In December 1978, a Marxist academic named Dr Malcom Caldwell went on an official, 14-day tour of Cambodia along with two other Western visitors. He was expecting to enjoy his visit to the small Communist state, not least because he had spent the last three years defending it. A lecturer in South East Asian Economic History at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, Caldwell was a fierce critic of Western foreign policy and an enthusiastic supporter of Pol Pot, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Kampuchea (CPK) and Cambodia’s Prime Minister from 1976-79. Before his visit, he referred to Cambodia as “Democratic Kampuchea”, talked about the “liberation” of its capital Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge – the foot soldiers of the CPK – and insisted that no one had been imprisoned or killed by the authorities without due process. “We should be careful not to jeer at the social experiment being conducted in Kampuchea,” he wrote.
As the Times journalist Bernard Levin pointed out in May 1978, seven months before Caldwell’s visit, you only have to replace “Kampuchea” in that sentence with “Auschwitz” to grasp the sheer scale of his denialism. Cambodia under Pol Pot was a brutal, genocidal dictatorship to rival that of Nazi Germany. Between 10% and 20% of the population were killed, around half as a result of mass executions and the rest from starvation and disease. The “liberation” of Phnom Penh consisted of the city’s two-million residents being frog-marched into the countryside by gun-wielding revolutionary guards. The evacuees included the sick and the dying who were “liberated” from the city’s hospitals. Most of those who weren’t killed immediately ended up in “collective farms” – in reality, forced labour camps – where they were either executed, starved or worked to death. All citizens of “Democratic Kampuchea” were forced to work 10-hours a day, including children as young as six, and a roster of new capital “crimes” were introduced, including sex outside marriage, practicing Buddhism and – as in East Germany – trying to leave the country without the official exit papers. Due process of a sort was observed, in that the killings weren’t completely random. If you were found in possession of a pair of reading glasses, for instance, that was taken as evidence that you were a member of the urban bourgeoisie and an “enemy of Democratic Kampuchea”. One of the Khmer Rouge’s favourite methods of execution was to bury their victims up to their necks and then club them to death with shovels and other farming tools – and there were 20,000 killing fields across the country where these murders were carried out. “The victorious Khmer Rouge have turned Cambodia not just into a prison, but a Charnel House,” wrote Levin.
Caldwell was far from the only person on the Left to romanticise Pol Pot’s regime. He was part of a group of influential scholars and journalists – self-styled experts on Cambodia – whose views came to form the orthodoxy among the Western intelligentsia. For instance, there were Gareth Porter and George C. Hilderbrand, whose book Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution (1976) celebrated the “collectivisation” of Cambodia’s agricultural land – the same policy that had resulted in tens of millions of people starving to death in the Soviet Union and China. (By 1978, this policy had completely failed and the Cambodian population began to starve.) The influential left-of-centre political weekly the Nation ran an editorial in 1975 praising the “revolutionaries” for acting “responsibly” and claiming that “the much-heralded blood bath that was supposed to follow the fall of Phnom Penh has not taken place”. (The final death toll is estimated to have been between 740,000 and 3,000,000.) Then there was the left-wing journalist James Fenton, who admitted that “Democratic Kampuchea” was not without its faults, but blamed the regime’s excesses on American imperialism, as well as the parlous state of the Cambodian economy before the country was “liberated” by the Communists. “The practice of beating people to death made sound sense in an economy where bullets were scarce,” he wrote.
Some of these writers and academics would later change their minds after the regime fell and the evidence that the Khmer Rouge had committed crimes against humanity became harder to deny, but it’s not as if there was a scarcity of evidence at the time. In addition to news reports, eyewitness accounts and the testimony of those who managed to escape the country, there was Cambodia: Year Zero (1977) by Francoise Ponchaud, a Jesuit priest expelled from Cambodia in 1975. Ponchaud stayed in touch with his parishioners, interviewed refugees, listened to internal radio broadcasts and gradually built up a picture of what life was like under the Khmer Rouge. His book was the first time the true extent of the genocide was laid bare, along with a litany of carefully-documented evidence – although that evidence was questioned by a number of prominent left-wing intellectuals, including Noam Chomsky. Ponchaud was unimpressed by denialists like Malcolm Caldwell. “How many of those who say they are unreservedly in support of the Khmer revolution would consent to endure one hundredth of the present sufferings of the Cambodian people?” he asked.
That question proved to be prophetic. After Caldwell’s two-week tour of “Democratic Kampuchea”, during which his Khmer Rouge guides pointed to groups of happy, smiling workers, he was given the rare honour of a private audience with Pol Pot. According to the journalist Elizabeth Becker, who saw him shortly afterwards, the meeting left him feeling “euphoric”. A few hours later he was shot and killed by Khmer Rouge guards in his hotel bedroom. The reason for his execution remain unclear, but his family believe it was done at the behest of the Cambodian dictator because Caldwell made the mistake of disagreeing with him about a couple of things during their conversation. Another theory is that he was killed by disillusioned members of the Khmer Rouge who couldn’t bear the thought of this useful idiot returning to the West to praise all the wonderful things he’d seen in this socialist paradise. According to Becker: “Caldwell’s death was caused by the madness of the regime he openly admired.” (For a comprehensive account of the liberal intelligentsia’s denialism about Cambodia, see this piece in Quillette by Matthew Blackwell.)
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I tell this story, not to gloat at the death of someone whose politics I don’t share, but because it’s an example of how the ideological beliefs of a left-wing political activist ran aground when they came into contact with reality. Dr Malcolm Caldwell exhibited many of the characteristics of the species I call ‘sado-narcissists’. He loathed Western capitalism with a passion, but lived a comfortable life as an employee of an institution heavily subsidised by a Western government. The fact that he was being paid by the very people he thought were responsible for so much exploitation and injustice, and that he belonged to the ‘bourgeois’ class he regularly denounced, didn’t trouble him. On the contrary, he regarded himself as the intellectual and moral superior of his colleagues who refused to condemn the oppressive system they were part of. They were doing the bidding of their capitalist puppet-masters, whereas he was his own man. If they were paying him to foment a socialist revolution, more fool them.
But what makes Caldwell a sado-narcissist par excellence is that his beliefs were so completely at odds with reality – and by “reality” I mean that which, when you stop thinking about it, doesn’t go away, which was Philip K. Dick’s definition. In particular, the reality on the ground in Cambodia. Caldwell thought Pol Pot’s “social experiment” represented a “better future for all”, even though more people per capita were slaughtered during Pot’s four-year reign than in any other country throughout human history. Right up until the moment Caldwell was killed – and perhaps even then – he believed that people really were better off under socialism. (Caldwell is far from the only left-wing intellectuals to enthusiastically support Communist dictatorships – and I don’t just mean the Soviet Union. Simone de Beauvoir said of her and Jean-Paul Sartre’s visit to Cuba, “For the first time in our lives, we were witnessing happiness that had been attained through violence.” For more examples, see this article by Ben Sixsmith in Quillette.)
For several years I’ve been collecting evidence that undermines – or just flat out contradicts – various sacred orthodoxies of the regressive Left. I use the phrase ‘regressive Left’ to contrast these beliefs with those of the progressive Left, some of which I share because I’m a classical liberal. For instance, I wholeheartedly embrace the ‘soft’ forms of equality (equal rights, equal opportunities and equal treatment) fought for by anti-slavery campaigners in the 19th Century, the suffragettes in the early 20th Century, civil rights activists in the 1960s and LGBT activists more recently; I worry about the long-term health of liberal democracy in light of ever-increasing inequality; and I feel uneasy about capital punishment. But the line between the progressive and regressive Left is a blurry one and it has become fuzzier since the election of Donald Trump in 2016. (A symptom of Trump Derangement Syndrome?) That event – and to a lesser extent the electoral success of right-wing populist movements across Europe, including Brexit – has empowered the regressive Left and enabled its activists to capture large swathes of the moderate Left.
The melding of hard-Left dogma with postmodernism – what Jordan Peterson calls ‘postmodern Neo-Marxism’ – has also helped with its rapid spread in the last few years, even though that phenomenon dates back to the 1960s. (It’s almost as if a group of cultural terrorists had been perfecting a virus in a lab for 50 years and then waited for just the right moment to release it.) Many progressive liberals have ended up feeling like apostates just because they have remained true to their original values while all around them their friends and allies have shifted leftwards, and some democratic socialists – such as the former Evergreen State College professor Bret Weinstein – have ended up as leading lights of the Intellectual Dark Web. So it’s complicated.
A blogger called Daniel Miessler, unhappy about the IDW being branded ‘alt-Right’, pulled together information on where six of its most prominent members – Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Dave Rubin, Jordan Peterson and Ben Shapiro – stood on the key issues that divide liberals from conservatives. The resulting graph indicates that five of the six (not Ben Shapiro) are more closely aligned with liberals than conservatives:
The flaw in this exercise, as the writer Uri Harris has pointed out, is that the key issues that divide the Left from the IDW are not, for the most part, the ones that divide liberals from conservatives. Rather, it’s to do with ‘culture war’ issues like identity, structural oppression and privilege. The identitarian Left sees the world through a Foucauldian lens, reducing everything to power relationships. Among its core beliefs are that ‘BIP’ traits (behaviour, intelligence and personality) are socially constructed, that language and discourse plays a critical role in constructing these traits and that your ‘identity’, defined as your membership of various groups as set out in the intersectional hierarchy of oppression, largely dictates how you experience the world, as well as many other things. Needless to say, it is opposed to the existing distribution of power, both within Western countries and between those countries and non-Western countries, but it’s less clear what the goal of left-wing politics is: to equalise power between different identity groups (and countries), or to turn the intersectional hierarchy on its head, so previously oppressed groups are on top and cishet white males are on the bottom? The reason people who prioritise what they call social justice regard the IDW as ‘alt-Right’ – or, when feeling a bit more reasonable, ‘alt-Right adjacent’ – is not because they believe all its members hold conservative positions on issues like gay marriage and abortion. Rather, it’s because prominent members of the IDW sometimes make common cause with conservatives whom they’re aligned when it comes to rejecting this Foucauldian world view, and because the identitarian Left regards anyone who challenges its analysis as motivated by a desire to preserve their privilege – so even if they don’t think of themselves as ‘reactionary’ or ‘conservative’, they are. The IDW is a coalition of people who agree on some issues – the importance of free speech, for instance – but disagree on others. The identitarian Left, by contrast, is a political movement in which there isn’t much tolerance for internal dissent and you’re either on its side or you’re in the enemy camp.
Okay, now for a few concrete examples of current left-wing orthodoxy. Some of these beliefs date back at least 50 years, while others are associated with the present-day activists known as ‘Social Justice Warriors’, and while some are just straightforwardly false, others require a bit more probing before it becomes clear how disconnected they are from reality: socialism/communism works, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, e.g., the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Cambodia, Venezuela, etc.; human beings are tabula rasa and are infinitely malleable (blank slate hypothesis); human beings are naturally good and all anti-social behaviour, including predation, cruelty, warfare, sexual enslavement and homicidal violence, is the result of corruption, e.g., capitalism, colonialism, industrialisation (noble savage hypothesis); individual and group differences in status, wealth and power are entirely social/cultural in origin and have no basis in biology (social constructionism, which is often contrasted with ‘biological essentialism’); linking social and economic inequality to biological differences is an attempt to justify the unequal distribution of wealth and power (hereditarianism = social Darwinism); the belief in equal rights is contingent on embracing Blank Slate-ism, from which it follows that anyone who believes psychological differences are genetically-influenced, such as individual or group differences in IQ or the five big personality traits, is opposed to equal rights; race is a social construct; gender is a social construct (although the people making that claim also claim that greater gender equality will produce better outcomes, e.g. in households, workplace teams, legislative chambers, etc., which is odd if men and women are essentially the same); biological sex is a social construct; hate speech is a great evil, but it’s okay to publicly advocate the hatred of men/white people; it’s wrong to morally condemn the cultural practices of others (e.g., female genital mutilation in Sierra Leone), unless you’re a member of a victim group condemning the culture of an oppressor group, in which case it’s fine (when it’s one victim group condemning the practices of another, such as feminists attacking the Hijab, the claims of the more victimised group in the hierarchy of oppression – or, illogically, the group that’s been granted victim status more recently, e.g., trans-women – take priority); no culture is better or worse than any other (cultural relativism), apart from Western culture, which is bad (“What ‘multiculturalism’ boils down to is that you can praise any culture in the world except Western culture – and you cannot blame any culture in the world except Western culture.” — Thomas Sowell); it’s wrong to point out logical inconsistencies or factual errors when a member of a victim group condemns an oppressor because the historical injustice suffered by that group is so great we have a moral duty to uncritically accept whatever they say, including accusations of sexual harassment/assault, even if they’re untrue (see the Rolling Stone University of Virginia rape hoax); American college campuses are in the throes of a rape epidemic (more extreme version: all men are rapists), even though sexual assaults of female college students in the U.S. dropped by more than half between 1997 and 2013, and young women in college are less likely to be assaulted than those who are not in college; Australia universities are in the throes of a rape epidemic, even though the Australian Human Rights Commission carried out a million-dollar survey into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses (published in August 2017) and found that only 0.8 percent per year of the 30,000 surveyed reported any sexual assault, even using the broadest possible definition including “tricked into sex against your will”; America is the 10th most dangerous country in the world for women, e.g., more dangerous than Iran where women caught not wearing the full Hijab by the religious police are routinely sentenced to 74 lashes; only a member of a victim group can understand the problems experienced by that group (‘identity epistemology’); a corollary of this principle is that people who aren’t members of a particular victim group should not try and write about the problems affecting that group, particularly not in novels or poems, where white people, men, heterosexuals, cisgendered people, etc., are often urged to ‘stay in your lane’ (see the brouhaha surrounding the homelessness poem published in the Nation) and creating fictional characters who belong to victim groups that you don’t belong to is a form of ‘cultural appropriation’ (see below); another corollary is that actors who aren’t members of victim groups should not be cast as members of those groups, although it’s fine for black actors to be cast in white roles because all white people are privileged (see below); all women are oppressed, including gender studies professors who typically earn $15,000 a year more than their counterparts in STEM subjects; all men are privileged, in spite of the fact that 75% of the suicides reported in the U.K. in 2016 were men, 79% of homicide victims across the world are men, 93% of prison inmates in America are men, 94% of Americans who are killed in industrial accidents are men, 99.9% of Americans killed in combat are men, etc; all men are misogynists (obviously not true, although a suspiciously large number of men who identify as ‘feminists’ have been accused of sexual harassment, such as the sociologist Michael Kimmel); all white people are privileged, including the victims of America’s opioid epidemic, known as ‘the White Death’, and in spite of the fact that poor white boys do worse in English schools than any other ethnic group, there are fewer white births than deaths in a majority of U.S. states, American black women have higher college attendance rates than white men and college-educated black women have higher incomes than college-educated white women; pumpkins are a symbol of white privilege; all white people are racists; any white person denying that they’re racist is either stupid, incapable of introspection or suffering from a form of denialism known as ‘White Fragility’; cultural appropriation, e.g., a white teenage girl wearing a traditional Chinese dress to her high school prom, or a white woman teaching yoga, is wrong and ‘normalises violence’ against victim groups, unless it’s a biological male dressing up as a woman, in which case it’s fine; suggesting that transgenderism is a type of cultural appropriation, e.g., comparable to transracialism, is to commit ‘epistemic violence’ (see the scandal provoked by Rebecca Tuvel’s essay in Hypatia entitled ‘In defence of transracialism’); Britain, the United States and Australia are among the most racist countries in the world, e.g., more racist than low- and middle-income countries like Uganda and Jordan; the problems afflicting Third World countries are almost entirely due to the toxic legacy of Western colonialism; Western colonialism is always and everywhere a bad thing, and conferred no benefits on countries like India, Nigeria and Hong Kong, and anyone suggesting otherwise is a xenophobe/racist/white supremacist (see this op ed piece in the New York Times); the British Empire was “one long, unbroken litany of oppression, exploitation and self-deception“, including the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade; slavery is a uniquely Western phenomenon and never happened in, say, the Barbary Coast of North Africa; Zionism is a form of Western colonialism (“Out there, in the world, all the walls were covered with graffiti: ‘Yids, go back to Palestine,’ so we came back to Palestine, and now the world at large shouts at us: ‘Yids, get out of Palestine'” – Amos Oz); there is no moral difference between the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany and the treatment of Palestinians in Israel (see Jeremy Corbyn’s comparison of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank to Nazi Germany’s takeover of Europe); anti-Semitism is not as toxic as other forms of racism, and may not even be racism at all, because racism = prejudice + oppression and the Jews are not presently an oppressed group; Dodgeball, by contrast, is a tool of oppression; minorities applying to U.S. colleges should be the beneficiaries of positive discrimination because, historically, they’ve been the victims of discrimination (apart from Jews and Asian-Americans, who should continue to be discriminated against when applying to elite universities); studying the genetics of race should be forbidden because it can promote racism (even if it doesn’t logically entail it) and that can cause genocide, but studying the economics of inequality is fine, even though, by the same logic, that can promote Communism (even though it doesn’t logically entail it) and that can cause genocide (h/t well-known ‘white supremacist’ Scott Alexander); climate change is, in part, caused by misogyny; Western civilisation is built on various forms of oppression and exploitation, e.g., misogyny, slavery; the so-called universal values of the Enlightenment, e.g., those embedded in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, are an expression of white supremacy; all white people in Britain and America are ‘racist’ and expected to confess to being so and yet any individual white person who reveals themselves to be ‘racist’ should immediately be cancelled; a person’s identity is determined by the particular group/tribe he or she belongs to, e.g. their class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.; no one rejects a point of view for purely rational reasons, but because it threatens the power/interests of their particular group/tribe (see the Sam Harris/Ezra Klein debate); everyone is either a victim or an oppressor (see ‘Social Conflict Theory‘); the only reason privileged groups do better than victim groups is because the system is rigged in their favour (‘structural inequality’) and because members of the privileged groups harass, abuse and discriminate against members of the victim groups, although that would make it difficult to explain the success of Japanese-Americans who were forcibly interned during the Second World War – 120,000 of them – and legally barred from owning land in 14 states until 1952 (census data shows that by 1970 Japanese-Americans were out-earning Anglo-Americas, Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Italian-Americans, and Polish Americans); challenging regressive Left orthodoxies on campus, such as the view that gender is a choice and men who identify as women should be allowed to compete as women in the Olympics, enter women’s changing rooms, seek shelter in women’s refuges, etc., is a form of hate speech (‘discursive violence’) that causes harm to victim groups, e.g., endangers their safety, makes them physically sick and damages their mental health (see this piece in the Times about the efforts of an academic trans activist to silence the ‘dangerous’ views of her opponents); exposure to symbols of white privilege on campus, such as statues of ‘cishet’ white male college founders, can ‘trigger’ women and minority students, causing them mental trauma and ill health; exposure to violent movies/video games causes violent behaviour; conservatives are more biased than liberals, e.g., more close-minded, parochial, fearful, myopic and inclined to authoritarianism; the reason fewer females than males study STEM subjects and the reason for the gender imbalance in STEM fields, particularly in leadership positions, is entirely due to social/cultural factors, e.g., sexual discrimination, implicit/unconscious bias and ‘stereotype threat’; anyone challenging this view in the workplace and arguing that the gender imbalance in STEM is partly due to population-level psychological differences that are genetically-influenced is guilty of creating a ‘hostile work environment’ and should be fired, particularly if they work at Google; there is such a thing as implicit/unconscious bias, i.e. it exists, it’s measurable by the Implicit Association Test and you can predict how someone will behave towards women and minorities according to his or her score in the IAT (for a good account of the shortcomings of the IAT see this piece by Jesse Singal in New York magazine); taking the IAT makes people less racist/misogynistic/transphobic, etc. (here’s some evidence that it has the opposite effect); ‘Stereotype Threat’ is real, in spite of evidence to the contrary (which is an odd claim to make because if it is true that a woman’s performance in testing conditions is adversely affected by stress, wouldn’t that be a reason not to promote women to leadership positions?); stereotypes have no basis in reality (in fact, they do); ethnically diverse teams in the workplace get better results than ethnically homogenous teams, e.g., teams working in companies in China, even though the Chinese economy grew by 15.4% in the first quarter of 1993; the main causes of criminal behaviour are social/cultural, e.g., poverty, social deprivation; the ‘prison-industrial complex’ is classist, misogynistic and racist; the main causes of mental illness are social/cultural, e.g., poor parenting, gaslighting, anxiety (such as the anxiety caused by making schoolchildren take exams); Western countries like Britain and America are in the throes of a mental health crisis (i.e. the increased incidence of mental illness isn’t just due to more self-reporting or an improvement in diagnostics) that is rooted in economic uncertainty and growing inequality (or is it smartphones?); poverty/deprivation is the main reason children from disadvantaged backgrounds under-perform in schools; good parents/teachers/welfare programmes can boost children’s IQ, e.g., Baby Mozart, Growth Mindset, Head Start (the evidence that these programmes don’t raise children’s IQ, or indeed boost attainment in any way, is pretty conclusive); equality of opportunity leads to equality of outcome – ‘equity’ in the language of the Woke Left – from which it follows that any outcome discrepancies must be due to inequality of opportunity; and end-state equality can be maintained without the need for constant interventions by a coercive state — happy citizens can “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner” while the state just “withers away” (Marx) as it did in… well never, but that’s only because true socialism hasn’t been tried yet. I will add to this list.
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This blog is an attempt to understand why these orthodoxies have become so widespread – in spite of nearly all being either empirically false, unfalsifiable, dependent on bad theory, illogical or just incoherent, and in spite of the fact that they are bound up with an ideology that has frequently led to disastrous political and economic outcomes – with a view to writing a book. As I envisage it, the first half of the book will be devoted to demonstrating how at odds these views are with reality, drawing on behavioural genetics, molecular genetics, neuroscience, the behavioural sciences more generally, as well as history, economics, philosophy and logic; and the second half will consist of a sociological analysis of why this new, virulent strain of Leftism has infected the educated elites of the West and spread like a new air-born form of Ebola. (Or, more accurately, like a new, evangelical religion. It’s been referred to as ‘The Great Awokening‘, a pun on ‘The Great Awakening‘, a series of Christian revivals that swept Britain and its 13 colonies between 1730 and 1740.)
Think of it as a follow up to Raymond Aaron’s Opium of the Intellectuals (1955) in which the French social scientist tried to explain why Stalinism proved so seductive to the West’s leading intellectuals in spite of the overwhelming evidence that Stalin was a totalitarian dictator. The difference today is that it’s not just the very intelligent who believe this mumbo-jumbo.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that, across the developed world, many of the shibboleths of left-wing identitarian theology are adhered to without question by the most powerful elites. I’m thinking of the administrators of the West’s most prestigious universities, not to mention the department chairs and professoriate; large swathes of the political class (including the leaders of many right-of-centre political parties); the managers of state bureaucracies; the editorial boards and senior employees of the most influential mainstream media platforms, such as the New York Times, the Guardian, the New Yorker, CNN, the BBC, etc.; the boards and managers of social media companies like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; the executives of large publishing houses, such as Penguin Random House, as well as a majority of the authors they publish; the leaders of the tech giants – Apple, Google and Amazon – and the Brahmin class in Silicon Valley more widely; the managers of the entertainment industry, including the Hollywood studios; the vast majority of the ‘talent’ that makes its living in entertainment, including those employed in the performing arts, particularly the state-subsidised or charitably-funded performing arts; most artists and art dealers; the leaders of the fashion business, including the editors of fashion magazines and websites, such as Teen Vogue; and the executives of many if not most large corporations, including some global financial services companies. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine in February 2018, “We are all on campus now.”
I’m certainly not the first to notice that some aspects of left-wing identity politics, including self-flagellation about whiteness, privilege, the West, etc., seem to sit quite comfortably alongside modern capitalism, or ‘Neo-Liberalism’ as it’s sometimes called by the Neo-Marxist Left. Joel Kotkin recently put forward something like this view, seeing a symbiosis between the identitarian Left and corporate capitalism – a combination he calls ‘oligarchical socialism’:
Particularly since Donald Trump’s election, the leaders of corporate America — especially in tech and finance — have merged with the Democrats. They appeal to progressives by advocating politically correct views on immigration, gender rights and climate change, while muzzling conservatives both inside and outside their companies.
One theory is that the identitarian Left’s new, woke version of Marxism – replacing the proletariat with women and minorities as the oppressed class, and the bourgeoisie with white men as the source of that oppression – poses less of a threat to Western elites than old-fashioned Marxism. Why? Because all you need do to remedy the injustice of cishet white male privilege is increase the representation of women and minorities at the top of the capitalist hierarchy, not dismantle the system. That is, the egalitarianism of the identitarian Left is limited to demanding equality between different identity groups, not between everyone, regardless of which groups they belong to. To put it crudely, powerful Western elites have recognised that they can preserve their wealth, and continue to amass even more, by promoting women and minorities up the ranks of the companies and institutions they control.
The German sociologist Oliver Nachtwey describes this feature of modern capitalism in his book Germany’s Hidden Crisis (2018):
Horizontally, between groups with different sexual orientations, between genders and in certain respects even between ethnic communities, society has become more egalitarian and inclusive—but vertically, this egalitarianism is tied to greater economic inequalities.
No doubt this observation is accurate, but does the complementarity of the diversity-and-inclusion agenda and modern capitalism explain why that agenda has been embraced so enthusiastically by Western elites? A problem with this theory – let’s call it the ‘Diversity-Co-Opted-by-Neo-Liberals-For-Self-Interested-Reasons’ hypothesis – is that Western elites tend to be composed of cishet white men, so embracing Intersectional theology may not be the best way of preserving their wealth and status. I’m not suggesting that elite cishet white men don’t embrace this belief system – many of them do – only that it stretches credulity to claim they’re doing so for consciously self-interested reasons. (The phrase “turkeys voting for Christmas” comes to mind, although it’s possible that if they regard whiteness as a social construct they think they can renounce their own whiteness and, in some sense, cease to be white even though they’re, you know… white.) More likely, they’re embracing them for unconscious self-interested reasons – as a form of virtue-signalling, or to assuage their guilt. (See the response to this letter in the New York Times about white guilt. The letter turned out to be a hoax, but the response from the NYT agony aunts is genuine.) Maybe they’re just trying to advertise their membership of the Brahmin class – the modern equivalent of Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption. That theory was put forward by the journalist Reihan Salam in the Atlantic:
It is almost as though we’re living through a strange sort of ethnogenesis, in which those who see themselves as (for lack of a better term) upper-whites are doing everything they can to disaffiliate themselves from those they’ve deemed lower-whites. Note that to be ‘upper’ or ‘lower’ isn’t just about class status, though of course that’s always hovering in the background. Rather, it is about the supposed nobility that flows from racial self-flagellation.
Another difficulty with the ‘Diversity-Co-Opted-by-Neo-Liberals-For-Self-Interested-Reasons’ hypothesis is that postmodern Neo-Marxists don’t want powerful cishet white men to share power with women and minorities; rather, they want to replace them with women and minorities. As Michael Rectenwald puts it in Springtime For Snowflakes (2018):
[S]ocial justice ideology does not foster egalitarianism. Rank is maintained, only the bottom becomes the top when the totem pole of identity is inevitably flipped upside-down and stood on its head. (Rank is established on the basis of intersectionality, a grid for determining the number of ways that a subject is subordinated based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and so forth.) Is it any wonder then that social justice warriors compete valiantly for the status of ‘most subordinated’ in the games derogatorily referred to as ‘the Oppression Olympics?’ The race to the bottom is really a race to the top – although the race runs downhill.
It’s also worth pointing out that once the subaltern groups have obtained power, their aim is to dismantle the ‘system of oppression’ and replace it with some kind of multi-cultural utopia in which capitalism – rooted as it is in racism, patriarchy, cis-heterormativity, etc. – plays no part. It would be more accurate to say that the social justice Left has not replaced the overthrow of capitalism with an assault on cishet white male privilege, so much as wedded identity politics to democratic socialism.
But perhaps the biggest reason to treat this hypothesis with scepticism is that the most powerful people in the West – the global super-rich – don’t have much truck with left-wing identity politics, particularly those who didn’t go to university. It’s the executives of the West’s most powerful companies that have drunk the social justice Kool-Aid, not the owners. (Where the organisations in question are owned by the state, that’s a different matter.)
French economist Thomas Piketty published a paper in March 2018 in which he argued that politics in the U.S., Britain and France is dominated by the struggle between two elite groups: the Brahmin Left and the Merchant Right. He pointed out that left-wing parties in the U.S., Britain and France used to rely on ‘nativist’ voters to win elections – lower education and lower income – but since the 1970s they’ve begun to attract more and more ‘globalist’ voters – higher education, higher income (with the exception of the top 10% of income earners) – while nativists have drifted to the Right, forming a coalition with the business elite. In the U.S., for instance, from the 1940s to the 1960s, the more educated people were, the more likely they were to vote Republican. Now, the opposite is true, with 70% of voters with masters degrees voting for Hilary in 2016. “The trend is virtually identical in all three countries,” writes Piketty (see slide below). Curiously, this trend has coincided with the rise in the number of people attending university. In the U.S. in 1948, only six per cent of voters had university degrees; by 2016, 13% had a masters degree or a PhD. In France in 1956, five per cent of voters had tertiary degrees; in 2016, 16% had advanced degrees.
So it’s possible that the explanation for the phenomenon I’m interested in – the exponential growth of postmodern Neo-Marxism – is simply that the regressive Left has extended its influence by gradually taking over the West’s most prestigious universities, starting with the humanities departments, then the social sciences and, after that, by creating new faculties dedicated to advancing their doctrines – cultural studies, gender studies, queer theory, critical race theory, whiteness studies, etc. To complement this takeover, the high priests of the new cult have become increasingly aggressive about enforcing this dogma, enlisting outrage mobs – both real and virtual – to no-platform and shame anyone with dissenting views. (This characteristic of the identitarian Left – their use of Moaist tactics to ensure doctrinal conformity – has led to them being dubbed the ‘ctrl-Left’.) Let’s call this explanation the ‘Indoctrination’ hypothesis.
To support this, there is plenty of data showing that the left-wing bias of universities in Britain and America has become more pronounced in the past 50 years or so. For example, the sociologist A.H. Halsey surveyed the political views of British academics in 1964, 1976 and 1989. He found that those with right-of-centre views fell from 35% to 29% to 18% over that period whereas left-wing allegiance rose from 64% to 67% to 72%. Another survey was done by the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2015 asking the staff of British universities how they intended to vote in the forthcoming general election. Forty-six per cent said they intended to vote Labour, 22% said Green, 11% said Conservative, 9% said Lib Dem, 6% said SNP and 0.4% said they intended to vote for UKIP. Worth bearing in mind that UKIP polled 12.6% of the popular vote in the 2015 General Election (and came first in the European Parliament elections the year before, polling 27.5% of the votes cast). The table below shows how support for right-of-centre parties in British universities has declined in the last 50 years and support for left-of-centre parties has increased.
A similar shift has happened in the U.S. For example, the political scientist Stanley Rothman found that the proportion of U.S. professors describing themselves as right-wing declined from 34% in 1984 to 15% in 1999 and those describing themselves as left-wing increased from 39% to 72% in the same period. (See here for Rothman’s 2005 paper.) And the shift has continued – accelerated, even – in the last two decades. According to a study carried out by Econ Journal Watch in 2016, which looked at the voter registration of faculty members at 40 leading American universities in the fields of Economics, History, Law, Psychology and Journalism/Communications, Democrats outnumber Republicans by 11.5 to one on average. In Psychology, the ratio is 17.4 to one; in History, it’s 33.5 to one. Another study of U.S. academics, this one conducted in 2003, found that most lopsided fields are Anthropology with a Democrat to Republican ratio of 30.2 to one and Sociology where it’s 28 to one. (According to a study of universities in California, the ratio in Sociology is 40:1. The least lopsided is Economics with a 3 to one ratio. After Economics, the least lopsided is Political Science with 6.7 to on.) The average of the six ratios by field is about 15 to one. A more recent study of 51 of the top 66 ranked liberal arts colleges by Mitchell Langbert, carried out in 2018, found that 39% of them had no Republican staff on their faculties at all. “The political registration in most of the remaining 61 percent, with a few important exceptions, is slightly more than zero percent but nevertheless absurdly skewed against Republican affiliation and in favor of Democratic affiliation,” he wrote. “Thus, 78.2 percent of the academic departments in my sample have either zero Republicans, or so few as to make no difference.” Langbert found that registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by ratios of 30:1, 33:1, 44:1 and 48:1 in Theater, Music, Sociology, and English, respectively.
How did American universities become more politically biased over the last few decades? Because a small left-wing majority can become a large left-wing majority if it uses its dominance to ensure that people who share its liberal political views are more likely to be hired than conservatives. A 2012 study by Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers found that left-wing academics make no secret of discriminating against conservatives when it comes to job promotions and grant applications.
An alternative explanation for Piketty’s findings is not that universities have become more left-wing, but young people are, in general, more left-wing, and university graduates have only become more left-wing as their average age has fallen. Why has their average age fallen? Because the expansion in university places in the U.S., Britain and France is a relatively recent phenomenon and, as a consequence, the beneficiaries of this policy skew slightly younger than the graduate population did 50 years ago. However, Piketty examined this hypothesis and found that university graduates have still drifted to the Left in the past half-century even if you control for their changing average age.
There are other alternatives. Some people, when confronted with the voting preferences of graduates, attribute it to the fact that more intelligent people naturally gravitate to the Left, or because the facts themselves are left-wing. I disagree, obviously, but even if that was true, it wouldn’t explain why graduates used to skew the other way until quite recently.
Another theory is that the views of graduates haven’t changed, it’s just that right-wing parties in the U.S., Britain and France have become so extreme, most graduates cannot now bring themselves to vote for them. But that analysis is surely biased. You could argue that a degree of polarisation between right-wing and left-wing parties has taken place in all three countries, but that wouldn’t explain the shift. In the 2017 British General Election, the Labour Party was led by someone with more extreme views than the leader of the Conservative Party, yet among graduates Labour had a 15% lead.
A final point made by those who resist the Indoctrination hypothesis is that the political imbalance among the staff of U.S., British and French universities doesn’t entail political bias. After all, it’s possible that the majority of professors, lecturers, etc., are scrupulous about not letting their political views colour their teaching. But while that might apply to the life sciences and, to a lesser extent, business studies, it’s unlikely to be the case outside those faculties. What people making this argument don’t realise is that most professors in social science faculties, humanities faculties and arts faculties don’t think they have a professional obligation to be politically neutral when it comes to teaching their subjects. On the contrary, they’ve drunk the Kool-Aid and think it’s their responsibility to open their students’ eyes to systematic injustice. Neutrality is just a mask used by Neo-Liberalism to disguise itself.
No, in the absence of another, better explanation for why university graduates have become so much more left-wing over the past 50 years – and why the sacred nostrums of the Woke Left have gained such widespread acceptance – I’m going to treat the leftwards shift of the academy as a factor. Perhaps not the only factor, but a big one nonetheless. Ultimately, though, that just begs the deeper question I want to address in the book: why have so many smart people embraced social justice ideology, given how disconnected it is from reality and given how often regressive left-wing dogma has led to the Gulag?
There are other factors at play in the Great Awokening, in addition to the leftwards drift of the academy.
Two big questions:
- Is social justice ideology a new phenomenon? In Springtime for Snowflakes (2018), Michael Rectenwald thinks it originated in 2016: “Although political correctness has enjoyed a much longer sway over academia, social justice as such debuted in higher education in the fall of 2016 – when it emerged in full regalia and occupied campuses to avenge its monster-mother’s death and wreak havoc upon its enemies.” (The “monster-mother” is postmodern theory.) But is it distinct enough from other left-wing ideologies to warrant being treated as something separate and new, or just the latest manifestation of an ideology that dates back to the birth of socialism in the late 19th Century, or even Romanticism in the previous century? Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birckbeck, has written a book called Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities (2018) in which he situates the identitarian Left (and sado-narcissism) in what he calls the tradition of “left-modernism”: “The Western tradition of opposing one’s own culture begins with the so-called ‘lyrical Left’ in the late nineteenth century, which lampooned bourgeois values. After the First World War, the cultural Left turned against the nation, to the point that by 1930, according to the liberal George Orwell, essentially all English intellectuals were on the Left and ‘in left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful about being an Englishman’. In the more diverse United States, the lyrical Left’s critique took the form of an attack on their own ethnic group, the Anglo-Protestant majority, whom they saw as oppressing European immigrants and enforcing puritanical laws like the prohibition on selling alcohol. In the 1960s, this countercultural movement, which I term left-modernism, developed a theory of white ethno-racial oppression. Its outlook superseded the logical, empirically grounded, left-liberal Civil Rights Movement after 1965 to become a millenarian project sustained by the image of a retrograde white ‘other’. Today, left-modernism’s most zealous exponents are those seeking to consecrate the university campus as a sacred space devoted to the mission of replacing ‘whiteness’ with diversity.”
- Contrast Kaufmann’s view with that of Benjamin Schwartz, the former literary and national editor of the Atlantic. In a Marxist critique of wokeness for Spiked, he argues that social justice ideology is not intellectually rooted in serious left-wing thought:
An orthodoxy has taken hold of intellectual, cultural and academic life, an orthodoxy nurtured and protected by an overweening and aggressive sense of virtue and righteous aggrievement that permits it to go unchallenged by the scepticism and bracing scrutiny that used to characterise — in fact to define — intellectual, cultural and academic life.
- Kaufmann’s analysis brings me to the second question, which is whether the Woke Left is a tribal phenomenon or an ideological one. Kaufmann is firmly of the view that it is the latter. According to his analysis, the sacralisation of race, sex and gender is a symptom of the current ferment on college campuses, not its cause: “The left-modernist yardstick is the victimhood-privilege scale, which confers status on those who can claim membership in the Holy Trinity of totemic disadvantaged categories of race, sex and gender. Left-modernism arrays these tribes into a stable hierarchy. Like a totem pole, notes Jonathan Haidt, certain gods take precedence over others. For left-modernists, racial minorities – notably African-Americans and Indigenous people – are at the apex, followed by sexual minorities, then women. Other disadvantaged categories receive little attention. The point is that the religious ideology, not the tribes, are in control.” Kaufmann contrasts the identitarian Left (which may turn out to be the wrong term!) with the identitarian Right, which he thinks is more authentically tribal: “The far Right is more properly tribal. It’s hard to pinpoint a hierarchy that could rank the relative position of whites, males and Christians. No overriding ethos tells each right-wing tribe who should submit to whom. The radical Right is a disorganized array of white nationalist, men’s rights, anti-government and Christian groups united only by ‘enemy of my enemy’ logic. They lack anything like the radical Left’s common currency of victimhood and privilege. There’s no totem pole.” Kaufmann’s conclusion: “In effect, whites in Western societies are polarizing between a ‘tribal’ populist right and a ‘religious’ modernist left.”
- Kaufmann thinks the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the death of George Floyd in May 2020 signal an escalation in revolutionary ferment that could lead to the dissolution of America as we know it. The only way to prevent this, he believes, is if the ‘cultural nationalists’ lead a counter-revolution. He set out this argument in a piece for Quillette in June 2020 called ‘The Great Awakening and the Second American Revolution’. I interviewed Eric about his essay for the Quillette Podcast.
Some general theories and observations about why identitarian ideas have obtained such critical mass:
- The Nobel Prize-winning novelist Doris Lessing wrote a piece in the New York Times in 1992 theorising that the virus of political correctness in British and American public life was due to the collapse of Soviet Communism – that the former filled the vacuum left by the latter: “The phrase Political Correctness was born as Communism was collapsing. I do not think this was chance. I am not suggesting that the torch of Communism has been handed on to the Political Correctors. I am suggesting that habits of mind have been absorbed, often without knowing it. […] I am sure that millions of people, the rug of Communism pulled out from under them, are searching frantically, and perhaps not even knowing it, for another dogma.”
- One reason millennials may be particularly receptive to anti-capitalist, pro-socialist arguments is that, for some of them, the promise of capitalism is unfulfilled. A Harvard poll taken in 2016 found that only a minority of 18-29-year-old Americans support capitalism (42% in favour versus 51% against). Only 33% of respondents said they supported socialism, but a 2011 Pew survey found that among 18-29 year-olds 49% had a positive view of socialism compared to 43% with a negative view. What do I mean by unfulfilled? Stagnating household income, an inability to get on the property ladder, precarious employment, etc. In addition, millennials were born after the end of the Cold War and the horrors of life behind the Iron Curtain are more distant and less real to them.
- Michael Rectenwald offers a Marxist explanation for the popularity of Marxism: “Applying the Marxist class analysis, it is important to note that those who advocate socialism are generally not working-class per se. Most are disaffected intellectuals drawn from the petty bourgeoisie. In other words, their political allegiance is rooted in envy and resentment for those who have more power and resources, rather than in the purity of idealism or good will toward the working masses.”
- In the Wall St Journal, the black conservative intellectual Shelby Steele theorised that the Left’s success in portraying ‘systematic racism’ and ‘white privilege’ as a source of oppression is a symptom of its obsolescence – it has simply run out of genuine injustices to alert people to in the hope of justifying its grab for power so it has had to invent some: “It is undeniable that America has achieved since the ’60s one of the greatest moral evolutions ever. That is a profound problem for the Left, whose existence is threatened by the diminishment of racial oppression. The Left’s unspoken terror is that racism is no longer menacing enough to support its own power. The great crisis for the Left today—the source of its angst and hatefulness—is its own encroaching obsolescence. Today the Left looks to be slowly dying from lack of racial menace.”
Some theories and observations about why the outlandishness of so many postmodern Neo-Marxist ideas is not an obstacle to their being taken up (Nietzsche: “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.”):
- The careers of the high priests and priestesses of the Intersectionality cult are contingent on perpetuating it. It could be that they know it’s balls – most of it – but have a vested interest in promoting it. Worth noting here that, according to HigherEdJobs, professors in Area, Ethnic, Cultural, Gender and Group Studies typically earn $15,000 a year more than professors in STEM subjects. The academics I’ve spoken to have all confirmed that toeing the social justice line is good for your career.
- Members of the victim groups identified by Kaufmann’s ‘Holy Trinity’ totem pole benefit from this mythology, or believe they do, and are therefore reluctant to criticise it even though they, too, may think a lot of it is balls. They may also be reluctant to criticise it for fear of being demonised on social media and elsewhere by their friends and colleagues. For instance, sceptical, free-thinking African-Americans wouldn’t want to risk being labelled ‘Oreos’ or ‘Uncle Toms’.
- Michael Rectenwald also thinks the disconnectedness from reality of social justice ideology is a feature, not a bug: “The social and linguistic constructivist claims of social justice ideologues amount to a form of philosophical and social idealism that is enforced with a moral absolutism. Once beliefs are unconstrained by the object world and people can believe anything they like with impunity, the possibility for assuming a pretense of infallibility becomes almost irresistible, especially when the requisite power is available to support such idealism. In fact, given its willy-nilly determination of truth and reality on the basis of beliefs alone, philosophical and social idealism necessarily becomes dogmatic, authoritarian, anti-rational, and effectively religious. Since it sanctions no push-back from the object world and regards it with indifference or disdain, it necessarily encounters push-back from the object world and must double-down. Because it usually contains so much nonsense, the social and philosophical idealism of the social justice creed must be established by force, or the threat of force.”
- Bo and Ben Winegard share Rectenwald’s view that the out-and-out craziness of some identitarian beliefs helps to explain why they’re so widely accepted among devotees of the faith. In a piece for Quillette entitled ‘The Preachers of the Great Awokening’, they call this “the utility of outlandish beliefs”: “Anybody can believe something that is true. It takes no effort, no talent, and no real commitment. But to believe something that is transparently ridiculous, such as that men and women are biologically the same, and to assert such a belief with force and conviction requires singular devotion to a coalition and to its sacred narrative. Therefore, those competing for status in the world of Wokeness may strenuously profess a belief in risible propositions (e.g., all demographic groups are the same) to signal commitment to the cause. Furthermore, attempted correctives—such as offering heaps of contradictory data—may be counterproductive, simply serving to highlight the dedication of the besieged believer.”
Some theories about why socialist ideals have refused to die, in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they lead to political and economic catastrophe:
- In The Fatal Conceit: The Errors of Socialism, Hayek argues that “the spontaneous extended human order created by a competitive market” is hard for human beings to grasp because, thanks to our ancestry, we are biologically programmed to favour communities made up of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This is what led Aristitle to claim, mistakenly, that order among men could extend only so far as the voice of a herald could reach. Our evolutionary history, Hayek believes, means we’re morally better disposed towards socialism than capitalism.
This interview between Douglas Murray and Jordan Peterson for UnHerd is worth watching for their views on why the horrors of 20th Century Communist regimes haven’t made much of a dent in the appeal of Marxist ideology:
- Jordan Peterson says one of the reasons intellectuals have been negligent about identifying the problematic elements of left-wing ideology is partly because it’s less obvious where the inflection point is on the Left. On the Right, totalitarianism and genocide seem to be linked to notions of racial purity and racial superiority, but there isn’t an equivalent idea (or cluster of ideas) on the Left that’s linked to totalitarianism and genocide. If there was, perhaps there would be more of a cordon sanitaire on the Left and more people would make the connection between certain ideas and the excesses of the Left, just as they can with the Right. Peterson says it’s as if we have learned one of the two lessons to be learned from the 20th Century, but not the other.
- Peterson and Murray also discuss why it is that fascism and the Right in general has a poorer reputation than Communism and the Left. Douglas suggests it’s because the Communists started with good intentions. Peterson says a crucial difference is that the Communists wanted the whole of humanity to benefit from their political aims, whereas the Nazis only wanted Aryans to benefit. Communism is universalist and inclusive; fascism isn’t.
- Peterson considers the argument that Western capitalism has resulted in as many unnecessary deaths as Communism, which is one you often hear when you draw socialists’ attention to the Communist death toll. He says it might be possible to defend that argument if you stretched the definition of Western capitalism to include the bloody history of colonialism – Belgium in the Congo, for instance – as well as the conquest of the New World. But he says that while it is probably true that all systems of organising society are oppressive and pathological and cause a great deal of suffering and bloodshed, at least Western capitalism has also produced a modicum of prosperity and well-being. Communism has not.
One coda to the above: it’s possible that social justice ideology isn’t as ubiquitous as it appears. Could it be that the beliefs I’ve listed are just held by a small minority, but the silent majority imagines that they’re the ones in the minority? (I’m just talking about educated Western elites here, not entire populations.) It’s in the interests of the identitarian Left to create the impression that its views are more widespread than they are since that makes it harder for anyone to publicly express dissent. If you don’t buy the idea that all white people are racist or that U.S. universities are in the grip of a rape epidemic, you’re much more likely to keep quiet if you believe that no right-thinking person could think such a thing and that anyone who does is completely beyond the pale. That’s certainly the impression that outrage mobs work hard to create when they go after some poor heretic.
To think about how this social dynamic might work, imagine a modern-day version of ‘The Emperor’s Clothes’ set at an American Ivy League college. A sceptical undergraduate is taking a gender studies class and suspects midway through that only a small minority of his classmates actually believe anything the professor is saying. So when she comes up with a particularly far-fetched bit of doctrinal nonsense – for instance, that menstruation is a social construct – he decides to call her out on it. How do his classmates react, assuming the majority of them share his scepticism? Unlike in the original story, they don’t immediately burst out laughing and applaud him for his courage. Rather, they look around, trying to gauge the reaction of others and, at the same time, keep their own expressions neutral until they get a sense of what the majority believes. Nothing they see on each other’s faces tells them it’s safe to indicate they share the undergraduate’s scepticism – even though a majority of them do – so they keep quiet. Some of them may even start tutting and shaking their heads, not wanting those they imagine to be in the majority to suspect they share the heretical point–of-view. At this point, the gender studies professor narrows her eyes, accuses the undergraduate of being a ‘misogynist’ and uses the bias reporting hotline to contact the university’s diversity officer. A week later, the miscreant has been kicked out even though the professor in question was clearly spouting nonsense and a majority of the undergraduate’s classmates secretly agree with him.
Scott Aaronson, the computer science professor, wrote a blog post about this social phenomenon (h/t Scott Alexander). He thinks the key thing is what he calls ‘common knowledge’. In his example, the fact that the majority is sceptical about a particular belief system and the fact that the majority of people know that their view is the majority view, isn’t sufficient to break the spell because that second bit of knowledge isn’t ‘common knowledge’. That is, the majority may be sceptics; they may know, each of them individually, that a majority of other people are sceptics too; but because they don’t know whether a majority of other people know that, it’s still risky to give voice to their scepticism. In the absence of ‘common knowledge’ regarding the extent of the scepticism, the evangelical minority still hold sway:
If you read accounts of Nazi Germany, or the USSR, or North Korea or other despotic regimes today, you can easily be overwhelmed by this sense of, ‘so why didn’t all the sane people just rise up and overthrow the totalitarian monsters? Surely there were more sane people than crazy, evil ones. And probably the sane people even knew, from experience, that many of their neighbors were sane—so why this cowardice?’ Once again, it could be argued that common knowledge is the key. Even if everyone knows the emperor is naked; indeed, even if everyone knows everyone knows he’s naked, still, if it’s not common knowledge, then anyone who says the emperor’s naked is knowingly assuming a massive personal risk. That’s why, in the story, it took a child to shift the equilibrium. Likewise, even if you know that 90% of the populace will join your democratic revolt provided they themselves know 90% will join it, if you can’t make your revolt’s popularity common knowledge, everyone will be stuck second-guessing each other, worried that if they revolt they’ll be an easily-crushed minority. And because of that very worry, they’ll be correct!
Scott Alexander provides a real-life example of this phenomenon in his blog:
Here is a story I heard from a friend, which I will alter slightly to protect the innocent. A prestigious psychology professor signed an open letter in which psychologists condemned belief in innate sex differences. My friend knew that this professor believed such differences existed, and asked him why he signed the letter. He said that he expected everyone else in his department would sign it, so it would look really bad if he didn’t. My friend asked why he expected everyone else in his department to sign it, and he said ‘Probably for the same reason I did’.
This is an example of what economists call ‘preference falsification’. For those interested in exploring this in more detail, there’s a book on the subject – Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification (1997) – by Timor Kuran. Here’s the blurb on Amazon:
Preference falsification, according to the economist Timur Kuran, is the act of misrepresenting one’s wants under perceived social pressures. It happens frequently in everyday life, such as when we tell the host of a dinner party that we are enjoying the food when we actually find it bland. In Private Truths, Public Lies Kuran argues convincingly that the phenomenon not only is ubiquitous but has huge social and political consequences. Drawing on diverse intellectual traditions, including those rooted in economics, psychology, sociology, and political science, Kuran provides a unified theory of how preference falsification shapes collective decisions, orients structural change, sustains social stability, distorts human knowledge, and conceals political possibilities.
A common effect of preference falsification is the preservation of widely disliked structures. Another is the conferment of an aura of stability on structures vulnerable to sudden collapse. When the support of a policy, tradition, or regime is largely contrived, a minor event may activate a bandwagon that generates massive yet unanticipated change.
In distorting public opinion, preference falsification also corrupts public discourse and, hence, human knowledge. So structures held in place by preference falsification may, if the condition lasts long enough, achieve increasingly genuine acceptance. The book demonstrates how human knowledge and social structures co-evolve in complex and imperfectly predictable ways, without any guarantee of social efficiency.
Private Truths, Public Lies uses its theoretical argument to illuminate an array of puzzling social phenomena. They include the unexpected fall of communism, the paucity, until recently, of open opposition to affirmative action in the United States, and the durability of the beliefs that have sustained India’s caste system.
The closest I’ve come to organising my thoughts is a lecture I gave at the International Society of Intelligence Researchers in 2017 which was published in Intelligence, although that was just about scientific denialism on the Left with respect to intelligence research. I’ve also written about the challenges posed to leftist dogma in specific areas, such as this piece for the Spectator on the new genetics and education, and this article for Quillette, where I’m an associate editor, about the largest single-sample study of structural and functional sex differences in the human brain ever undertaken and which shows, pretty conclusively, that gender differences are rooted in biological differences. I’ve also written a piece for Quillette about being publicly shamed for breaching various PC speech codes, something I intend to write more about in the book. (You can find all these articles under the chapter headings on the right.)
But I’m still a long way off fully understanding why so many hard-core leftists hold fast to these dogmatic beliefs in spite of the overwhelming evidence that they’re false. (“Frantic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are unsure that we are doubly sure.” – Reinhold Niebuhr.) Some left-wing intellectuals who hold these views claim to have a more sophisticated understanding of science than their opponents, and use terms like ‘schoolyard evolutionary biology‘ or ‘gender essentialism’ to dismiss the theories of their opponents. At least it’s possible to engage in a dialogue with them, since they’re implicitly accepting the rules of rational, scientific debate, merely disputing your interpretation of the data (although this is often wrapped up with ad hominem attacks, such as claiming you are less intelligent or more prone to bias than them).
Others go further and question what they call ‘Scientism’, sometimes referred to as ‘naïve empiricism’, and dispute that empirical data is ‘objective’ in the standard sense of the word. This is the postmodernist critique of science and is of a piece with the view that reality is a social construct, i.e. has no meaningful existence beyond a person’s social, cultural and linguistic frame of reference. At the most extreme are those who marry this critique with identity politics and reject the notion that it’s legitimate to challenge their views with the type of evidence you’re putting forward – facts, figures, mainstream science, etc. – on the grounds that arguing in this way is an expression of ‘white privilege’ or just ‘privilege’. (Another version of this is to label objectivity and rationality ‘male-socialised traits’.)
One of the orthodoxies of identity politics is that lived experience trumps more objective forms of evidence, a corollary of the postmodern critique of scientific epistemology. (The alternative has been called ‘identity epistemology’.) There is no such thing as objective truth, just competing narratives that favour the interests of different groups, and the attempt to privilege one narrative by labelling it ‘scientific fact’ or ‘knowledge’ is just a rhetorical device used by cishet white men to maintain their power. (“Under social justice ideology, objective truth is a legacy of patriarchal white supremacy.” – Michael Rectenwald.) This was the message of an orientation pamphlet given to freshmen at Brown University in 2015 which condemned quantitative data, statistical information and written documentation as tools of ‘systematic oppression’. As Darel Paul, a political science professor at Williams, points out: “From this perspective, all knowledge and all ways of knowing are racialized. Rather than speak of skepticism or empiricism or pragmatism, anti-racists would have us instead speak of white (or Eurocentric) epistemology, black (or Afrocentric) epistemology, Asian epistemology, etc.” This theory, known as ‘identity epistemology,’ isn’t asserted as a pre-eminent truth in its own right – all ‘truth’ is relative, after all – but as a kind of religious dogma. That was nicely illustrated by the Middlebury students who protested against the appearance of Charles Murray last year. At one stage, they all began reciting the same bit of postmodern Neo-Marxist doctrine, like a liturgical incantation:
Science has always been used to legitimize racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, all veiled as rational and fact, and supported by the government and state. In this world today, there is little that is true ‘fact’.
If you think I’m overdoing the religious similes, take a look at this video of the protest against Murray, which is disturbingly reminiscent of The Crucible. This is what Andrew Sullivan wrote about the ‘Intersectionality cult’ in New York magazine after watching the video on YouTube:
It is operating, in Orwell’s words, as a “smelly little orthodoxy”, and it manifests itself, it seems to me, almost as a religion. It posits a classic orthodoxy through which all of human experience is explained — and through which all speech must be filtered. Its version of original sin is the power of some identity groups over others. To overcome this sin, you need first to confess, i.e., “check your privilege”, and subsequently live your life and order your thoughts in a way that keeps this sin at bay. The sin goes so deep into your psyche, especially if you are white or male or straight, that a profound conversion is required.
Many people have made this point about the identitarian Left, including John McWhorter. (There are interesting parallels between racial self-flagellation and 13th Century Christian flagellants.) That what we’re up against is not just common-or-garden left-wing ideology, but a new puritanical religion that isn’t big on tolerance or forgiveness. (To rational outsiders, this movement can often seem like a form of collective insanity. As Neitzsche said, “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs, it is the rule.”)
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In addition to a normal blog organised in the conventional way, I’ve included some provisional headings on the right-hand side which link to single chapters. But don’t think of these as finished. For the most part, I’ve just stuck up some articles and blog posts I’ve written that vaguely belong under these headings. (I’ve also started blogging under these headings.) When I start writing the chapters properly they will be works in progress that are constantly being revised. One of the difficulties of trying to turn all this material into a book is that some of the science I’m drawing on is quite fluid and fast-moving, with new papers being published every week. Not much is settled, particularly in new fields. As you’d expect, the scientific data that poses the greatest threat to Intersectional orthodoxy – such as the findings of biosocial criminologists that antisocial and criminal behaviour are strongly genetically influenced – are constantly being challenged, often by academics and intellectuals who’ve been captured by the cult. So a good deal of the territory I’ll be going over is contested, which means that all the chapters will have multiple addendums. This constraint may mean that I’ll only ever publish the book in digital form so I can frequently update it. Or maybe I’ll produce a book, but keep this blog active, with the book serving as a kind of snapshot of this site at a particular point in time (ditto the second edition, third edition, etc.). Although as I say on the hope page, I’ve more or less given up finding a publisher given that the publishing industry is just as hidebound by identity politics as the scientific establishment. (The capture of scientists by the postmodern Left is baffling, given that the high priests of the cult hold science in such contempt. It’s like actual scientists colonising astrology.)
Some people reading this will share my scepticism about the received ideas on my list, but wonder why I’ve limited myself to the left-hand side of the political spectrum. Why not just write a book about the rise of identity politics on the Left and Right, pointing out that an arms-length relationship with reality is a characteristic of both extremes, and analyse the rise of identitarianism more generally? After all, there are plenty of conservative views that are contradicted by hard data, such as the belief that there’s a link between autism and the MMR vaccine. (See this meta-analysis where n = 1.3m.) Indeed, scientific denialism is a vice that’s generally thought to be more common on the Right than the Left. Wouldn’t my critique carry more weight if I was more even-handed? And isn’t there a danger that my ideas will be just as comprimised by political bias as the ideas of those I’m attacking?
I’ve changed my mind a few times about this, and reserve the right to do so again, but I’m inclined to stick with the current approach. For one thing, a blog (and a book) that takes up the cudgels against one political viewpoint is more fun to write and more entertaining to read than one that tries to remain neutral. For another, there is no shortage of academics, intellectuals and journalists – not to mention student mobs – defending the new regressive orthodoxy and attacking dissenters. As I’ve said, this orthodoxy increasingly represents the consensus among the world’s most powerful elites and, for that reason, it is more influential and ultimately does more harm than un-evidenced right-wing views. Therefore, pointing out that scientific denialism isn’t confined to the usual suspects, but afflicts vast swathes of well-educated, intelligent people on the Left, is important. See Jonathan Haidt’s lecture on this here. (There are also several good ‘plague on both their houses’ books out there already, including Francis Fukeyama’s Identity: Contemporary Identity Politics and the Struggle for Recognition (2018). If you’re looking for a more balanced, centrist critique of identitarian politics, see Yascha Mounk’s new site Persuasion.)
And then there’s the fact that I’m a classical liberal, i.e. I believe in universal suffrage, limited government, the rule of law, individual rights, religious tolerance, the free enterprise system, the scientific method and that life for the majority of humankind has improved since the advent of capitalism and continues to do so as capitalism works its magic across the globe (although the global lockdowns may have reversed some of the gains below).
I could try and set aside my enthusiasm for Western capitalism, but I’m not sure that’s possible or if it is that anyone would believe me. Of course, being a classical liberal won’t prevent me attacking right-wing, tribalist beliefs that are equally at odds with reality. I’m a conservative who campaigned to leave the European Union, not an ethno-nationalist. But my target is not tribalism per se or the retreat from the Enlightenment, as it is for many members of the Intellectual Dark Web. It is that sub-section of those phenomena represented by the Social Justice Left. I sometimes wish I could be less partisan, but it’s not in my nature.
In my defence, right-wing orthodoxies don’t depend on denying reality in the way that left-wing orthodoxies do. Some people will dispute that. (For instance, what about the empirically false claim that immigration is economically harmful, an assertion often made by leaders of ‘nativist’ political movements?) But the fact that the adherents of the Intersectionality cult feel obliged to downgrade scientific knowledge, arguing that it is just another narrative, no more or less true than any other – or, in some cases, more epistemically suspect – suggests they’re aware of the difficulties that scientific knowledge poses to their weltanschauung. Postmodern Neo-Marxist ideology (and even some mainstream liberal beliefs) rests on a conception of human nature and a theory about the origins of inequality that is scientifically untenable and becoming more so every day. Just as traditional Christianity was incompatible with Darwinism, the quasi-religious dogma of social constructionists is incompatible with the new genetics. Those who are still clinging to this orthodoxy are beginning to look like Christians at the time of the Scopes trial – postmodern creationists. There’s probably a hard core who will never lose their faith – it’s difficult to know how to persuade someone their views are mistaken if they dismiss quantitative data, statistical facts and written documentation as tools of ‘systematic oppression’ – but it is surely possible to limit their influence, to persuade sensible people that they’re spouting nonsense. The sooner they’re denuded of their power as the enforcers of speech codes in public discourse – the religious police of our public square – the sooner we can start having a more scientifically-informed debate about how best to deal with the problems afflicting most developed countries, such as growing inequality (although not in Britain), specific, intractable forms of equality, like the gender pay gap and black-white wage differences, flat-lining social mobility and education systems that aren’t fit for purpose. Although, I’m not optimistic that the counter-insurgency will prevail any time soon. (Btw, don’t take that jab at education systems as evidence that I believe in teaching children ’21st Century skills’, whatever they are. I’m a believer in classical liberal education, i.e. teaching children the best that’s been thought and said. I wrote an essay about the shortcomings of progressive education for Civitas in 2014 that you can read here.)
Luckily, the truth is on my side. As Roger Scruton said, “The greatest enemy of the Left is reality.” I’m not completely dogmatic about this. I think a variety of political arrangements are compatible with a Darwinian conception of human nature, including Scandinavian social democracy. (Although state-mandated gender equality that goes beyond protecting equal rights is a bad idea, such as the insistence in Sweden that 40% of all faculty positions in universities have to be filled by women.) I don’t think the case for equal rights is contingent on denying that some group and individual differences are genetically-influenced, from which it follows that I’m not seeking to undermine the equal rights agenda by acknowledging that incontestable scientific truth. I’m a Darwinian, but not a social Darwinist – a distinction that almost everyone on the regressive Left has difficulty grasping. (Or maybe they’re just pretending as a rhetorical manoeuvre.) To reiterate, my fight is with the regressive, equalitarian Left, not social democrats – with ‘identity liberals’, as Mark Lilla calls them, not old-fashioned liberals, with whom I have a lot in common. (John Gray calls them ‘hyper’ liberals.)
I will try and avoid committing the naturalistic fallacy – of inferring an ought from an is, of suggesting that facts, and facts alone, can point us in a particular political direction (although they certainly appear to rule out some directions). One of the blind spots suffered by some members of the Intellectual Dark Web is the belief that science and reason alone can guide our political choices, or at least provide the foundation of a political philosophy, overlooking the fact that the values of the Enlightenment have as often led to the guillotine and the Gulag, as they have to the Declaration of Independence and the European Convention on Human Rights. It’s only if you start by agreeing on some shared objectives, such as peaceful co-existence, security, prosperity, the right to pursue your own good in your own way, etc., that you can then bring in a scientifically-informed understanding of human behaviour as part of the general case for law-abiding, democratic states where individual rights are respected, different points of view are tolerated and markets are free. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean low taxes. There’s a hereditarian case for some redistributive taxation, although I’m not persuaded by it.) I share the view that Thomas Sowell put forward in A Conflict of Visions (2007) in which he distinguishes between ‘constrained’ and ‘unconstrained’ political arrangements and comes down in favour of the former – checks and balances, limited government, the rule of law, separation of church and state, etc. – on the grounds that it is more congruent with a historically and scientifically-informed understanding of human nature; the ‘constrained’ vision is more likely to lead to peace and prosperity, while the ‘unconstrained’ vision often leads to the curtailment of free speech, the imprisonment and torture of political dissidents, widespread starvation and – in some cases – state-sanctioned mass murder. As Steven Pinker puts it in The Blank Slate (2003): “What stands in the way of most utopias is not pestilence and drought but human behavior. So Utopians have to think of ways to control behavior, and when propaganda doesn’t do the trick, more emphatic techniques are tried.”
Our Suicidal Elites by Joel Kotkin, Quillette, 30th April 2019
Listening at the Great Awakening by Darel E Paul, Medium, 17th April 2019
‘Sam Harris and the myth of perfectly rational thought‘ by Robert Wright, Wired, 17th May 2018