This is an important book. It deserves a far wider readership than it will get. It is an introduction to the phenomenon of the regressive left, a recent arrival in left-wing politics that casts aside the proudest traditions of that part of the political spectrum, abandoning the universality that used to come with ideas like human rights, and making its peace with fascism and other illiberal ideas that used to be the exclusive property of the far-right. First printed in 2007, What’s Left has recently come back into print, and has been enjoying a flurry of sales because of Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the leadership of the Labour party in Britain. Certainly Cohen was prescient, and his book can be profitably read to increase one’s understanding of British politics, but I think its significance goes far beyond that. For me, the book is important for the insight it gives into the philosophical school known as postmodernism: the regressive left is what happens when postmodern ideas take root in political life. Cohen covers some difficult intellectual ground with magnificent clarity. The result is a book that reads like a novel and will greatly deepen your understanding of ideas that are coming to define the times we live in (and with the arrival of president Trump, postmodernism has come to have a terrible relevance to American political life as well; I’ll say a word about that at the end).
I’ve long had an interest in how certain seemingly esoteric ideas – that is, ideas that you would assume were of interest only to a few professors in ivory towers – are in fact critically important to everyday life. Cohen’s book shows how ideas that have been peddled by academics for the last half-century or so have trickled down into everyday life, with deeply troubling effects in political life across the West.
The book is not, however, a philosophical tome. What’s Left focuses on recent history, reaching its climax in the second Iraq war. Cohen experience of this time is what brought about the book: as a friend of certain Iraqi exiles, he found himself occupying different ground than many of his fellow leftists, and the perspective proved fruitful. He tells us he didn’t join protests against the first Iraq war because he saw Arabs carrying signs saying things like “Free Kuwait.” He supported the second Iraq war because of Iraqis who vehemently supported it, and because he was all too aware that the line about Saddam Hussein being a brutal dictator who ought to be removed was, well, true (you’ll learn a thing or two about Hussein’s Iraq along the way). But a key insight clearly came as Cohen reflected on the distance the rest of the left had travelled without him since the 80’s. Back then, on the basis of its support for universal human rights, the left was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy. By the time of the second Iraq war, it was the right that was against Hussein and in favour of Iraqi democracy, while the left was at best confused. Actually, Cohen makes clear that ‘confused’ is too generous, for it becomes clear that many left-wingers had simply abandoned their previous commitment to universal human rights.
Iraq, then, is one of the book’s central threads. If, like me, you were against the Iraq war from the start and have on that account felt rather pleased with yourself ever since, the book can be uncomfortable reading – and all the more valuable for that. This is far the most thought-provoking thing I have read on Iraq.
But I think the book’s real value lies in the ideas that it treats, ideas relevant far beyond a particular conflict. One idea central to the book (and to postmodernism) is relativism. You have probably encountered the doctrine in the form of cultural relativism – i.e., the idea that no culture’s practices are better than any others. So, for example, in some cultures, it’s appropriate to eat with a knife and fork, in others, with chopsticks, in others still, with your hands. The cultural relativist reminds us that no one of these approaches is better than any other – indeed, that it would be deeply wrong and even evil to take any one of them as absolute and to try to impose it on others. In theory, this sounds great, and many of the doctrine’s advocates see it as necessary to sustain or to further develop the left-wing movements of the 20th century, in that they think it the only foundation on which real tolerance and coexistence are possible. Cohen, however, deals with the way the doctrine actually plays out in the real world, and there it proves to have disastrous potential.
One relatively recent application of relativism involves a sharper and more exclusive focus on minority groups. So, for example, Cohen tells us how “the idea that a homosexual black woman should have the same rights as a heterosexual white man was replaced by a relativism which took the original and hopeful challenge of the early feminist, gay and anti-racist movements and flipped it over. Homosexuality, blackness and womanhood became separate cultures that couldn’t be criticized or understood by outsiders applying universal criteria.” This refusal of criticism involving universal criteria was applied above all to the foreign cultures found in other countries.
Consider, for example, Michel Foucault, celebrated among many academics as one of the great minds of the 20th century, and often taken to be a particularly progressive thinker. In the early 80’s he became enamoured of the Ayatollah’s new regime in Iran, and warned against criticising it – Iranian culture has a different “regime of truth,” he said. That is, they have their own culture with its own practices, and we have no right to try to criticise it in terms proper to our own culture. But what was at issue in this case was not merely matters like how we eat our food, but questions such as whether or not people who protest against the government should be tortured, or questions concerning the rights of women. Cohen brings the heart of the matter out clearly: “if the bishops of the French Catholic Church had achieved the theocratic power of the ayatollahs and used it to prescribe what Foucault and his colleagues could teach at the College du France in Paris, I’m sure Foucault and all his admirers in Anglo-American academe would have gone ape and shouted ‘fascism.’ As it was, the victims of the Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy had brown skins and lived in a faraway country.” Far from being a progressive thinker, Foucault supported tyranny and the crushing of human rights – not in his own country and for himself, mind you, but for other people born elsewhere. More than that, he effectively brought the weight of his academic reputation to bear against those in the West who would criticise the Iranian regime and who would support Iranians who wanted something better.
Cohen shows how Foucault is far from an isolated example. There is no shortage of other instances of the same phenomenon, such as the academic we encounter who objects (in almost incomprehensible prose) to the fact that certain people in the West are criticising the practice of burning women to death. To be quite clear: the complaint is not that women are being burned to death, but that people are criticising the practice of burning them. After all, what right do westerners have to criticise another culture?
A major theme of the book, then, is the abandonment of universal values for a view of the world that understands people to be fundamentally different from one another on the basis of some favoured category (gender, race, culture, etc.). People are effectively put into silos, on this view, and told they cannot understand or criticise those who occupy other silos. Spend a little time with this idea and you’ll start to see it all over the place. Consider, for example, how England’s Guardian newspaper produced a fawning puff-piece about the local leader of the extremist Islamist organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir. I can’t remember ever having seen a similar treatment of, say, Tommy Robinson in those pages: he’s a western right-wing extremist, and as such is to be subject to severe censure. More telling still, a few days later, the same Guardian published a considerably less flattering piece on Majid Nawaz, a former member of Hizb ut-Tahrir who has turned into a crusader for a liberal order. The Guardian has internalised the idea that the appropriate relation to culturally foreign ideas (even if they’re now on the streets on England) is to be one of understanding, not criticism, and this is now so deeply rooted that even a reformer of Pakistani heritage gets treated with hostility. (The phenomenon was remarked on at the time; see also this post by David Paxton on a related issue).
Angela Merkel gave another example when she responded to the US presidential election by saying that Germany was prepared to continue to work with the US, but only on the basis of the liberal values both countries had long held dear. Laudable, yes, though a colleague at work pointed out that she had made no such statement concerning president Erdogan in Turkey. For those who have not been paying attention, Erdogan has not merely run a campaign that was beyond the pale, but has recently used his office to do things like close down newspapers and lock up dissenters in their thousands.
But I digress. There is another idea that crops up repeatedly: relativists will tend not to think ideas through to their logical consequences – indeed, the doctrine makes this impossible in some circumstances – and so we encounter people who adopt doctrines in a merely partial fashion, unwilling really to commit to anything and failing to confront the full reality of what they are advocating. This brings about what I call mere criticism – that is, we end up with people who focus all their energy on being against something, often coming up with effective critiques of it, but never offering solutions, never being for anything. So, for example, Cohen points to the oft-repeated claim that the war against Saddam Hussein was ‘illegal:’ “logically, they should then have followed through and demanded that the Americans release Saddam Hussein from prison and restore him to the presidency that the invading forces had ‘illegally’ stolen from him. But, as the theorists of the Eighties and Nineties had anticipated, there wasn’t much call for logic in a post-modern world that welcomed self-righteous fury without positive commitments.”
Noam Chomsky (“the boy at the edge of the gang”) as he appears in the book provides an example of this phenomenon that gives it focus: he is seen to be very much against mass killing, so long as the blame can be pinned on America. If it’s America’s enemies who are to blame – well, let’s just say that chapter Six, together with Chapter 5, contains an utterly devastating, crushing attack on Chomsky, in particular on his moral authority. I can remember people gushing about him in Vancouver in the 90’s, talking about his upcoming talk as though it were the chance of a lifetime to stand in the shadow of one of the greatest intellectual lights of our time. I couldn’t make it; I now feel rather glad not to have been involved. Cohen’s criticism is a knock-out blow: I can no longer take Chomsky seriously as a moral authority, and I will feel forced in the future to question the judgment of those who do.
Chomsky’s one-sided anti-Americanism points to a reality about the regressive left that Cohen has brought out more clearly elsewhere (for example here): they tend often simply to be against the West, or against America, rather than for the universal values that the West (or America) ought to stand for, and sometimes fails to live up to. This notion of mere criticism is also worth keeping in mind as you watch current events, because it is the difference between the regressive left and the left that has integrity.
It is in relation to Iraq, however, that the bad ideas from academia really go mainstream, as the great mass of people opposed to the war fail to make important distinctions, and wind up effectively – and sometimes explicitly and actively – opposing democracy and supporting a brutal dictatorship for the people of Iraq. An ethical approach would have been to oppose the rash activity of Bush and his followers while supporting Iraqis who wanted democracy by all possible means. Instead, we read of occasions on which Westerners actually shouted down left-wing Iraqis who were trying to achieve for their own country the same rights we enjoy in our own. Being against Bush was more important than allowing any kind of help for democratic Iraqis. Thus the German government refused to allow its own officials who had experience in dealing with the legacy of the GDR and Third Reich in Germany to go to Iraq to advise on how to approach the same sort of issues there.
But perhaps the best example in the book of how postmodern thought such as that of Foucault had filtered down to the mainstream comes in the following exchange:
Tony Blair: There is global struggle in which we need a policy based on democracy, on freedom and on justice –
John Humphrys (a BBC presenter): Our idea of democracy…
Blair: I didn’t know that there was another idea of democracy.
Humphrys: If I may say so, that’s naïve.
Blair: The one basic fact about democracy, surely, is that you can get rid of your government if you don’t like them.
Humphrys: The Iranians elected their own government, and we’re now telling them –
Blair: Hold on John, something like 60 per cent of the candidates were excluded.
(BBC Radio 4, Feb. 2007)
I’ve always hated Blair, but there’s no disagreeing with him in this exchange. I’d like to hear if Humphrys made an apology to all those young Iranians who in 2009 proved willing to be imprisoned and tortured because they wanted “our idea of democracy.”
Cohen lands some decisive blows on other leftists I had previously admired (or at least not despised). I can’t pass up the chance to quote Cohen on Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11: Moore “brushed aside the millions forced into exile and the mass graves and torture chambers and decided instead to present life in one of the worst tyrannies of the late twentieth century as sweet… Presented with propaganda which might have come from the studios of the dictators of the Thirties, the jury at the Cannes Film Festival and audiences in art house cinemas on every continent did not protest at the whitewash of totalitarianism, but rose to their feet and shouted themselves hoarse.”
(And I’d just like to say that I find it extremely pleasing to hear Jean Baudrillard described as “an overrated French theorist.”)
As I said at the start, What’s Left is currently enjoying good sales in Britain because of its relevance to current political events there. But the ideas it treats – bad ideas whose progress Cohen follows from relative obscurity among top academics and fringe movements to subsequent ubiquity in mass street protests and mainstream politics – have come in no small way to define the nature of our times. The book is thus relevant far beyond Britain. As a former humanities academic, I think it should be required reading for all students of postmodernism: it gives a look at what this intellectual movement actually means in practice, something we rarely hear about. There’s more insight into postmodernism in this easy-to-read book than in many pounds of incomprehensible academic prose.
Unfortunately, What’s Left is likely to be relevant for a long time to come, because all levels of our society have been marinated in these bad ideas to the extent that they’ve come to seem self-evident to many. They’re still being taught at every university; read the book and you’ll start to see them everywhere. And because they have the imprimatur of many of the supposed great minds of our times, those who speak against them can often seem like unintelligent cranks. Cohen’s book is a reminder of the importance of good theoretical thinking, and a reminder of the importance of speaking up against bad ideas like these.
A final thought, and one that goes beyond the book: perhaps the most fundamental idea in postmodernism is the denial that there is any reality beyond particular, limited perspectives. I can remember when I was a postmodernist (I was about 18), I would deny that there was any such thing as truth at all. One particularly worrying aspect of both the Brexit campaign in Britain and the US presidential campaign is that both campaigns could legitimately be described as “post-truth:” claims that were simply false were able to take on a life of their own, and the fact of having spoken falsely does not seem to have carried a penalty. Indeed, in the case of Trump, his falsehoods and self-contradictions were so numerous that reporters simply couldn’t keep up. It has not always been like this, and with the arrival of this post-truth reality, our politics have become genuinely postmodern. We can only hope that we can find a way out of this postmodern condition before we’re subject to the most devastating consequences.
What’s Left is a first-rate, readable book that will not only make you think hard about Iraq, but also provides an introduction to some of the defining ideas of our time. A must-read for anyone interested in politics or the deeper intellectual currents that drive things. Books this good are rare indeed.
(also, if you want an idea of what Cohen’s all about, try here or here)