MoronWatch came into existence to take snarky aim, on Twitter, at right-wing stupidity, religious/superstitious fundamentalism, bigotry and state brutality – a mish-mash of interests which all come under the umbrella of “moron-watching”. Those who have followed my blog for a while will realise the wheels began to come off this objective a couple of years ago, as my eyes were opened to immense depths of stupidity on the left as well as the right. Having been active on the left for a while in the 80s, I’ve been shocked and saddened by the intellectual decline that has taken place on the left while I’ve not been paying attention.
I’ve had to acknowledge the hypocrisy of attacking science-denial among fundamentalists (evolution) and conservatives (climate change) while ignoring science denial on the left (GMOs, nuclear power vs fossil fuel, biological determinism). Even more deeply, I couldn’t continue to comment on right-wing attacks on freedom while ignoring that the left has become every bit as authoritarian – or often even more so.
The intellectual collapse of both right and left has been met with an anti-politics trend that is mostly even less intelligent than the mainstream. The idiotic idea that “it’s all broken” and needs smashing is brutish and dangerous, and is as prevalent on the Farage-supporting old-white-man right as among the infantile Russell Brand “revolutionaries”. Smashing everything appeals to the ignorant and the elitist, but risks making things far worse, and turning back the clock on centuries of progress.
A New Enlightenment
The problems we face today have been faced repeatedly before. The solution lies in crowd-sourcing, to use a modern word for an old idea: people power. Not the power to storm parliaments in masks (that inevitably appeals to an elitist few who think they have all the answers), but the power to apply intellect and provide answers. How can our 7 billion brains (as well as our man-made thinking machines) be best applied to finding solutions to problems?
The answer is centuries old, and was provided by the most powerful thought revolution that has shaken humanity: The Enlightenment, which laid down a set of simple principles:
Liberty and Free Expression: The fewer restrictions there are on expression, the greater the variety of ideas that can enter the shared meme pool. A free marketplace of ideas, allowed to flourish, will allow the best ideas to triumph over the rest. No elite can be allowed to restrict the flow of ideas based on its own idea of right and wrong. Expression must be protected on principle: all of it. No individual or group has the right to suppress ideas. The antidote to bad ideas can only come in the form of better ideas. Censorship is a fundamental obstacle to human progress.
But how will such a process select the “right” answers among all the wrong ones? The second principle is:
Reason: Non-scientists tend to see science as a list of disciplines, each with their own lists of facts. But at its core, science is a method for allowing good ideas to float up, while the bad ones sink and die. In place of censorship, there is reason. In place of dogma, there is objective examination of evidence. Ideas are measured, not based on their popularity at any given time, but on the strength of the reasoned argument that backs them. Right answers always begin as minority positions, but given the application of reason, and the maintenance of a free marketplace of ideas, they will become majority ones in time.
Liberty and reason cannot thrive in a society without a commitment to…
Equality: A free marketplace of ideas cannot work without equal access. While plenty of lip-service is paid to equality, in practise it comes under attack constantly. In the recent past, equality was mostly threatened by the unfair treatment of women, racial and other minorities. But following the great political and cultural battles of the 1960s, laws were enacted against discriminatory behaviour, and the culture rapidly changed in response. But increasingly, denial of equality comes from the left rather than the right.
Where Has the Left Gone Wrong?
Today’s left has largely abandoned the very Enlightenment values that led to the birth of left-wing ideas in the 19th century.
On liberty, the left is worse, if possible, than the right. Sexual freedom – once the preserve of the left – now comes under more frequent attack from the left than the right. Recent attempts to ban prostitution in Europe have come about via a bizarre alliance of feminists with the religious fundamentalists. Similarly, music videos (especially by black artists) have been deemed “too sexualised” (with vicious slut-shaming attacks on Beyoncé, Rihanna and Nicki Minaj, among others), and there are regular calls for music videos to be censored. The banning of “offensive” speech is championed with equal enthusiasm by Daily Mail readers and Guardianistas. Student Unions have taken deeply censorious approaches towards what can or can’t be said on campus. The last Labour government introduced some of the most draconian censorship laws ever seen in the UK, to deal with the phantom problem of “extreme porn”. In practise, these laws have been used to attack the sexual activities of consenting adults. The Exhibit B art exhibition was closed down in London on the (almost certainly false) grounds that it was “racist”. Free expression – including bad, offensive, hateful expression – must be defended on principle.
On reason, the left appears to have lost its mind. Last week, the EU sacked a senior science adviser for telling the truth; a truth that upset an alliance of left-wing and environmentalist campaigners: that genetically modified foods are not harmful. Science that disagrees with left-wing dogma is attacked viciously.
And the left has largely abandoned its quest for equality. Instead, special rules are put forward for “oppressed” groups. Thus, non-whites are deemed to be incapable of racial bigotry, and women – as with children – are to be given special protections that men don’t need. The fact that male bodies are considered “safe” for public display, but not female ones, is one of many examples of where the left has quietly abandoned the quest for equality. Special treatment has replaced equality, and comes in the form of privileges in response to “oppressions” that are ill-defined. The left is increasingly stuck in the swamp of identity politics, determined to find oppression where none exists, and to rectify it by creating new remedies that deepen rather than solve inequality.
A Cross-Spectrum Libertarianism
Fascism could be defined as a nationalistic, ultra-conservative movement that rejects Enlightenment values. On that basis, today’s left and right have both become tainted with fascist ideology. Ironically, in UK politics, it is the Conservative Party that has tried to shake off its most backward instincts (inadvertently helping build UKIP), while the Labour Party has collapsed into a new conservatism.
Today, libertarianism is associated with right-wing attitudes – but it doesn’t have to be so. In response to the new rise of fascistic attitudes in Europe, the response must be for the left – as well as the right – to rekindle the Enlightenment. Thus, the left-right political spectrum has become relatively unimportant – what instead matters is a commitment to liberty and reason across the political spectrum. Cross-spectrum libertarianism would establish Enlightenment values as the foremost goal, to stop and roll back the spread of fascism, with differences between left and right to be treated as a secondary “problem”.
What is Left-Wing Libertarianism?
Right-wing libertarianism uses tricks of language that first need to be unravelled. The “state” is seen as a uniformly bad thing, but in fact libertarians tend to use the word loosely to mean three separate things:
The Security State: The state is the apparatus for maintaining control of society, and typically acts to maintain the status quo: the rule of the wealthy. The state includes the police, prison system, army and bureaucracy. To libertarians of left and right, the state must be seen as a necessary (or perhaps unnecessary) evil, and shrunk to the maximum extent possible. It’s fine for left and right libertarians to argue among themselves as to how quickly, and to what extent the state should be rolled back.
The Welfare State: In hindsight, the naming of the welfare state was unfortunate. It allows right-wing libertarians to blur it with the security state. Left-wing libertarians should separate these two things: one can accept that police powers should be reduced without needing to believe that universal healthcare or education are bad things. In fact, one can construct a libertarian argument for providing universal services, where the market has failed to deliver: using a pragmatic idea of liberty, rather than a dogmatic “liberty is the absence of a state” one, it’s clear that universal healthcare, efficient public transport systems and street lighting (for example) enhance rather than reduce individual liberty.
Government: Libertarians dishonestly confuse the state with government. All groups of people, left to themselves, will find that communities are better to live in with a set of shared values and services, and will naturally create their own governments to manage things. Government, so long as it is democratic and subservient to the will of the people, is not the same as the state. Government requires funding. The libertarian mantra that “tax is theft” is a near-religious mantra, not an intelligent policy position. Even the most libertarian village would eventually require every member to contribute to shared services. A pure libertarian society would last until the first cholera outbreak revealed the need for a collectively funded sewage system.
So it is quite possible for left-wing libertarians to defend the National Health Service, the welfare state, universal education, mass transit, etc. while defending Enlightenment values of liberty, reason, equality.
From a libertarian position, the left can show the flaws in right-wing libertarianism: for example, many libertarians are climate change deniers; not because the evidence is in doubt, but because they oppose coordinated government action on principle. Denying scientific fact that is inconvenient to your beliefs is a rejection of reason. The right must learn that markets are not the panacea to every problem, and that community action is sometimes necessary. But the left must also accept that market solutions are the best in many cases.
We need to stop worrying, for now, about our left/right identities and instead unite to reawaken the Enlightenment. This isn’t a luxury: it is the only antidote to fascism.