Lessons from the Left | Adam Limb

Inherent in any political doctrine is a contradiction or, at least, a lack of clarity upon values. A political organisation might well wish to embrace the cultural values of the past, but if those values are in conflict with current conditions, the organisation is faced with a choice between adhering to its values, and a loss in influence. This state of exception, where the goals and/or values contradict one another is where the true moving forward of politics lies.

These crossroad moments define and mark out the changes in political modes of thought, they sever movements and allow new ones to flourish in the vacuum they leave behind. It is also in these moments that new political figures emerge, figures who aid in the resolution of the state of exception these organisations and movements find themselves in.

Last week, we witnessed such a state of exception across the pond. Turning Point USA (TPUSA), an American conservative organisation, strangely extended a VIP invite to a self-proclaimed ‘conservative pornstar’. Many were quick to call out the oxymoronic nature of the title, but more importantly, they asked “How far have we come where we now are not only tolerating, but supporting pornography and, effectively, prostitution?” The response from many, was the insistence that conservatism was a ‘big tent movement’, and that banning things was what their opponents did, and if conservatives wanted to win, they had to inveigle the support of prostitutes.

Anyone familiar with Turning Point was not particularly surprised by this turn of events, the organisation famously invited strippers affiliated with Bang Energy Drinks onto the stage at one of their recent conferences, demonstrating that the slippery slope is by no means a fallacy. What did come as a surprise however, was that TPUSA responded to the backlash by disinviting this prostitute – opening up a discussion on the limits of big tent conservatism against a more ideologically consistent and nuanced conservatism.

The resolution of this conflict could be a turning point (pun intended) in American youth conservatism, and the problem facing the movement is by no means limited to conservatism – but a problem any and all political movements face. Consequently, there is no shame, and in fact great utility, in peeking at the answer sheet of other movements in order to resolve this situation.

In ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’, Karl Popper described the famous paradox of tolerance – that in order to have a tolerant society, one ought to be intolerant of those who would seek to undermine the aforementioned society. This paradox has become almost a staple of online discourse, justifying the worst excesses of Big Tech Censorship. This conflict is arguably the left-wing mirror of our own ‘Paradox of Freedom’ – whereby we wish to have free societies, but that freedom in our modern technological societies invariably leads to a kind of slavery: the obese are physically restrained by their addiction to food, the drug addict is chemically shackled to his fix. Even young men today are damaged physically, emotionally, and mentally by their addiction to porn, and that’s without mentioning the systemic abuse of women that is required to produce such films, and how their distribution harms even those women who do not participate in, or consume it. These ideas are nothing new, they date back to Plato, who stated:

“Excess of liberty, whether it lies in state or individuals, seems only to pass into excess of slavery.”

In fact, it was this attitude in Plato that Karl Popper criticised extensively in the ‘Open Society and Its Enemies’, blaming him for much of the totalitarian excesses of the 20th Century. From a modern vantage point however, we can see that the Open Society, far from repudiating Plato – vindicates him.

The proverbial Gordian knot of the paradox of tolerance was cut twenty years later in Robert Paul Wolff and Herbert Marcuse’s ‘A Critique of Pure Tolerance’, where a ‘repressive tolerance’ was coined. Marcuse argued against the idea of universal tolerance, noting that in repressive societies, an embrace of tolerance would actually mean adherence to a repressive regime. Marcuse resolved the exception by confining tolerance to an embrace of truth:

“The uncertainty of chance in this distinction does not cancel the historical objectivity, but it necessitates freedom of thought and expression as preconditions of finding the way to freedom–it necessitates tolerance. However, this tolerance cannot be indiscriminate and equal with respect to the contents of expression, neither in word nor in deed; it cannot protect false words and wrong deeds which demonstrate that they contradict and counteract the’ possibilities of liberation. Such indiscriminate tolerance is justified in harmless debates, in conversation, in academic discussion; it is indispensable in the scientific enterprise, in private religion. But society cannot be indiscriminate where the pacification of existence, where freedom and happiness themselves are at stake: here, certain things cannot be said, certain ideas cannot be expressed, certain policies cannot be proposed, certain behavior cannot be permitted without making tolerance an instrument for the continuation of servitude.”

In this you might find similarities to many phrases of the left, i.e. ‘Respect existence or expect resistance.’ This is what half a century of Marcuse’s thought has achieved – taking a complicated philosophy and forging it into a political cudgel. Marcuse was himself a leftist, and naturally believed that his leftism was sufficiently true, leading him to the following conclusion:

“Liberating tolerance, then, would mean intolerance against movements from the Right and toleration of movements from the Left. As to the scope of this tolerance and intolerance: … it would extend to the stage of action as well as of discussion and propaganda, of deed as well as of word.”

This resolution of the paradox of tolerance has been invaluable to the left in the past 55 years – it has marked the transition away from a class-based politics to a liberatory politics whereby people are ‘liberated’ from their roles in society. We stand now at a similar crossroads. In order for the left to advance, tolerance had to become a means to an end. The end being truth; a truth leftists were quick to insist that they held. For us, freedom must become a means to an end. The end must be self-actualisation via something higher than oneself, and this self-actualisation must likewise be fulfilled by the right. The pursuits offered to the young today are meaningless, they can pursue money (and likely lose), they can pursue pleasure (and likely tire of it), or they can advance the latest left-wing social campaign – the source of their meaninglessness. The brand of meaning has never been in such high demand, and the right never so perfectly positioned as to create a bountiful supply.

In fact, the most recent brand to sell young conservatives has been one of responsibility and the respect inherent to it. Jordan Peterson is the most recent and obvious example of this pitch, and whilst Peterson himself may insist he is against ideology – it’s self-evident that his fans, and the circles he runs in, are conservative in nature. This leaves the political marketplace for a similar responsibility-oriented approach to politics distinctly open to the right to capitalise and take advantage of. By stepping outside the frame of freedom, and into a more nuanced view on freedom oriented towards a higher aim – conservatives can revive an intellectual tradition that has been muddied by the constant insistence that all philosophy be left by the wayside in pursuit of the latest and most fashionable freedom.

This lack of nuance has resulted in some of the best conservative assets being left by the wayside. In America, the Fusionist movement saddled conservative traditionalists with the baggage of the libertarians, who quickly eroded their character and way of life with the pursuit of appeasing business interests. National Review, a magazine headed up by William F. Buckley, was arguably the focal point of this movement. The magazine famously acted as a gatekeeper – blocking out rising stars like Pat Buchanan, who coined the phrases and much of the thought and rhetoric of the America First brand of politics espoused by Trump. In the UK, the wealth of intellect provided by Roger Scruton went unappreciated by a Conservative party that removed him from his position on a commission when comments he made were edited entirely out of context. It’s this continual failure to adhere to deeper principles that creates the cowardice that can’t say ‘no’ to a prostitute at a conservative convention, and that can’t stand up for those who represent our principles on our behalf.

The future belongs to those who can advance, who can shift and change and adapt to the current circumstances. Toleration is by no means adaption, it’s submission – even if it is rationalised away post-hoc by tired rhetoric. The inability to apply or understand nuance in pursuit of some vaguely-defined principle of ‘freedom’ will always lose out to a malleable and nuanced understanding of the world that is willing to weigh up the past against the present and use a synthesis of the two to build the future. 

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