The myth of The Left

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            Watching those ‘SJW gets DESTROYED by FACTS and LOGIC’ videos on Youtube has become a serious hobby of mine. Besides convincing me that Ben Shapiro is actually an elaborate piece of performance art it’s also drawn my attention to a persistent trend in political discourse: the grouping of ideological opponents into unitary, homogenous blocks that think, act and vote collectively. Shapiro hardly opens his mouth without the all-important preface:

‘So, basically, what The Left are trying to do is [insert conspiracy theory here]’. 

This mythological Left is around every corner on social media and is subdivided and labelled in diverse and increasingly hilarious ways. The menagerie includes: ‘feminists’, ‘socialists’, ‘Leftists’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘SJWs’, ‘libtards’, ‘students’, ‘activists’, and more. Despite the different names these groups are all accused of believing and doing the same things, the principal offenses being the denial of objective truth and scepticism of traditions considered ‘beyond reproach’, to quote the PM. By far my favourite label is ‘the Postmodernists’ (I can only assume Jordan Peterson sips his tea out of a ‘Postmodernist tears’ mug) who, among their many heinous sins, apparently invented the concept of race or at least inflated it into the transcendent cultural differentiator. Peterson blames Jacques Derrida for concocting racial difference instead of the eugenicists, phrenologists and slavers who pushed pseudoscience into the mainstream. 

This kind of othering is not exactly new, and it’s always extremely dangerous. In fact, it’s the first stop on the short and bumpy highway to fascist hell, as Umberto Eco makes abundantly clear.

‘At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one.’ (Ur-Fascism, 1995)

Hence Shapiro’s insistence that The Left are always ‘trying’ to do something. In his vision it is not just libtards but the supranational libtard conspiracy that must be rooted out and destroyed. Shapiro is the self-appointed whistleblower ready to expose this scheme. He knows what The Left are up to, apparently better than The Left knows itself, and is here to lift the lid off the whole sordid business. 

            There are a few things wrong with this narrative, the most obvious being that The Left doesn’t exist. The tumult of the Labour party in recent years is testament enough to the exceptional diversity of opinion and disposition in liberal mainstream politics, to say nothing of the disagreement and chaos online. Yet it suits pundits to generalise in this way. Disaggregation is laborious and complicated and doesn’t make for good Youtube videos. So, we are left with The Left, and so long as the Ben Shapiros of the world refuse to get complex we’re probably stuck with it. 

             But wait! It gets worse. The Left is not only a grand conspiracy, but a historical hydra. Peterson reveals in one of his JRE appearances (a real treasure trove of wisdom) that the ghastly Postmodernists are actually just Marxists in disguise. Limping off into exile after the practical failure of Marxism in the 20th-century they’ve now returned, with some slick new rebranding, and are ready to spread their corruption all over again. Of course, he doesn’t do much differentiating between Marxism and Postmodernism, because that would mean he’d have to disaggregate. As Eco reminds us ‘the critical spirit makes distinctions’, and its exactly this spirit of distinction that one is trying to squash when lambasting The Left, because distinguishing would explode the ‘othering’ narrative wide open. Peterson isn’t stupid, nor is he incapable of differentiating his opponents; he’s just being wilfully ignorant.

Peterson’s theory really is an extraordinary one. Ever since Derrida’s perverted philology wormed its way into the mainstream through the Yale Department of English in the 70s the Postmodernist decay has taken root (or so he claims). He goes so far as to accuse the discipline of English in its entirety of being ‘corrupt’, because he believes the final conclusion of deconstructionism is that ‘people interpret the world in a way that facilitates their acquisition of power’, apparently an inaccurate and immoral view. The irony is that Nietzsche, who Peterson advocates incessantly, would probably have subscribed to this hypothesis. The philosopher explains in his notes that ‘it is precisely facts that do not exist, only Interpretations’ (The Portable Nietzsche, trans Kauffman, 1954). Yet society acknowledges some interpretations and rejects others, so it follows that there must be a deciding factor. What we accept as true and discard as false is a function of power, according to Nietzsche, not of absolute truth. A Postmodern idea in Nietzschean philosophy! Exactly the kind of subtlety Peterson would rather avoid than confront. To maintain the narrative, The Left can never be compromised with. To do so would destroy the illusion of its complete otherness, and so reveal the fragility of one’s own position. The Left must always be wrong, all the time.

Contempt for those pesky Postmodernists is more sinister than just a disagreement on philosophy, however. To return to Eco:

‘Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, [for example] the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.”’

It isn’t really the names themselves that matter, hence why they can change so often. It is the act of naming, and the principle behind such an act. To name is to, in some degree, assert control over the thing named. It converts the category of ‘People Who Disagree with Me’, an amorphous and complex group, into ‘The Left’, which, like Immanuel Goldstein in 1984, is much easier to point at and despise. The effect is amplified when the name is pejorative. ‘Snowflakes’ are easier to hate than ‘liberals’. When Shapiro talks about The Left from his Young America’s Foundation pulpit his followers believe him, because he’s giving them a rhetorical piñata to direct their battery at. The Left is an easy target. It’s composed of academics, women, minorities and other suspicious social unorthodoxies and, because it isn’t real, it can’t fight back.

            Of course, the idea of a homogenous Right is just as misleading as the idea of a homogenous Left, and both sides of the aisle are guilty of simplifying and generalising. The myth of The Left is more dangerous, however, because of the extraordinary traction this particular kind of rhetoric from conservative pundits gains on the internet. Jordan Peterson is a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, yet on Youtube he’s treated like the conservative Messiah precisely because of his martial language. It’s a perverse paradox of the human psyche that people like to feel besieged. It often suits ideological purposes. Ben Shapiro is not just conservative, he is the anti-libtard/snowflake/SJW poster boy. Eco, a man who lived under the yoke of fascism, understood the danger of these reductive dichotomies better than any of us, and we’d be wise to hearken to his message now more than ever.