In Search of Meaning: 21st Century Leftist Imaginarium

Why are many of the ideas usually associated with the right in the nineteenth century—fear of progress, of science, of modernity and of collective action—today closely linked with the outlook of left-wing thinkers?

The 21st century has already experienced more than its share of economic crises. There is nothing remarkable about periodic economic recessions in the global capitalist economy. What is remarkable is that for the first time in the modern era there is no plausible articulate left-wing alternative that can capture the imagination of the public. The irrelevance of ideals traditionally associated with the left where forcefully stated by a British left wing commentator Richard Seymour, who lamented: “How can it be that more than six years since the credit crunch, with austerity under way for more than three years, the left has barely showed signs of life, let alone scored a significant victory?” The answer to this crie de coeur is devastatingly obvious. In the 21st century the disintegration of the Left has been underwritten by the erosion of almost all the political principles and values that were traditionally associated with this movement.

One of the most fascinating developments in recent years has been the project of turning the failure to articulate a left-wing vision of the future into a positive virtue. The Occupy Movement self-consciously avoided espousing political principles and values. Its refusal or inability to formulate political demands is regularly applauded by its supporters in the media. Commentators praise them for “raising questions,” “highlighting problems” and “serving as the conscience of society.”

“Those who deride [Occupy] for its lack of concrete demands simply don’t understand its strategic function,” lectured Gary Younge of the Guardian. His piece titled“Who knows where the occupations are going—it’s just great to be moving” expressed the depoliticized sensibility of the 21st century leftist. Such attitudes communicate a disturbing acquiescence to failure and irrelevance. The American political consultant George Lakoff articulated this approach in unambiguous terms when he stated that “I think that it is a good thing that the occupation movement is not making specific policy demands.” Why? Because, “If it did, the movement would become about those demands” and if “the demands were not met, the movement would be seen as having failed,” he argued.

Lost for Words

Almost the entire vocabulary of 21st century leftism has a meaning that is radically different and often directly opposed to the way those words were understood in in the 18th, 19th and most of the 20th century.

Take the term anti-capitalism. The radical critique of capitalism was founded on the premise that this system of production could not systematically develop the productive forces and therefore could provide a decent standard of living for all. The claim that capitalism was unable to deliver the goods was frequently presented as an argument for a radically different society by many socialists and communists. The mainstream left also believed that capitalism could not be relied on to create the wealth necessary for the maintenance of a prosperous society.

The term anti-capitalism today is rarely associated with the claim that this system of production lacks a thrust toward development. On the contrary, the focus of criticism movements like Occupy is that capitalism develops far too fast and that this has destructive consequences for both the environment and for people. The fear today is that there is far too much development and that capitalism produces too many things. “Today, with its dysfunctional side effects, we are more aware of the dangers; we now experience the inexorable development of productive forces and the global expansion of Western civilization more as threats,” argues Jürgen Habermas, a leading German leftist social theorist. If anything, for Habermas capitalism has become much too efficient.

In direct contrast to the traditions of the labor movement of the past, those who define themselves as left-wing today are weary of economic and technological development. Apprehension about fast rates of economic growth and the development of new technology is linked to a sense of insecurity regarding change. In what constitutes a dramatic reversal of roles, the left appears to be more uncomfortable in dealing with change than the right.

Anxiety towards experimentation and economic growth has been reinterpreted by today’s cultural and political elites as a risk. Human progress, once embraced as a wholly desirable enterprise is today represented as a risk. And a risk is invariably interpreted as a danger to be avoided or minimized. Paradoxically, it is those who call themselves left-wing who have become most risk-averse and most vociferous in denouncing the idea of progress. In the nineteenth century, the association of anti-capitalism with hostility to progress was confined to the Luddites and the conservative reaction to modernity. Radicals, liberals and socialists were for progress. Today, the bitterest opponents of progress are the radical anti-capitalist critics of production and development.

In previous times radical opponents of capitalism denounced the system for failing to provide people with the material possessions they required for a decent life. Today’s anti-capitalists believe that we (at least in the West) have too many possessions and reject the “mindless consumerism” perpetuated by the market.

An anti-modernist critique of mass society often lurks behind the label of anti-capitalism. In the first half of the twentieth century anti- modernist sentiments tended to be linked to the conservative reaction to change. In Europe, conservative thinkers felt uncomfortable with new forms of popular culture and regarded Hollywood, jazz and the crass materialism of the US with dread. Today a similar response is frequently proclaimed by the lifestyle politics of radical activists. Hating MTV, Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s or Starbucks has become an integral feature of leftist identity.

Many of the ideas usually associated with the right in the nineteenth century—fear of progress, of science, of modernity and of collective action—are today closely linked with the outlook of left-wing thinkers. Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher of the right at the turn of the 20th century is now fashionable among the cultural left and post-modernist intelligentsia. As Stephen Bronner notes in his important study Reclaiming the Enlightenment, “ideas long associated with reactionary movements—the privileging of experience over reason, national or ethnic identity over internationalism […] the community over the individual, custom over innovation, myth over science—have entered the thinking of the American left.” The political scientist Brian Barry agrees. He argues that “during most of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, attitudes to the Enlightenment marked the main division between left and right.” But now the right’s critique of the Enlightenment has “gained currency among those who see themselves as being on the left.” Hostility to universalist values is most pronounced among the cultural left. Yet once the left became disengaged from the traditions of the Enlightenment, it lost touch with the political imagination that inspired the progressive movement of the past two centuries.

The Zombie Left

The cover of Time Magazine (24th October 2011) was titled “The Return of the Silent Majority.” The title referred to the growth of Occupy movement. The title echoed the movement’s fantasy claim that it represented the 99%. But its reference to the ‘silent majority’ inadvertently acknowledged the powerful affinity that the supporters of “We are 99 percent” had with the original formulator of the term silent majority. For it was Richard Nixon, who in his famous November 1969 speech referred to “forgotten Americans” as the “Silent Majority.” So “The Return of the Silent Majority” represents the return of the zombie version of Nixon’s silent majority as the 99 percent.

It is essential to note that like Nixon’s forgotten Americans, 99 percent encompasses a very high proportion of the people. So when protestors claim that “I am 99%” they refer to virtually everyone in society. It is about as close as you can get to unanimity. In a world where communities are often divided into people squabbling about their lifestyles or along cultural, ethnic and class lines it is rare to experience the kind of solidarity that binds 99 percent of people together.

Historically the claim to represent or to speak on behalf of everyone is usually confined to charismatic religious leaders, political charlatans or populist dictators. The embrace of the depoliticized fantasy of “We are 99 percent” is integral to an imaginarium that has not only lost touch with reality but also relies on the intellectual and political resources usually associated with the reactionary right.

Probably the most distinct and innovative ideal that characterizes the contemporary leftist imagination is that of social justice. In recent years, the zombie version of leftism, particularly in the Anglo-American context has become closely linked with the idea of “social justice.” Yet, the concept of social justice constitutes a fundamental break from traditional progressive thought. It eschews the project of social transformation, development and progress and embraces the worldview of redistribution of resources and privileges in society. In its current usage social justice has in its focus redistribution of resources and opportunity between different cultural, ethnic and lifestyle-oriented groups. It is at odds with redistributionist views of liberals, which targeted individuals and of socialists who focused on classes. Adherents of social justice are instinctively anti-universalists and celebrate the politics of identity.

Social justice expresses a worldview committed to avoiding uncertainty and risky change through demanding that the state provides us with economic and existential security. From this standpoint, progress is proportional to the expansion of legal and quasi-legal oversight into everyday life. From the perspective of those who demand social justice, the proliferation of ‘rights’ and redistribution of wealth are the main markers of a progressive society.

Paradoxically the idea of social justice was historically associated with movements that were suspicious of and uncomfortable with progress. The term was coined by the Jesuit Luigi Taparelli in 1840. His aim was to reconstitute Catholic theological ideals on a social foundation. In the century that followed, ‘social justice’ was upheld by movements that were fearful of the future and which sought to contain the dynamic towards progress. Probably one of the best-known advocates of social justice in the inter-war period was Father Charles Edward Coughlin. This charismatic American demagogue and populist xenophobe set up the National Union of Social Justice in 1934. Through his popular radio broadcasts, which regularly attracted audiences of 30million, he became one of the most influential political figures in the United States. Coughlin praised Hitler and Mussolini’s crusade against communism and denounced President Roosevelt for being in the pocket of Jewish bankers. Here,‘social justice’ was about condemning crooked financiers and putting forward a narrow, defensive appeal for the redistribution of resources.

Today’s campaigners for social justice bear little resemblance to their ideological ancestors. The current Occupy movement would be horrified by Coughlin’s racist ramblings, yet they would find that some of the ideas expressed in his weekly newspaper Social Justice were not a million miles away from their own. Hiding behind the fantasy of the 99 percent, today’s so-called leftist shares the sensibility of classical reactionaries who are wedded to the idea that the unsettling effects of change need to be contained by a vision that is entirely fixed on getting along with the present. Like all anti-Enlightenment ideals, that of social justice expresses the conservative impulse of restraining change.

There was a time when attitude towards the Enlightenment played an important role in distinguishing the difference between left and right. The left enthusiastically embraced the Enlightenment ideals of reason, progress and universalism, whilst the right tended to oppose them. Today there is little that divides left from right on this matter. In such circumstances the left-wing imagination has become emptied of any distinct meaning.

Frank Furedi

Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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