With the support of the Atlas Network, CapX is publishing a new series of essays on the theme of Illiberalism in Europe, looking at the different threats to liberal economies and societies across the continent, from populism to protectionism and corruption.
We live in extraordinary times and in an extraordinary place. For millennia, the devastating evils of famine, disease and war plagued humanity. Today, the closest most of us in the West come to any of these is watching a Netflix series.
Having seized the liberalising opportunities of the Enlightenment, we have built societies based on science, reason and democracy, which are the most free, prosperous and open in human history. This success story is based, first and foremost, on the shedding of dogma as the basis of our thought. Instead of seeking answers from scripture, the great thinkers on whose works we base our morality, our systems of law and our economies pursued the facts by gazing into the vast expanse of the unknown with an open mind and the scientific method.
As religion’s grip on the Western world loosened, we began to question dogmas and traditional structures of every kind. The emancipation of women, the end of legalised discrimination against ethnic and sexual minorities and a growing tolerance of each others’ differences have been just some of the positive benefits of this process.
And yet today, we find ourselves in the grip of a new zealotry. The arrival of “social justice” as the preeminent ideology of our cultural institutions signals a regression, the purpose of which is to drag us back into the age of unenlightened dogma.
It comes with all the trimmings of religion: blue-tick Twitter priests who sermonise to the ignorant masses about their original sin of racism, sexism and homophobia; purity tests. inquisitions and, most crucially, the idea that the tenets of this new religion must be accepted on faith alone.
As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, I am intimately familiar with the horrific crimes we can be driven to commit when we embrace utopian ideologies that seek to replace God with Man in the pursuit of that ever-elusive goal of equality of outcome.
But while it’s often tempting to sneer and ridicule “snowflake millennials” and wonder why they are so attracted to failed socialist ideology, it’s worth thinking about why so many young people seem drawn to the likes of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn.
More than ever in living memory, young people are locked out of the one form of capital historically available to the ordinary person in the street: housing. As house price rises continue to outpace wage growth, more and more people live with parents or in shared accommodation into their late 30s and early 40s, many with no hope of ever owning their own home. It is naive to expect my generation to be capitalists when they have little prospect of owning capital.
A consistent failure to build more homes, control immigration and discourage the use of housing as an investment from governments of all stripes is one of the biggest factors driving discontent among younger people with our current economic model. Set against this backdrop, the rising popularity of socialism both here in the UK and the US should surprise no one. Economic theories based on the magic money tree and free stuff for all will always capture the imaginations of with those who feel it is their only chance to do better.
And as Marxist economic theories become more appealing to the masses, cultural Marxism spread through our educational system by leftwing professors has secured extraordinary success. Known as the Long March through the Institutions, the process of transforming our cultural space into a leftwing monoculture has been largely unimpeded. The shock and outrage at the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 are a symptom of the university-indoctrinated elite’s complete unawareness of the mood among ordinary people.
My own experience of this creeping new orthodoxy was thrust into public view last year when I refused to sign a “safe space contract” for a university comedy show. A group of SOAS students who saw me perform at a London comedy club invited me to be part of their charity event. They saw fit to attach to their invitation a contract which stipulated that “all jokes must be respectful and kind” as well as explaining that in the interests of creating a safe space for comedy they had a zero tolerance policy on racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-religion and anti-atheism.
It was clear from the ensuing media storm that the vast majority of the public found this baffling and ridiculous, while a minority of woke comedians and media types were incensed by my decision to turn the contract down. Within 24 hours of the story breaking, a radical feminist comedian (if such a thing is not a contradiction in terms) called me “Alt Right” and insinuated that I was a Nazi on national radio.
Documenting this bizarre experience was the basis for a successful run at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, where my show, ‘Orwell That Ends Well’ received an overwhelmingly positive response from the public. (I had considered calling the show ‘Jewish Nazi’ in homage to our feminist friend’s misplaced put-down).
If my experiences have underlined anything, it’s that a lot of people are sick to the back teeth of being told what they can and can’t say, what they’re supposed to think and what they’re allowed to believe.
Nor is concern about the increasingly intolerant monoculture that has metastasised through our cultural institutions limited to one side of the political spectrum. My audiences in Edinburgh were always a healthy mix of people from the left, right and centre – and those with no particular political affiliation. We can all see where ‘woke’ culture leads and now even President Obama has recently voiced his concerns about the way things are going.
So where does this obsession with identity politics originate? In one sense. the delineation of groups in society according to their levels of oppression is the old Marxist trick of pitting the classes against each other. The Soviet slogan, “Workers of the World: Unite!” has been replaced with multi-lettered acronyms such as BAME and LGBTQI+ which are supposed to bring together vulnerable groups. Few will acknowledge the underlying reality that tensions are far more pronounced between the various members of these groups – look at the current battleground between feminists and trans activists – than they are between the supposed oppressors and the supposedly oppressed.
The problem with Marxist theories, of course, is that despite their appeal they do not work. The idea of taking from each according to his abilities and giving to each according to his needs is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. We evolved to compete for status and resources and form tribal hierarchies. As I witnessed first-hand in the USSR, attempts to flatten the hierarchy result only in the emergence of a new one, which is far more corrupt, arbitrary and unfair than the one it replaced.
And as we plunge further and further down the wormhole of intersectionality, we will discover that the ideological foundations on which these ideas are based are as unsound as Marxist economics. The recent scandal in Canada with a trans-woman who sued female beauty salons for refusing to wax her male anatomy, and the ongoing battle between Muslim parents and LGBT activists in Birmingham are just some of the opening salvos of a broader cultural struggle that is still in its infancy.
It is the inherent contradictions of the Woke position which explain the growing unease around the issue of free speech. If as a society we imbibe ideologies that are fundamentally flawed yet universally enforced as the one true faith, we return to the dogmatic straitjacket of medieval religiosity. If we have to publicly believe things which we know to be untrue, the options left to us are silence, submission or rebellion. In the words of George Orwell, “in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”.
It is for this reason that “free speech” is now considered in some quarters to be a “far right dogwhistle”. If you insist, as I do, that freedom of expression is a cornerstone of Western civilisation, it is suspected that what you really want is to be nasty to people. I am regularly described as a “free speech advocate” which is genuinely baffling. Why not “oxygen-breathing advocate” or “anti-death activist”?
As someone who grew up in a society where you were punished for saying what you think, I cherish the opportunity to do so here in Britain. My affinity for freedom is not a political position in the same way that the belief that the Earth revolves around the Sun is not. While talking about this can often feel like a losing battle, the reality is that the silent majority of the public agree. Indeed, a recent study found that almost three quarters of Brits think political correctness has gone too far.
The tenets of progressive narrative are so contradictory that an enforced silence is the only way to advance this ideology. Rather than convincing and persuading through argument, a growing number of mainstream media, politicians and cultural figure simply tell others to accept their narratives or else. The police now put out statements on Pronoun Day, arrest and prosecute people for making jokes and call people to tell them to “check their thinking”. Thousands are arrested every year for comments made on social media.
This creeping authoritarianism is not an accident, it is a necessity of a worldview based on lies. The smearing of people who speak out against it is no accident either, it is the only way to suppress those who challenge falsehoods. To quote Orwell once more: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it will hate those that speak it”.
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