes, they turn the nation against itself. Both diminish institutions that resolve social conflict. Hence they often resort to coercion, however much they like to talk about justice.
This totally underestimates the danger posed by the alliance of right wing populists like Trump and their violent far right followers who do the storming, shooting and marching. They're not "sabotaging good government" - they're eviscerating democracy and intend to destroy it.
As for “competing castes”, this is the Economist's invention, and entirely at odds with the practice of modern social justice movements. The real world strategies evolved using intersectionality theory are precisely designed to mediate between the claims of groups that are victims of social injustice, not to set them against each other hierarchically, as in a caste system.
It is not we, who resist, who have “divided society”: it is the vast inequalities of wealth and power, between worker and boss, tenant and landlord, white and non-white, male and female that have achieved this.
The article begs the question: if classical liberalism is so much better than the doctrines of class struggle, racial and sexual liberation, why is it losing the argument?
We come back to our starting point: because what the Economist thinks is "classical liberalism" is simply an ideology justifying an economic system that no longer works.
I have no problem with liberals trying to defend their core values, though as a Marxist I do not share them. The problem I have is when liberals start looking for justifications to avoid alliances with the left against the far right.
And that's what this is. That's why they had to put it on the front cover a day after the Supreme Court cancelled Roe-v-Wade.
If we are not careful, faced with a renewed alliance of fascists, populists and authoritarian conservatives, "classical liberalism" will sail to its doom for a second time in history, clutching its volumes of John Locke even as the rule of law collapses and the squadristi run riot.
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