It seems that is how the progressive left intends to go out. Campus progressives have frequently drawn the ire of commentators; supporters retort that such criticism is overblown. Much of this has to do with tactics. The new New Left has a penchant for strident, militant action that wins it scant favour with many outside the campus bubble. Its adherents are quick to engage in petty squabbling and insist on heavy-handed intervention anytime they hear a comment or idea that they perceive as racist, sexist, and so forth. Question their assertions at your peril: those with the temerity to do so are reflexively branded a racist or sexist intent on perpetuating inequality.
With this as its ethos, the new New Left engages in uncompromising campaigns to disinvite speakers from university events because of the heresy the views of those speakers; those speakers who do find their way onto campus are often physically and aurally interrupted as they try to share their ideas.
Yet even when it is being civil, the new New Left is confounding and rather unattractive. I know this not because of what I’ve read but because of an event I helped to organize and execute.
At my school, an annual lecture is put on to highlight various issues of social justice. Last year’s talk was a poignant discussion about how the Canadian surveillance state—a topic in itself that could do with more exposure—disproportionately targets Muslims. It was an illuminating and important talk, and when I took a survey afterwards I ticked the box asking if I would like to get involved with planning this year’s talk.
Let me preface my account by saying that this year’s talk was also intriguing and important: it highlighted the role of land and language in the regeneration of Indigenous communities and peoples in Canada. The speaker undeniably had something worth saying, especially in light of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s full report that put in stark relief just how opprobriously the Canadian state had treated Indigenous peoples.
However, this would not have been my first choice—a choice that was doomed from the very first meeting of the Organizing Committee. This group of people comprised a handful of other students as well as some facilitators with full-time jobs in non-academic roles at the university. At that first meeting, we went around the table saying what issues were intriguing and motivating for us. I insisted that labour rights in an atomized, independent contractor economy was a significant issue facing us; everyone else insisted that some form of identity politics was really what we ought to be talking about.
This is the first major problem with the new New Left: it is driven by a perverse need to fragment and divide everything it sees, alienating those who may be sympathetic but less pertinacious. While the working class and middle class is reeling, as global capital continues its unfettered march, the new New Left sits around arguing about “intersectionality” and “problematizing” even the most anodyne statements. (If you don’t know quite what those things mean, you’re in good company.) The new New Left has no desire to build a broad-based movement that fights for the rights of the many; it is keen to break off into a million splinter groups that can all inveigh against each other over their choice of what pronoun to address each other with.
But back to the event. As I indicated earlier, the talk itself was eloquent and essential. What came after was not. The second half of the event featured the main speaker sitting down with two other individuals to discuss the topic further. At least that was supposed to happen.
What ensued was forty-five minutes of unadulterated drivel. One individual, a gender studies professor, was supposed to serve as moderator. Instead, every time she spoke, she merely strung together arcane and unintelligible strings of words and sought agreement from the other two panelists. Her command of the English language was highly suspect—words like ‘activation’ and ‘embody’ were given constructions they could not possibly bear. I was so nonplussed by the whole display that I cannot even recall a specific example.
This is another major problem with the new New Left, and it goes with its lack of desire to build a broad movement. Rather than speaking in a plain manner and trying to educate those who live outside of its bubble, the new New Left invents its own lexicon and runs with it. I consider myself a modestly educated person, and I do not have a clue what this ostensible moderator said all night. This makes me highly suspicious of the “knowledge” the new New Left steeps itself in: the need to rely on mangled language and excruciating neologisms reeks of obfuscation. If the new New Left had anything useful to say, it would not need to engage in such linguistic gymnastics.
The other individual that joined the second half of the event did not have a clear role in the proceedings. She spent most of her time talking in an excessively abstract manner. She spoke of love, power, and change—all valuable notions if you bother to divulge how you define them and how you plan to attain them.
But the new New Left does not seem interested in such specifics. It is a superciliously self-righteous congeries that is beyond convinced of the correctness of its ideas and its methods. You also challenge these at your peril: asking the new New Left for specifics is another heresy, punishable by being branded ignorant at best.
One individual in the audience had the gumption to ask such a question. He queried how all this Quixotic talk of love and new social structures fit with law and politics. At first, I was pleasantly surprised when the abstract orator answered that grassroots movements are essential for driving change. But this all came crashing down when she noted that anyone seeking concrete answers could look to the social media profiles of the putative leaders of these various new New Left splinter movements. There, seekers would find their marching orders, which they would be expected to follow without bringing their own ideas to the table. (Apparently, this is what the new New Left refers to as ‘allyship,’ although “Shut up and do as you’re told” seems to stray from the traditional definition of ‘ally.’) After this, the “moderator” opened her mouth and repeated five or six times that what they had been talking about the whole night—which was not immediately clear to begin with—were in fact governance structures. She did not bother to explain what she was referring to as governance structures, nor did she disclose how or why they were—they just were.
Such is perhaps the central problem with the new New Left. If this farrago of deluded teachers and brainwashed students has one consistent belief, it is in the politics of assertion. What they say is the unassailable truth of the matter; their premise is above scrutiny. Try to interrogate their assertions and you will be met, either implicitly or explicitly, with an admonition that it is not their job to educate you.
And so this is it: the political left, once the vanguard of the working class, continues on its ignominious decline into irrelevance. Many people read the papers and grow increasingly dismayed by things like the imposition of investor-state arbitration; the parsimonious attitudes of government towards social programs like health and education; the hurling of middle class down into the proletariat; and a technological onslaught that seems to have no regard for morality or the public good. Perhaps the people concerned with these developments are sympathetic the more equal and just society that the left purports to be striving for—or at least did, at one point.
Meanwhile, the new New Left ignores them and chooses to die on the hill of microagressions.