In the 10 months since I introduced the concept of “Conservative Leftism” to the NZ Left, only one argument has been raised against it that seemed to take the idea seriously and be worthy of taking seriously in return. This argument – which has been raised by more than one sincere socialist, at greatest length by Ben Peterson at leftwin.org – is that Conservative Leftism is an “amalgam” which doesn’t really exist, that there is no necessary connection between the conservative strands of thought I identified in the contemporary activist movement.
While “Conservative leftism” is a thought provoking concept, it doesn’t measure up in reality as a coherent ideological perspective.
“Against Conservative Leftism” lists a range of examples of political positions that derive from its ideological perspective. These including but are not limited to opposition to local council amalgamations, opposition to intensive housing developments, legal crank such as ‘freemen’ theories, backing the Assad dictatorship, anti-Semitism, homeownership and opposition to the NZ flag referendum.
This just doesn’t fit together. It doesn’t make sense to suggest that a person who opposes intensive housing developments is more likely to be an anti-Semite or conspiracy theorist. It doesn’t make sense to put leftist homeowners, and the not very often homeowning ‘freemen’ into the same ideological tendency just doesn’t make sense.
One way of responding to Ben’s argument using Marxist jargon would be to say: “there is a contradiction, but the contradiction is in reality.” I strongly believe that the evidence has in fact become clearer over the course of 2016, that the strands of reactionary opinion among self-identified “Leftists” that I have identified do, in actual reality, go together as a set of propositions which support each other, if not necessarily logically “coherent”.
For the record, I identified three conservative reactions on the self-identified “Left” to neoliberal globalisation:
- opposition to globalisation in and of itself (nationalism, xenophobia, obsession with “sovereignty”, one-sided opposition to Western imperialism in particular aka campism);
- opposition to the social changes which have happened in the neoliberal/globalised era (opposition to cosmopolitan urbanisation, anti-immigration, idealisation of “traditional” rural/small-town/working class life, scepticism of newer identities around gender/race which are smeared as “identity politics”);
- one-sidedly deep scepticism of neoliberal media/academic narratives, reflected in an embrace of conspiracy theory, traditional “common sense” and health quackery.
We might use the following shorthands:
- CONSERVATIVE ANTI-IMPERIALISM;
- CONSERVATIVE POPULISM;
- ANTI-RATIONALISM (or perhaps “intellectual populism”).
The original article – and Ben’s response – was written before what a radical internationalist Left viewpoint would see as the massive catastrophes for people and planet of 2016: the Trump victory; the victory of British exit from the European Union (Brexit) which has led to an explosion of racist violence; the growing strides of neo-fascist movements across the world, from the French Front National to the online lynch-mobs known as the “alt-right”; and the ongoing genocidal destruction of Syria by its own government backed up by Russian imperialism.
It is my contention that this series of disasters has vindicated the Conservative Left idea, in that New Zealand leftists who were expressing Conservative Left ideas at the beginning of the year have either welcomed these developments, or at least seen them as potentially positive developments. To give a few examples from the New Zealand Left in particular:
- Mike Lee, the Auckland Council member on whom I focussed in my article on the Auckland local body elections as the chief local promoter of conservative-left ideas, issued a Facebook message after the election which expressed thankfulness for the Trump victory, seemingly based on the idea (assiduously promoted by both Trumpist and Russian sources) that Hillary Clinton would start World War 3.
- Prominent veteran NZ leftist writer Chris Trotter – who was, indeed, one of our major models when we elaborated the idea – announced that “I proudly count myself” as a conservative leftist. Most of this post either ignored the substance of my article, or was an apologia for the Russian-backed Syrian regime destruction of Aleppo, which can be quickly debunked by a quick flick through the resources on any Syrian Solidarity website or Facebook page.
- Daily Blog proprietor “Bomber” Bradbury, who previously promoted Mike Lee’s anti-intensification and anti-youth politics, has now come out with an explicit anti-immigration screed. He even characterizes pro-immigration policy as an “elite cosmopolitan” viewpoint – a snarl-phrase which could be taken directly from a Stalinist or fascist rant.
- Bradbury’s co-thinker on Auckland local body politics, perennial mayoral candidate Penny Bright, has been counter-protesting Syrian solidarity demonstrations supporting the Assad regime’s “sovereignty” (see image), and is reported to be sharing links on social media from David Icke, doyen of “Lizard People” conspiracy theory.
From where I sit, this is convincing data. In general, the sections of the New Zealand left whom I had in mind as either “conservative leftist” or heavily influenced by that ideology have been unanimous in – even if not outright supporting Assad/Putin, Trump and Brexit – arguing that these phenomena are not in fact that bad, that they can be seen as expressions of resistance to imperialism and neo-liberalism. This insight has been reproduced by British radical academic Priyamvada Gopal, who said recently on Facebook:
This cleavage in left circles that has arisen over the last six months is a pretty neat and sharp one, with only a few zigzags and crossovers and that generally only around Brexit. How do we read it? On one side:
- Anti-Assad/Anti Putin/Anti-Massacres
On the other side:
- Assad Apologetics/Anti-Western Imperialism Only
- Trump is No Worse than Hillary
Priyamada’s schema snugly fits two out of the three points of my schema. The Assadist “Left” are clearly conservative anti-imperialists, taking the “campist” position that the main leaders of opposition to neoliberal globalisation are the leaderships of various states, who range from authoritarian to totalitarian in their internal regimes – thus excluding any role for mass action in changing the world, and indeed smearing the Arab Spring uprisings as CIA-sponsored attempted coups. Meanwhile, conservative-left reactions to the Trump debacle have ranged from welcoming it as a blow to neoliberal globalisation (ludicrous, given the identity of the various plutocrats whom Trump is naming to his cabinet), to the less wild-eyed interpretation that a “revolt of the white working class” defeated Hillary Clinton. This latter interpretation conveniently lends itself to calls for a more “traditional” left politics targeting “ordinary” (read: white, male) workers, and throwing not only the feminist movement but oppressed queer, ethnic and religious minority workers under the bus.
Meanwhile, the “Left Brexit” (Lexit) phenomenon showed a combination of both these tendencies. On one hand, it “whitewashed” (we can use the term in full irony) the Brexit movement led by reactionary tabloids and the Trump-like UKIP, seeing it as a working-class revolt rather than a reactionary populist uprising. On the other, it one-sidedly attacked the EU’s neoliberal institutions, trying to put a “left” face on British nationalist isolationism, and ignoring the fact that freedom of movement for workers between EU countries is a vital progressive gain for migrant workers. The consequences of this position were that Lexiters had to argue away the rise in racist abuse and violence after the referendum, either as “exaggerated”, something that was happening anyway, or even outright fabricated by the mainstream media1. This rhetorical move was a precursor to the breath-taking denials of reality we have become used to from supporters of the Putin/Assad axis in Syria.
The Morning Star, the daily newspaper traditionally associated with the Communist Party of Britain, has shamefully led the conservative-leftist charge on both these issues, both cheerleading the ongoing massacre in Aleppo as “liberation” and opposing freedom of movement for workers. Some have taken this to mean that conservative leftism is really a reappearance of Stalinism – and certainly there are similarities to the old Western Communist backing of Russian tanks and Eastern Bloc nationalism. However, it is also vital to note that the leadership of the British Stop the War Coalition – who have shamefully refused to promote the cause of Free Syria – are dominated by people who came from the anti-Stalinist revolutionary tradition, mainly former leaders of the British Socialist Workers Party. If the problem was originally a Stalinist one, then the rot has spread.
Where then is the “third leg” of the tripod, anti-rationalism/intellectual populism? Whether someone on the conservative left believes in traditional conspiracy theories, health quackery or other kinds of crank thought or not, the common move in both conservative anti-imperialism and conservative populism is to reflexively reject “mainstream”, “elite” or “establishment” viewpoints, and yet be willing to believe any alternative promoted as “alternative”. This might – for example – lead from an accurate perception that capitalist banking helps increase the gap between rich and poor and makes capitalist crisis more intense, to an advocacy of a fantasy alternative based on a misunderstanding of the real problem such as Social Credit or Positive Money.
In particular, the use of the terms “elite” and “establishment” is a sign of intellectual surrender to Right-wing populism (see Bradbury, above). These are totally empty signifiers which the listener can apply to whichever bogey-group they think are really running things. While a sincere leftist might envision the capitalist oligarchy as “the elites”, a Right-populist will think of liberal academics or gay/female/ethnic minority professionals whom they blame for “keeping them down”; others will think of the “cultural Marxists”, the Elders of Zion, the Illuminati, or hostile UFOs.
Recent analyses have suggested that the intelligence services of the Russian Federation under Vladimir Putin are engaged in actively promoting this kind of “radical scepticism”. They argue that Russian propaganda does not aim to promote its own narrative, but simply to undermine the consensus narratives of Western-aligned media and academia. By a staggering coincidence, this is also how conspiracy theories such as “9/11 Truth” also work – not by attempting to prove their own point of view, but by picking at threads in the “establishment” narrative, so as to imply that their own is equally valid. This strategy has also been used in the attempt by Christian fundamentalists to get anti-evolution pseudo-science taught in public schools.
Being prepared to dismiss out of hand any report appearing on the BBC website, yet unquestioningly forwarding videos from the RT website, is essentially little different from the health crank’s high-powered scepticism of “Big Pharma”, combined with a willingness to believe anything presented by alternative-medicine profiteers (what rationalists sometimes call “Big Placebo”). The argument here is not a conspiracy theory that conservative leftism is some kind of Russian plot. The argument is merely that Russian intelligence has deftly exploited the growth of populist anti-elitism in Western countries to promote themselves as the good guys -in the same way that traditional Nazis have exploited the meme culture of 4chan and similar online forums to produce the “alt-right”.
It seems clearer as time goes on that these three strands of conservative anti-imperialism, conservative populism and anti-rationalism/intellectual populism go together, that holding one of these viewpoints is a very good predictor of holding the others. There is thus a clear cleavage between the Conservative Left which rejects globalisation per se and refuses to engage with the new social forces thrown up by it; and the radical international Left which wants ANOTHER kind of globalisation, a workers’ and oppressed people’s globalisation. The latter sees the new proletarian forces and oppressed communities thrown up by existing globalisation as the vanguard agents of change, just as Karl Marx saw the industrial workers as the gravediggers of capitalism, rather than wanting to send them back to the farms. I only wish I had a better word for this necessary alternative tendency than “radical internationalist Left”. Suggestions are welcomed.
Reprinted with friendly permission by the author. First publication in Fightback Magazine, NZ
1. Personal experience from Facebook discussions↩