It’s not our fault that reality is Marxist, but if we do not escape the dead end of liberal leftism, it is our fault if no-one trusts us any more, argues Maryam Pashali
The spectre of digitised revolution has been haunting youth across the political spectrum. The early 2010s marked the start of the age of rebellion stemming primarily from online spaces, with the hashtag #OccupyWallStreet spreading across platforms and democratising access to revolution.
Suddenly it felt like anyone with a keyboard could kick off a movement, expose corrupt politicians and denounce regimes through what Manuel Castells called “spaces of autonomy.” And like everything else that becomes divided according to the colours of political flags, online revolution quickly became sectarian to its core.
Internet-centric rhetoric rapidly became paramount to organisation and action, seemingly rendering old-school forms of civil rights and labour organisation obsolete. The digitised revolution soon became entwined with everyday political rhetoric, morphing and becoming distorted with each retweet, reblog, repost.
Consequently “people with opinions online” morphed from concerned netizens to political activists — with no overarching organisation or value system to guide them in their new role.
By calling out what was wrong, they became responsible for upholding the correct values in line with the views of their chosen “space of autonomy.” Both the leftist and right-wing online circles have become embroiled in increasingly obscure discourse, riddled with niche jargon which to the outsider often looks deranged.
This discourse frequently has little to do with material analysis and presents issues — real or imagined — from a shallow and individualist perspective.
From a Marxist standpoint, it is not a question of whether one side or the other is right on each issue, but that the system in which these opinions form and clash is itself wrong: any correct takes or ideas that emerge are corrupted by their origin in this poisonously irrational maelstrom.
The mainstream liberal rhetoric of privilege and the right-wing concern with civilisational (Western) decline enter into a symbiotic relationship, wherein the arguments of one only reinforce the importance of the struggle against the other. In turn, online discourse increasingly factionalises both wings from the inside.
It is the right that benefits, in both its liberal and conservative guises. The egalitarian left loses not only ground, but any claim to it, by adapting the values of its enemies for fear of rejecting apparently obvious progressive stances promoted in bourgeois liberal society.
This is because factions within the left wing are numerous and confusing, but liberal discourse is immediately accessible through not only the mainstream media but all culture, from films to adverts.
Liberalism has come to define the entire leftist spectrum when those that consider themselves “more left-wing than the liberal mainstream,” rather than taking independent socialist positions, simply take the prevailing liberal obsessions to the extreme.
The arguments of liberal individualism — based on privilege, identity, inscrutable and invisible grievances based on feelings — have become the defining features of the left.
The right accepts that certain leftist analysis of inequality stems from legitimate issues, but the framework and the solutions to these issues, dominated as they are by liberalism, are far too disconnected from reality and hostile to the average person.
The left in its entirety is now blamed for political divisions and the disappointing outcomes of liberal democracy: while trying to stand up for “minorities” who we accuse the mass of society of scapegoating, the left itself has become the scapegoat.
The right no longer needs to scapegoat immigrants, gay people and so on, when they can rail against self-appointed defenders of said groups — with double the effect.
Contrary to the assumption that conservatism will just die out with our parents’ generation, in this way it will easily renew itself as the current generation matures. Already many young people perceive online leftist rhetoric as encroachment upon their internet spaces of autonomy and see the right as their ally.
The unbridled aggression and cruelty inherent in anonymous right-wing internet spaces has been countered with the aggression of liberal discourse based on distorted understandings of feminism and cultural tolerance, which the right correctly identify as equally intolerant as the “intolerance” it is supposed to oppose.
Because the right wing is concerned with the decline of Western masculinity, the culture war is quickly reimagined as the defence against the encroachment of “political correctness” into online masculine spaces.
In turn, liberal identity politics only grows more uncompromising and in its hostility to those who disagree, categorising any dissent, no matter how mild, as “apologism” that paves the way for extreme misogyny, Western chauvinism and white supremacy.
Rather than balancing their viewpoint, opposition becomes validation of the correctness of the radical-liberal rhetoric. Has a white male in their 50s disagreed with you? Then you must be doing something right, regardless of what you have actually claimed.
The liberal left, thus, engages with the right in the most unproductive manner by creating an outrageous online spectacle of exchanging vitriolic disagreements and irrational mottos. This allows the right to create a valuable scapegoat by generalising the left and dismissing it as incapable.
Because this cycle of provocation validation takes place online, it translates into an unshakeable faith in the power of digital activism with negligible real-world impact.
The digitised revolution becomes its own raison d’être, as performative and no-effort actions are turned into an aesthetic, a mood board, an Instagram layout.
The commodification of this shallow liberal analysis within the entertainment industry and the corporate world pushes the right into further defensiveness: “the liberals have taken over the world!”
In response, the liberal left is validated further because one can now easily purchase the merch of the liberal revolution, like the infamous “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts.
Not only can you now tweet the revolution, but you can also don yourself in the shallow signifiers of your everyday “revolutionary” politics. And because this phenomenon is so pervasive in the popular culture, the right wing is empowered in its claims that the left is far too deranged, sold-out, and useless to offer an alternative to the crumbling Western democracy.
Conservatism does not have to prove its ideas are morally and practically superior, just that the alternative is worse — and a left that looks like it is made up of an incoherent mix of competing grievances helps.
Thus, this “left” becomes the scapegoat for the issues inherent in modern society, from the alienation of “common” people from politics to the lack of fruitful action for change.
Political indifference haunts the majority in the West, as the study of contemporary democracies by Dalton and Wattenberg, Parties Without Partisans, has shown. The majority of voters across Europe hold little to no ideological identification with their parties of choice. When party loyalties become void, people do not engage in active political campaigning for most issues.
In the words of political scientist Peter Mair, “the age of party democracy has passed. Although the parties themselves remain, they have become so disconnected from the wider society and pursue a form of competition that is so lacking in meaning, that they no longer seem capable of sustaining democracy in its present form.”
The reality of this depressing state of mainstream politics translates into the concerns of both the left and the right. But instead of offering an alternative, both blame the phenomenon on one another.
The disconnect from material reality exhibited by the extreme manifestations of the liberal left and the alt-right, having claimed its space in the popular consciousness, has only cemented the alienation of the majority from politics. The over-representation of the liberal left rhetoric in the media, from daily news to entertainment, creates another reason for the right to scapegoat the entirety of the left as being invasive and alienating.
There is, however, a way out: draw the line. On one side of the line is the liberal left that has at its core the subjective experiences of the individual. And on the other side is the materialist left, who analyse the whole of society at once and speak the language of averages, statistics, facts and falsehoods.
Of course, telling people that are upset that they may be wrong about something will cause outrage and lose us fair-weather friends in the short term — such is the nature of the predicament we are in, the hole we have dug for ourselves.
But it has the potential to gain the trust of the masses as those that “tell it like it is.” We don’t just need to speak truth to power but speak truth to each other too.
The materialist left needs to mature once again to revive the hope of vanguard politics, which achieved so much for socialism in the previous century and transcend the dead-end struggle between the liberal left and the right.
More so, we must not mirror this sort of struggle amongst ourselves, for its grave meaninglessness has only contributed to the emptiness of mainstream political identities.
We are on the side of the oppressed because we believe equality is the most efficient way to organise humanity. We believe and are willing to argue using scientific, falsifiable methods, that class society is holding us back.
We are not on the side of the oppressed because we fetishise and obsess over oppression itself. Oppression must not be endlessly discussed, recategorised and weighed against itself in some intersectional echo chamber; it must be overcome.