The present cultural crisis has created some odd bedfellows. I was recently ‘followed’ on Twitter by Maya Forstater, a radical feminist who came to public attention when she was forced out of her job for affirming the female sex as a biological reality. I have been consuming the articles and podcasts of Spiked, a left-wing magazine founded in 2000 to continue the work of Living Marxism, and which laments the disconnection between the UK’s opposition Labour Party and the working class over Brexit. And I have joined Counterweight, a support group for academics targeted by woke mobs—or woke administrators—founded by Helen Pluckrose, a self-described left-liberal, who sprang to fame for getting post-modern spoofs published in supposedly respectable academic journals.
A tactical alliance between conservatives and such unorthodox figures of the left—let’s call them ‘non-conforming liberals’—makes sense, partly because it is feminists and libertarians who are bearing the brunt of the woke purge. This is often for the simple reason that conservatives have found it practically impossible to get jobs in the worst-affected institutions for a good while: you can’t be ejected from an establishment that has never let you in. The analysis of the current situation by non-conforming liberals can also be helpful since they are closer to the thought-world of critical theory than most people. If you want to know the difference between Critical Theory, Queer Theory, and Marxism, Miss Pluckrose can enlighten you. She reads Foucault so the rest of us don’t have to.
Their language revives some hoary old anti-religious stereotypes, many deriving from anti-Catholic polemics from a bygone era repurposed for use by left-leaning atheists. Perhaps, for the less reflective, the parallel between religion and Critical Theory simply comes down to both being bad.
One way of giving a little more content than this to the unpromising parallel between traditional societies and the dystopia being brought to us by the woke lynch-mob, would be in terms of freedom of expression, but on closer examination this doesn’t work either. It is true that the medieval and early modern Catholic Church, and her Protestant state-church rivals, sought to limit what could be printed or publicly preached. The problem with using this as the key issue on which to divide historical epochs and political systems into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is that that some degree of censorship has been a feature of practically all societies known to history, or indeed anthropology. It is no great insight to notice that the woke have this much in common with the Spanish Inquisition. They also have it in common with a whole range of societies, from those we would regard as moderate, secular, and modern—say, the UK on the eve of the Lady Chatterley judgement in 1960—to the regimes of Napoleon and Stalin (these last are unquestionably downstream of the Enlightenment in terms of ideological development).
Indeed, Napoleon and Stalin present a rather more interesting parallel with Critical Theory than 16th century Spain. Were they implementing the ideas of the Enlightenment or betraying them? Should they get the support of bien pensant enlightened intellectuals or not? A complete answer would be a complicated one, but certainly the great dictators of modern European history are inconceivable outside the context created by the Enlightenment. The same is true of Critical Theory.
In different ways, the tyrants of the 19th and 20th centuries, and the woke, were and are responding to something that is at once an ideological commitment of Enlightenment liberalism as understood by today’s non-confirming liberals and at the same time a practical consequence of the transformation of society and the economy between the 16th and 20th centuries: individualism.
The ersatz group identities and common forms of life, with which various ideologues have attempted to give meaning to the lives of the disorientated victims of liberal individualism, have something in common with traditional societies, in the same way that a cheap plastic urn in a crematorium window has something in common with a Ming vase that, in some distant way, provided its inspiration.
Like many post-Enlightenment ideologies, Critical Theory responds to the problems created by individualism, while still pushing individualism further forward. Black Lives Matter states as an aim the abolition of the family; the recent U.S. experiments in police-free ‘autonomous zones’ imply the abolition of private property. People describing themselves as liberals and socialists have been attempting to free the human spirit from the oppression supposedly represented by these institutions for centuries. The more successful attempts have necessarily relied on activists with a powerful sense of common purpose, underpinned by the solidarity and group identity provided by ideology, party, class, or nation, or some combination of these. These movements destroy organic forms of solidarity by means of other, often quite artificial, forms of solidarity.
This still looks like progress to those involved, and however confused the practical results, it still hails from the central principle of liberalism: the idea that breaking down old loyalties and forms of life will make us truly free.
In a recent Quillette podcast, Helen Pluckrose expressed her dismay that people seemed to have lost their belief in the ability of liberalism to overturn injustice and oppression, at the very moment of its greatest triumphs. She gave the example of same-sex marriage as such a triumph. However, it is precisely the contentment of her brand of liberals with the progress they had made that spelled their doom. What oppressive institutions are there left to abolish, once marriage, sexual norms, and religious faith have all been rendered trivial, but the notions of sexual identity and scientific truth? The liberal project, like a bicycle, needs to go forward. Oppressors must be found, or the freedom-fighters will be out of a job.