This is something fairly new to me. I have always thought of myself as a social capitalist. Umair opens me to ideas and situations that seem to beg deeper scrutiny. 

"Tony Blair gave a speech recently in which he made a simple point: identity politics broke the left. Whatever else he was wrong about, he’s dead right about this. It’s a theme I’ve been hammering away at, so let me distill some of my points into a little essay.

I think that we’re seeing the rise of the zombie left. It staggers around. It attacks everything in sight, slavering and screaming. It forms herds, which go in circles, forever starving for a kind of narcissistic self-satiation. And the end result of all this is that accomplishes…less than nothing. It’s easy to see.

I call that zombie left the alt-left, too. Like the alt-right, it took over, through hostility, aggression, rage, bullying, and intimidation, and made extremist stances on fringe issues the be-all and end-all. It’s made of people who’ll fight you aggressively and viciously over things gender free bathrooms or pronouns for rich Westerners…but don’t know the simple fact that four billion people in the world live without decent sanitation and two billion without decent food….and don’t care, either.

So let me begin with a simple observation — one personal, and one factual.

It’s absolutely weird and bizarre to those of us from genuinely collapsed societies, who’ve lived through things like genocide, torture, war, violence in all its gruesome and horrific forms, social breakdown in all its terror and panic…that the left is obsessed with juvenile comic-book sexual politics fit for an 18 year old student politician, a narcissistic Instagram wielding teenager, or both. My pronouns or your life! I care more about how intersectional Captain America and the Kardashians are than how many people in the world don’t have enough food, water, money, or medicine! Wait…what the?

Go ahead, ask your friends. Ask someone from Iraq or the Congo or Pakistan if they think that identity politics matter more than, say, world peace, ending violence and hunger and poverty, giving every child on planet earth and education. They will look at you like you are crazy. Those who have lived through the horrors of fascism and authoritarianism will tell you that such a left has lost its mind, soul, heart, and way. And they are right. Because identity politics are exactly the things that ripped their societies apart. Because there are greater and truer things a left must stand for, if it is to exist at all. They know this truth intimately. I’ll come to all that.

It’s easy to see empirically that identity politics broke the left. It’s exactly in the two societies in which the left became obsessed with identity politics that it’s suffered stunning and terrible defeats. Jeremy Corbyn lost the most crucial election of a lifetime by a landslide, and the Dems have been unable to fight American authoritarianism in any real or significant way. Meanwhile, in places where the left hasn’t been totally consumed by issues of identity — like much of Europe — it has managed to hold it’s own. That’s no mean feat in a time of worldwide economic stagnation, which predicts hard-right swings everywhere. The trend, the relationship — identity politics breaks the left — is self-evident for those with eyes to see. But how many have eyes to see?

Do you remember what the aspirations of the thing called the left once used to be? How vast and towering they once were? Blair said something important in his speech. He spoke of minds like Keynes, Beveridge, Attlee, Bevan — and the need to remember their lessons. You see, these minds are the closest thing we have in our broken mess of history, at least as Anglos, to great ones. Their lessons should be learned by every single one of us — because these minds did things as beautiful as they were revolutionary.

Keynes understood poverty causes fascism, and depression is caused by underinvestment. As a result, ending poverty and war, forever, across the world, became aspirations of the left. Yes, really.

Beveridge and Attlee laid down the idea of a modern society, with expansive public goods for all. As a result, expanding a social contract to forever be richer became an aspiration of the left — there was to be no more want for basics in society, ever again: that was the first priority of all politics.

Then of course there was Marx, who was the grandfather of all these thinkers, speaking of a world without exploitation and violence.

How often do you hear such aspirations today? Ever? If I speak about them, say on Twitter, here’s what happens — from self-described “leftists.” I get cynically laughed at. I get taunted and mocked for being “unrealistic.” Or I get angrily told off for being PC enough. I get told that the things that really matter are gender free bathrooms and pronouns and whatnot — usually in threatening and aggressive way.

Let’s do a little quiz. I’d bet you can name plenty of modern theorists of gender or sexuality or intersectionality and so on. How many of the minds above — and their lessons — did you know? A single one? A left like that isn’t a left at all. I call it an “alt-left.” Why is it that you can probably recite abstruse theories and jargon to me about fashionable gender and sexuality this-and-that — but not know the minds responsible for massively transforming our history, societies, modernizing them, who sparked decades of progress, a revolution in civilization? How come you don’t even really know that story? What on earth? Don’t you think there’s something wrong with all that? I do.

You don’t know them because the left has forgotten it’s history. That is the first way identity politics broke the left: it stole its memory. So today there’s a generation or two of self-described “leftists” who can speak the latest fashionable jargon around gender and sexuality, and chide you for not doing it — how “asexual” differs from “aromantic” — but can’t tell me what Keynes’s fundamental point was. And that is because nobody, really, teaches this history anymore. The history of the left, according to the self-described “radical” professors who teach it now, begins in the 1980s, with gender and sexuality — not, say, in the 1850s, with Marx, or in the 1950s, with Keynes. What on earth? If you are the one erasing your very own history…what can you win? Who can you fight?

Now, reciting jargon about gender and sexuality, and worse, being hostile to people who don’t, contrary to popular belief, doesn’t make anyone a leftist — it just makes them, all too often, to put it plainly, a narcissist. Why? Because the people consumed with this stuff about gender and so forth — or intersectionality and so on — are usually the ones also affected by it. That’s OK — but it’s just sticking up for your own tribe. Not anything beyond that. Keynes, Or Marx, by contrast, was concerned with the world, in the largest possible way — not just themselves. Do you see the difference? It’s about putting yourself, and your own tribe, first — versus everyone, the world, your society, the planet, and so on.

There’s a link there. The narcissist needs to think he’s the only one who’s pain and suffering matters. History, therefore, doesn’t exist. Ever tried to be nice to a narcissist? Doesn’t matter — they don’t remember. The left ended up the same way: narcissism made it forget. It literally doesn’t remember the first thing about itself anymore. And in that way, it became a zombie.

That brings me to my second way that identity politics broke the left: they shattered its mind. If I ask the average self-described leftist in our societies today: “What do you think the outer limit of human suffering is?”, they’ll probably tell me things like being “misgendered”, or having to use the wrong bathroom, or being called the wrong pronoun. They’ll tell me how terrible all that is, and how we need to stop it, and so forth. They won’t point to, for example, the war orphan whose seen his family die, the survivor of mass rape, or the whole clan that perished in a genocide. What the?

No one — and I mean no one — with vaguely adult priorities should or will agree that the one being called the wrong pronoun suffers more than the war orphan or the mass rape survivor. Nor should they. Sure, you might say so — but anyone who’s a grown up will simply roll their eyes and walk away. That is exactly what happened to much of the left. It alienated the rest of us, who don’t really believe in these increasingly outlandish and childish theories — nor the hostility and aggression with which they’re forced on us.

Let me put that more formally. Identity politics made it impossible for the left to have a functioning theory of human suffering. When you tell me that a gender pronoun deserves more attention than a genocide…I can only pity you. What it tells me above all is about your narcissism and ignorance. Have you ever met a woman who’s had acid thrown in her face because she was “dishonourable”? Who’s tried to kill herself because her family disowned her, and her society rejected her, and there’s nothing left for her? I have. To equate that agony, that torment, that complete murder of a human soul…with gender pronouns…that, my friends, isn’t just shameful and humiliating — it’s foolish. It’s an intellectual mistake.

Because without a functioning, grown-up theory of human suffering, the left has nowhere to go. What can it fight for? And yet because it’s told, over and over, by an aggressive fringe that gender pronouns and sexual tickboxes are indeed the limit of human suffering…what can it care about those kids in camps? About the billion or so who still live in slavery? About a world where half a planet still lives without decent sanitation and food and water? What the? Perhaps you see my point. A theory of human suffering grounds the left in global aspirations, visions, agendas, pursuits. But it doesn’t have any of those today — because the only kind of suffering it sees anymore are narcissistic, juvenile, identitarian ones. My pronoun hurts more than your genocide! Wait — what the?

That brings me to my next point. Why doesn’t the left have a theory of human suffering that works remotely an adult level of reality anymore? Because identity politics created sectarian internecine warfare: every tribe is out for itself. There’s one tribe, saying it’s suffering is the greatest. There’s another, crying, no, it’s has suffered the most. There’s yet another, shouting that it’s been through even more. None of them, though, are victims of starvation, war crimes, true poverty. When all of these…not-very-oppressed tribes…are competing to be…the most oppressed — what can they unify around? What is there to form a sociopolitical coalition for? How can any coalition form at all?

Let me put that more formally, too. Identity politics broke the left’s body — it cost it universalism. When all that matters is my group, my clan, my tribe, and it’s suffering — then nothing can be accomplished for all of us. But then the left has nothing left to achieve, really. Remember how Attlee and Beveridge laid down the foundations of a modern society — a fact you probably didn’t know? They couldn’t have done it if they were obsessed with which group or tribe has suffered most. Their aim was simpler, nobler, and wiser — to create societies in which everyone has basics. Healthcare, education, retirement, income, and so on. In which public goods are enjoyed universally.

The left has notably failed to expand universal public goods precisely because identity politics make it impossible to do so. There’s no reason to even try much for universals really — and so the left has simply given up in many ways. Yes, really. Bernie wants to “expand” Medicare — not create an American National Health Service, that directly employs millions of doctors and nurses. There’s a world of difference. Do you see how the left gave up on universal public goods? Why did that happen?

That brings me to the next way identity politics broke the left. They destroyed its soul. Let me put that more formally. Identity politics cost the left humanism. Around the time that Beveridge and Attlee were laying down the foundations of a modern society, after Keynes had discussed why to do so economically, there was another great breakthrough on the left. This one, in Europe. Thinkers like Camus and Sartre and de Beauvoir crafted a whole new philosophy, that was to come to be known as humanism. The idea was simple: as human beings we all deserve dignity, respect, inherent worth, because we are all in profound and terrible pain, just by being alive. The pain of being mortal, helpless, fragile — it consumes us. Therefore, we must support each other as much as we can.

That single idea shaped all — all — of European social democracy, so powerful and beautiful was it. It’s so powerful that in France, still, there’s the idea of “laicite” —loosely, you’re a human being first, then French, then whatever ethnicity you might happen to be. Exactly the opposite from America, where I’d be called an Indian-American or whatnot.

Now think about identity politics. To it, we’re human beings last — if at all. First, we’re the sum of our tribal affiliations, which center on bodily pleasure. To identity politics, I’m a “cis straight disabled brown male bodied person assigned male at birth.” What the? Where does my humanity enter that picture? Me? The answer is: nowhere. That’s just a description of what a certain kind of person thinks of one part of me — my body, my sexuality, my appetites — but it has little to do with who I actually am. It doesn’t say how empathic, kind, generous, wise, brave — or cruel, nasty, stupid, and mean — I might be. It’s just tickboxes about pleasure.

When we describe one another that way — as the sum of our bodily appetites — what happens? We dehumanize each other. We’ve done the right’s work for it. Because fail to see one another as human beings at all, precisely since our humanity comes last. I stop caring about your capacities for empathy, grace, beauty, love, because I can’t see them to begin with. You are just an object to me. Probably, because you are “cis” and this-bodied or that, you are not like me. All we see is the surface, the visible, elements of us that are easy to categorize and sort. We become superficial. Obsessed with such labels. We sort ourselves into little tribes around them. We become attached to them. And that is why we attack, viciously, people who say there might be something more worthwhile, truer, or deeper to being on this thing called “the left” than our own narrow pleasure — we end up infantilized, attached to our own egoistic self-aggrandizement and self-satisfaction, terrified of what might happen if we can’t have them, just like babies throwing tantrums.

Hence, the endless raging Twitter mobs of the left, attacking…their very own side. What happens, on the left, when even a tiny bit of all that’s pointed out? Well, the identitarian fringe tends to sic its attack mobs on you. In other words, the left attacks itself. I might support public healthcare and education and childcare and the whole nine yards of modern social democracy — but dare to disagree about gender pronouns, and bang! You’re the enemy. What the? You can’t build a political movement like that. You cannot accomplish anything meaningful by attacking your very own side over the purity of extremist beliefs about my infantile narcissism versus yours. My pronoun hurts more than a genocide! Believe me! Or else…you’re the worst person in the world! Perhaps you see what I mean by infantilization and tantrums.

That’s not to say gender pronouns and whatnot are wrong or bad. They’re good and it’s progress. But it’s not nearly equivalent to calling for the billion people who still starve to have food. None of this stuff — sexual politics, gender politics, how intersectional this or that is — has much if anything at all do with being on “the left.” Being on “the left” is about issues that affect the whole world, and always have, not just you: hunger, thirst, exploitation, violence, cruelty, dehumanization, enslavement. Your gender pronoun or your misunderstood sexual identity is an example, that might be true, but it’s a very, very small one, in perspective —remember my example of women who suffer acid attacks? — and it doesn’t give you the right to become obsessed to the point of self-absorption with it, and treat the whole world’s pain like it never mattered as a result, being hostile and aggressive and demeaning to anyone who dares to “disagree” with what’s effectively just your narcissism. That is what I mean by zombie leftism.

Identity politics are, seen correctly, the province of the right. That’s because they’re the foundational belief of the right. I’m just my tribal affiliation. I’m just my place within the tribe. It’s every tribe against every other tribe. We have nothing in common. I’ve suffered more than you, therefore you are my persecutor and oppressor. This is the stuff that textbook, classic conservatism is made of.

I’m sure you remember, like most of us, that one guy in college for whom nothing was ever “left enough”, and so everyone would get harangued and hectored and demeaned. That’s the alt-left, in a nutshell. The ironic truth, though, is that alt-leftism has no place — none whatsoever — on the left, because it’s a form of extreme conservatism…which is why, unsurprisingly, it broke the left as a political coalition of any strength. I’m sorry to say, but many have learned politics backwards. To be on the left is to be for universals — like healthcare and education for every child on planet earth, not to mention your society. For humanity — which means not just “all of us”, but “all that we are.” For progress and civilization as a planet, not just pronouns for you.

Many won’t like my lecture. They’ll react to it with anger, rage, hostility, and above all, fear. If you take away my label, what am I? If I’m not just my tribe of people with special names, what am I? If I’m not extra special and deserving of everyone’s attention, forever, because my pain counts the most, what am I? You are just you. You have never needed to be anything more. You are better than all this, my friend. And the world needs you to be that you, too. The question is whether you know that or not."

Umair Haque umair haque

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