Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria

26 Aug

The murder of an anti-fascist protestor (and the less-noted deaths of two National Guardsmen) at a “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia has gripped the United States and many observers elsewhere. It has revived claims about the rise of a “fascist” threat in the West. This is simply hysterical, and symbolises the US left’s incapacity for reasoned political analysis, particularly since the election of Donald Trump.

The most striking aspect of the left’s hysteria over Charlottesville is its failure to understand that it won the US culture wars, not the right. By any reasonable measure, American attitudes have become steadily more liberal over time. A summary of opinion polling since the 1970s shows a “sweeping, fundamental change in norms regarding race”, with steady declines on practically every key measure of racism. Surveys on attitudes towards women reveal an identical decline in sexism. More belatedly, a similar transformation happened in attitudes towards LGBT people. Two-thirds of Americans now support gay marriage, up from just 40 percent in 2009, suggesting that campaigners for equal rights now find themselves kicking at a largely open door. The membership of vile organisations like the Ku Klux Klan has collapsed, from a peak of three to six million in the 1920s to around 6,000 today. Only 10 percent of the US public admit to supporting the “alt right” (only 4 percent “strongly”, while 83 percent say it is “unacceptable to hold neo-Nazi or white supremacist views”. Too high and not high enough, one might say. But the fact is that the far-right is a lunatic fringe.

The rise of the “alt-right” does not signify some grave reversal of this trend, requiring massive societal mobilisation to counter it, but a rather sad, ineffectual backlash from the side that has already lost. The fact that the “Unite the Right” rally managed to draw only 500 protestors from across the entire US (population: 323 million) speaks volumes. A “free speech rally” in Boston a few days later drew only about 100 attendees, whereas the counter-protestors numbered around 40,000, with smaller counter-protests in many other US cities. The situation is identical in Britain, where far-right rallies typically draw crowds of one or two dozen, dwarfed by “antifa” counter-protestors (and the police). Trump’s mealy-mouthed, inconsistent criticisms of “both sides” are profoundly out of step with wider social attitudes, reflected in his total isolation even amongst Republican leaders and military chiefs.

The left is hardly alone in profoundly misreading this situation – the Western media have also responded with a flame-fanning hysteria as part of its relentless campaign against Trump.

But the left’s particular inability to gauge the threat posed by the right reflects its obsession with symbolic politics. The defeat of class-based political organising – never that strong in the US – in the 1980s means most leftist agitation has focused on identity-based campaigning. This has noble roots in the Civil Rights Movement, and early feminist and gay liberation struggles, some of which also involved a strong focus on material redress. But in contrast to these early movements, which had universalistic goals of equal treatment, identity politics has come to fetishize differences based on sex, sexuality, ethnicity and religion in an extremely divisive and moralistic manner, with the vigorous policing of public language, symbols, and private beliefs.

Accordingly, the analytics of political economy have been replaced with an analytics of identity. Once, the left understood socio-economic and political inequality to stem predominantly from gross inequalities in wealth, maintained by circuits of capital, ideology and state coercion. Today’s identitarian left attributes it to the uneven “privilege” of different identity groups, which is assumed to flow from continued prejudice (even if it now lurks “implicitly” in the subconscious). This leads to attacks on “privileged” groups – notably “cisgender” white men – and a politics of “calling out” prejudicial behaviour. That “whiteness” masks enormous disparities in wealth and power is disregarded. Those dedicated to the cause, particularly in the oppressor “white” category, must practice the virtue-signalling rituals of “wokeness”, declaring their privileges and implicit prejudices and pledging to continuously work to improve. Those who do not are deeply suspect; a refusal to admit one’s racism is seen as proof thereof. In the last decade, the movement has acquired a strongly authoritarian streak, particularly on university campuses, with growing demands to shut down speakers and movements whose views do not conform with the new orthodoxy.

The alt-right is merely the mirror image of this. Right-wing, white nationalism has been around for centuries, but identity politics has given it an important filip by encouraging some to embrace “whiteness” not as a spur for shame and “wokeness”, but as a positive source of identity. The scenes in Charlottesville of the two sides alternately screaming “black lives matter” and “white lives matter” at one another signifies this most clearly. Others on the “alt-right” are less interested in white nationalism than simply needling campus radicals by tweeting “dank memes” from their parents’ basements.

That these losers are now depicted as a serious threat to democracy reflects a twofold deficit on the identitarian left. The first is its failure to bring much of the American working classes with it. The loudest practitioners of identity politics are (privileged) students on university campuses, not fast food or factory workers. The left’s growing divorce from material considerations, and the self-flagellation demanded from millions of impoverished whites, has left most people baffled or cold. Attempts to build solidarity across identity groups on the basis of material interests have often faced outright hostility from identitarians. Occupy Wall Street, for instance, was derided for its “race problem”, while Bernie Sanders’ attempts to mobilise the “99 percent” met denunciations for his (mostly mythical) misogynistic “Bernie Bros” and for neglecting black people. Tellingly, the identitarian left preferred Hillary Clinton’s cynically assembled “rainbow coalition”.

This led to a second failure: the lumping of anyone who did not embrace this agenda into a unified “basket of deplorables” motivated exclusively by vile prejudice. Viewed through the prism of identity, the rainbow coalition’s failure to win power could only be understood as a “racist whitelash”, signifying the existence of a terrible counter-force, prompting widespread denunciation of “white people” and truly hysterical claims that a fascist regime was now in power. In reality, as we explained at the time, there is no way that a “whitelash” could explain Trump’s election, and the administration’s subsequent disarray and disintegration – the only legislation Trump has signed being additional sanctions on Russia, which he had opposed prior to his election – signify gross ineptitude, not an authoritarian regime – still less a fascist one. In this fevered atmosphere it is easy to see how 500 losers are hysterically misinterpreted as representing a much bigger force in American society.

A hysterical campaign against “fascism” is not only a major distraction, it will only compound the left’s problems. All the objective evidence shows that there is actually no need to persuade the vast majority of Americans of liberal principles of equality. They already agree. When everyone from Mitt Romney to Bernie Sanders agree with you, you are kicking at an open door, and that suggests you are in the wrong house.

The real question is how the left can win over a majority to a programme of radical social, political and economic change that addresses both economic disparities and the gross inequalities suffered by minorities. Both are required because they interact, producing vast disparities in household income, poverty, unemployment and incarceration rates among ethnic groups. But this cannot be tackled by setting identity groups against one another, turning the struggle for equality into a zero-sum game. Telling white citizens that unless they practice self-flagellating “wokeness” they are “fascists” is no way to persuade people that the left is capable of solving both their economic grievances and advancing the rights of minorities simultaneously. Already, large numbers of Americans feel they have no dog in this fight: only 10 percent of them support the alt-right but 41 percent have “no opinion”. The identitarian left has not only failed to win over the so-called “white working class”, but even a plurality of black Americans disagree with tearing down Confederate statues, the main flashpoint at Charlottesville. A phoney war against “fascists” – especially one that depicts “ordinary people” as “white supremacists by default”, as one CNN editorial put it – will likely alienate many people already perturbed by the authoritarianism and illiberalism of a group increasingly being dubbed the “alt-left”. The Democratic Socialists of America are rightly trying (yet again) to rally people around a shared agenda of economic change and social justice, but despite making major concessions to identitarianism, even they face internal challenges from an influx of young agitators steeped in identity politics.

Moreover, history shows that anti-fascist campaigns only hobble the left and empower the state, because they urge the expansion of authoritarian powers that are inevitably deployed against progressives and minorities. In the mid-1930s, supported by anti-fascist campaigners, Congress convened a Special Committee on Un-American Activities Authorized to Investigate Nazi Propaganda and Certain Other Propaganda Activities. After World War II, under Senator McCarthy, this committee turned its sights on the left. Similarly, under pressure from anti-fascists, Britain adopted the 1936 Public Order Act was passed, which was subsequently used more frequently against the left than the right, including Sinn Fein marches in the 1970s and striking miners in the 1980s. Today, American leftists urge tighter restrictions on freedom of assembly and speech, asking both government and employers to intervene. There is already evidence that growing regulation is targeting progressives and minorities, and over 250,000 people have petitioned the government to declare “antifa” a “domestic terrorist group”. Germany, meanwhile, has just shut down and raided popular leftist website IndyMedia for “sowing hate against different opinions and representatives of the country”.

Charlottesville is a wake-up call, alright. But not in the way the American left thinks.


Lee Jones

13 Responses to “Charlottesville and the Politics of Left Hysteria”

  1. barry9999 August 27, 2017 at 2:00 am #

    This is an interesting perspective on the hoo-har over Charlottesville and the Left’s complaints against Trumpism. But it is wrong.

    Its argument is that the bulk of the criticism of the deaths and injury at Charlottesville is motivated by “identity politics”, of which complaints against racism are but one example.

    The article doesn’t go into any detail about other forms of identity politics, but one would assume the author, who has a history on the dodgy-geezer website Spiked, dislikes feminism for being ‘about’ women, or gay liberation for being ‘about’ one’s sexuality, or transgender politics for being ‘about’ the right to self-define gender. Although later in the article, Lee Jones seems to aspire to a materialist and universalist politics, he seems unaware that ‘class’ is also criticised as an identity by codes of conduct that are also against discriminating on the basis of class. But that’s really by the by.

    Jones also falls into a century old trap of suggesting ‘identities’ are all just derivations from the material structure of society, by which he presumably means the capital-wage labour antagonism. This was always an error, because people experience the more ‘superficial’ oppressions as more direct than the mystified economy, furthermore they pre-date the onset of capitalism by millenia. If capitalism has tweaked them, fine, but that is a different argument. The liberation of women, gays, blacks, transgendered are all aspects of the broader human liberation; they are NOT derived from the “real” battle ‘which is capital vs wage labour’, they all constitute part of a totality. If anything, at a time when strikes are at a low ebb, the left is perfectly right to promote these causes to a higher degree as more is achievable. And indeed achievements have been made. As Jones says, various discriminative attitudes are in retreat today – but that is thanks to “the politically correct Left”, not in contrast to it! To cease the current attack-front would be to roll back all the gains that have been made, especially under a regime such as Trump’s. Does Jones really want that?

    The question for me, is whether issues revolving around one’s ‘identity’ are anti-universalist. I do not believe they are. Assuming a universalist society for one moment, that means the institutions of that society become racially-blind, sexuality-blind, and gender-blind. The universalist society does not discriminate in these ways. However the path to such a society means a transformative struggle against the discriminating categories that do exist. That means taking them seriously, not just denying they are part of current lived reality and announcing, ‘we’re all humanists’.

    So to take feminist, racial, sexual, or gender questions, discrimination has a long and tormented history. It would be true to say there is nothing in our genes that creates this social fallacy. But that does not mean you simply push those questions beyond the pale of ‘Enlightenment debate’. On the contrary, these isssues are at the forefront. Else, you are not being liberated from something, into something more emancipated, more human, non-discriminative. So, feminism, gay liberation, anti-racial politics, transgender politics have all taken off for a historically and socially given reason: these people have, and continue to, suffer a more arduous life than people like Mr Moneybags, who even himself is not free to the extent he has to compete on the market to survive in that role.

    The so-called PC liberationists are not demanding special treatment, they are demanding equal treatment. Although programmes such as ‘Affirmative Action’ present a problem to this, at least its advocates realise there is a problem rather than brush it aside, and only view AA as a temporary corrective to the history as-it-has-been, rather than an all-round better state of affairs to last forever. If you are discriminated against for being a woman, black, gay, or transgendered, then you fight back by saying group x deserves equal treatment. There is no other way. And it’s good this is happening, it shows society is not at an impasse at all, but that new passions and forces always continue to emerge and should enrich an open-ended theoretical approach which in turn, can enrich those struggles. Slagging the whole thing off is just reactionary crap.

    To assert ‘Enlightenment thinking’ is opposed to ‘identity politics’ is only to attempt to suffocate green shoots of political recovery. What passes for ‘Enlightened’ here is really a stranglehold on political life designed, consciously or not, to screw humanity time and again.

    • Yandoodan August 31, 2017 at 7:57 pm #

      An excellent defense of Identitarian politics.

      1. The claim that Ivy League students have less privilege that an unemployed coal miner in a single wide is so ludicrous that it is impossible to imagine anyone holding it for any reason other than special pleading. Honestly.

      2. You on the Left are ignoring the obvious fact that you are the upper bourgeois, and that the people your class attacks as deplorable poor whites with privilege are the proletariat. What is more, the petit bourgeois is being rapidly pushed downward into the proletariat, and the proletariat is becoming permanently unemployed — just as Marx predicted. Is class conscious next? Trump could have brought it about, but he has betrayed the proletariat that got him elected. Maybe next time.

  2. squirrel67 August 27, 2017 at 11:51 am #

    This is probably the silliest thing I’ve read in a long time. So, it is wrong to think that people running around with swastikas and torches, chanting songs of trees and ropes, and armed with K47s are fascists? These are actually nice guys who just tend to be a bit awkward in the way they defend their ‘freedom of speech’, sort of plowing cars into crowds or beating a black man to the blood because, well, you know they just got a bit excieted? Calling hate speech what it is is actually the greater breach to the universal recognition of human dignity than the hate speech itself? This text must have been written by a Breitbart News troll.

    • stephenkmacksd September 2, 2017 at 3:05 pm #

      Thank you for your comment!!
      Best regards,

  3. stephenkmacksd August 27, 2017 at 11:01 pm #

    Headline: The Rise of the Violent Left

    Sub-headline : Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?

    Mr. Lee Jones, ‘Liberal Zionist’ Peter Beinart has reason to attack ‘The Left’, as it is the very birthplace of BDS! This essay was posted in September 2017 and was exhumed at The Atlantic just after Charlottesville.

    Or can the reader forget the perpetual Anti-Left political hysterics of Andrew Sullivan in his weekly ‘Intelligencer’ columns at the New York Magazine? His pose of ‘centrist rationalist’ in answer to the extremes of Trump, and the ‘Left’ that opposes him is self-servingly mendacious. His unstinting advocacy for ‘The Bell Curve’ is demonstrative of his perpetual racial animus.

    When it comes to writing ‘correctives’ to the evolving ‘Left strategies’, even to call them inchoate is not an out of place, but your ideological intervention is an act of self-flattery of the most unwelcome kind!

    The Second American Civil War is episodic in nature: Ferguson and Charlottesville being its most recent flashpoints, but still that conflict will not disappear from American life. The main component of the ‘altright’, an American weasel word, is the supremacy of the white male heterosexual, a closely held belief of that ‘altright’, under attack from an addled Left, as you present it! If this isn’t the ‘sin’ of identity politics what is?

    Look to the record of the the American Judiciary as exemplary : Scott v. Sanders, Buck v. Bell, Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, The 1912 segregation of Washington D.C. by ‘Progressive’ Wilson, The Aliens Enemies Act of 1917, Korematsu v. U.S., Hirabayashi vs U.S.: the holding prisoner of Americans of Japanese descent in Concentration Camps under the euphemism ‘Interment Camps’! Or consider more contemporaneous Supreme Court decisions: Citizens United: money is speech. Or Shelby County v Holder where the notion of ‘things have changed’, was operative frame as written by Roberts, and punched up by Scalia, playing Mrs. Malaprop using his ‘redhead’ hypothetical merde!

    The one shining light in this collections of the crimes of American Jurisprudence- consider the continuing,concerted attacks on Brown v. Board of Education by the Federalists and their Dixiecrat founders, using the dismissive notion that Brown was not legal interpretation but ‘Sociology’ . Eliding from the conversation, this from the preamble to The Declaration of Independence, that may not have the force of Law, but is the very integument that hold together the American Experiment!

    We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

    The rise of Identity Politics is about seeking redress against the crimes of the white male heterosexuals. Some of which I have presented. The inconvenient why of ‘Identity Politics’, and their absolute political/moral necessity!

    Headline: Political correctness doesn’t kill people

    Sub-headline: Handwringing over campus activists who “censored” alt-right speakers looks misplaced after the violence in Charlottesville.

    The far right knows exactly what happens when the media continually exaggerates the threat posed by campus politics. The state cracks down, teenagers are maimed or killed, and middle-aged sadists re-elect whoever ordered the violent repression. If not, a vigilante like Fields, high on far-right agitprop, will step in. It worked for George Wallace, it worked for Reagan, it worked for Nixon, and it might just work for Trump. In the most optimistic view, the centrist commentators who wasted so many columns scolding student activists to a national audience didn’t know how useful their screeds were to the far right. They forgot that, for the last 50 years, hysterical media anger at uppity college students has always turned out to be unfounded and embarrassing in hindsight. They forgot that college students were right about Vietnam, civil rights, apartheid, and every other cause handwringing centrists accepted long after the fact. The brightest minds in the liberal media simply forgot that college protesters have never been the perpetrators of deadly violence — only the victims. If this is true, it would serve them well to remember.

    The final paragraph of Alex Nichols essay at is revelatory of the problem of those who attack the ‘Left’ from whatever political perspective:

    Your last paragraph is so reminiscent of the Party Line that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Reinhold Niebuhr used to advocate during the Cold War, at The ADA:

    Look at the Founders:

    Founding, prominent members included:

    Joseph Alsop[12]
    Stewart Alsop[12]
    Chester Bowles[13]
    John Kenneth Galbraith[12][14]
    Leon Henderson[13]
    Hubert Humphrey[12][13]
    James I. Loeb
    Reinhold Niebuhr[12][14]
    Joseph P. Lash
    Joseph L. Rauh, Jr.[12]
    Walter Reuther[14]
    Eleanor Roosevelt[12][13][14]
    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.[12]
    John E. Stengstacke[12]
    Wilson W. Wyatt[13]

    ‘The Vital Center of 1949 was Schlesinger’s defense of Free Speech for respectable Political Centrism, but not for ‘The Left’ in its many iterations, before the Mundt/McCarren/Nixon/McCarthy purge.

    Mr. Jones, for some interesting reading about your political precursors, see Richard Fox’s hagiography of Niebuhr, and for some light reading see Schlesinger’s Diaries, as edited by his sons. In the early entries he has a penchant for using the word ‘commies’, trying to sound like John Wayne in that Cold War potboiler ‘Big Jim McLain’.


  4. Kenneth Crook August 30, 2017 at 11:05 pm #

    Excellent piece outlining why, sadly, the new regressive left is betraying its roots. The two other comments reveal why we face a future of the right in power. My only quibble would be to point out that Sinn Fein, through their paramilitary wing, murdered innocent people in the UK, so maybe not the best example to use at the end.

  5. Meg Welch September 3, 2017 at 2:35 am #

    This is SPOT ON. Please submit it to The Guardian
    or to Truthdig. It deserves widespread circulation. A a member of DSA and a delegate to the recent convention, I can confirm your point about the identarian thrust of the direction DSA is taking. I came away depressed about it, because it became clear DSA is showing itself incapable of a building movement to make socialism mainstream in the US. -For all the reasons your piece sets forth so well.


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