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Political correctness and globalisation: two sides of the same coin
Aidan RankinAidan Rankin's book The Politics of the Forked Tongue: Authoritarian Liberalism will be published by New European Publications later this year.
Keywords Politics, Culture
Last year, I began to research a book on "political correctness", which I am going to call The Politics of the Forked Tongue: Authoritarian Liberalism. Inevitably, I began with certain preconceptions. One of these was that the collectivist ideology we like to call "PC" was an ideology of the left. Closer investigation of, and deeper thought about, the subject, have led me to very different conclusions. First, I now believe that political correctness has more in common with movements of the far right than with any recognisable socialist tradition. Second, political correctness provides a cultural underpinning to the process of economic globalisation. From these two propositions, it follows that resistance to globalisation involves rejection of the politically correct world view.
My initial identification of political correctness with the left has one obvious cause. Most advocates of politically correct speech and legislation call themselves liberals, socialists, "left-of-centre" or "liberal left". Support for legislation on behalf of groups instead of individuals, along with use of the grotesque, emasculated "newspeak", falsely described as "inclusive language", has become a litmus test for left-wing commitment. Yet political correctness has nothing to do with the historic tradition of democratic socialism, which was about creating a just society based on the shared values of freedom, fairness and tolerance. It has little to do with the liberal tradition, if we define liberalism as a belief in individual freedom under the rule of law. Nonetheless, political correctness can resemble closely the strain of sickly evangelical piety that surfaces sporadically within liberal politics. "Anti-racist" campaigners in the UK, for example, care little about "ethnic minorities" as individuals, but see them as a benighted group to be "empowered", much as missionaries of the fundamentalist variety saw "natives" as benighted savages awaiting conversion.
The ideologues of multiculturalism are not, in practice, tolerant of minority cultures, ethnic or religious. However, their kulturkampf is directed primarily at white, working-class communities, whose patriotism is libelled as xenophobic and reactionary. In their wish to "enlighten" others by force, they resemble an earlier generation of temperance and prohibitionist campaigners in the UK and the USA. Like the temperance zealots, today's multiculturalists believe that they have the welfare of less fortunate citizens at heart and that this entitles them to browbeat, censor and coerce. Many prohibitionists considered themselves political liberals, as do most multiculturalists. Theirs is, nonetheless, an authoritarian pseudo-liberalism that places an abstract concern for humanity before respect for individual human beings.
Political correctness arose out of a confusion in liberal thought during the 1960s between freedom for individuals and rights for groups. It was a time of expanded higher education and emphasis on qualifications at the expense of personal qualities, when intellectual life was democratised and ideas reduced to the level of supermarket products. Far from being treated with respect, they were trivialised and debased. The ideals of political liberalism – fairness, tolerance and opportunity – were compromised by a form of "pop" Marxism that was the product of the new educational factories and proved true the adage that "a little learning is a dangerous thing". The result was a syncretic movement, known as the New Left, which paid lip-service to liberal individualism but adapted the Marxist vision of collective struggle and applied it to race and sex instead of class. In addition to this, the new generation of radicals applied all the methods previously associated with fascism. The sheer scale of the violence and intimidation associated with the student rebellion called to mind the activities of the stormtroopers in 1930s Germany. The New Left's attack on reasoned argument, its belief in the inherent superiority of emotion (including rage and hysteria) over intellect, its support for censorship and its foul-mouthed denunciation of opponents are equally reminiscent of Nazi ideology. Subsequent movements point us still further along the National Socialist road. Multiculturalism's claims to be an inclusive political movement are, quite literally, skin deep. In reality, it stresses distinctions of race and colour with the same obsessive vigour as the extreme right and with essentially the same motive: to place racial consciousness at the centre of politics. That which we hold in common, such as shared history or loyalty to national institutions, is held in contempt, as are genuine differences, such as those of religion.
Similarities between feminism and National Socialism are just as striking, if not more so. In one section of my book, I draw direct parallels between feminist denunciations of "male" reason, "male" art and "male" philosophy and Nazi attacks on "Jewish" reason, "Jewish" art and "Jewish" philosophy. Those who call themselves "ecofeminists" claim that women are closer to "nature" than men, much as the Nazis claimed that "Aryans" had a special relationship with the landscape, whereas the Jews were a "denatured", wholly cerebral people. The New Left and its politically correct spin-offs inherit from Marxism the theory of "false consciousness". Multiculturalists believe that they speak for "all" members of "ethnic minorities", feminists for "all" women and "gay" activists for "all" homosexuals. Black people who oppose multiculturalism, women who dislike feminism and homosexuals who want nothing to do with the "gay community" have not, according to "politically correct" logic, thought these matters out for themselves. Instead, they have been duped by a white male, heterosexual order. The object of group rights activists is therefore to "demystify" such individuals and, when that fails, to denounce them as traitors to their group. In much the same way, Marxist intellectuals believed that conservative workers suffered from "false consciousness". If they rejected the Marxist "truth", they were "class traitors", to be dealt with by summary injustice in the coming revolution.
This amalgam of fascistic irrationalism and Marxist social analysis was not wholly unprecedented. Irving Louis Horowitz, the US scholar, noted in 1968 an upsurge of interest among students in the writings of Georges Sorel, the maverick fin de siecle Marxist thinker who devised "anarcho-syndicalism", through which government would be abolished and vast trade unions control both industry and society. Sorel had an almost mystical belief in the "General Strike", through which this revolution would occur. Unlike the orthodox Marxists of his day, Sorel decried rationalism as bourgeois and called for a revolution in "consciousness" as well as politics and economics. He believed in the purifying power of violence, advocated direct action in place of debate and opposed all forms of parliamentary reform. Small wonder, then, that Sorel influenced Mussolini and Hitler. His influence on New Left and politically correct thinking has been just as profound, if less direct.
Those who now advocate political correctness combine a starry-eyed missionary fervour with totalitarian political impulses. Generally, they cut their teeth during the ideological battles of the 1960s and 1970s. They are of the generation who were pacifists who campaigned against nuclear weapons, albeit those of the West rather than those of the Soviet Union and China. They agitated against "racism", a political disease from which only white people could suffer. They marched against wars in far-off countries, but condoned political terrorism closer to home. They exalted "national liberation" movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America, even where liberation meant re-education camps, killing fields and boat people. Nationalism in the West, by contrast, was wholly reprehensible, the preserve of a white working-class that the newly bourgeois radicals despised. Symbols of patriotism became objects of a ridicule that began as sophisticated sneering but fast descended into obscenity and invective.
These obvious contradictions in the New Left's philosophy were matched by strategic incoherence and bitter division. The movement would probably have met historical oblivion, too, were it not for its wide-ranging cultural agenda. This encompassed a nihilistic attack on tradition and continuity, especially where it related to sexual mores. The original aim of the "permissive society" was to free the individual from emotional and moral repression. In practice, the "sexual revolution" introduced profound insecurities into human relationships. As well as challenging restraint, it banished responsibilities, especially parental responsibility for children and the role of the adult man as protector and provider.
Unlike previous radical movements, which took politics and economics as their starting-point, the New Left attributed equal importance to sexual mores. They believed that stable family structures, along with codes of conduct based on religious teaching or inherited custom, propped up an authoritarian social order. Attacking traditional morality became in itself a revolutionary act. Abolishing them became the harbinger of freedom and equality. Richard Clutterbuck, the soldier turned academic, wrote in these terms of the New Left's "alternative society":
The real target for attack is the public's confidence and belief in its way of life. All communities, from the most primitive to the most civilized, have evolved a system of laws and morals designed to preserve the serenity of their lives and the propagation of healthy offspring. Thus most tribal and most sophisticated societies have in some way tried to check the dissipation of sexual instincts into directions other than the production of children within some kind of stable family circle which can sustain and protect them until they reach maturity. [This is why] tribal societies introduced taboos, and most civilizations have deterred homosexuality … punished adulterers, discouraged promiscuity, encouraged monogamy (or at least restricted polygamy as in Islam) and have done much to foster stable family structures in which children can grow up. Widely diverse communities in different parts of the world, without contact with one another, have independently evolved fairly similar restraints and customs for these purposes.
The legal enforcement of these restraints and customs has, with those for the defence of life and property, been the main concern of the "governments" which communities have accepted for their collective organisation throughout recorded history., It is for this reason that they are selected as particular targets by those who wish to erode or destroy existing forms of society (Clutterbuck, 1973).
In practice, the New Left's attack on traditional sexual mores became an attack on human nature itself. Or, more specifically, the ways in which Western liberal society reconciled that nature with the belief in freedom and dignity. The result has been brave new world-style social engineering, but without the chilling efficiency of Huxley's dystopia. The "permissive" assault on traditional mores was built into social policy during the 1960s and has remained for the most part unchallenged. It was accompanied by a sustained erosion of the idea of community. In UK cities, high rise flats and soulless council estates replaced the "back-to-back" terraces that gave character to working-class life. Impersonal "social services" administered from above replaced the self-reliant networks by which local communities sustained themselves. At a cultural level, the "permissive society" implanted a me-first infantilism, wholly materialistic and concerned with instant gratification. Socially, it undermined the structures that lie between the individual and state or corporate power. Civic culture gave way to worship of the state, patriotism to an obsession with brand names and logos, social responsibility to conspicuous consumption.
What we now call political correctness is the chaos of the permissive society congealed into an authoritarian dogma. Thus the liberal goal of removing obstacles to success for individuals, regardless of race, gives way to a cult of "equal opportunities", by which ethnic groups compete for economic spoils. The ideal of respect between men and women and fairness to both gives way to an androgynous ideal that enslaves both sexes. Homosexuality becomes a "lifestyle choice" instead of a moral and spiritual problem for some men that sometimes confers on them special insights. Political correctness takes no account of cultural or historical circumstances and acknowledges no spiritual aspirations. This doctrinaire universalism matches well the globalist agenda of transnational corporations. Corporate power, after all, is about abolishing inconvenient national boundaries and riding roughshod over local custom. It is uncritical in its championing of material progress and overtly hostile to traditional restraint. Political correctness gives global capitalism an ideological justification. Western "liberal" values are the only true values. "Equal opportunities" matter more than an equitable distribution of power and wealth. Economic growth is the sole indicator of success, with individual and communal fulfilment scoffed at as insignificant.
It is no coincidence that the rise of political correctness on the Left has accompanied the decline of belief in economic democracy. Like the "National Socialist" obsession with racial consciousness, politically correct obsessions with multiculturalism and feminism divert attention from the activities of big business. Those who seek a more equitable world order should therefore look beyond the now ageing New Left. They should strive to conserve human cultures as much as they do rain forest or wilderness.
Herbert Marcuse, one of the New Left's principal gurus, regarded freedom of speech as "repressive tolerance", because it allowed "counter-revolutionary" forms of thought to express themselves and so made political change less likely. "Anti-racist" campaigners have retained this hostility to free speech and in the UK, this is reflected in the activities of public bodies that promote the multicultural agenda. The Commission for Racial Equality, for example, recently "invited" leaders of the main parliamentary parties to sign a "pledge" not to make race and immigration an issue in the forthcoming election and to "discipline" party members who did so. That the party leaders all complied with this assault on free speech shows the extent to which political correctness is being appeased. More alarmingly, it might also show the extent to which the idea of group rights, in place of individual freedom has been accepted by the political class.
Clutterbuck, R. (1973), Protest and the Urban Guerrilla, Cassell, London, pp. 176-7.