There is no shortage of takes on the activist left’s contempt for freedom of speech. Most of the ones I read are beginning to blur together into a well-meaning sameness, but one piece was different. It was written by John Gray (the political philosopher, not the relationship counselor). Gray argued that the left’s authoritarian turn is not something distinct and separate from contemporary liberalism. Instead, it answers to a progressive demand:
It would be easy to say that liberalism has now been abandoned. Practices of toleration that used to be seen as essential to freedom are being deconstructed and dismissed as structures of repression, and any ideas or beliefs that stand in the way of this process banned from public discourse. Judged by old-fashioned standards, this is the opposite of what liberals have stood for. But what has happened in higher education is not that liberalism has been supplanted by some other ruling philosophy. Instead, a hyper-liberal ideology has developed that aims to purge society of any trace of other views of the world. If a regime of censorship prevails in universities, it is because they have become vehicles for this project.
This hyper-liberal ideology is not limited to universities. It is clearly spreading inside the Democratic Party, and it has already consumed most of the Labour Party in Britain. Of the latter transformation, Gray said:
No doubt some factions in the party hark back to the hard-left groups that fought for control of Labour in the 1970s and 80s in their rhetoric, methods and policies. But there is not much in the ideology animating Corbynite Labour that is recognizably Marxist. In Marx, the historical agent of progress in capitalist societies is the industrial working class. But for many who have joined the mass party that Corbyn has constructed, the surviving remnants of this class can only be obstacles to progress. With their attachment to national identity and anxieties about immigration, these residues of the past stand in the way of a world without communal boundaries and inherited group identities–a vision that, more than socialism or concern for the worst-off, animates this new party. It is a prospect that attracts sections of the middle classes–not least graduate millennials, who through Corbyn’s promise to abolish student fees could be major beneficiaries of his policies–that regard themselves as the most progressive elements in society.
Many of these obstacles to progress are well aware of how they are seen by the agents of progress. Those who reside in “the abandoned communities of America’s post-industrial wastelands,” as Gray said, are used to having their grievances “dismissed as ‘whitelash,’ their lives and identities derided, and their view of the world attributed to poor education and sheer stupidity.” However ill-informed they may be about the finer points of public policy, they know that they are hated.
The MAGA-hatted backlash against hyper-liberalism should come as no surprise. In Gray’s view, it has been a long time coming:
Liberals who rail at populist movements are adamant that voters who support them are deluded or deceived. The possibility that these movements are exploiting needs that highly individualist societies cannot satisfy is not seriously considered. In the liberalism that has prevailed over the past generation such needs have been dismissed as atavistic prejudices, which must be swept away wherever they stand in the way of schemes for transnational government or an expanding global market. This stance is one reason why anti-liberal movements continue to advance. Liberalism and empiricism have parted company, and nothing has been learnt. Some of the strongest evidence against the liberal belief that we learn from our errors and follies comes from the behaviour of liberals themselves.
None of this is to deny that “liberalism,” often with the prefix “neo,” has become a term of abuse on the activist left. But their jeremiads are filled with liberal slogans and shibboleths. They are promoting, in Gray’s view, “an exorbitant version of the liberalism they incessantly attack.” They seem to believe that a new society will emerge, once this one has been purged of all things atavistic:
In this view, all identities are equal in being cultural constructions. In practice some identities are more equal than others. Those of practitioners of historic nationalities and religions, for example, are marked out for deconstruction, while those of ethnic and sexual minorities that have been or are being oppressed are valorized. How this distinction can be maintained is unclear. If human values are no more than social constructions, how can a society that is oppressive be distinguished from one that is not? Or do all societies repress an untrammelled human subject that has yet to see the light of day?
The politics of identity is a postmodern twist on the liberal religion of humanity. The Supreme Being has become an unknown God–a species of human being nowhere encountered in history, which does not need to define itself through family or community, nationality or any religion. Parallels with the new humanity envisioned by the Bolsheviks are obvious. But it is the affinities with recent liberalism that are more pertinent. In the past, liberals have struggled to reconcile their commitment to liberty with a recognition that people need a sense of collective belonging as well. In other writings Mill balanced the individualism of On Liberty with an understanding that a common culture is necessary if freedom is to be secure, while Isaiah Berlin acknowledged that for most people being part of a community in which they can recognize themselves is an integral part of a worthwhile life. These insights were lost, or suppressed, in the liberalism that prevailed after the end of the Cold War. If it was not dismissed as atavistic, the need for a common identity was regarded as one that could be satisfied in private life. A global space was coming into being that would recognize only universal humanity. Any artefact that embodied the achievements of a particular state or country could only be an obstacle to this notional realm. The hyper-liberal demand that public spaces be purged of symbols of past oppression continues a post-Cold War fantasy of the end of history.
In short, these hyper-activists are turning liberalism against itself. They demand nothing less than its self-negation. They are engaged in what Leszek Kolakowski called “the self-poisoning of the open society.” By this Kolakowski meant “the process by which the extension and consistent application of liberal principles transforms them into their antithesis.” When openness itself results “in the paralysis of openness, then we are dealing with self-destruction.”
But suicide is not the preordained fate of liberalism. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a choice into which too many are blundering.
(Gray’s essay is mostly a reprise of the critique he made in Two Faces of Liberalism. His book, which was first published back in 2000, convinced me that American liberalism is long overdue for a reset.)