Listening to the conversation between author Angela Nagle and online commentator Carl Benjamin last Wednesday, one couldn’t help but be struck by just how depressing the tone of it was. The two often disagreed passionately during the event, hosted by Trinity Polsoc and organised by the Trinity Classical Liberal Society, however it was what they agreed on that caused the most worry for the crowd present at the event:
That those who oppose identity politics are losing the culture war, badly – and nobody can come to a conclusion as to why.
Nagle proposed that it was because the ideology of Classical Liberalism simply does not work, at least not the individualist model of it anyway. People need some sense of belonging in order to stand up against those who would try and take away their freedoms. Without this backup, they stand no chance of resisting their would-be oppressors.
Carl Benjamin, better known by his stage name Sargon of Akkad, rejected this notion outright, citing the huge prevalence of issue based political movements, such as the Republicans in the United States for example, whose base often disagree with each other yet are willing to work together in order to achieve their combined goals.
Someone who opposes abortion but doesn’t care all that much about the 2nd amendment will campaign as a republican to protect gun rights with the expectations that gun-lovers will end up helping them repeal Roe v. Wade, or restricting the practice in some fashion.
This line of thinking brought on the question of whether such a strategy could be considered individualistic. Nagle said it could not, and any political movement has to, by nature, be a collective – which would infringe on the value set of an individualist.
Again, Benjamin rejected this notion, stating that someone can hold individualistic beliefs while being part of the group, as long as they are in that group for individualistic reasons, such as to preserve their personal liberty.
What Benjamin is saying here makes sense. Temporary alliances are common throughout history, and only exist because people feel like they can work together with another person/group for a limited period of time to achieve certain goals, and when these goals are achieved, they break from the other party and continue acting as an individual unit.
To suggest that joining up with another group for a temporary alliance makes you a collective is nonsensical. The United States, for example, was never part of a collective entity alongside the USSR, just a temporary military bloc with the aim of destroying the Axis powers.
That being said, Nagle is right on many counts. The individualists are losing the culture war, and her analysis of them co-opting the left is worth hearing. The big winners appear to be the progressive identitarians. These progressives operate on the belief that the people with the highest ‘privilege’ should be marginalized, while those with the least should be raised on high as messiahs.
Suffice to say this view is idiocy made flesh, but through various brownshirt-esque methods, it has managed to wriggle its way into power within the western world. As such, combatting it is the primary concern both for both Benjamin and Nagle.
The second big winners are arguably the many European identitarians that have come to the fore recently. Some will be quick to think of the Alt-Right in this regard, however considering how they were always reviled and have lost relevance since Charlottesville, a better example might be the varieties of nationalism that have risen in Eastern and Central Europe.
Think of the likes of the Hungarian Fidesz party, the German AfD, French Front National, Italian Lega and many, many more who have grown in strength ever since the continent was flooded with economic migrants by the EU establishment and their NGOs.
To what extent these groups are ethnocentric is debatable, however, it is clear that they are all to a greater or lesser sense collectivist in terms of valuing their national identity. Although Benjamin has problems with a nation built on the idea that ethnicity is important, while talking to him after the debate, he told us that he was not against the idea of nationalism in regards to a secular nation state:
“Liberalism was born within the idea of a nation state…the idea that liberalism is inherently anti-state is wrong. It’s inherently pro-state. In fact, it can’t exist without a state. And that means borders, accountability, and all mechanisms that make a modern western liberal democracy what it is. The term civic nationalism was alternately used with the term liberal nationalism, because there is no reason why you can’t be a liberal nationalist. I am a liberal nationalist.”
Civic nationalism has had a certain amount of success in the past with Brexit and Trump, however, when compared to more classical forms of patriotism which historically have revolved around ethnic groups, its achievements seem limited. One must remember that the nation was originally conceived and widely understood as the geographical grouping of an ethnic group and little more.
Furthermore, for a large part, this kind of nationalism worked. Many left-wing progressives today like to believe that the leaders of the rising were some sort of 20th century progressives, but the truth is their vision of a free Ireland was one that was ethnically and culturally Irish. James Connolly spoke of ‘race’ as a genetic inheritance both positively and negatively, and the other signatories agreed, indeed many were much more radical than Connolly in this belief.
And yet, or perhaps because of, these beliefs, this period of Irish republicanism was successful in creating a state. And it’s not the only example of racial nationalism either. The Japanese state was founded on the ideals of a homogenous society, as was the modern Jewish state of Israel. Even the US could be considered a state built on a white European identity, despite claiming to be a land of enlightenment value founded by liberal, secular men.
What can we do to try and reconcile a classically liberal society with this sense of genetic identity? Perhaps we should double down on the belief in an enlightened society where genetic heritage matters less than the value of an individual, or maybe we need to try and come up with a system where the desire for a relatively homogenous society can be appeased without infringing on one’s individualism, even if that does mean a certain degree of sectarianism.
Benjamin said the following in regards that idea, specifically with the example of Northern Ireland:
“As long as these [different social] groups can agree that violence is not the answer, that they can have some sort of dialogue between one another, and even if that is just drawing a boundary of demarcation between them and saying ‘we’ll leave each other alone from this point’ individual rights are still protected across both groups.”
Whatever the solution, it seems clear that Classical Liberalism is under incredible pressure from all sides. The current progressive climate is highly hostile towards it, and it will not be easy to turn the tide on this left-wing form of identity politics. Perhaps it is a challenge that classical liberals simply are not up to facing on their own, but for Benjamin, that doesn’t mean they should give up:
“We need to be in coalition, and that means we’re inevitably going to be in coalition with people who we might loathe, but we have to pay attention to our combined and shared interests, and pick the person who is advancing these in a way that is actually effective.”