Chris Trotter’s piece on “conservative leftism” – a label he identifies with – is extremely important for highlighting recent splits on the Left today (see The Daily Blog, Dec 18, http://thedailyblog.co.nz/2016/12/18/must-read-sunday-in-defence-of-conservative-leftism/). Conservative leftism, for Trotter, speaks to the defense of democracy, the balancing of “individual rights and collective need,” emancipation of groups on the margins of society through both legalistic means and ways of promoting the social acceptance of those groups, and the ending of Western imperialism. It distinguishes itself from the ‘liberal Left’ (or what Trotter calls the ‘radical Left’) and its obsession with the subjective, the individual, and the symbolic. To me, however, this term ‘liberal Left’ and its conflation with ‘radical Left’ is increasingly becoming unintelligible, and Trotter’s use of ‘conservative Left’ to oppose this position is only half-right. I will take this opportunity to explain why this is, and why a different framework is perhaps needed now to distinguish between positions on the Left.
I wrote a piece a few days after the US election about the ‘liberal Left’ and its very illiberal response to Hillary Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump. In this piece I accused the ‘liberal Left’ of failing to understand the impact of the Democrats’ loss on their political programme and the reason why Clinton failed so miserably to capture those states that had been long neglected in American politics. The essential equation I arrived at, using exit poll data, was that working-class voters of all colours abandoned her programme as it was (rightly) perceived to ignore their concerns. Clinton had cemented herself over time, from the time her husband was President until the campaign’s dying day, as a rehearsed, uncaring elitist who had little attention for the growing criticism on the Left of her ignorance of those groups (and, indeed, entire states) perceived not to matter to the Democrats this election. She was more interested in courting financiers than workers. It was no wonder the trade unions left the Democrats to wallow in their misery and accepted Trump (yes, Trump!) with open arms. There is one thing, however, that I did not stress enough in that piece. The ‘liberal Left’ and its obsession with calling out whoever it doesn’t like or agree with on ‘racism’, ‘sexism’ and ‘homophobia’ is actually very illiberal. They are not actually a ‘liberal Left’ at all. They thought their bullying tactics would swing people to their side. I have noted that many of those pundits (Sady Doyle, Amanda Marcotte, those who have blatantly used the Left as a vehicle like Melissa Harris-Perry, Tim Wise, the Twitter rabble, etc.) support neoliberal capitalism, however open they are about this. As Trotter identifies, neoliberalism is also in some way a misnomer as it represents a very real and existing threat to liberalism’s emphasis on the integrity of the democratic project. Culturalism, which has ascended to hegemony on the Left in response to neoliberalism, is also an anti-democratic force.
The ‘conservative Left’ is opposed to such politics from this fake, capitalist Left. Adolph Reed calls these pretenders the representatives of “the left-wing of neoliberalism”. As Kenan Malik says, the politics of multiculturalism as it is practiced today against the backdrop of financialised capitalism puts people into ethnic (and other) identity boxes, and distributes rights based on the cultural arbitraries linked to those boxes. The intention is for those disparate, separate groups to be ‘managed’ by the state. Rather than a politics of openness and mutual respect, and ‘cultural’ interlinkages, it is a politics of border control. This is something the “left-wing of neoliberalism” openly supports. The success of the social movements of the 60s and 70s to cement laws protecting minority groups, but their failure to sustain their social acceptance, can perhaps be explained by and through the reactionary turn on the Left since the breakdown of those movements. Those social movements looked as if they were set to be a temporary deviation away from class politics, but the Left never seriously returned to class after the discrediting of the state capitalism of the Soviet Union. Instead, the Left, through vehicles such as radical feminism, ‘anti-racist’ and postcolonial theories, and queer theory, which all were initially well-intentioned, began to separate and entrench borders between evermore distinctive identities and cultures. This is a practice that continues today, additionally with the nightmare that is ‘indigenous theory,’ which reformulates colonial stereotypes and tropes in a progressive way to distinguish between a homogeneous ‘indigenous’ community and ‘colonising’ community. In these theories, class (which is increasingly becoming apparent among these indigenous communities, with the proliferation of new elites that control emergent regimes of capital accumulation) is not present. The Left’s uncritical march towards traditionalism, cultural primordialism and this neoliberal multiculturalism has allowed to carry largely uncriticised because of the bullying tactics deployed which I have already mentioned.
Trotter’s turn to class, without abandoning the marginalised groups that the left-wing of neoliberalism says it supports (despite ignoring those members of the marginalised groups that arguably need the most attention, who are arguably the most excluded in society), is, for him, a ‘conservative’ position. I am not so sure about this. When I began criticising ‘liberal Left’ identity politics, I wondered aloud whether I was becoming a ‘left conservative’ in the vein Slavoj Žižek used at one point to describe himself. I disagree, now, with that thought I had. I would say that with my call for a ‘return’ to class analysis, and the need to conceptualise an inclusive democracy (not a parliamentary democracy, which is probably the one point Trotter and I substantively disagree, or the capitalist ‘democracy’ administered by elites or technocrats) is a more ‘liberal’ position than the faux-liberalism of the identity Left. Judith Butler’s call for the ‘economic’ and ‘cultural’ Left to align, so that presumably class analysis of the marginalised can take place, has been ignored by the ‘cultural’ Left that wishes to remain strictly ‘cultural’ and by extension anti-democratic. Butler has herself seemingly made quite visible moves in the direction of the left-wing of neoliberalism (see again, her remarks in my piece on Hillary Clinton).
That all being said, just what is the ‘liberal Left’ and the ‘conservative Left’ now? And what of the “revolutionary extremists” (Trotter’s words) that constitute the ‘radical Left’? I think Trotter is too harsh on the ‘radicals’ (for one, he defines them too generally) which is why his position, by comparison, looks conservative. But my sympathies to Trotter come from the need to establish something, some alternative to destructive neoliberal capitalism, which works economically as well as democratically. There are not enough economic specialists on the Left, for example, in a time where we need them most. The Left also has a compromised understanding of democracy, due to its hatred for anything remotely sounding like ‘liberalism’ and the outbreak of anti-democratic ‘culturalism’ which is supported by the political ideology of neoliberals. Perhaps I, as a ‘left communist,’ opposed to market democracy, imperialism and the ascendancy of elites, am an unlikely candidate to save the Left from illiberalism, ironically enough. Trotter, I think, is closer to my position than he realises. Whatever the ‘conservative Left’ is supposed to be, it is not personified by someone like Trotter, who believes in more of the established core Left values than the left-wing of neoliberalism. I would argue the left-wing of neoliberalism, and its willingness to ‘conserve’ the existing capitalist order (making, of course, no real challenge to it) are the real conservatives.