My previous post on this blog argued against the very poorly resourced claims Moana Jackson made in the e-tangata magazine that ‘freedom of speech’ is not a liberal, democratic value, but a shield for racism, bigotry and hatred. What we have seen in the last week is this debate given a practical test in the form of two key players in the ‘alternative-right’ or ‘alt-right’ movement, Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, in their bid to hold a speaking event in Auckland. These two speakers had their event cancelled after a decision made by Auckland mayor Phil Goff to block them from accessing any council-operated venue, at which point the Bruce Mason Centre (the intended venue) issued a press statement saying that for “health and safety reasons” the event had been cancelled. A little gratuitous, one would think. But this action from the state to censure a speaking tour had full support from the so-called ‘liberal left’. Their support demonstrates yet again that this constituency is turning against both the liberal and leftist values they once held to become the ‘left wing’ of authoritarian reaction that supports capitalism and state-sanctioned interference in the civic arena of debate.
These two positions, the liberal left and alt-right, essentially structure the dominant mode of participating in politics today – debates about ‘culture’ often broadly and erroneously conceived. In my post on Moana Jackson I explained that he is part of an intellectual faction in academia called ‘culturalism’ which insists on the primacy of ethnic group belonging in one’s personal identity. It then tries to put a square peg in a round hole by combining this with a liberal political programme of rights and freedoms. Notably, culturalism never addresses in any systematic or meaningful way the worldwide system of allocation of material resources, or the trajectory of uneven economic development this system follows which gives rise to extraordinary differences between ownership classes and labouring classes. It jettisons these issues so it can talk about culture and the lack of strong investment in traditions as being the problem for marginalised ethnic groups. This utterly misguided phenomenon, which takes no account of the changes to class composition along the lines of those ‘marginalised ethnic groups’ that has taken place since the late twentieth century, is the ‘left’ wing of the cultural debate.
The right wing of the cultural debate accepts much of the claims that form the basis of the ‘left’ form of culturalism. They also believe in the primacy of ethnic belonging, ‘culture’ and tradition. Commonly they are Europeans but not exclusively so; hence there is a lot of just-as-unnecessary and stupefyingly off-base chit-chat about ‘European culture’ being ‘under threat’ and requiring some sort of ‘revival’. Presumably, given the actions of many alt-right figures, what this ‘revival’ requires is a lot of racist caterwauling, making fun of ‘social justice warriors’, and in some cases arguing for societal regressions to essentially feudal systems of social organisation. The alt-right is not a homogeneous phenomenon and has many forms – the ‘anarcho-capitalist’ form that Molyneux represents is one, but Southern appears to represent the self-described neo-Nazi element of the alt-right given the company she has been recently keeping. But their biggest issue above all where they have almost complete agreement on is immigration. They call for practically all immigration to be stopped, and fierce border controls. The wall Trump has proposed to divide the United States and Mexico is a good start. This position follows from the culturalist view that people have different ‘cultures’, coupled with the idea that they must not mix, like they have been allowed to do with the ‘liberal projects’ of mass immigration and multiculturalism.
We can see, then, how the culturalism supported by many elements of the liberal left actually goes some way to complementing the beliefs of the alt-right. They are merely two permutations of the same worldview that have only a second-order disagreement. The basis of these two views is incorrect but widely held. It is the essentialist scenario that instead of being part of a constantly changing human world that must be acknowledged from the start to be wildly heterogeneous, we are born into a discrete set of hypostatic cultural groups that usually carry ethnic or national labels, like ‘European’ or ‘Nigerian’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘Mexican’ or ‘Scandinavian’ or ‘Māori’, or whatever else. These cultures all have traditions that must be respected and honoured. This is a profoundly ahistorical view of the world that freezes people’s understanding of different groups of others in the present, and fails to take stock of how the entire history of the human world has been shaped by ‘cultural’ exchange and also suppression of particular elements through a long, protracted history of empire-building and consolidation. There is also very little attempt made to explain what ‘culture’ actually is in this framework. More often than not reactionary inferences are made to concepts like Volksgeist (national spirit or national character) or indeed essentialist, Romantic reference to an inner cultural ‘spirit’ (very common in ‘indigenous’ theories).
The debate on ‘culture’ and migration has become an issue because of what Jonathan Friedman describes as the “dual process” which motors the tendency towards what is often called ‘globalisation’. The first part of that process is the inexorable movement towards an end to the old international political order dominated by one or two ‘central’ world powers. We now have a multipolar world order caused by the political weakening of Western nation-states as well as the disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is coupled with the constant political anxieties and conflicts of many ‘weak’ postcolonial states. With this decentralisation comes a re-emergence of national identities in those dehegemonised areas, which can be seen particularly in the success of Eastern and Central European nationalist movements and parties such as in Hungary and Poland. These movements are mostly on the right of politics. With the political crises of many ‘weak’ states in weaker areas of the world-system, particularly in African and Middle Eastern nations, enormous waves of migration have occurred from those nations to the old ‘centres’. This can be compared with the status of Eastern Asia that has seen the opposite effect: a suppression of minority politics and a reinforcement of national or regional identities.
The other aspect of this process, for Friedman, is the “increased polarization between classes and a transformation of the identities of the classes involved”. This occurs primarily in the old centres of the world-system. The polarisation occurs between “increasing cosmopolitanism among rising elites and increasing localism, nationalism, and xenophobia among declining and increasingly marginalized classes”. We see this happening in the United States where Hillary Clinton of the Democratic Party, seemingly the figurehead of ‘anti-establishment’ opprobrium there, is ignorant to the material plight of the working-class, having the audacity to lump them into a “basket of deplorables” – and the ‘white’ (among other ‘racial’ group) working-classes of the Rust Belt, who have lost considerable economic ground thanks to deindustrialisation and capital flight from North America, supporting Donald Trump and his anti-immigration policies for the presidency. It is repeatedly insinuated by the Clinton faction of the Democrats, however, that these groups in fact do not face ‘economic anxieties’ and this is just an excuse for their ‘racism’ – which only confirms that they pay no attention (or perhaps they don’t want to) to the changes in the capitalist economy going on around them, that have widened inequalities as a result of their own party’s economic policies.
The alt-right and the assortment of European nationalist movements have seized the window of opportunity created by this polarisation of classes, and sought to exploit it. These movements have carried with them sections of the working classes that were formerly supporters of social democratic parties. Hence, many social democratic parties in Europe and North America are now experiencing a crisis of relevancy. The Socialist Party in France is an almost non-existent presence in its national parliament. The SDP in Germany is only hanging on as a junior coalition partner in Angela Merkel’s right-wing government, virtually useless. Populists in Italy ousted the Democratic Party government in a landslide victory; the latter has just 111 seats in a 630-seat Chamber of Deputies. The Liberal Party of Canada under Justin Trudeau has been absolutely shambolic in government and will very likely last just one term. This unprecedented scale of failure by social democratic parties has been repeated across European and North American countries and provinces. It is because they have all abandoned reformist projects to build up a public welfare and social services state, and instead pursued a continuation of capitalist austerity policies that are beneficial to the financial sector and business but have widened class inequalities. It is no surprise that the working classes have rejected such parties. But because of the activities of these new right-wing groups, along with the abject failure of much of the Left to respond with any coherent vision, political investments of the working class have been diverted away from building resentment against the injustices of a broken, pathetic and coiling economic system towards the scapegoating of a pseudo-enemy in the immigrant or refugee.
The liberal left is the constituency that still, with actual gusto, supports social-democratic parties despite their long-held betrayal of the great reformist projects they once promised. The liberal left can do this because it is largely a middle-class phenomenon that has little or no connection to the working-class and views its growing resentment of world elites and slanting towards xenophobia with complete contempt. It can do this with virtually no contradiction to its political outlook because it has abandoned any pretence of being ‘left-wing’ at all. The primary condition of being on the political left is opposing social inequality and supporting forms of class politics. The liberal left, however, has no form of class analysis whatsoever that it cannot channel into a misguided analysis of ‘ethnic’ inequality, gender inequality or anything else but straightforward class analysis. The liberal left is notionally a separate constituency to what I call the ‘cultural Left’ or ‘culturalists’ (of Moana Jackson’s ilk), but they overlap significantly and have entered into the cultural politics debate united, because of the liberal left’s penchant for amplifying identity politics at the expense of class politics.
As a result of its political alliance with the culturalists, not only does the liberal left betray the ‘left’ in its name, but also the ‘liberal’ as well. The liberal left has bought into the authoritarian strategy of censorship of any political group it does not like. Its word for this is ‘no-platforming’ or ‘deplatforming’. This is because the liberal left believes ‘hate speech’ should not have a platform. As I showed in my piece on Moana Jackson, there is considerable latitude applied to what constitutes ‘hate speech’, and there is nothing stopping that definition being turned on its head by opponents, who can use state institutions to censor things they also do not like or present themselves as marginalised groups. This is what Israel Folau attempted to do during the controversy surrounding his comments on gay people. He presented his version of anti-homosexual Christianity as a ‘marginalised’ position, which received support from Destiny Church founder and serial fraudster Brian Tamaki. When Southern and Molyneux announced they were coming to New Zealand for their anti-immigration speaking tour, the liberal left appealed to state institutions to interfere in the civic arena to get it stopped. Little does the liberal left realise this is exactly what the alt-right expect and want from them and it is a primary strategy of recruiting new converts to their political cult.
With the liberal left betraying liberal ideals of a democratic public sphere through their wanton use of state interference at every turn, the alt-right has been able to present themselves as arbiters of the right to freedom of speech. This, however, is even more hypocritical and fake than the actions of the liberal left. The alt-right supports freedom of speech for their own group, but wants to get liberal groups banned and calls the police on people who turn up to their events and picket or protest. They want the right to insult and mock others, but become ‘snowflakes’ themselves if they are ever insulted or mocked – see the hysteria surrounding Michelle Wolf’s actually very funny speech at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner where she made a little bit of fun of Donald Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. They claim to support democratic values whilst advocating for the forced deportation of migrants, and, in some cases, for their indefinite detention or even murder (in the most extreme cases). Lauren Southern, for example, took part in vessel operations of a right-wing extremist activist group’s ship that aimed to thwart attempts to rescue Libyan migrants. Horrifyingly, the right-wing group she participated in is called ‘Generation Identitaire’ – the Identity Generation in French.
Neither of the two sides in the ‘cultural’ politics debate genuinely supports free speech. This is evidenced by the actions that have been taken by key players on both of those sides. Interestingly enough, key New Zealand politicians have actually indicated their support for free speech. Winston Peters, the Acting Prime Minister, has done so as well as the leader of the centre-right opposition National party. The Labour party has largely avoided the issue; there is probably disagreement internally on it. The only party that has declared opposition to free speech is the Green party, increasingly becoming the central base of New Zealand’s identity-based liberal left. Its co-leader, Marama Davidson, said she received death threats from extreme-right activists. This is a key tactic of the extreme-right whenever a challenge is made to them from any frontier of politics and it demonstrates that they are in fact not committed to free speech at all as I have already shown. What Davidson unfortunately does not realise is she has inadvertently contributed to their cause. She has confirmed for sceptics leaning towards the conspiratorial worldview of the alt-right that the ‘liberal establishment’ does indeed silence the views of those it does not want to hear and is uninterested in the sentiments of those classes experiencing profound downward social mobility.
The socialist left’s position on this issue should be to support free speech in this instance. Socialism is not a political system that lies in opposition to the principles of liberalism and democracy, but is in fact the realisation in full of those principles through overcoming the contradictions that capitalism and servitude introduces to them. Figures on the contemporary left like Noam Chomsky, Chris Hedges, and Glenn Greenwald have written excellently against censorship. Karl Marx supported unequivocally the right to freedom of speech, even if he did not approve of what was said in any instance, evidenced in his youthful writings against the Prussian Censorship law and his chastisement of the “silence which is observed in the European press” regarding acts of cruelty and injustice committed by the English government of his time.
What the alt-right preaches is disgusting. Southern and Molyneux included. It is very often nonsensical and illogical. But it is better to know full well what they do preach, rather than the confected, performative guise they sprinkle over it when publicly questioned. We should take up the challenge they often make to us, but do not themselves tend to honour when asked, of debating and refuting their views in public. To that end I condemn the liberal left for their reckless actions and support the ‘free speech coalition’ – a very, politely put, ‘eclectic’ group of people, some of whom have not always supported freedom of speech evenly in the past. Not only must we be against censorship, we must be ready to debate the views we do not like with a clear head. It is our responsibility we must pay to the next generation, if nothing else. And we must reject the fatalistic narratives of culturalism and identity politics in favour of a socialist politics of equality, fraternity, and democracy.